An Open Letter to the NSA

A former agency insider explains how the NSA must change in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Editor’s note: The following is an open letter from John R. Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he is a specialist on intelligence, terrorism, and European security issues. Prior joining the Naval War College in 2005, he spent nearly a decade with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer. This article first appeared on Schindler’s blog, The XX Committee, and is republished here with his permission.

Dear 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 about you a good deal in public. Plus, because on my very first day on the job I agreed to that whole lifetime secrecy oath thing, we’re separated but we’re never going to 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 the NSA and whatnot. Of course, that’s not true. There are things that need change at the agency, and the unprecedented catastrophe of the Snowden case offers an overdue chance to start making smart changes in how the 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, dollar for dollar, the NSA represents the best value of anything funded by the American taxpayer. Thousands of dedicated, hard-working people — military, civilian, and contractor — who strive every day to provide America with the best possible source of intelligence. As in every human endeavor, there are a few rotten apples, but the agency is a special place for the patriots who have taken on enormously stressful jobs, often putting their lives on the line every day.

That said, the NSA really needs a rebranding. After decades of hiding in the shadows, the agency is now exposed to a level of public scrutiny that was previously 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 – by its very nature, intelligence is conducted in secret. But the current crisis has exposed the agency to scrutiny based on falsehoods proffered by Kremlin-backed scoundrels and their useful activist idiots masquerading as journalists. The time has come to beat that back with some honesty, what might seem like frighteningly radical honesty to old SIGINT hands.

The 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 do it. I’m not saying you need to let MTV film a reality show at agency headquarters — though I’ve heard worse ideas — but you need to level with the American people about what it is the NSA does and how it does it.

It’s 2013, and because of the Internet and the spread of smartphones, practically all Americans rely on information technology 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 so much about in recent months. But the truth is far less scary than the lies being told about the agency.

If the agency’s current leaders can’t find a way to convincingly tell the American people what it does — including the indelible and truthful message that unless you’re in bed with foreign spies or terrorists the NSA has less than zero interest in you — then it’s time for new leadership. With NSA Director Keith Alexander likely to step down by next spring, that’s coming soon anyway, but there’s not much time to waste. By their nature, the agency’s leadership and public affairs units are reactive and unaccustomed to being in the public eye. But that era has ended — 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 the 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 agency like the NSA if you can’t prevent further Snowden-like debacles. Which is another way of saying: If you don’t have effective counterintelligence then 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 wasn’t the only one with an impending sense of doom.

The Snowden story reveals a basic lack of seriousness about counterintelligence and security that has undermined everything the agency does. There’s plenty of blame to go around here — too much outsourcing, a lack of bureaucratic follow-through, an unwillingness to go all James Angleton on people — but the unavoidable bottom line is that counterintelligence epically failed. This must never be allowed to happen again.

Sure, counterintelligence needs more resources — who ever turned down more money and billets? — but above all there needs to be a culture shift at the agency. Nobody actually likes counterintelligence and the hardass people who bring bad news and possibly want to investigate your office, but they have to be allowed to do their jobs 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 strange IT guy with anger at the government working one cubicle over is actually out to destroy you.

But I would caution the counterintelligence folks not to overcompensate. Don’t repeat the let’s-polygraph-everybody-silly errors that followed the Martin and Mitchell defections to Moscow, or what happened at the 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 taskings for today. But do get on them. A lot is riding on fixing these problems. The 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

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