The XX Committee

WWDD: On Real NSA Whistleblowing

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.

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