The National Security Agency sent out a letter to all of its employees and affiliates, including contractors, that could be printed and shared with family, friends and colleagues. It was intended to reassure them that the NSA is not really the abusive and unchecked spying agency engaged in illegal activity that someone reading former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures might think it happens to be.
The letter, sent on September 13, is signed by NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis, begins, “We are writing to you, our extended NSA/CSS family, in light of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by a former contractor employee.”
If anyone was thinking of breaking up with the NSA family, the letter states, “We want to put the information you are reading and hearing about in the press into context and reassure you that this Agency and its workforce are deserving and appreciative of your support.”
“Some media outlets have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CSS—your loved one(s),” the letter suggests. “It has been discouraging to see how our Agency frequently has been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.”
I don’t know what press publications the NSA regularly collects, intercepts and analyzes, but most of the press has questioned the motives of Edward Snowden, not the analysts working at the NSA.
This siege mentality seems more indicative of the fact that the NSA has been subject to uncharacteristic scrutiny in the past months that should have occurred when the NSA first began to employ the surveillance programs that have been exposed, like PRISM and the bulk data collection from telephone providers.
“For more than 6 decades, NSA/CSS has been responsible for protecting the United States and its allies through its information assurance and signals intelligence missions. All of the things we do to conduct our mission are lawful,” except for when the NSA monitored the calls of over a thousand Americans engaged in political activities between 1967 and 1973.
Except for when it was intercepting mail in the 1950s without distinguishing between messages from foreigners and Americans. Except for when it was involved in the 1960s in investigating “racial matters” or “student agitation” by activists in cooperation with the CIA and military intelligence agencies. Except for when it engaged in warrantless wiretapping, most recently after the September 11th attacks.
In case family members thought their loved one had no sense of what it means to respect privacy and protect civil liberties of US citizens, the directors declare, “In concert with our mission, NSA/CSS employees are trained from the first day on the job, and regularly thereafter, to respect the privacy and civil liberties of US citizens. We go to great lengths to achieve our goal of no mistakes.”
“However, we are human and, because the environment of law and technology within which we operate is so complex and dynamic, mistakes sometimes do occur.” Thousands of times per year they sometimes occur. Sometimes these “mistakes” involve incidents like adding 16,000 phone numbers improperly to an “alert list.” This is according to official documents like audits of the agency. Yet, the directors write, “Some of those reports have been leaked to the press and have been mischaracterized to portray us as irresponsible and careless; nothing could be further from the truth.”
As both Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall have suggested, given the ineptitude of the NSA in being able to understand what it was doing with the bulk data collection program, how does it know if the program even kept Americans safe? Seems like it would be best to just end the program. (Plus, it would help the NSA achieve its goal of “no mistakes.”)
“There are some in the media who are taking the time to actually study the leaked material, and they have drawn conclusions that are very different from those who are in it for a quick headline,” the directors concede. Unfortunately, they are not talking about anyone like Marcy Wheeler.
The directors quote Lawfare’s editor-in-chief and frequent national security state apologist, Benjamin Wittes, who wrote a post chastising The Washington Post as well as President Barack Obama’s administration for how it was handling the leaks.
Shameful as it is that these documents were leaked, they actually should give the public great confidence both in NSA’s internal oversight mechanisms and in the executive and judicial oversight mechanisms outside the agency. They show no evidence of any intentional spying on Americans or abuse of civil liberties. They show a low rate of the sort of errors any complex system of technical collection will inevitably yield. They show robust compliance procedures on the part of the NSA. And they show an earnest, ongoing dialog with the FISA Court over the parameters of the agency’s legal authority and a commitment both to keeping the court informed of activities and to complying with its judgments on their legality. While it took a criminal act to make this record public, we are deeply proud of this record and make no apologies for it.
The above is what Wittes thought the Obama administration should have been saying about the leaks (though it is not clear in the letter if Alexander and Inglis realize this). So, essentially, this is an expression of how disappointed the NSA is with how the White House has not done enough to shield it from investigative journalists curious about what it really has been doing with its surveillance powers.
The letter cites propaganda the agency has peddled—that its actions have thwarted “54 different terrorist plots.” Inglis admitted during a hearing to Sen. Patrick Leahy that US bulk records phone spying had only been key in stopping one terrorist plot. But, this is about reassuring the family that everything is okay and going to be fine so did you know many American service members could have died without this unbounded surveillance? Some even have died.
“The NSA/CSS Memorial Wall lists the names of 171 cryptologists who have died in the line of duty since the Agency’s inception in 1952,” according to the letter.
What does that even mean? People die while working for us and put their lives on the line every day so don’t even think about criticizing our role in government? Or, for the families who are questioning whether their loved one is now a forever disgraced government employee, do not worry because they are working on collecting “intelligence” at great risk in some cases?
“More stories will appear,” the directors note, but rest assured the NSA will be working to “separate fact from fiction.” In fact, it appears employees will be coming home with some kind of kits of materials for family members to help them “understand that our activities are lawful, appropriate and effective.”
It concludes, “We have weathered storms before and we will weather this one together, as well.”
The entire letter is emblematic of the insular culture of people who have committed their lives to Top Secret America and have placed themselves above criticism by any person, whether they be in the halls of power, a media organization or a civil society group in this country.
It is not the NSA who has engaged in operations that infringe upon privacy with very little discernible proof that the programs have stopped numerous actual terrorist plots, who should be shamed. It is the press, who have convinced many Americans that the NSA is some kind of “rogue element.”
And, even though the NSA director built a replica of the bridge from starship Enterprise and called it the “Information Dominance Center” and that wholly perverts the values of peace and cooperation creator Gene Roddenberry intended to promote, it is not a “rogue element” but a “national treasure” that we all should shower with honor and praise.