NSA’s Dissenters

I tweeted a bunch of details from this James Risen interview with Edward Snowden. That comparing the NSA to China’s People’s Liberation Army is not perceived as funny by NSA brass. How Snowden’s professed commitment to whistleblowing came from reading the 2009 Draft NSA IG Report ought to disqualify Michael Hayden — whose criminal actions the report details — from commenting on Snowden from here on out. And that ignoring the security vulnerabilities in a CIA personnel database seems kind of stupid.

But I found this paragraph most interesting.

Mr. Snowden added that inside the spy agency “there’s a lot of dissent — palpable with some, even.” But he said that people were kept in line through “fear and a false image of patriotism,” which he described as “obedience to authority.”

Two times since the Snowden leaks started, NSA has done touchy feely things to reassure employees. First, Keith Alexander’s call that “there is no substitute for victory,” even while suggesting NSA employees should leave the debate about their work to others. And then the group hug to them and their families.

I believe those are the comments of a General who is genuinely worried that learning what the NSA has been doing — aside from targeting terrorists — might lead to more dissent among NSA employees.

If Snowden’s comment is true, that all makes sense.

As I have said, many NSA employees might have an image of the NSA as a foreign codebreaker organization that would never target Americans. If they do, they may well be in for a rude awakening.

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.

10 replies
  1. greengiant says:

    We should be worrying about the NSA contractors who are even more beholden than NSA employees and have substantially less whistleblower protection.
    Always look for the cut out to private contractors whether CIA, JSOC, NSA,FBI or whomever. Double check the revolving door profit motive.
    I am guessing that things are so compartmentalized that few government employees have access to what is really going on.

  2. Don Bacon says:

    I’m guessing that what bothers thoughtful NSA employees (but not the exiting Alexander, obviously) is the oath of office that they all took.

    officers:

    I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion . .

    civilian employees:

    Article VI requires an oath by all other government officials from all three branches, the military, and the States. It simply states that they “shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution.”

    So they take an oath to support the Constitution, which includes the Fourth Amendment. They do not take an oath to “protect the American people,” Obama’s favorite refrain and the last thought he supposedly has every night at bed-time. They don’t take an oath to obey orders, or be patriotic. They take an oath to support the Constitution

    And when they violate that oath, and are publicly called on it, they know they’ve done wrong and feel badly about it.

  3. C says:

    @Don Bacon: I second this. I suspect that the thoughtful among them are also seeing the long-term consequences of this, the degrading of institutional trust, the lack of clear legal support, the derision of congress, in short the blowback that will haunt them for years to come. Unlike Alexander they probably recognize that their legitimacy extends from protecting the American People not compromising their security or even ignoring it in an effort to catch “the bad people”. And unlike Alexander they don’t all have well-funded consulting gigs at Booz Allen Hamilton waiting for them.

    They are probably also wondering what it is they really do. It is one thing to think that you’ve helped to thwart 50+ terror plots aimed at the U.S. It is another to hear that they are “around the world” and still another to find out that it was just one guy at a Western Union.

  4. orionATL says:

    “… But I found this paragraph most interesting..

    Mr. Snowden added that inside the spy agency “there’s a lot of dissent — palpable with some, even.” But he said that people were kept in line through “fear and a false image of patriotism,” which he described as “obedience to authority.”…”

    i have previously expressed my concern for the psychological/threatening conditions under which nsa employees almost certainly work.

    that concern is not based on personal knowledge but on comments by former nsa employees. the climate has long been of intimidation, harrassment, and psychological punishment of nsa employees who fall into disfavor with a supervisor.

    the power of the supervisor in a super-secret system is enormous. orders for lie detector tests, charges of psychological imbalance occuring ex poste conflicts with supervisors.

    the situation can only have gotten much worse after snowden embarrassed the nsa’s rulers, despite the evident fact that snowden was a one-in-a-million extraordinarily capable individual.

    one of the very serious isdues before a very unserious house-and-senate intelligence committee structure is a clear set of rules protecting nsa employees from supervisory retaliation.

    another is a severe limit on the intrusions the nsa can make into its employees lives thru psychological manipulations such as lie detector tests.

    the clear likelihood is that nsa has severely abused its employees and its employees privacy prior to snowden and will now double down on that abuse.

    there is no security justification for doing so and, far more importantly, no justification whatsoever where highly competent employee performance is held as one of the most critical organizational goals.

    keith alexander’s

    “gimmee an “n”

    “gimmee an “s”

    gimmee an “a”

    gambit

    is typical completely out-of-touch, big-wig folly, coached by some hired p.r. guns.

  5. lefty665 says:

    The Wash Post hits all their doorsteps every morning. When the revelations are above the fold on the front page Alexander cannot keep his people and families from learning what the Agency has been doing.

    For almost 50 years the first commandment of SIGINT was “Thou shall not spy on American persons without a court order”. Expect there are people at the agency who still believe that.

    It is a mostly very bright workforce that is dedicated to a mission of keeping us safe in an often unfriendly world.

    Evidence of the scale of domestic surveillance coupled with Alexander’s avowed intent to have every bit, byte and syllable along with a place to store it likely generates significant cognitive dissonance. Bet there are a lot of unhappy campers and families these days.

  6. Frank33 says:

    Our lying spymaster General Alexaander, is one of the leaders of the military “junta” that rules America. Alexander is not just a liar. He is a very bad man. He protected and continues to protect Al Qaeda terrorists.

    “We all had this concern coming out of 9/11: How are we going to protect the nation? Because we did get intercepts on Mihdhar, but we didn’t know where he was. We didn’t have the data collected to know that he was a bad person. And because he was in the United States, the way we treat it is he’s a U.S. person. So we had no information on that.”

    Alexander and the NSA protect terrorists.It is ridiculous to believe they, the NSA were not aware of the San Diego Al Qaeda cell. The CIA and NSA and intelligence community and the assassination community and the torture community, fail to protect us from their very own terrorists. The spies want more oppression for their twelve years of failures.Or maybe not failures, but new world order policies.

    It turns out that the NSA was intercepting calls to the al Qaeda safe house in Yemen as early as 1999, and both the FBI and CIA knew Mihdhar was an al Qaeda operative long before the 9/11 attacks….

    The inspector general’s report couldn’t be clearer that the intercepts were being broadly shared: “The NSA’s reporting about these communications was sent, among other places, to FBI Headquarters, the FBI’s Washington and New York Field Offices, and the CIA’s CTC. At the FBI, this information appeared in the daily threat update to the Director on January 4, 2000.”…

    It’s pretty cynical for the intelligence community to use its repeated failures to properly assess information it collected prior to 9/11 as justification for wholesale spying on Americans.

  7. What Constitution? says:

    @Don Bacon: Absolutely right about the fundamental constitutional oath’s effect upon NSA staffers due to its fundamental incompatibility with what the NSA staffers are being told to do by their leaders. Shocked, shocked I say.

    The true chutzpah of the likes of Alexander and DiFi is their feigned shock and surprise that somebody in their midst might develop a conscience and stop hiding the truth. Or that others in their midst — upon being made aware that their roles are not as they had been told and their mission may not be as pure as the guy lying to Congress insists it is — might start to express feelings of remorse, shame or other dissatisfaction. The truth is, Dylan was and is right: “to live outside the law you must be honest” — and the NSA’s true mission is being shown to be outside the law in material and intentional respects, with leaders of the NSA machinery who are not honest. This is going to be exposed, especially in a system structurally designed to demand, promote and respect honesty in defense of the Constitution. The exposure is not a surprise, it’s not a bug or a glitch, it’s a feature of the constitutional system.

    Movie reference? The end of A Few Good Men. No, not the “arresting Col. Jessup” part; the “Marines discharged for conduct unbecoming” part. The Marines were shown to have followed orders; they were not guilty of murder. But they were discharged for “conduct unbecoming”:
    Q: “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” A: “Yeah we did. We were supposed to stand up….” These two Marines were discharged by the US Government for refusing to follow orders that should not have been given; they had a higher calling and that’s what was enforced there. So, too, the NSA: people like Snowden aren’t the problem here, it’s the people like Alexander who insist upon conduct in contravention of law and expect the minions to repress their primary oath to uphold the Constitution who are the bad actors here.

  8. Jesus B Ochoa Jr. says:

    @What Constitution?: which is precisely why many young people i have questioned regarding the validity of the u.s. oath say that swearing to abide is simply the gateway that must be crossed in order to enter, be it the army, govt. service, etc., and is not to be taken seriously. they do not take this to be cynicism.

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