US intelligence bodies haven’t particularly enjoyed their time in the spotlight these last few years. The National Security Agency, or NSA, occupies a particularly complicated and frustrating place in the collective unconscious: It’s an institution we must trust with our wellbeing on a daily basis, but it is also fundamentally unaccountable and untrustworthy. When was the last time you voted for an NSA director?
Beginning with the Edward Snowden leaks in summer 2013, we’ve watched this formerly hidden bureaucratic appendage grow more and more visible to the public — and what we’ve seen isn’t encouraging. We now know that the NSA regularly colludes with domestic internet service providers and spies indiscriminately on the heads of foreign governments, usually without justification. We also know that low morale within the agency has resulted in the leak of sensitive state secrets. Some of those secrets involve the way the NSA holds basic freedoms like privacy in contempt.
So it might feel like schadenfreude to watch this feared and reviled agency fall into disarray over the past half decade. But the truth is that the NSA still serves a vital purpose, now more than ever, yet it is barely any longer able to do its job (ie. monitoring malign foreign actors, anticipating the future moves of national governments, and keeping America’s intel safe from prying eyes). The latest crisis: the NSA’s hemorrhaging of talent.
Hey, Where’s Everyone Going?
Of the country’s 17 intelligence-gathering apparatuses, the NSA is the most prolific. The agency’s headquarters, located in Fort Meade, Md., staffs some 21,000 individuals. But their heavy workload is now imperiled by a chronic flight of talent from the agency, described from within as an “epidemic”. It’s hard to know exactly how bad of a situation we’re talking about because, of course, the NSA won’t tell us details. But we do have some rough numbers:
• The NSA’s current attrition rate for science, math and technology specialists is 5.6…