An Open Letter to My Former NSA Colleagues


Mathematicians, why are you not speaking out?

Charles Seife

August 25, 2013

Most people don’t know the history of Von Neumann Hall, the nearly windowless building hidden behind the engineering quadrangle at Princeton. I found out my junior year, when, as a bright-eyed young math major, I was recruited to work at the National Security Agency.

Von Neumann Hall was the former site of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a math-heavy research organization that did work for an agency that, at that time, dared not speak its name. The close ties between Princeton and the NSA went back decades, I discovered, and some of the professors I had been learning from were part of a secret brotherhood of number jocks who worked on really tough math problems for the sake of national security. I was proud to join the fraternity–one that was far bigger than I had ever imagined. According to NSA expert James Bamford, the agency is the single largest employer of mathematicians on the planet. It’s a good bet that any high-quality math department of a reasonable size has a faculty member who’s done work for the NSA.

I worked for the NSA in 1992 and 1993 under the auspices of the Director’s Summer Program, which snaffles up hot young undergraduate math majors around the country each year. After clearing a security check–which included not just a polygraph exam but also a couple of FBI agents snooping around campus to see what mischief I had been up to–I wound up at Fort Meade, Md., for indoctrination.

It was more than 20 years ago that I received my first security briefing, and a lot of what I learned is now outdated. Back then, few had heard of what was nicknamed “No Such Agency,” and the government wanted to keep it that way. We were taught not to breathe a word about the NSA; if anyone asked, we worked for the Department of Defense. That’s even what it said on my resume and one of my NSA-issued ID cards. Now there’s little point to such pretense. The agency has been outed and is a regular fixture of Page 1 headlines. In 1992, I was taught that the code words we stamped on all our classified documents were a closely guarded secret, that it was a crime to reveal them to outsiders. But a quick Google search shows that government websites are chock-full of papersclearly marked with words and phrases that were at one time for the eyes of only those few with the need to know.

Another thing they used to say at those briefings was that the might of the NSA would never be used against U.S. citizens. Back when I signed up, the agency made it crystal clear to us that we were empowered to protect our nation against only foreign enemies, not domestic ones. To do otherwise was against the NSA charter. More importantly, I got the strong sense that it was against the culture of the place. After working there for two summers, I genuinely believed that my colleagues would be horrified if they thought our work was being used to snoop on fellow Americans. Has that changed, too?

The mathematicians and cryptanalysts I met were from all over the country and had very different backgrounds, but we all seemed to be drawn to the agency for the same two reasons. First, we all knew that the math was sexy. This might sound bizarre to a non-mathematician, but certain mathematical problems just exude a certain something–a feeling of importance, of gravity, along with a sense that the solution is not far outside of your grasp. It’s big, and it can be yours if you just think a little bit harder. When I signed up, I knew that the NSA was doing interesting math, but I had no idea what I was in for. Within a week of arriving at the NSA, I was presented with an amazing smorgasbord of the most alluring mathematics problems I had ever seen, any of which could possibly yield to a smart undergraduate. I hadn’t seen anything like it–and I never will again.

The other thing that drew us–or so I thought–was an idealistic vision that we were doing something to help our country. I knew enough about history to have shed the notion that it was ungentlemanly to read your enemy’s mail. And once I was on the inside, I saw plenty of ways that the agency was having an effect on national security. Even as a rookie, I felt I had a chance to make a difference in some small way. Some of the veteran mathematicians whom we met had clearly had a palpable effect on the security of the United States, legends almost completely unknown outside of our own club.

This isn’t to say that the idealism was naive. Anyone who’s spent any time on the other side of the intelligence game knows how high the stakes can be. We all understand that real human beings can die because of a seemingly minor breach of secrets we’ve been entrusted with. We also realize that intelligence gathering sometimes means using underhanded tactics to try to protect the nation. But we all knew that those tactics were constrained by law, even if that law isn’t always black and white. The agency insisted, over and over, that the weapons we were building–and weapons they are, even if they’re weapons of information–would never be turned on our own people, but would only be used upon our enemies.

What do we do now that we have to face the fact that the Agency broke its word?

We now know that every Verizon customer in the United States has had his telephony records turned over to the very agency that supposedly has no jurisdiction over calls originating and ending in the United States. On Wednesday more evidence emerged that the agency collected tens of thousands of “wholly domestic” emails. We know that the agency has extensive capabilities to snoop on U.S. citizens and regularly does so accidentally. And we have credible allegations that the agency sometimes uses that information quite on purpose. If the agency’s tools truly are used only against the enemy, it seems that ordinary citizens are now being counted among them.

None of the research I did for the NSA turned out to be particularly important. I’m fairly certain that my work is gathering dust in some classified government warehouse somewhere. I worked for the agency for only a very short time, and that was a long time ago. Yet I feel compelled to speak out to say that I’m horrified. If this is really what the agency stands for, I am sorry to have helped in whatever small way that I did.

I can only guess how much more horrified the ex-NSAers I know–you, my former colleagues, my friends, my professors, and my mentors–must be. Unlike me, you have spent much of your working lives helping the NSA build its power, only to see your years of work used in a way it was never supposed to be used. You could speak out now in a way that violates neither your secrecy agreement nor your honor. It’s hard to believe that the professors I know at universities around the country would remain silent as the NSA abuses their trust and misuses their work.

Or would you?