organization that is so efficient at amassing data intended to be kept secret,
the National Security Agency seemed surprisingly clumsy in accepting data that
was volunteered to them. I'd emailed the bits and pieces of my personal data
necessary to be cleared for access to the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade a week before
the scheduled visit, with zero response. As it turns out, an NSA server has
crashed, they told me, creating havoc with some email accounts. This sort
of hiccup humanizes the agency, though it also raises questions about their
clear: the only reason I was being invited to the NSA in the first place was
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. The drip-drip-drip of the past six months
of document releases and press stories has tarnished the public image of an
agency that, until recently, pretended to be draped in an invisibility cloak. After
all, for decades the
U.S. government refused to acknowledge the NSA's very existence. Until this
year, its public profile remained pretty minimal. This strategy was no longer
possible in a post-Snowden era; it has begun to dawn on the agency that they do
not have the best public image. In response, NSA officials have warily embraced
the press, agreeing to this
weekend's sit-down with 60 Minutes,
for example. I profited from this new, tentative strategy of talking to
outworlders on background (in my case, with a contingent organized
by the University of Texas' Strauss Center).
As NSA officials admit, however, this is only the first step of a long learning
curve of how to engage the public in why they do what they do -- without
revealing exactly how they do it.
I don't know
a ton about intelligence, but I do know a little bit about strategic
communications, so from that vantage point it was interesting to see the NSA's
nascent efforts at outreach and media response. After a brief tour of the
cryptological museum, we were whisked into the "Corporate Communications" suite
to receive a series of briefings from high-ranking NSA officials, including the
general counsel, head of signals
intelligence, and the director, Gen. Keith Alexander.
persuasive is the NSA pushback against its post-Snowden image as a voracious
vacuum of information about U.S. citizens? It's a mixed bag. On the one hand,
NSA officials were refreshingly candid in many of their assessments. For one
thing, they were upfront in acknowledging the damage that Snowden had wreaked
on agency morale and recruitment. Applications to work at the NSA are down by more
than one third, and retention rates have also declined. This is a serious
problem for an agency that, until now, has thrived because of an esprit de corps within the organization.
Traditionally, when analysts joined the NSA, they joined for life. This is
changing, and not for the better from the NSA's perspective. Snowden has also
changed the way the NSA is doing business. Analysts have gone from being
polygraphed once every five years to once every quarter.
The NSA also
has crafted some responses to the public perception that they're an agency run
amok. In recent years, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court has reprimanded the agency about their serial
inability to comply with court rulings. From their perspective, however, the National
Security Agency is unique because it faces oversight from all three branches of
government. Multiple officials compared the compliance obligations to a U.S.
financial firm post-Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank. While one official
acknowledged, "this agency has made mistakes," they also pointed out that
they've responded robustly. They have boosted the number of compliance officers
to more than 300. Furthermore, knowledge of the FISA reprimands was only made
public because the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, declassified
the court rulings in the interest of transparency. Furthermore, because the
NSA is obligated to report even picayune or mistaken cases of noncompliance,
they come off looking worse than they actually are. "The raw numbers look
terrible," one official acknowledged, but stressed that the percentage of
non-compliance instances is very small.
have some validity -- but not total validity. For example, the NSA can point to
their triple-branched oversight as much as they like, but as Ryan Lizza
and others have documented, that doesn't mean that the oversight is terribly
effective. Furthermore, true or not, comparing a government organization to,
say, Goldman Sachs in terms of onerous regulation might not resonate terribly
well with the American public.
issue is that the NSA wants to paint itself as a dispassionate agency
responding to constituent demands. The truth is stickier. According to NSA
officials, the agency is a passive, customer-driven organization, catering to
the needs of the foreign policy agencies needing intelligence, such as the
departments of State and Defense. The thing is, the current head of the NSA is
"dual-hatted" -- Alexander is director of both the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, a military command that happens to be the biggest
customer of the NSA's services. Employees at Fort Meade work for both agencies.
Furthermore, NSA officials have lobbied the White House strongly to preserve
this dual-hatted relationship. These lobbying efforts bore
fruit last week, thereby scuppering some
of the reform proposals made by President Barack Obama's task force on NSA reform.
biggest strategic communications problem, however, is that they've been so
walled off from the American body politic that they have no idea when they're
saying things that sound tone-deaf. Like expats returning from a long overseas tour,
NSA staffers don't quite comprehend how much perceptions of the agency have
changed. The NSA stresses in its mission statement and corporate culture that
it "protects privacy rights." Indeed, there were faded banners proclaiming that
goal in our briefing room. Of course, NSAers see this as protecting Americans
from foreign cyber-intrusions. In a post-Snowden era, however, it's impossible
to read that statement without suppressing a laugh.
It might be
an occupational hazard, but NSA officials continue to talk about the threat
environment as if they've been frozen in amber since 2002. To them, the world
looks increasingly unsafe. Syria is the next Pakistan, China is augmenting its
capabilities to launch a financial war on the United States, and the next
terrorist attack on American soil is right around the corner. They could very
well be correct -- except that the American public has become inured to such
warnings over the past decade, and their response has been to tell politicians
to focus on things at home and leave
the rest of the world alone. A strategy of "trust us, the world is an
unsafe place" won't resonate now the way it did in the immediate wake of the Sept.
attitude toward the press is, well, disturbing. There were repeated complaints
about the ways in which recent reportage of the NSA was warped or lacking context. To be fair, this kind of griping is a
staple of officials across the entire federal government. Some of the NSA folks
went further, however. One official accused some media outlets of
"intentionally misleading the American people," which is a pretty serious
accusation. This official also hoped that the Obama administration would crack
down on these reporters, saying, "I have some reforms for the First Amendment."
I honestly do not know whether that last statement was a joke or not. Either
way, it's not funny.
There is no
going back to a pre-Snowden era for the NSA. To be fair, the agency knows this.
As they interact with the outside world, they'll move down the learning curve
and learn how to articulate their position better. It's a position that should
certainly be heard. It might behoove the NSA to do some active listening of
its own -- and not through their normal surveillance channels either. Until
the NSA appreciates the shifts in the political terrain, its officials will
continue to be trapped in a reactive posture with respect to the outside world.
That's not good for either them or us.