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The Cold War started at the end of World War II and nominally ended on December 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union officially dissolved. I was Army enlisted from 1982-1986, during Ronald Reagan's first term, when he was getting ready to tell Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Basic training was a mix of chain of command and military protocol reinforced by push-ups; pride in learning how to fire an M-16A1 really well and delight at being able to use a Light Anti-Tank Weapon and Claymore mine, even just once; physical training followed by utter physical exhaustion; and training film after film about the evils of the Soviet Bloc. Basic training indoctrinated us to think that the Russians were using their considerable resources and talents just to ensnare guileless and gullible GIs and destroy America.
"Code Warriors: NSA's Code Beakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union" (June 14, 2016) affirms that what seemed like post-Vietnam over caution by a military looking for a new enemy wasn't paranoia at all. Author Stephen Budiansky talks about spying and decryption from Allan Turing's brilliant mechanical decryption of the German Army's Enigma traffic through code breaking into the late 1970's and early 1980's. The discussion of the development and use of computers at the National Security Agency, from recognizing the potential with ENIAC to purchasing Cray Supercomputers decades later was fascinating. NSA's use of punch cards on an IBM for code breaking was tedious, repetitive and resourceful.
I thought the description of signals intelligence analysis as contrasted with traffic analysis was informative. It's a nuanced discussion of the differences.
Budiansky's discussion of the personalities involved in the whole operation made the book lively. There was President Lyndon Johnson, who thought he could analyze raw data better than a cryptanalyst. Various heads of NSA ranged from renegade to inspired to hopelessly unqualified. Section chiefs jealously guarded turf and followed rules, sometimes at the cost of lives. Apparently low level analysts like John Walker managed to spy for the Soviet Union for a quarter century, delivering monthly encryption keys, until he was undone not by the obvious "he's got way too much money" flags but by a vengeful ex-wife.
Budiansky also discusses electronic warfare, like deliberately provoking an opposing force to activate a missile communication system, just so spy collection planes can gather intelligence about those units. That's a special kind of daring. There's also some discussion of what has developed into cyber warfare. "Code Breakers" covers a pre-internet, pre-personal computer era, so the book seems to be presaging how it's developed. I would love to hear Budiansky's take on former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden's disclosures in "Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror" (2016).
As I write this, the question so much on the minds of the country (because there's going to be at least a partial vote recount of the presidential vote): did Russia interfere with the presidential campaign, and did they interfere with the vote? After listening to "Code Warriors", I'm convinced that the Russian FSB and SVR, successors to the KGB, should have people and intelligence operations with the talent. Did they? Army basic training during the Cold War and a few books on Russian Military History and Espionage have thoroughly convinced me that I am not remotely qualified to even offer an opinion.
The last chapter of the Audible is the appendix. I recommend listening to it as Budiansky references it, rather than waiting until the end. There's also a 19 page .pdf that's got, among other things, a schematic of Enigma. Is that cool or what?
Mark Deakins was a good narrator, but sounded a little robotic in places - and to be fair, some of the stuff on computers and codes was pretty dense.
This book passes my highest author test: I'll find other books by Budiansky and read/listen to them.
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23 of 31 people found this review helpful
Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?
I wouldn't recommend this -- not as an audio book.. it had too much detail for a book to be listened to. You have to have the book and its appendices in front of you, and study the material carefully, to get the content of this book.
Would you ever listen to anything by Stephen Budiansky again?
I would consider listening to a book with a less esoteric topic.
Which character – as performed by Mark Deakins – was your favorite?
Was Code Warriors worth the listening time?
As I said, I got lost and missed much of the meaning that could have been gleaned from having a printed copy and studying carefully the explanations of how codes and codebreaking work. I have read printed books on this topic in the past, and enjoyed them. But there is so much math and formal logic in this book that cannot be absorbed by ear.