National Security

An Open Letter to the NSA

A former agency insider explains how the NSA must change in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations.

Editor's note: The following is an open letter from John R. Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he is a specialist on intelligence, terrorism, and European security issues. Prior joining the Naval War College in 2005, he spent nearly a decade with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer. This article first appeared on Schindler's blog, The XX Committee, and is republished here with his permission.

Dear NSA,

Hi, it's me again. Although I left the agency a few years ago, I still think about you a lot, and in recent months -- thanks to that awful Ed guy -- I've been writing and talking about you a good deal in public. Plus, because on my very first day on the job I agreed to that whole lifetime secrecy oath thing, we're separated but we're never going to really get divorced, are we?

Nevertheless, there are some things I'd like to get off my chest. My comments in the media in defense of intelligence, generally if not always specifically, have led to me getting a lot of flak from haters about being a "shill" for the NSA and whatnot. Of course, that's not true. There are things that need change at the agency, and the unprecedented catastrophe of the Snowden case offers an overdue chance to start making smart changes in how the NSA does business. I'd like to suggest a few.

I'm dispensing these in a spirit of affection, tough love if you will. I grew up in an agency family -- part of me will always be connected to you guys and girls. I still have good friends with the agency, and I happen to think that, dollar for dollar, the NSA represents the best value of anything funded by the American taxpayer. Thousands of dedicated, hard-working people -- military, civilian, and contractor -- who strive every day to provide America with the best possible source of intelligence. As in every human endeavor, there are a few rotten apples, but the agency is a special place for the patriots who have taken on enormously stressful jobs, often putting their lives on the line every day.

That said, the NSA really needs a rebranding. After decades of hiding in the shadows, the agency is now exposed to a level of public scrutiny that was previously only the stuff of Fort Meade nightmares. When I joined in the mid-1990s the "No Such Agency" era had ended. No longer did anybody pretend that the enormous espionage complex up Route 295 -- the one with all those funny looking "golf balls" stretching on for miles -- didn't exist. But there was still a pervasive, fundamental secrecy about what the agency said it did.

And, hey, I'm fine with secrecy in principle - by its very nature, intelligence is conducted in secret. But the current crisis has exposed the agency to scrutiny based on falsehoods proffered by Kremlin-backed scoundrels and their useful activist idiots masquerading as journalists. The time has come to beat that back with some honesty, what might seem like frighteningly radical honesty to old SIGINT hands.

The NSA does foreign intelligence. Tell the American people a bit more about that. It's overdue. Better to tell the story yourselves than to let your enemies do it. I'm not saying you need to let MTV film a reality show at agency headquarters -- though I've heard worse ideas -- but you need to level with the American people about what it is the NSA does and how it does it.

It's 2013, and because of the Internet and the spread of smartphones, practically all Americans rely on information technology to function on a daily basis. So you can't blame people who until recently had never heard of SIGINT when they get a tad freaked out by the leaks they've heard so much about in recent months. But the truth is far less scary than the lies being told about the agency.

If the agency's current leaders can't find a way to convincingly tell the American people what it does -- including the indelible and truthful message that unless you're in bed with foreign spies or terrorists the NSA has less than zero interest in you -- then it's time for new leadership. With NSA Director Keith Alexander likely to step down by next spring, that's coming soon anyway, but there's not much time to waste. By their nature, the agency's leadership and public affairs units are reactive and unaccustomed to being in the public eye. But that era has ended -- and it's not coming back. Deal with it. Rebrand now while you still can and regain the public's trust. I'm confident that once they understand what the NSA really does the vast majority of Americans will be glad the agency is on watch.

But that's not all you've got to do. There's no point in having an agency like the NSA if you can't prevent further Snowden-like debacles. Which is another way of saying: If you don't have effective counterintelligence then why bother to have intelligence? Sadly, I predicted a Snowden-like disaster over a decade ago when I was working counterintelligence for the agency. And I wasn't the only one with an impending sense of doom.

The Snowden story reveals a basic lack of seriousness about counterintelligence and security that has undermined everything the agency does. There's plenty of blame to go around here -- too much outsourcing, a lack of bureaucratic follow-through, an unwillingness to go all James Angleton on people -- but the unavoidable bottom line is that counterintelligence epically failed. This must never be allowed to happen again.

Sure, counterintelligence needs more resources -- who ever turned down more money and billets? -- but above all there needs to be a culture shift at the agency. Nobody actually likes counterintelligence and the hardass people who bring bad news and possibly want to investigate your office, but they have to be allowed to do their jobs in a spirit of cooperation. After the Snowden disaster it shouldn't take much effort to convince agency personnel that the threat from defectors and traitors is all too real. Sometimes the strange IT guy with anger at the government working one cubicle over is actually out to destroy you.

But I would caution the counterintelligence folks not to overcompensate. Don't repeat the let's-polygraph-everybody-silly errors that followed the Martin and Mitchell defections to Moscow, or what happened at the CIA when Rick Ames was unmasked as a traitor and Russian spy. The vast majority of agency personnel are good people. Gain their trust and they will practically do your job for you.

How's that for a start? I think that's enough taskings for today. But do get on them. A lot is riding on fixing these problems. The NSA really is the best and brightest of America's secret government. Earn the trust of the American people and never let an Ed Snowden in any agency building again. That would be a great start and, in the end, everybody wins. The American people deserve no less, so give it to them.


John "Dash" Schindler

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Doing Away with Et Cetera

Bosnia's current constitution leaves some people unrepresented. It's time to move away from ethnicity and toward citizenship.

In August 1995, three years after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the onset of war in Bosnia, the United States decided to intervene. After a Croatian-Bosnian offensive and a NATO bombing campaign against Serbs in August, the U.S. negotiating team concluded the Dayton Peace Accords on November 21, 1995. Ending a conflict that had left more than 100,000 killed and almost half of the population displaced, the Dayton Peace Agreement established the newly-minted constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina with one primary goal: to prevent further conflict. Prioritizing stability over democracy, the constitution was successful in keeping the country relatively peaceful till present day. Today, however, the constitution is a main source of the country's substaintial democratic and functional problems. It is high time for reform.

The constitution divides Bosnia along ethnic lines into three constituent peoples ( the Bosniak-Muslims, Serbs, and Croats) and two entities (the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska). For the sake of peace and stability, the constitution also divides state and legislative positions among the three ethnic groups. The country is governed by a rotating State Presidency with three members, one from each constitutional ethnicity. Yet this division excludes a large number Bosnians who do not fit into any of the three constituent groups, including the Roma, Jews, and many descendants of mixed marriages. These Bosnian citizens, constitutionally termed as "others," account for anywhere between 7 percent of the population (according to the 1991 census) and 20 percent (based on other surveys).

Bosnia has the outward appearance of a functional democracy -- it holds elections more or less regularly, for example -- but this overshadows an undemocratic reality where almost every fifth citizen cannot run for elected office. The discrimination of "others" is only the most blatant example of undemocratic practices. Currently, the Bosniak and Croat presidency members are elected only from the Federation and the Serb member only from Republika Srpska. As a result, Croats and Bosniaks living in Republika Srpska and Serbs living in the Federation are not able to vote for their own ethnic representatives. Moreover, the Federation is elects both the Bosniak and Croat representatives to the Presidency; yet Bosniaks substantially outnumber Croats, which means that Bosniaks essentially elect the representative for the Croat ethnicity. The very structure of Bosnia's ethnically determined political representation model is betraying its citizens.

The most serious challenge to Bosnia's political system comes from a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) anti-discrimination case filed by activists Dervo Sejdic (a Roma) and Jakob Finci (Jewish). Sejdic and Finci argued that the Bosnian constitution is discriminatory because certain political posts -- such as the rotating three-member Presidency -- can only be held by a Bosniak, Croat or Serb. In its ruling, the court addressed the issue of trade-offs between democracy and stability in light of the relatively recent war in Bosnia. The ECHR ruled that Bosnia's constitution is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for excluding all "others" from the Bosnian Presidency and the parliament's upper house.

The ECHR ruling's ramifications surprised Bosnia's elites. Instead of a mild reprimand, the European Commission suspended 47 million Euros of pre-accession funds for Bosnia, making them conditional upon constitutional changes that would allow minorities to run in elections. The EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, proposed a compromise model that would allow "others" to run for elected office and also ensures that the Croat member of presidency is elected by Croats and not Bosniak-Muslims. The EU proposal was met with harsh criticism, with Bosnia's foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija reportedly refusing the proposal outright while other Bosnian political leaders voiced numerous conditions.

In the EHRC's ruling, a dissenting judge warned that constitutional revisions would risk reigniting interethnic conflict. But after almost 20 years of political stability and concord with neighboring countries, the likelihood of renewed conflict is not significant. Constitutional changes are opposed not by ethnic groups, but by entrenched political elites who benefit from the ethnic division of power. Now is the perfect time, then, to change the constitution's priority from stability to democracy.

The biggest threat to Bosnia's insufficiently democratic system is its own dysfunctional and redundant structure. In the words of Miroslav Lajcak, the former diplomat who oversaw the Dayton Accords' implementation, Bosnia has "two entities for three constituent peoples; five presidents, four vice presidents, 13 prime ministers, 14 parliaments, 147 ministers and 700 members of Parliament, all of whom serve a population of just under four million people." Such an administration consumes up to 70 percent of Bosnia's annual state budget, according to local economic experts. Ostensibly, this costly administrational chaos is supposed to ensure political stability; instead, it threatens to destabilize Bosnia economically. Ironically, this economic burden increases the country's reliance on foreign financial assistance such as the suspended EU funds, making it likely that Bosnia will have to implement the constitutional amendments, in the end.

Bosnia's political system is in dire need of substantial change. Real change would allow minorities to participate meaningfully in the electoral process and to be able to hold high offices if elected. This change would do away with the three-way ethnic divisions of political power. Moreover, it would necessarily bring into question what it means to be Bosnian, emphasizing more contemporary criteria such as economics or social issues.

Indeed, it appears that Bosnia is already shifting in that direction. In the 2010 Presidential elections, the Croatian winning candidate Zeljko Komsic received the majority of his votes from Bosniak voters, with more Bosniaks voting for Komsic than for their own ethnic group's winning candidate. This seems to support the findings of a 2009 National Democratic Institute opinion poll, in which Bosnians were asked to rank the "most important tasks for government." They ranked 12 different social and economic issues, from unemployment to EU accession and reducing corruption, as more important than "protection of my ethnic group" -- indicating a shift in electoral thinking from ethnicity to policy.

More recently, activists are gearing up to take advantage of Bosnia's upcoming census (the first since the end of the war) to send a message to its government. Bosnia's political elites postponed the census for 12 years, fearing that demographic changes would affect how 180,000 political and civil service positions are allocated. In the census, Bosnia's people can respond by stating to be Bosniak, Croatia, Serb, or simply "Bosnian." A coalition of young Bosnians called Jednakost (Equality) is campaigning for people to protest the ethnic divisions that created the dysfunctional political system by declaring themselves to be only Bosnian. This would include them among the ranks of the "others" along with the ethnic minorities. If enough people participate, the balance of power could shift enough to change the core of the political system away from ethnic labeling to a more accountable and governable political structure. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. For now, at least, it does seem to indicate that, to Bosnians, ethnicity may no longer be the most significant part of political identity.

The Dayton Accord constitution was a good short-term solution, but it lacks a robust framework for successful state building. Cyprus and Lebanon similarly exclude minorities from political participation and neither is an example of stability. Lack of democracy yielded a dysfunctional system that is hindering Bosnia's economic and political development and ultimate stability.

Lessening the emphasis on ethnicity-based representation would certainly have its fair share of vocal opponents, from Bosnian politicians to the members of the international community that oversaw the Dayton Accords' implementation. However, these reforms would create a more efficient government that could address the many socioeconomic issues Bosnian citizens care about. With pressure coming from its people, the EU, and the dysfunction of its own top-heavy administration, Bosnia's government will likely find itself on the path to constitutional reform whether its political elites like it or not.