The People Who Work at Arthur Anderson NSA Are Such Nice People


Back in 2001 or early 2002, I sat next to a lifetime Arthur Anderson accountant on a long plane ride. We talked about the Enron debacle and its ties to Anderson. She hadn’t worked the Enron account, and she insisted that Anderson itself was a highly ethical company — it was just the Enron account that was bad, she said. I gently raised the several other big accounting scandals Anderson starred in — Waste Management and Sunbeam both broke in 2001. But in her mind, that she and the people she worked with seemed like good people was all the proof she needed that Anderson was not a systematically unethical company.

That is, effectively, the defense that Bobby Chesney and Ben Wittes want to offer of the NSA after Chesney helped set up a special meeting of academics (plus Wittes) with the agency.

Our major takeaway concerns the dramatic disparity that separates the perception on the outside of what this agency does and NSA’s self-perception. To hear NSA folks talk about their compliance regime, for example, is to hear about an entirely different animal than the situation depicted in many new stories. To hear NSA folks discuss the relationship between encryption, cyber-security, and cyber offense is a different animal than to read news stories about how NSA breaks encryption. And so forth.  These conversations were all unclassified, but they vividly described a wide gap in understanding between NSA and the press, members of Congress, and the public regarding what the agency does and doesn’t do, how accountable and regulated it is, to what extent it complies with the law and how, and what the relevant law is.

That gap is unnecessary, or at least it need not be so wide. Over the coming weeks, we will be looking for ways to close it, or at least to more fully expose this disparity between the self-perception and public perception of the agency.  However one feels about the underlying issues, after all, it is surely a good thing for everyone involved to better understand one another’s perception of them.

Amy Zegart, who attended, also raised NSA’s inability to respond to criticism in an interview about it (though at least she hinted that NSA might benefit from listening to academics, rather than just speaking at them).

The was a sense at senior levels that they need to think more systematically and long-term about education, about being more open to academics coming in and doing research about the NSA and hearing what academics have to say. In part, thought-leaders at universities can play a role in transmitting some of the complexities in which the NSA operates – the tradeoffs the agency is confronting and the constrains [sic] under which they are operating.

One thing this meeting highlighted for me is that the NSA is not free to respond to the criticism it gets in the press. It’s intertwined with other organizations that have a say in how it responds: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the Justice Department and the White House. And they have never had to deal with the spotlight before. They gave me this statistic: Last summer, there were 167 legitimate questions from the press; in the summer of 2013 there were 1,900 media requests. That’s a tenfold increase. This is a whole new world for this agency. And to go against secrecy is just totally counter to their culture. This was a bold step for them to have us come in.

A couple of general points about this. While I think the social scientists included represent a decent though not perfect range of views (Zegart is an expert on flawed oversight of the intelligence community), I’m not aware that any of the scholars is technically focused. If the NSA wants to address one of the worst disclosures so far — its deliberate weakening of encryption standards — they’re going to need to expose their technical claims to the judgement of technical experts, not social scientists.

But that brings us to a bigger problem with this effort to seduce the academics. It was all unclassified. Given that the NSA is still claiming as classified things like the Internet dragnet violations and the NSA IG Report showing that the existing dragnet is just the old illegal program sanctioned by partial disclosure to the FISA Court, holding such unclassified briefings even as some of the worst disclosures are still “classified” willfully participates in an absurd fiction, in which the NSA can refuse to talk about its known violations by just pretending they’re still secret. All the more so when people walk out of such briefings and declare it all “legal,” clearly not having discussed the things NSA is hiding most determinedly.

Then there’s the more serious problem with this attempt to address the Snowden leaks by letting the NSA talk about what nice people they are. While I’m sure rank and file NSA employees are really as nice as Ben and Bobby say they are (and as nice as that Arthur Anderson accountant I met in 2002), NSA’s top officials are documented serial liars. One of the underlying events behind these disclosures, after all, is the time Keith Alexander dressed up in a hacker costume and went to DefCon to affirmatively lie to hackers, which led directly to James Clapper’s lies to congress. As Ron Wyden noted at Thursday’s hearing, the leaders of the Intelligence Community brought this difficult situation on the nice workers at NSA by their lying.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary professionalism and patriotism of thousands of dedicated intelligence professionals, the leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people. Time and again, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums, while government agencies did something else in private.

Now these secret interpretations of the law and violations of the Constitutional rights of Americans have become public, your agencies face terrible consequences that were not planned for. There has been a loss of trust in our intelligence apparatus here at home and with friendly foreign allies, and that trust is going to take time to rebuild. And in my view this loss of trust undermines America’s ability to collect intelligence on real threats, and every member of this committee knows there are very real threats out there.

Your joint testimony today blames the media and others, but the fact is that this could have been avoided if the intelligence leadership had been straight with the American people and not acted like the deceptions that were practiced for years could last forever. I hope this is a lesson that your agencies are going to carry into the future.

And it’s not just Alexander and Clapper. Within an hour of Wyden’s comments, Dianne Feinstein made several misstatements about the NSA’s upstream collection violations and earlier in the week Mike Rogers claimed, contrary to NSA’s own claims and the data, the roamer problem pertained to terrorists rather than Chinese targets.

What’s hurting the NSA is not that NSA critics assume the people are horrible people or don’t get they’re in a complex situation. It’s that there are documents out that that show NSA’s self-perception is wrong. They show that the compliance regime has holes and NSA doesn’t disclose all the relevant information to Congress and the Court. They show enough to make NIST withdraw its own encryption standard. They show (contrary to what I originally believed) some — though not all — judges on the FISA Court really have been wielding pathetic rubber stamps. And the NSA seems most concerned about preventing its presumably very nice employees from learning about the ones that aren’t rubber stamps; they seem most concerned about the documents officially released.

Just a few weeks ago, the NSA’s then-current claim (though unconvincing) was that the limits on the phone dragnet got out of hand because they were too dumb to know what they were doing. Now, they’ve got surrogates claiming that the NSA perceives their work differently, with the suggestion that their perception — not that gleaned from actually reading the primary documents — is correct.

8 replies
  1. der says:

    For all those extra requests spend some of that black box cash and quit whining.

    When I read something like this I’m reminded of Leader Pelosi’s 2007 remarks about Iraqi war protestors:

    – “The war has eclipsed everything. And while I am very proud of the ratings that Democrats have on every issue you can name, I don’t disagree with the public evaluation that we have not done well in ending this war,” she said.

    Pelosi stressed the differing roles of antiwar activists and congressional leaders. “We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow. God bless them for their passion on this issue. I believe that mostly they are right. But I do believe that we are responsible [for] a … safe redeployment of our troops out of Iraq and that is what we will continue to fight for.”

    Activists who want to target congressional Democrats for lack of action on the war are misguided, the speaker argued.”

    And that turned out just like Washington said it would.

    Our “leaders” and elites just don’t get it.

  2. joanneleon says:

    This is a really important point.

    Is this basically the point that Edgar was trying to make at the last hearing and is that essentially what got Feinstein so bent out of shape?

    “holding such unclassified briefings even as some of the worst disclosures are still “classified” willfully participates in an absurd fiction”

    Because this has become an absurd fiction and the way that Alexander keeps making statements, all in that tight context of 215 and 702, just doesn’t work given all the things that have been disclosed. These Senate Intelligence hearings are ridiculous. I hope that the Judiciary committee breaks out of that 215/702 ring fence and some of the senators ask more broad questions. Even if Alexander and Clapper have to answer with “that’s classified”, it presents a clearer picture to the public.

  3. omphaloscepsis says:

    A bit off topic, but I react to the term “thought leaders” as if someone just raked their fingernails across a blackboard.

    Wikipedia claims the term was invented by someone from Booz Allen Hamilton.

    If so, then BAH has spawned at least two Thought Leaders.

    Beyond just the creepiness of the term, the condescension is irksome.

    I’d like to say that it makes me think first of “Manufacturing Consent”, but it really conjures up the image of Richard Pryor as The Wiz, announcing the current fashionable color, and watching the masses follow his every whim.

  4. masaccio says:

    This is classic example of the banality of systemic evil, described here: The people at Arthur Andersen were quite aware of what was going on, and thought they were following the bureaucratic rules. In the exact same way, this is from that jackass Lloyd Blankfein, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative to an audience of neoliberal Bill and Hilary sycophants:

    Blankfein said that what [former Treasury Secretary and Bailout Architect Hank] Paulson and other critics failed to appreciate was that bonuses did not go to those at the very top, but to the hundreds of managers who guided the company through a difficult period.

    “We understand why the rest of the country was aggrieved, but [Goldman bankers] didn’t feel they were the instrumentality of the problem.”

    Link in this post:

    In both cases we have people who are following bureaucratic rules that benefit them more than simple morality would, and they cannot see that they are morally depraved toads who in a just world would spend years wearing orange jumpsuits.

  5. C says:

    These are excellent points Marcy please let me add two more:

    The fact that NSA people feel they are doing so good is likely an effect of their own internal controls. Consider the NSA’s efforts to compromise existing encryption and to use the partnerships with private companies to undermine them. If I recall correctly the documents covering that were given their own separate security designation meaning that most good NSA employees would not be aware of them and if the NSA is anything like the DOD they have probably ordered, or politely suggested, that people avoid reading the leaked stories to “preserve security” as such the positive ignorance is self-imposed and any personal perceptions must be taken as such.

    More to the point what does their perception matter? As you say there is documentary evidence of it being NSA policy to:
    1. Lie to the FISA Court (with the help of those other players such as the FBI).
    2. Lie to most if not all of Congress (we still aren’t aware of what they tell DiFi).
    3. Lie to and actively undermine the security of industry “partners” who have in theory made good faith efforts to work with them in the name of national security.
    4. Lie to prospective employees or those they wish to recruit at hacker conferences
    5. Lie to or actively corrupt the processes of government agencies charged with securing the nation’s infrastructure (i.e. NIST).
    6. Lie to the president?
    7. Lie to [insert your name here]

    There is no logical conflict between accepting that the people Wittles spoke to believe they are working hard and meeting strict criteria in the name of national security. Perhaps those people really are the good ones. But the organization as a whole has problems, problems that start at the top and they cannot be wished away.

    The CIA did a similar press-access stunt a year ago or so. They invited someone like Wittles in to talk seriously about how they regretted the bad intel that led to Iraq and how they’d worked long and hard, done some soul searching and would be better in the future. He believed them and went around telling people to believe them. The trouble was he had only their word that they would do better no actual proof as such it was just PR.

  6. orionATL says:

    most people who work in any institution serving any purpose are “nice”.

    that quality of most employees is completely irrelevant to the mission and actions of the institution.

    i don’t doubt i would find jsoc’s trained killers “nice” in an american setting – even fun, perhaps.

    but my feelings about those individuals is completely irrelevant to the value/competence/legality/effectiveness of the jsoc work – drones included, especially given a recently published study.

    do i need to mention this argument applies equally, with even more force, to the decades of cia follies and crimes.

    with respect to wittes’ silly, fawning encomium regarding the nsa:

    first – this is pure public relations and damage control work.

    wittes, et al need to acknowledge their financial and contractual connections with nsa. they have not done that.

    second – this human “approach” to “understanding” the nsa scandal is irrelevant and deceptive. those “nice people” control nothing that nsa has done or will do.

    furthermore, there is a strong likelihood that ordinary nsa employees have no idea whatsoever about the scope and unconstitutionality of their work and their employer’s actions.

    while much attention has been given to nsa’s illegal programs and covering lies,

    none has been given to the working environment with nsa. my guess is that this work environment is repressive in a way that would give a bangldeshi garment manufacturer pause,

    and results in employees who don’t have a clue about the scope of nsa’s activities outside their own tightly controlled work environment.

    my guess is the at the individual level, nsa functions as one would expect a government spy agency from “1984” to function.

  7. lefty665 says:

    There is no way for an unclassified discussion to be a witting discussion. Even the existence of many of the relevant items cannot be admitted. That was the box Clapper was in when he lied to Congress. However, he had an honest option, a variation on “No Comment”. He chose to lie instead. What would make these discussions any different?

    There is no way to know what is being held back in an unclassified discussion. For academics to think they could have public discussions that were meaningful is a fools game. What would make the academics think NSAers would break the law by disclosing classified information to uncleared people and in public?

    The Ivory Towers remain as detached from reality as ever. Propagandists like Wittes and Chesney continue to ply their trade. NSA workers daily strive to accomplish the mission they have been assigned.

    NSA turning its tools inward on domestic US traffic is the crime against the Constitution. Beating gums about controls and error rates is a mugs game that distracts from the underlying issue.

  8. prostratedragon says:

    I’ve often wondered whether Lumet and the writers of The Wiz didn’t use Frank Baum’s already pungent satire to present to the public one in particular of the engineers of consent —it’s his title— the promoter of the Green Ball, Edward Bernays (emphasis supplied):

    In the 1930s, he attempted to convince women that Lucky Strike cigarettes’ forest green pack was the most fashionable color. Letters were written to interior and fashion designers, department stores, and prominent women of society pushing green as the new hot color for the season. Balls, gallery exhibitions, and window displays all featured green after Bernays got through with them. The result was that green did indeed become a very hot color for the 1934 season and Lucky Strike kept their pack color and female clientele intact.

    Note in the article what Bernays thought about the relative efficacy of advertising and news, or should I say “news,” in shaping people’s actions. Breaking through better than a century of this mess with information and clear thinking is a substantial part of the usefulness of sites like this one here at Emptywheel.

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