Former Top NSA Officials Insist Employees Are Leaving Because Obama Is Mean, Not Because They Object To NSA’s Current Activities

Ellen Nakashima has a story that purports to show 1) significant morale problems at the NSA and 2) proof that the morale stems from Obama’s failure to more aggressively support the NSA in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.

The story relies in significant part on former NSA IG Joel Brenner and two other former officials who insisted on remaining anonymous because “they still have dealings” with the NSA.

“The agency, from top to bottom, leadership to rank and file, feels that it is had no support from the White House even though it’s been carrying out publicly approved intelligence missions,” said Joel Brenner, NSA inspector general from 2002 to 2006. “They feel they’ve been hung out to dry, and they’re right.”

A former U.S. official — who like several other former officials interviewed for this story requested anonymity because he still has dealings with the agency — said: “The president has multiple constituencies — I get it. But he must agree that the signals intelligence NSA is providing is one of the most important sources of intelligence today.

“So if that’s the case, why isn’t the president taking care of one of the most important elements of the national security apparatus?”

[snip]

A second former official said NSA workers are polishing up their résumés and asking that they be cleared — removing any material linked to classified programs — so they can be sent out to potential employers. He noted that one employee who processes the résumés said, “I’ve never seen so many résumés that people want to have cleared in my life.”

Morale is “bad overall,” a third former official said. “The news — the Snowden disclosures — it questions the integrity of the NSA workforce,” he said. “It’s become very public and very personal. Literally, neighbors are asking people, ‘Why are you spying on Grandma?’ And we aren’t. People are feeling bad, beaten down.”

Does “still have dealings with the agency” mean these people still contract to it, indirectly or directly? If it does, how much of this contracting works through The Chertoff Group, where a slew of former officials seem to have had remarkably consistent interests in spreading this line for months? Nakashima might want to provide more details about this in any future of these stories, as it may tell us far more about how much these men are profiting for espousing such views.

After all, while they do provide evidence that NSA employees are leaving, they provide only second-hand evidence — evidence that is probably impossible for any of these figures to gain in depth personally — that the issue pertains to Obama’s response.

And there are at least hints that NSA employees might be leaving for another reason: they don’t want to be a part of programs they’re only now — thanks to compartmentalization — learning about

We can look to the two letters the NSA has sent to “families” of workers for such hints.

The first, sent in September (page one, page two, h/t Kevin Gosztola), got sent just 3 days after the release of documents showing NSA had been violating just about every rule imposed on the phone dragnet for the first three years it operated (partly, it should be said, because of Joel Brenner’s inadequate oversight at its inception). In the guise of providing more context to NSA employee family members about that and recent disclosures, Keith Alexander and John Inglis wrote,

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. As a family member of an NSA/CSS employee, whether civilian or military, you are an essential element in the successful conduct of our job protecting and defending our country. Your support helps each of us dedicate ourselves to our mission, encouraging us to do our best on behalf of the Nation. We, along with the rest of the NSA/CSS workforce, greatly value that 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/CAA — your loved one(s). 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.

[snip]

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. That’s where the unique aspect of our culture comes into play. We self-report those mistakes, analyze them, and take action to correct the root causes.

Of course, the phone dragnet problems were not a mistake at all. Rather, they stemmed from the NSA retaining many, if not all, the aspects of the illegal phone dragnet it replaced, even though the FISA Court authorization did not permit many aspects of that earlier program.

But Keith Alexander, who almost certainly knew that, and at the very least oversaw the retention of those earlier illegal aspects of the program, felt the need to hand his employees (the overwhelming majority of whom were not read into the phone dragnet) a program ostensibly telling others a narrative that is pretty demonstrably false, all to convince the collective audience that the NSA wasn’t a rogue agency.

Then the NSA used the occasion of Thanksgiving to send another plaintive case, ostensibly to “family and close friends” of NSA employees.

This one came in the wake of far more damning revelations. Not only had the NSA twice been caught programmatically conducting illegal wiretapping of Americans in America, after which it started stealing data from American companies overseas to conduct the same wiretapping with no oversight. That overseas collection includes the collection of cell location. Once collected, NSA can search for US person information in it — including content — with no reasonable articulable suspicion. In addition, NSA had also been systematically weakening US cybersecurity in its zeal to support spying and cyberattacks overseas.

In the wake of these disclosures, NSA not only focused more on NSA’s “warfighter support” role (something that has almost nothing to do with all this dragnet collection), but also provided a series of obviously misleading bullet points to claim that NSA performs its mission “the right way” (emphasis original; I guess NSA thinks its employees or their family are a bit obtuse).

NSA performs its mission the right way — lawful, compliant, and in a way that protects civil liberties and privacy.

  • NSA analysts do not decide what topics to work. They respond directly to requirements driven by the President’s Intelligence Priorities, documented in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
  • NSA does not target U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens unless that targeting is premised on a finding or probable cause to believe that the person is a foreign power or the agent of a foreign power. NSA’s activities are governed and constrained by law and policy. We operate under oversight by all three branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive.
  • NSA does not and will not steal industry secrets in order to give U.S. companies a competitive advantage.
  • NSA does not and will not demand changes by any vendor to any product, nor does it have any authority to demand such changes.

In this set of bullet points, NSA does not deny they choose the methods of collection, including the overseas dragnets. It very misleadingly talks about targeting so as to ignore the vast amount of “incidentally-” and “intentionally-” collected US person data it gathers and the back door searches it can subsequently do on that data. It falsely claims that an Agency increasingly reliant on EO 12333-authorized activities that get no FISC and little Intelligence Committee oversight “operate under oversight by all three branches of government.” And it provides two non-denial denials to accusations that go to the core of NSA’s self-mythology: that it doesn’t engage in industrial espionage, and doesn’t deliberately make us all less secure by weakening encryption.

The NSA’s denials are getting increasingly pathetic the closer to the core of NSA’s manufactured self-image they get.

Interestingly, beyond the authorization at the top of the bullet points “to share the following points with family and close friends” and its pre-Thanksgiving timing, there’s nothing in the second document that directly addresses family and friends, as opposed to NSA employees themselves.

Which brings us to a key detail often forgotten in this mess. Most of the NSA’s employees have not been read into many of these programs. And while the NSA has issued the same kinds of threats to security clearances for reading the original leaked documents as State and other governmental agencies did during WikiLeaks releases (though the court documents showing programmatic illegal wiretapping are declassified and available at the I Con the Record site available to NSA employees), so much more of these disclosures have made the news, including the WaPo, for NSA employees to be learning some of this for the first time.

That raises the distinct possibility that NSA morale is low not because the President hasn’t given them a pep talk, but because they’re uncomfortable working for an Agency that violates its own claimed rules so often. Most of the men and women at NSA have been led to believe they don’t spy on their fellow citizens. Those claims are crumbling, now matter how often the NSA repeats the word “target.”

So while it’s certainly news (if true — the report here is based on second-hand reporting) that an unprecedented number of NSA employees are seeking not only to leave, but to hide that they ever worked on some of these programs, the claim that they’re leaving because Obama is being mean is just one potentially self-interested explanation for the exodus.

I look forward to some reporting on whether that potentially self-interested claim stands up to scrutiny.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

29 replies
  1. TarheelDem says:

    Why is there the aroma of Poppy Bush in the framing of these statements from former NSA employees?

  2. pdaly says:

    Here’s a good graphic from USAToday showing the use of Stingray by local police departments. Might be helpful for the exiting NSA employees to see, too, if they own cell phones.

    While the metadata the police can obtain is not surprising to me at this point, I was surprised that police would be interested in bill payment history. This feature is mentioned several times, not just in passing. Hmm.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/08/cellphone-data-spying-nsa-police/3902809/

  3. pdaly says:

    These faraday cage bags called “Black Hole” by Edec supposedly block cell tower communication with your cell phone. This shielding comes at the expense of depleting the phone’s battery charge as the cell phone struggles vainly from inside the bag to connect with the outside world.

    But California-based company EDEC’s outlook caters towards law enforcement and not toward personal privacy. The faraday bags block cell tower communication with phone and tablets that are bagged for police evidence in order to prevent remote data wipes or other contamination with evidence in the phones/tablet en route to the crime lab:

    “We plan to continue updating the capability of the tools we have already released, providing our customers with better data extraction and decoding, better device shielding and better screen capture. We will continue to release new products as well, with two new products planned for 2012.”

    However, a camera store in NYC is one of two retailers in the USA (according to EDEC’s website) that carries Edec’s product:

    http://www.adorama.com/EDBHFB2.html?gclid=COj85YG2obsCFYVZ7AodDhQAcg

  4. masaccio says:

    I’d guess these people are leaving to cash in on the vastly superior pay scale for privatized security functions. We outsource so we can pay off crony capitalists, why shouldn’t the worker bees cash in too?

  5. What Constitution? says:

    I like reading the quote attributed to Joel Brenner concerning NSA minions: “They feel they’ve been hung out to dry, and they’re right.” That, right there, is the practical application of the Mission Impossible Rule: “… the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

    Of course, this is only being applied at the “minion” level — the policymakers just lie with impunity and keep their jobs, while the minions take the flak but do, at least, receive a jolly “buck up” from their fearless, albeit anonymous, leaders. I believe it was Pink Floyd who noted “the generals sat and the lines on the map moved from side to side….”

    Hear, hear, Rep. Sensenbrenner! Let’s fire and prosecute Clapper!

  6. john francis lee says:

    The ‘beauty’ of the NSA is that you don’t have to send them an email to let them know what you think of them … you can address it to anyone … they read everyone’s mail.

    So I made a little signature I attach to all my emails, reminding them of the reality of their situation. I’m sure they’ve circled the waggons at Fort Meade and all their other locations, and are piping in ” we are freedom’s champions ! ” 24/7/365.25 … it’s incumbent upon us all to tunnel the truth in.

    They can’t turn it off … without ceasing their criminal activities.

    I look upon that as a win-win for the people versus their criminal corporate conspiracy !

    Wouldn’t hurt if everyone took a crack at a ‘Hi NSA … you’re the criminal, not me !’ email signature.


    Hi there, NSA ‘analysts’, in-house and/or contracted.

    Just reminding you that if you are reading this you are committing a crime, that you are felons mocking the 4th Amendment of our US Constitution …

    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    … and that someday, really soon I hope, you’re going to have to pay for your crimes.

    You’re breaking international laws as well, so if you’re thinking of the ‘I was only following orders!’ defense … Please see Nuremberg Principle IV …

    “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him”.

    … and start exercising your moral choice. Look upon Thomas Andrews Drake and Edward Snowden as your exemplars and Patron Saints.

    I mean … we all have to make a buck. But we don’t have to drone mothers and children in Af/Pak/Yemen or work for the NSA to do it. Chelsea Manning just said no, Edward Snowden just said no, we all need … not to look up … but to look among our brothers and sisters for inspiration.

  7. William Ockham says:

    Those employee communications were serious blunders. Either management knew they had already lost the confidence of most employees and were just trying to keep the true believers bamboozled or they believe their own bullshit and have no idea that most employees will see right through that crap. Based on my experience with big orgs, I would bet on option two.

  8. Argot says:

    Edward Snowden is a traitor and he deserves to die for his crimes against the USA. I am so absolutely tired of people thinking that he is anything other than an enemy of the U.S.A. and it’s allies. I would think that the shame of the betrayal of one of their own and the frustration of having their life’s work destroyed by a coworker is the reason that people have left the agency. We should be discussing how to better protect the U.S.A. rather then personnel issues. If anything the NSA is an unsung hero in this era and should be applauded for their efforts.

  9. trent steele says:

    So, here’s the worst part of it all: If the thesis of this post were true, it would just be making the NSA worse. This is the Hayekian point that the worst get on top in government.
    Think about it. When the people who are morally/ethically outraged enough to quit the agency leave, who is left?
    These types of voluntary purges are why politics and police forces are filled with the worst type of person imaginable. And the most fitting. Politics is for liars; law enforcement (NOT peace officers) is for the power hungry; armed forces for the violent; spy agency for the soulless; etc.
    The worst will stick around, and be promoted to fill any vacancies.

  10. scribe says:

    Sounds more like metastasis to private sector jobs doing much the same thing and paying much, much more.

  11. Peterr says:

    @bmaz: Indeed.

    Believing your organization’s press releases is a significant part of DC culture, along with disbelieving everyone else’s PR. At this point, though, the NSA PR is clearly beyond belief, and the folks with the best ability to recognize this as those on the inside.

    But the part that caught my attention was this:

    Interestingly, beyond the authorization at the top of the bullet points “to share the following points with family and close friends” and its pre-Thanksgiving timing, there’s nothing in the second document that directly addresses family and friends, as opposed to NSA employees themselves.

    As I read this memo, it isn’t designed to reassure family and friends — it’s a recruitment memo, so that these folks can talk to *their* family and friends on behalf of the beleaguered agency. “Go tell everyone you know that the NSA is a fine, upstanding agency that follows orders, follows the law, and doesn’t screw with the market.”

    No advice is given, however, on how to deliver those talking points with a straight face.

  12. Betty says:

    My favorite quote is “The President has multiple constituencies – I get it.” Yeah, like the entire population of the US versus the NSA employees. To whom does he owe the most loyalty?

  13. emptywheel says:

    @William Ockham: Right. The letters are premised on the assumption that NSA employees are as dull as political creatures like Alexander. At the least they’re an insult to intelligence.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @Argot: We are discussing how better to protect the US, starting with not having a giant “national security” agency make us less safe by weakening encryption.

  15. bloodypitchfork says:

    @Argot: quote”Edward Snowden is a traitor and he deserves to die for his crimes against the USA.” unquote

    Crimes against the USA? Your delusional addiction to USA nationalistic Synthetic Lobotomy Serum notwithstanding, I feel sorry for you…er..no..I don’t. I feel loathing contempt, as you truly are one sick motherfucker.

    quote:
    “I am so absolutely tired of people thinking that he is anything other than an enemy of the U.S.A. and it’s allies.”unquote

    BWHAHAHAHAHAHA…HOHOHOHOHOHOHOH…..HEHEHEHEHEHEHEHE!…..

    Says one while torturing his cat. Dude..I have a suggestion for you.
    Take the 12 step course in DE-stupification. And then take off that stupid General’s uniform. You look like a complete schmuck.

    quote:”I would think that the shame of the betrayal of one of their own and the frustration of having their life’s work destroyed by a coworker is the reason that people have left the agency.”unquote

    Speaking of betrayal, I bet you felt the same way about your mother pinching your umbilical cord, eh? sheeezus dude..don’t you get tired of being a complete moron? Tell you what..look up Befehl ist Befehl.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_orders

    Shame indeed.

    Btw, Mr. Dimwit…….the NSA redefines betrayal.

    quote:”We should be discussing how to better protect the U.S.A. rather then personnel issues.”unquote

    Better protect? right. Then tell the NSA to start predicting Lightning strikes. As to personnel issues, ….ummmm…only your employer can tell us that.
    Now if you wanna talk about your PERSONAL issues…your post speak volumes.

    quote:”If anything the NSA is an unsung hero..”unquote

    Notwithstanding causing a wave of cacophonous gut splitting laughter across the entire planet….ever tried out at the Improv?

    quote”…in this era and should be applauded for their efforts.” unquote.

    (sighing in utter disbelief) Applauded. right. You’d applaud the inquisition. Now get the fuck outta here Alexander.

  16. bloodypitchfork says:

    @emptywheel: quote”At the least they’re an insult to intelligence.”unquote

    Hahahahaahahahhahahahahaha! perfect.

    Not to mention pond scum everywhere.

  17. TedWa says:

    The NSA lied to Congress, to the American people and to everyone in a greedy desire to keep the status quo and their private contractors and themselves fat. They can’t even document 1, not even 1 instance where they stopped anything at all. They are worthless and were clueless about Boston. It’s obvious, to me at least, that their foremost goal is paid corporate spying. That’s where the money is. And they are not above blackmailing of high level political and military leaders to get to their goals of self-enrichment at the expense of the American people. Google NSA whistleblower about the NSA’s blackmailing tactics. Get rid of them.

    Frank Church on the NSA: “That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.’

    “He added that if a dictator ever took over, the NSA ‘could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.'”

  18. ernestholsen says:

    I feel so sorry for those agents of the secrete police. Maybe they can find employment in North Korea or China. But they would have to learn the local lingo. It is time to drastically defund the NSA, and put these people in the unemployment lines where they belong. They just might find economically productive jobs a few years from now.

  19. lefty665 says:

    @emptywheel: @bmaz, @William Ockham
    For sure a lot of employees and families are learning a lot more about what NSA does than they ever knew before. It’s also pretty clear a lot of them are not much liking what they are hearing.

    But… it is a leap from there. There are very strong incentives at the personal level for workers to believe the Agency is acting lawfully in furtherance of a legitimate mission. That is the rationalization Alexander/Inglis are offering and that workers have strong motivations to accept.

    Among the incentives: if military employees refuse or try to quit they can go to the brig or stockade. Civilian employees can quit, but risk losing clearances and the ability to work in defense related jobs if they are disillusioned and forthright about why they are leaving.

    For its first 50 years the NSA was, for the most part, a vital part of winning the cold war and helping to keep us safe and free. Exceptions/abuses were exposed by Senator Church. After 9/11, the change in mission that Church feared, from external to internal, was ordered by President Duhbya and embraced by then DIRNSA Hayden.

    It got worse in 2005 with Alexander and Inglis as his handmaiden. They may have personal liability for aggressively expanding and abusing even the changed mission adopted ca 2001/2002. Since 2009 BO has apparently approved of and encouraged their transgressions. He certainly continued Alexander for a second tour as DIRNSA. Congress approved it all.

    Folks would be wise to focus on Duhbya, Cheney, BO (and others in his NS structure), DiFI (etc), Hayden, Alexander, and Inglis. Rank and file workers are mostly dedicated to doing jobs in service to their country. They are not making policy or independent judgements on their scope of work. The Chinese say a fish rots from the head. Start at the top.

  20. Shay says:

    @@bloodypitchfork: Argot:

    Oh come on, that post by Argot was so obviously a fake, meant to make NSA apologists look bad. If it’d been a little less staunch, it would have been believable.

  21. NOYB says:

    “unprecedented number of NSA employees are seeking not only to leave, but to hide that they ever worked on some of these programs”

    The Auschwitz prison guard defense?

  22. guest says:

    I think Argot was just mimicking a freeper (are they still around?) or something, for shits and giggles. The post was too consistently unhinged and lacked the internal contradictions characteristic of the fock snooze set.

    Calling Alexander “dull” isn’t right. He’s a lot a things, but a trekky nerd with a control bridge replica (or whatever that was) is even funnier than Argot (funny *and* very scary, not my idea of dull).

    I feel the same as trent steel about the decent ones leaving, but still it is satisfying to think that people might be leaving good jobs out of decency. And hopefully a few Snowdens among them might shine some more light on cockroach nerd fascists.

    I grew up in DC and I remember various cousins, classmates and young coworkers relating their experiences applying for job openings at the intelligence agencies. NSA was the worst. But all of them reported being accused of homosexuality, socialism, and one was even accused of being a matahari for having dated a Turkish guy (30 years ago, before islamaphobia, when Turkey was a really important ally). Most decided those were crazy fucked up places to work (not that any got offered jobs after their interviews). Maybe things have changed since then, but I have to wonder how many decent people could get hired there to begin with. So I’m thinking these are just rats deserting a slightly listing ship for better pay.

  23. bloodypitchfork says:

    @Shay:quote” Oh come on, that post by Argot was so obviously a fake, meant to make NSA apologists look bad.”unquote

    I don’t care. Fake or not..it pissed me off. No one was laughing at it’s absurdity, so I took argot to task. Now, if he/she wants to come back and admit it was a fake…I’ll apologize. Until then, my words stand.

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