Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence, by James Bamford
James Bamford has built a prolific career with critical, sensational write-ups of the U.S. Intelligence Community. He is known, in particular, for his series of books on the National Security Agency. This allowed James Bamford’s star to rise as a result of the PRISM scandal and Snowden leaks of 2013.
Spyfail (the title a play on the James Bond film Skyfall) is a book that promises to continue in this vein of pop-journalism. The central, ostensible thesis of Spyfail is this – that the U.S. intelligence community has proven buffoonishly incompetent in keeping the floodgates closed to foreign hackers, saboteurs, trolls, and so on.
Given this, one might expect the book to spend the bulk of its time discussing, for example, the infamous Russian disruption of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as similar efforts by foreign actors (both state and non-state) deleterious to U.S. national security, with a variety of examples. The OPM hack, attributed to the Peoples’ Republic of China, also seems to be a ripe topic for discussion in Bamford’s book.
The book certainly starts off on this footing, with a nuanced discussion of the 2014 Sony hacks attributed to the North Korean government, as retaliation for the production of the film The Interview (about a fictitious assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong- Un). Bamford rightly criticizes the film’s lead actor, Seth Rogen, for dipping his feet into Geopolitics – a realm of expertise of which Seth Rogen clearly has little understanding. That this created a diplomatic disaster should, unfortunately, surprise no one. Bamford also rightly criticizes Seth Rogen’s “bring it on” courting of disaster through his implication that the film received backing or support from the U.S. government (in particular the CIA).
Where the book loses much of its promise, and much of its footing, is when it turns – less than a third of the way through – into a lengthy anti-Israel polemic. In short, what promises to be a heated criticism of U.S. intelligence failures instead becomes an exercise in Israel-bashing. Bamford spends an inordinate amount of time on the corrupt Israeli movie producer Arnon Milchan and the various scandals involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. James Bamford also spends much of his vitriol on Sheldon Adelson and AIPAC.
Though Bamford rotates between these three individuals as a rogues’ gallery of Israeli villains involved in spy activities and other skullduggery, little attention is given to Israeli (or American Jewish) “good guys “in Bamford’s narrative. That is to say, those who criticize the Israeli politicians or spies that Bamford focuses about a third of Spyfail on. Jewish activists who oppose or criticize the Israeli government are mentioned only in passing. It appears such individuals and organizations are mentioned only as an afterthought to deflect any potential accusations of Anti-Semitism.
Of note, Bamford spends an inordinate amount of time throughout the book insisting that he (along with the various critics of Israel he cites) is not Anti-Semitic. This insistence takes up so much filler space in the book that one is reminded of the old adage about someone who “doth protest too much”. Bamford’s intent in the book may in fact not be anti-Semitism, but a valid criticism of the Israeli government (particularly hard-right politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett).
However, Bamford does himself no favors with the repeated narrative he crafts of wealthy Israelis as sinister foreign Draculas seducing vulnerable American Renfields to their cause. There is a bit much to unpack here, where Anti-Semitism is concerned. This in spite of the repeated insistence throughout the book that James Bamford is not writing with Anti-Semitic intent, or that accusations of anti-Semitism are simply used to silence critics of Israel. That this insistence is itself a refrain of Anti-Semites does not seem to trouble James Bamford’s conscience given his arguments in this book.
Of note, James Bamford also diminishes his credibility by citing Wikileaks as a source in the book. Wikileaks is an organization that has claimed the role of a beacon of truth, while often editorializing leaked documents in order to make sensational claims. In so doing, Wikileaks has repeatedly endangered the lives of U.S. (and allied) military and diplomatic personnel.
That James Bamford would cite such an organization is sadly no surprise. His previous works have leaned heavily into similar sensationalism, often attempting to cast the Standard Operating Procedures of various U.S. government agencies as uniquely out of line, or misrepresenting their activities as corrupt. As such, Spyfail leans dangerously not only into Anti- Semitism, but also “infotainment”. If not for the inordinate focus on Israel, the book would at times be reminiscent of a visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. (visitors to the museum will note that the museum is gimmicky, and those trained in military or diplomatic history will notice numerous errors of fact, as well as outright confabulations here and there). Also, quite comically, James Bamford grossly misrepresents the organization Wikistrat (founded by Joel Zamel in 2010) as a shady “spy-for-hire” organization (full disclosure: the author of this review has worked on a small handful of short-term projects for Wikistrat; no “spying”, even by the loosest definition of the word, was involved).
Toward the end of the book, to James Bamford’s credit, he does address Russian interference in the U.S. election. This includes the malign influence of Guccifer 2.0, a Russian troll/hacker posing as a citizen journalist. However, even this section quickly unravels when Bamford attempts to deflect blame for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election away from Russia and towards Israel.
In short, this is not the book it is promised or marketed as. Instead, James Bamford has elected to write the most venomous anti-Israel polemic published since Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in 2007. All the more concerning is that Bamford utilizes his gift for exaggeration as a classic Yellow Journalist to spin the deeply problematic narrative of Israeli (and explicitly Jewish) puppet-masters pulling the strings of world affairs from the behind the scenes. There is in this volume the seed of a more insightful book, full of a greater diversity of examples of how the U.S. intelligence community has failed to respond to threats foreign and domestic. That book is not this one.