What’s Wrong with NSA
Hi, it’s me again. Although I left the Agency a few years ago, I still think about you a lot and, in recent months – thanks to that awful Ed guy – I’ve been writing and talking publicly a good deal about you too. Plus, because I agreed to that whole lifetime secrecy oath thing on my very first day on the job, we’re separated but we’re never gonna really get divorced, are we?
Nevertheless there are some things I’d like to get off my chest. My comments in the media in defense of intelligence, generally if not always specifically, have led to me getting a lot of flak from haters about being a “shill” for NSA and whatnot. Of course that’s not true. There are things that need change with the Agency and the unprecedented catastrophe surrounding the Snowden case offers an overdue shot at making smart changes to how NSA does business. I’d like to suggest a few.
I’m dispensing these in a spirit of affection, tough love if you will. I grew up in an Agency family, part of me will always be connected to you guys and girls. I still have good friends with the Agency, and I happen to think that, pound for pound, NSA is the best value for the dollar that American taxpayers spend on anything. Thousands of dedicated, hard-working people – military, civilian and contractor – who strive every day to provide America’s best source of intelligence. There are a few rotten apples, as in every human endeavor, but the Agency truly is a special place for patriots who work stressful jobs, some of them putting their lives on the line every day.
That said, NSA really needs a rebrand. After decades of hiding in the shadows, the Agency is now exposed to a level of public scrutiny that previously was only the stuff of Fort Meade nightmares. When I joined in the mid-1990s the “No Such Agency” era had ended. No longer did anybody pretend that the enormous espionage complex up Route 295 – the one with all those funny looking “golf balls” stretching on for miles – didn’t exist. But there was still a pervasive, fundamental secrecy about what the Agency said it did.
And, hey, I’m fine with secrecy in principle – intelligence is conducted in secret by its very nature. But the current crisis has exposed the Agency to scrutiny based on falsehoods proffered by Kremlin-backed scoundrels and their useful idiots among activists masquerading as journalists. Time to beat that back with some honesty, what might seem scarily radical honesty to old SIGINT hands.
NSA does foreign intelligence. Tell the American people a bit more about that. It’s overdue. Better to tell the story yourselves than to let your enemies tell it. I’m not saying you need to let MTV film a reality show in OPS 2B – though I’ve heard worse ideas – but you need to level with the American people about what it is NSA actually does and a bit about how it does it.
It’s 2013, when virtually all Americans depend on IT, via the Internet and the smartphones practically everyone’s got, to function on a daily basis, so you can’t blame people who until recently had never heard of SIGINT when they get a tad freaked out by the leaks they’ve heard all so much about in recent months. Time to find a way to explain, generally, what NSA does and how it does it. The truth is far less scary than the lies being told about the Agency.
If the current leadership can’t find a way to convincingly tell the American people what the Agency does – including the indelible and truthful message that, unless you’re in bed with foreign spies or terrorists, NSA has less than zero interest in you – then it’s time for new leadership. That’s coming soon anyway, based on media reports, but there’s not much time to waste. NSA leadership and public affairs by their nature have been reactive and not accustomed to the public eye. That’s totally over, and it’s not coming back. Deal with it. Rebrand now while you still can and regain the public’s trust. I’m confident that, once they understand what NSA really does, the vast majority of Americans will be glad the Agency is on watch.
But that’s not all you’ve got to do. There’s no point in having an NSA if you can’t prevent further Snowden-like debacles. Which is another way of saying if you don’t have effective counterintelligence, why bother to have intelligence? Sadly, I predicted a Snowden-like disaster over a decade ago, when I was working counterintelligence for the Agency, and I was not the only one who had that sense of impending dread.
The Snowden story reveals a basic lack of seriousness about counterintelligence and security that has undermined everything the Agency does. There are plenty of things to blame here – too much outsourcing, a lack of bureaucratic follow-through, an unwillingness to go all Angleton on people – but the unavoidable bottom line is that counterintelligence failed here, epically. This must never be allowed to happen again.
Sure, more resources are needed for CI – who ever turns more money and billets down? – but above all there needs to be a culture shift at the Agency. Nobody actually likes counterintelligence, the hardass people who bring bad news and possibly want to investigate your office, but they have to be allowed to do what they do in a spirit of cooperation. After the Snowden disaster it shouldn’t take much effort to convince Agency personnel that the threat from defectors and traitors is all too real. Sometimes the odd, Aspergery IT guy in the next cubicle with bad social skills plus anger at the government actually is out to destroy you.
And I would caution the CI folks not to go overboard now. Don’t repeat the let’s-polygraph-everybody-silly errors that came after the Martin and Mitchell defections to Moscow, or what happened at CIA when Rick Ames was unmasked as a traitor and Russian spy. The vast majority of Agency personnel are good people – gain their trust and they will practically do your job for you.
How’s that for a start? I think that’s enough taskers for today. But do get on them. A lot is riding on fixing these problems. NSA really is the best and brightest of America’s secret government. Earn the trust of the American people and never let an Ed Snowden in any Agency building again. That would be a great start and, in the end, everybody wins. The American people deserve no less, so give it to them.
John “Dash” Schindler