Skip to content

WWDD: On Real NSA Whistleblowing

July 2, 2013

In recent weeks, as the saga of Ed Snowden has become a global sensation, we’ve heard a lot about “whistleblowing.” We are assured by Ed’s legions of fans and media enablers that he stands in a fine tradition of exposing wrongdoing and illegalities by the US Government.

Sorry, I know my whistleblowers, and Ed’s no whistleblower.

His whistleblower act looked a lot more plausible when Ed started out and his revelations of TOP SECRET CODEWORD material at least seemed to be aimed at exposing domestic operations by NSA that, in theory, could impact the lives of a lot of Americans.

But that shtick didn’t last long, in no small part because Ed’s media handlers didn’t present the details honestly, but more importantly because young Mr Snowden then embarked on his Magical Mystery Tour from Hong Kong to Moscow, where he remains as of this writing, his ultimate destination far from clear. As a whistleblower, Ed Snowden is simply a fraud.

I say this confidently because I know what a real NSA whistleblower looks like. I grew up with one.

My father, Richard W. Schindler – Dickie to his many friends – was a career NSA officer, a SIGINT lifer, and he was the real thing. A bit of family history is necessary to explain this, it’s kinda personal. My dad wound up at NSA though no particular plan. A working-class kid from Brooklyn who got a college scholarship, he excelled at learning, and subsequently got a free ride to grad school at Duke. He was immediately horrified by the segregation he encountered in late 1950s North Carolina; separate drinking fountains and lunch counters were not something he’d seen at his progressive Jewish fraternity in New England.

At that point the Army came calling – we had a draft back then, in case our younger readers didn’t know – and it’s pretty clear The Green Machine seemed more forward-leaning to dad than Dixie. Additionally, the Army was interested in his ability with languages. He aced the aptitude test and, when asked what language he wanted to study on the Army’s dime, he made a fateful choice: Vietnamese. He’d followed the French defeat there with interest, and wasn’t deterred by the officer’s admonition about his selection, advising that Russian would be better: “There’ll never been any use for Vietnamese!” The year was 1959.

Thus began dad’s adventure with the Army Security Agency (ASA), the green-uniformed component of NSA. After completing his language training, dad was assigned to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, working the Vietnamese problem. Dad’s feelings about America’s rising war in Vietnam were complex. As a good social democrat, he loathed Communists, whom he considered to be fascists wrapped in progressive slogans. But dad nevertheless felt that direct commitment of U.S. troops into a Vietnamese civil war was bound to cause as many problems as it might solve. Not to mention that, because he spoke their language fluently, dad had a deep love for the Vietnamese and their culture, and he worried about the human cost of any wider war.

But ASA and NSA were in the thick of the rising war in Southeast Asia. In December 1961 SPC James T. Davis, an ASAer, became the first American to die in action in Vietnam. In due course, almost 60,000 young men more would follow. Vietnam dominated dad’s life through the 1960s. He transitioned from Agency service in the military to working there as a civilian, like so many others. His Army career was unblemished, save for a fight that ensued at Club 602 AKA The Deuce, a famous NSA dive-bar hangout, where a ruckus was caused by my father, fresh from a long shift at the Agency, when he insisted on bringing an Army buddy – an African American buddy – in for a drink. Maryland was like that in 1961.

As the country was convulsed by the struggle for civil rights and the mounting antiwar movement, dad was doing his part, including several tours in Vietnam. He was the kind of guy who, between those tours, took leave to participate in freedom marches in the South (far as I can tell, he was the only Agency spook who was also an active member of CORE). For dad, freedom was freedom, whether in Dixie or in  Vietnam, and needed defending with more than words.

It wasn’t long before dad became disillusioned with our war in Vietnam. Although North Vietnam needed to be contained, our strategy to do that seemed to be inflicting obscene amounts of pain on the Vietnamese people. He developed the habit of wearing a peace symbol whenever he had to brief high-level brass in Saigon or DC, just to piss them off.

But he did his part, and was a highly valued member of the NSA team that worked Vietnamese issues. He was impossible to shut down because he was simply smarter and better at his job than most people. His major (and ridiculously still classified in the details) claim to fame in Vietnam was his assessment that the North and the Viet Cong were about to launch an enormous offensive across South Vietnam. This was off-message to Westmoreland’s in-house intel dorks in Saigon, and therefore ignored. It became known as the Tet Offensive.

Fittingly, dad was in South Vietnam when Tet went down at the end of January 1968, and was wounded by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rocket that landed too close. But he never left the fight. His base at Phu Bai, close to the border and the DMZ, was NSA’s big listening post into North Vietnam, which was termed the 8th Radio Research Unit for cover purposes. It was assaulted by a full NVA regiment that managed to get inside the wire; for a time it looked like Phu Bai would fall, as the Marines were busy up the road with the nightmarish fight for Hue city. At the dark moment, as NSA prepared for the worst, the Phu Bai commander told dad to get on the last helicopter out, as he knew too much to fall into enemy hands. Dad knew that meant leaving everyone else  – more junior analysts, a lot of Army enlisted guys – behind to face death and torture. Never one to mince words, dad’s response was short: Fuck you.

Fortunately Phu Bai didn’t fall that day – I wouldn’t be here if it had – and dad continued to assist our efforts to keep the Communists from taking over all of Vietnam, and that war left him more than a little disillusioned and scarred. Vietnam was like a dark cloud hanging over my childhood. Dad was physically sick from the way we abandoned our allies to their fate – every South Vietnamese spook he worked with wound up dead or tortured by the Communists after Saigon fell in 1975 – and I recall a lot of nights where sleep was elusive for dad. As an adult I’d learn that we had a term for this – PTSD.

By the early 1970s dad was assigned to new NSA missions, a career-broadening move. This got him exposure to new Agency programs, far beyond Southeast Asia, some of which deeply disturbed him. He was “read on” for two programs in particular that would soon become infamous. One was MINARET, the monitoring of thousands of domestic dissidents. The other was SHAMROCK, a huge program going back to the Second World War that sucked up telexes going in and out of the United States in a hunt, rather fishing expedition, for spies and subversives, averaging some 150,000 intercepts per month.

Dad was no lawyer, but he knew his 4th Amendment, and he raised holy hell. Part of this, no doubt, stemmed from his deep loathing for then-President Richard Nixon. Growing up in my house, the belief that Nixon was pretty much the human manifestation of evil was hard to miss; to dad, he was always “Tricky Dick,” the bastard who slimed Helen Gahagan Douglas. (As part of his rich, twisted sense of mocking humor – dad was a hipster before his time – he wrote “Tricky Dick” on his helmet in Vietnam; that helmet, complete with shrapnel dent, proudly sits in my office at the Naval War College today.) Like a lot of progressives, dad deep down thought LBJ was in some ways worse than Nixon, since Johnson pretended to be a liberal while not really acting like one, but the idea of NSA’s enormous power to monitor the American people in the hands of Tricky Dick was simply unacceptable to my father. That, my friends, was a hill he was prepared to die on.

His initial complaints “up the chain” were brushed off as the ravings of an unpatriotic madman. But dad didn’t give up. He kept complaining through TS/SCI channels that MINARET and SHAMROCK were illegal and wrong. Soon he became an irritant that senior Agency officials could no longer ignore. What really scared top NSA leadership was the fact that dad had friends in the media, thanks to his studies and time in Southeast Asia, and he made no secret of the fact that, if he could get no remedy internally, he would go to the press. This was the era of Dan Ellsberg and public whistleblowing was in its exciting infancy.

Fortunately Agency leadership was having its own doubts about MINARET and SHAMROCK, sensing that they no longer passed the “smell test” of what looked acceptable even in TS/SCI channels. The internal revolt they faced also made them ponder hard. Dad was far from the only one inside the Agency demanding reform – despite what some would have you think, NSA has always had a great deal of ideological and political diversity in its ranks, and still does – but dad was loud and forceful. Before long, NSA dropped both programs and ceased its monitoring of the American people.

Soon Nixon fell over Watergate and the dam burst, leading to the Church Committee, painful public investigations, and serious reforms of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The oversight and controls that today’s fey radicals denounce as window-dressing or less – FISA, USSID 18, Congressional committees devoted to watching our watchers – were the hard-won result, and an accomplishment that dad and many others in our spy agencies were deeply proud of.

If this were a movie, dad would have been heralded a hero, perhaps with a modest parade, and seen his career prosper overnight. But real life isn’t a movie, least of all in SpookWorld (sorry if I’m bursting your bubble here) and for a few years dad saw his career stall. Top officials never forgave him for his standing up for rights of the American people to not be monitored without a warrant by NSA. Eventually the codgers retired and dad’s career did indeed prosper, but there is no doubt that he paid a real price for doing what he felt was right.

Fast forward a couple decades and I joined the Agency too. Since both my parents were career NSAers there was minimal chance I’d wind up in a straight job, but in fact I thought espionage was for dorks when I was young. Does any teenager really want to follow in the family business? By the time I hit my mid-20s I was willing to give it a chance, especially considering that NSA was paying more than teaching, my other choice.

Dad wasn’t around to greet me to The Firm. Sadly, he died far too young. But some of his friends were still around when I “entered on duty” as they say in the trade. On my very first day at NSA I had a chat in an impressively big office with a top Agency official, a good friend of my family’s, who told me, warmly but firmly, that I had big shoes to fill. If ever I had doubts about the proper course of action, I was informed, the solution was simple: just ask myself “What would Dickie do”?

Those words I proceeded to live by in my near-decade with NSA. I never encountered a situation where I saw anything resembling violations of the civil liberties of fellow Americans. The 1970s reforms work as they are intended to. I, and all of us, have my dad in part to thank for that. But if I had seen anything illegal or improper, WWDD was right there, and as a chip off the old block I would have raised holy hell too.

Ed Snowden is not cut from the same cloth as my dad and all the other good citizens in the U.S. Intelligence Community who fought over the years, without public adulation, to ensure our spy operations are legal and proper. Ed seems to be all about Ed. If he ever complained up the chain about alleged NSA illegalities, we’ve not heard about it. Instead he commenced his self-styled crusade to harm our intelligence system, aided and abetted by helpers in the media whose interests seem increasingly suspect. I’m just sorry dad isn’t here to utter the invective only a progressive patriot and veteran spy could. His comments on Snowden’s antics from Russia, under the protection of the KGB sorry FSB, would not be printable in a family-friendly blog such as this.

WWDD? Nothing Snowden has done.

From → Espionage, History, USG

21 Comments
  1. Gabe Kaplan permalink

    When you reduce the issue to the character of the leaker, you are obfuscating. I could give a rat’s ass about Snowden; what matters is what is being revealed about what’s being done to us, in our name, with our money. If you’re good with that, fine, you’re a horrible person. If not, stop confusing style with substance.

    • Is that really all you got? LOL

      • “Per the old counterspy’s mantra: Admit nothing; deny everything; make counter-accusations.”

        I certainly appreciate your insight into the inner workings of the NSA and what your dad did to protect the people in this country from this agency. But just as your dad hated the NSA under Nixon, it shows that powerful agencies like this can be twisted to the will of those in office. From what Snowden has said publicly, I believe he is trying his best to reveal what he can, while still keeping his neck dry.

        Perhaps the NSA as you knew it has been corrupted beyond recognition during the last two administrations. Given what has been revealed and given the secret nature of the NSA, we must assume the NSA is capable of nearly anything in the wrong hands, including unjustified incarceration or murder. Snowden said he held out hope that things would change when Obama was elected, but saw that things weren’t changing and perhaps getting worse. That’s when he did what he did. I have no knowledge of the details of Snowden’s situation so I can’t pass judgement. But I do know that Snowden is basically one man fighting against a state of virtually unlimited power. Perhaps Snowden is leveraging the resources of another state that at least can stand up to our own government. Can we blame him for going to a state that is questionably friendly to our own state? Perhaps. But maybe Snowden is for now following another mantra, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Assuming Snowden has benevolent motives, he may be doing the dirty work that is required to protect our freedom. Certainly those in the espionage business can appreciate that.

        People like you can wield enormous influence. As someone who was on the inside, your insights are very valuable. However, I fear that you may have conflicted allegiances, if that is the right word. As you state, the NSA is made up of a diverse variety of people. To make blanket statements about the NSA is not fair, as it isn’t a borg of one mind. Yes there are good people in the NSA and there are bad, just as in any other agency or even organization of any kind. I can understand loyalty to those people you worked with and the overriding mission of protecting this country. And also the desire to honor the unrecognized work your father did. I also lost my father far too young, so I can appreciate that. But as a naturalized citizen, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign AND domestic. I believe most elected officials and members of defense agencies take the same oath. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Snowden has blown the cover off an agency that is once again shown itself to be attacking our Constitution. That is what we should stay focused on. To spend too much energy on Snowden the person is exactly the superfluous activity that those in power would like us to be distracted by.

        No, Snowden didn’t do what your dad did. But we don’t know his situation. Your dad seemed to have built up influence in the agency where Snowden may not have had that luxury. It’s very possible that if Snowden had attempted to work within the agency, he would have destroyed any opportunity he had to make a difference. For all we know, he may very well had reason to have feared for his life. We simply don’t know his situation, so it’s too early to pass judgement and lose sight of the valuable information he had shed light on. But I find it interesting that the government seems to be following the counterspy mantra to a T. That should be enough to give Snowden at least a little credibility.

      • Thanks for your insights, I have a shrink already.

  2. pedro permalink

    Wow! What an amazing post! I had no idea you had such an amazing family history. I completely agree with every word you wrote regarding Snowden.

  3. Bob Alkema permalink

    What a story! I am in awe, with deep gratitude for you and your fathers service. I just pray there are more in the ranks with your families integrity and honor. Happy Independence Day!

  4. silent bob permalink

    anyone still defending snowden is deluded.by flying to moscow and staying there he lost the moral high ground which your father bravely defended.what did snowden think the fsb/svr spooks were going to do,wave him through with no questions asked.and russia is a really democratic country isn’t it.courage is fighting for your beliefs even if you are the only one who knows you are fighting.former generations understood this,it’s a pity snowden didn’t.just like wikileaks,snowden started off for the right reasons then discovered he and his “friends” liked the publicity.at least manning had the bravery to face the consequences of his actions.

  5. Awesome story. Thanks.

  6. JTH permalink

    What is your take on William Binney?

    • I addressed Binney a year ago here:

      https://20committee.com/2012/07/16/shamrock-2-0/

      I do not approve of all of Binney’s recent antics, but he was badly treated by FBI/DoJ which probably explains things. Additionally, unlike most NSA “whistleblowers” of late, Binney has acted on good motives and is a patriot.

  7. I left a reply yesterday, not sure if WordPress ate it or it hasn’t yet been approved out of moderation. Here goes a re-post, sorry if the post is simply waiting for moderation.

    Per your invitation on Twitter yesterday, I took the time to read a bit more from your blog. I have some thoughts regarding it, especially this post, and our conversation.

    Firstly, I want to commend and thank your father for his service and for his concern for the Fourth Amendment. I am also glad to see that you were/are concerned about domestic spying activities. That said I have a few points to make:

    1) To me (and from at least one definition), defection implies a chance of allegiance. AFAICT, Edward Snowden has not changed allegiance. His allegiance seems to be to the USA as a whole, especially its people, if not certain parts of the government. He intended to leave Moscow, but his hand was forced by the incredible act of grounding the plane of the president of a sovereign nation on the mere suspicion that he was aboard. So, to say he is ‘in bed’ with Russian FIS because he’s been left no other option is a big leap without evidence to me. That was my issue before, but unfortunately Twitter is not a great forum for such discussion. But maybe he should never have left? Let’s address that next.

    2) You seem to respect Binney. Even Binney said he did the right thing by disclosing the NSA’s domestic spying, although he had some negative words for the revelations about our activities w.r.t. China and Russia. That’s fair. However, when asked what would happen to Snowden if he stayed, Binney said, “First tortured, then maybe even rendered and tortured and then incarcerated and then tried and incarcerated or even executed.” ( http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/06/16/snowden-whistleblower-nsa-officials-roundtable/2428809/ ). That sounds to me like sufficient grounds to seek asylum (vs. being treated to a fair trial without such methods before, after, or during).

    Finally, for all of your worry about domestic spying, and complaint that Snowden’s antics are detracting from our focus on that, why are you focusing so little in your writing on the domestic spying evidence and what to do about it, and so much on Snowden’s antics?

    • Ah, and something I missed from my writeup yesterday, which I lost — my grand point is that things have changed a lot since your father’s whistleblowing activities. I fear we do not have the same rule of law that we did then.

    • You remain as naive as you were on Twitter. This is the biggest espionage/defection case in NSA history. I was an NSA counterintelligence officer. You figure out the rest.

  8. In Neal Sheehan’s book on John Vann, he describes Westmorlands intelligence reporting system where each district officer sent a precinct map up the chain with precincts colored red/white/or pink. Vann’s started getting sent back – too much red, please fix. Fix the map.

  9. Friðrik permalink

    Wow, I stumbled on your blog and read a few articles and thought to myself it would be interesting to see the viewpoint of a former NSA agent on Snowden, especially since I’m Icelandic and opinion on him in Iceland is pretty one-sided.

    So I decided to write this:

    Not to criticize your dad, he seems to have done the US a great service, but isn’t the definition of whistle blowing to expose illegal/immoral activity? He seems to have fought for 4th amendment rights internally at the NSA, but what did he expose(ie. what did he “blow the whistle” on)?

    Also, I want to know your stance on the programs that he exposed. Regardless of what you think of Snowden, what do you think of these programs?

    Finally, you mention in a different post: “There is much damage to be repaired; more transparency is long overdue.”
    If “more transparency” is “long overdue” it implies that the NSA has not been effective enough in bettering itself from the inside(from actions of men like your father) and thus needed outside pressure(ie. the media) to do so.

    PS. I’m not trying to sound condescending or rude.

    Then I started to read a little more…
    “From nearly the outset I’ve stated that Snowden is very likely an agent of Russian intelligence”
    “I’ve been stating for a while now that Wikileaks is functionally an extension of Russian intelligence”
    and I came to the conclusion that you are batshit insanse; I have seen more plausible conspiracy theories from Alex Jones.
    Are you listening to yourself?
    I did some google-ing about the accusation that Snowden is a Russian spy/agent and all I can find is speculation from other conspiracy theorists.
    Oh, and wikileaks has published leaks on the Russian government so I have no idea where you got it into your head that they are some sort of front/extension for Russian intelligence.

    Another one of your statements:
    “I don’t have time for people who are polemical rather than analytical in their approach to intelligence studies.”
    How are your statements that Snowden is a Russian agent the result of an “analytical” and not “polemical” approach to examining the evidence? If you “don’t have time for” people that make unsubstantiated or biased claims why should others “have time for” your unsubstantiated claims? Regardless of whether or not Snowden is a Russian spy, you still have no evidence for it so the statement is still unsubstantiated.
    One of the stables of conspiracy theorists is to hold others to a higher standard than themselves when presenting claims/theories.

    I know you will most likely ignore this message but if by any chance you are still reading I want you to do yourself a favor and seriously ask yourself this question:
    “If the only people that agree with my theories are conspiracy theorists that no one takes seriously, then should I take myself seriously?”

    A final word: Throwing out theories(and “statements”) without evidence is just guesswork and speculation and if one tries to maintain a theory in the absence of evidence then one is simply lying.

    Sorry for the long and angry post, but I really wanted you to know that from an outside perspective you seem a bit insane and that might deter people from taking anything else you write seriously.

    Side-note: You are a good and articulate writer with an impressive vocabulary(I never knew of the word “polemical” until today)

    -Freddie

  10. That’s a great article — for the sheer love and regard it exhibits for one’s beloved father! I also belong to the same school of thought as the author, Mr. Schindler in my love for my father. When you are in the intelligence business involving the security of your nation as also the safety and well-being of many of your countrymen, you have no business to go public with the secrets you may have secreted away. That is treacherous sign of a diabolic mind. On another subject the author has touched upon: It is so very saddening to learn that 60,000 Americans gave their life for a conflict, continents away, and many hundred thousands must have been maimed for life. The world over, it is a tragedy to be born a patriot and ruled by idiots and traitors!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The True Story of an Actual NSA Whistleblower | BobCesca.com | Liberal Politics Blog and Podcast | We Cover the World
  2. On Conscription and Military Effectiveness | The XX Committee
  3. The XX Committee Snowden Reader | The XX Committee

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: