Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the past several months, I have read a lot of articles about the National Security Agency and its motives and actions. Most, in some degree, warn that NSA is out to intercept our phone calls, our e-mails, our texts, our tweets (and, in some cases, our brain waves) to collect the details of our lives and pack them away in electronic databases to be accessed at NSA’s whim.

Of course, we are all aware of the “warrantless wiretapping” disclosure by the New York Times in 2005, which led the many conspiracy theorists to scream of a police state, big brother and all the rest. This Presidential Surveillance Program was codified by Congress in 2008, but critics have hardly missed a beat.

One published theory presents the idea that because of this program, NSA has been so successful in compiling sensitive and personal data about Americans that it needs to build a huge new storage facility in Utah just to house it all.

Another concludes that those wiretaps violated the privacy of millions of American citizens. Millions!

Consider rationally for a moment the idea that the privacy of millions of Americans has been violated. How many analysts do you think would have to work at the agency for that to happen? (In addition, of course, to their real mission of listening to foreign adversaries involved in drugs, terrorism, network attacks and various other things that directly threaten our country.) Answer: Too many to count.

Other theories include a secret non-consensual human experimentation to tap into the electromagnetic frequency field of our brains so NSA can track us wherever we go and decode our thoughts - and possibly use us as assassins when the need arises. One of the psycho-electronic-weapon effects of this program includes sudden violent itching inside the eyelid or forced clacking of teeth. (I’m beginning to wonder what exactly has caused my bursitis.)

Many people would swear NSA is both incompetent and omniscient: It can’t (they say) intercept terrorist communications to save its soul (or prevent acts like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001); it can (they swear) read every word Americans write, speak or transmit electronically in any form. Many people still don’t think NSA exists except, perhaps, as a fictional organization for movies. Others think it exists only to collect information on our private lives.

Has it ever occurred to anyone besides those of us who worked there that the mission of the National Security Agency is just what the agency says it is: “… to protect U.S. national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information”? In English, this means NSA wants what we all want -a free and secure America - and it works hard to make that reality.

NSA has its problems, like any other large organization; problems with management, problems with bureaucracy, problems with change of any kind. But you know what it also has? A brilliant and dedicated work force that would work 24 hours a day, seven days a week if needed in a crisis. A work force that provides much of our country’s “actionable” intelligence and does it with the utmost respect for the privacy of Americans. I was there. I know.

However, the world yawns at that ever-so-honorable pursuit. And if the world yawns, books don’t sell, bloggers panic, newspapers fold and jobs are lost. It’s much better, or at least much easier and more profitable, to twist, spin and distort the truth into a hodgepodge of conflicting motives and methods and hint at the beginning of tyranny and slip in enough fear of privacy concerns to bring the reader back for more.

Lest anyone mistake me for an NSA apologist or, even worse, an NSA shill, let me dissuade you of that thought. The National Security Agency would much prefer I simply keep my mouth shut. It certainly would insist, too, that I state that I am not a spokesperson for the agency. I am not.

There’s an old joke that NSA stands for “no such agency” and “never say anything.” Inside the complex, these are not just jokes; they are commands. Never respond to a press report, a verbal attack or a malicious movie or book.

The NSA culture - obscure, secluded, mystical and developed and perfected through 57 years of business - is a straightforward refusal to defend itself. The best defense is no defense. NSA employees take all the punches and simply stand and wait for the next one.

This has led to a situation in which most of the time, the only news we hear about the NSA is bad news. Often untruthful and very harmful news.

I would encourage NSA’s Public Affairs Office to change its approach. It doesn’t have to confirm or deny everything, but a firm “That is so not true!” at the most egregious accusations would cause me and plenty of others to cheer. Or, back during the worst of the “warrantless wiretapping” furor, why not simply state: “This program is lawful, effective and necessary, and everything we do at NSA is done with the utmost respect for the privacy of our citizens.”

Retired Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former NSA director, recently said as much in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, and I don’t believe the security of NSA has been compromised.

Of course, the media could be more objective (and selective) in publishing their articles about the agency. Oh, not always; I suppose they can’t afford to let the yawns build up too much. However, some balance would be nice - and appropriate.

NSA is the most productive intelligence force we have; it would be good to say so occasionally.

So, is NSA listening to you talk to your grandmother? XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX


*Sentence redacted by the National Security Agency.

M.E. Harrigan is a 27-year veteran of the National Security Agency and author of the first insider’s book about the agency: “9800 Savage Road, A Novel of the National Security Agency” (Forge Books, 2009).

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