I spent two hours talking with NSAâ„¢s big wigs. Whatâ„¢s Got Them Mad?
I entered the glass leviathan whose image accompanies virtually every story in which a new Snowden leak is revealed.
My expectations were low when I asked the National Security Agency to cooperate with my story on the impact of Edward Snowdenâ„¢s leaks on the tech industry. During the 1990s, I had been working on a book, Crypto, which dove deep into cryptography policy, and it took me years ” years! ” to get an interview with an employee crucial to my narrative. I couldnâ„¢t quote him, but he provided invaluable background on the Clipper Chip, an ill-fated NSA encryption runaround that purported to strike a balance between protecting personal privacy and maintaining national security.
Oh, and I was not permitted to interview my Crypto source at the agencyâ„¢s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. I was crushed; I had grown obsessed with the vaunted triple fence surrounding the restricted area and had climactic hopes that Iâ„¢d get inside. Instead, the meet occurred just outside the headquartersâ„¢ heavily guarded perimeter, at the National Cryptologic Museum. (I did buy a cool NSA umbrella in the gift shop.)
This time around, the NSAâ„¢s initial comeback was discouraging. The public relations person suggested that perhaps some unidentified officials could provide written responses to a few questions I submitted. A bit later, an agency rep indicated there was the possibility of a phone conversation. But then, rather suddenly, I was asked if I would be interested in an actual visit to meet with a few key officials. And could I do it… later that week?
Why the turnaround? Apparently, the rep told me, Crypto has some fans at Fort Meade. But my professional credentials were obviously not the sole reason for the invite. The post-Snowden NSA has been forced to adopt a more open PR strategy. With its practices, and even its integrity, under attack, its usual Sphinx-like demeanor would not do.
They really hate Snowden. The NSA is clearly, madly, deeply furious.
Soon I was swapping emails with a Å“protocol officer” who would coordinate my visit; she requested some personal data and asked for the make, model and serial number of my voice recorder. (I was happy about the latter ” when I interviewed companies like Facebook for this story, they did not permit taping.)
So there I was, driving down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, taking the exit that countless drivers have passed with a shudder of frisson. I got checked out at two gatehouses, and found my assigned parking space. Then I entered the glass leviathan whose image accompanies virtually every story in which a new Snowden leak is revealed.
Perhaps befitting the agencyâ„¢s persistent stealth, the entrance foyer does not have the grandeur of, say, the CIAâ„¢s iconic marble lobby. When you go to Langley, you feel youâ„¢re on a movie set. This was more like going through security for jury duty. I met my escort, signed in, and got badged. And, yes, they checked my recorderâ„¢s serial number.
Once inside, however, the scene became more cinematic. The passageways have a bustling, Pentagon-ish feel. Many people, in fact, are in uniform, a reminder that the NSA is, after all, part of the defense department. All of its directors have been high-ranking officers like admirals or generals. Even the civilian employees communicate with the crisp, respectful efficiency of the armed forces: Itâ„¢s all direct sentences, sir and maâ„¢am, acronyms and numbers. That military mentality is built into the mindset there ” NSA people view themselves, as soldiers do, as serving, protecting the nation, doing a job that must be done and stoically shrugging off its thanklessness. One always suspects that in NSA interactions with outsiders, an unspoken phrase hovers over the conversation, that of Jack Nicholsonâ„¢s embittered warrior in A Few Good Men: You canâ„¢t handle the truth.
My escort gave me a brief tour, including a stop at the wall honoring those who had given their lives in service to the agency. She told me that when names (or in some cases, anonymous markers) are added, as had happened recently, colleagues line the long hall for the ceremony.
Then it was time for the meeting. I was ushered into a meeting room dominated by a large conference table. On the walls were posters trumpeting NSAâ„¢s contributions: protecting the nation, securing the future, and yes, respecting privacy. Even at that point, I was not certain whom Iâ„¢d be meeting and a bit worried about whether Iâ„¢d be getting access to high-level officials. So I was relieved to find that Iâ„¢d be speaking with General Counsel Rajesh De; the head of private partnerships, Anne Neuberger; and Richard Ledgett, who heads the Media Leaks Task Force recently created to handle Snowden blowback. It was clearly the right group to take on my questions. Before we sat, the director himself, Gen. Keith Alexander, entered with little fanfare to assure me that I was in for a frank session where I could ask anything. He spent 20 minutes setting the stage and taking a few questions. After he left, I spent two more hours with the other officials, who urged me to ask anything I wanted.
I talk about that session in my story, but let me note a few general takeaways:
The dual mission of the NSA generates cognitive dissonance. Right on its home page, the NSA says its core missions are Å“to protect U.S. national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information.” The officials repeatedly claimed they pursue both responsibilities with equal vigor. Thereâ„¢s a built-in conflict here: If U.S. industries distribute strong encryption throughout the world, it should make the NSAâ„¢s signals-gathering job much harder. Yet the NSA says it welcomes encryption. (The officials even implied that the tension between the two missions winds up making both efforts more robust.) Nonetheless, the Snowden leaks indicate that the NSA has engaged in numerous efforts that tamper with the security of American products. The officials resisted this characterization. Why, they asked, would they compromise security of products they use themselves, like Windows, Cisco routers, or the encryption standards they allegedly compromised?
They believe their intelligence gathering is palatable because itâ„¢s controlled by laws, regulations, and internal oversight. Looking at the world through their eyes, there is no privacy threat in collecting massive amounts of information ” if access to that information is rigidly controlled and minimalized. This includes efforts to excise data (about Americans, mainly) that should have not been collected in the first place. The NSA feels that if people knew about these controls, theyâ„¢d be OK with the collection. This argument reminded me of something I learned from my approved NSA source in the 1990s. The official who concocted the Clipper Chip scheme had a vision where private citizens could use encryption. But the NSA, though its built-in backdoor chip, would be able to access the information when it needed to. The official called his vision Å“Nirvana.” The NSA is still envisioning Nirvana, this time a system with huge haystacks accessed only when national security is at stake. But many people believe the very creation of those government-owned haystacks is a privacy violation, and possibly unconstitutional.
They really hate Snowden. The NSA is clearly, madly, deeply furious at the man whose actions triggered the biggest crisis in its history. Even while contending they welcome the debate that now engages the nation, they say that they hate the way it was triggered. The NSA has an admittedly insular culture ” the officials described it as almost like a family. Morale suffers when friends and neighbors think that NSA employees are sitting around reading grandmaâ„¢s email. Also, the agency believes that the Snowden leaks have seriously hurt national security (though others dispute this). NSA officials are infuriated that all this havoc was caused by some random contractor. They suggest that had Snowden been familiar with the culture and the ethos of the agency, understood the level of training undergone by its employees, seen the level of regulations and oversight, he would have been less likely to abscond with all those documents. (Snowdenâ„¢s interviews indicate otherwise.) Still, they are stunned that someone Å“inside the fence” would do what Snowden did. Even if Snowden is eventually pardoned, heâ„¢d do well to steer clear of Fort Meade.
Dark times as these may be at Fort Meade, itâ„¢s good for the nation that the closed-mouth agency is opening up more to the press. Personally, I owe Snowden some thanks. He finally got to me into the NSA.
Source: Press TV