What 9 Former NSA Employees Think About Privacy, Secrecy, and Edward Snowden

Fort Meade, UNITED STATES: A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency (NSA) logo inside the Threat Operations Center inside the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, intelligence gathering operation 25 January 2006 after US President George W. Bush delivered a speech behind closed doors and met with employees in advance of Senate hearings on the much-criticized domestic surveillance.
A desk inside the NSA’s Threat Operations Center, 2006. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The debate unleashed by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA has been fascinating, but we felt it would be improved if more actual NSA employees were involved. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to get an NSA employee to speak on the record.

So, instead, we did the next best thing: We reached out to former NSA employees, offering them 100 words to share their thoughts on the controversy. We didn’t tell them what to write about and promised not to edit their passages in any way. While they may not have had firsthand experience with PRISM or the phone metadata program specifically, they do have unique insights into the agency and the issues it confronts. Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Charlie Miller, former NSA global network exploitation analyst, @0xcharlie:

While I was at the NSA (2000-2005) we were told it was against the law to spy on Americans and if you did it you’d be terminated.  In retrospect, it was going on even then.  I’m not surprised the heads there lie to Americans, but I’m surprised they lied even to their own employees.

Keith Massey, former NSA Arabic linguist:

Today I’m a Latin teacher at a public high school. But I was an Arabic linguist at the NSA from 2002 until 2006, during which time I was in Iraq and was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for my service there. I’m proud of the work I did at the NSA. The NSA bends over backwards to preserve the privacy rights of US citizens. If you think Prism violates your rights, you’re wrong. Pray for the Patriots who work there still.

Don Tennant, former NSA research analyst:

As a research analyst at NSA in the 1980s, I worked in a large office that looked almost exactly like a newsroom. There were teams covering the equivalent of different beats, with a senior analyst on each team acting as the equivalent of an editor. The only noticeable difference was the omnipresence of “burn bags”—large brown paper bags for discarded classified materials that were taken away and burned every day. There was an essential, less noticeable difference: The privacy of U.S. entities was sacrosanct. If an incoming piece of intelligence violated that privacy, it went immediately into the nearest burn bag.

Dan Lohrmann, former NSA computer systems analyst, 1985–1991; contractor with top-secret clearance, 1991–1997:

NSA employees and contractors are given a rare privilege and unique trust by our nation. Just as everyone in a hospital operating room is trained to know their role to save lives, everyone at NSA is taught the importance of their part in the vital mission.

Security is our middle name” was our motto. Genuine integrity was paramount.

“No comment” was the answer given to press.  

If anyone had concerns about a policy or procedure, there were always clear, appropriate processes for handling such complaints.

Edward Snowden chose to break his pledge, not follow process, and violate our nation’s trust.

Mark Gembicki, former NSA intelligence analyst:

Snowden NSA represents a rare opportunity to foster open dialogue on the necessary balance between civil liberties and national security. The citizenry, government agencies, and corporate America have distinct viewpoints, yet are interrelated because all share the risks and rewards of a democratic existence. America will continue to rely on the strong and trusted people of the U.S. Intelligence Community. From the first intelligence and propaganda operations under George Washington to modern day big data collection programs such as PRISM, we must continue to adapt without losing focus on the basic democratic principles that embody our codified constitution.

David Kennedy, former NSA signals intelligence analyst:

It’s important for the US government to have reliable intelligence feeds that can provide adequate protection to defend the U.S. In stating that, when the government gets enough power to monitor all communications of everyone, it no longer serves the people. In the past, monitoring US citizens was completely forbidden and heavily monitored. If this has changed, it’s a dark time for us in American history and one that we all need to be very concerned with. The issue present is we do not know to what extent this is occurring, and that in itself is a major problem.

John Schindler, former NSA analyst, @20committee:

The debate that Ed Snowden has opened up represents a new chapter in NSA’s history. Never before has the Agency seen itself and its work subject to such media scrutiny. It can never return to the days of “No Such Agency.” Good may come of this yet, as it’s clear that we’re overdue for a “national discussion” through Congress about what exactly we want our intelligence services doing for our security. The post-9/11 norms for NSA may be outdated. However, that Snowden has taken refuge in Hong Kong, and is making accusations about massive NSA spying on the world, from the safety of China - which has nothing to do with protecting the civil liberties of Americans - raises questions about his motives. Is he a legitimate whistleblower or more of an Assange-type character motivated by anger and a naive belief that states have no right to any secrecy? These are key questions we can’t answer yet, but need to

David Kravitz, former senior technical adviser at the NSA, 1982–1993:

Now that the existence and scope of PRISM are public, the balance point between surveillance aimed at preventing & prosecuting against illegal acts and preservation of privacy rights may warrant reexamination, in that serious criminal and terrorist elements will attempt to bypass detection. To the extent that preemptive capture of data continues so as to enable later backwards tracking, perhaps a verifiably robust access control system that enforces cooperation of multiple authorized agents in order to conduct limited-scope search and retrieval can be implemented and maintained, so as to securely bridge the gap between collection and court-ordered use of data.

Randy S., former member of the NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate:

I proudly served my country in NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate in the early ‘90s.  I believe the current controversy has been dominated by sensational but likely highly inaccurate rhetoric about the NSA’s activities.  I believe terrorist acts have been prevented from information acquired by NSA, so simply terminating the programs doesn’t make sense.  Proper oversight, however, may be necessary.  Ultimately, in an era of rampant sharing of personal information via social networking, I believe outrage over the government carefully using personal information to protect our nation is misplaced and hypocritical.  Balance is needed in this debate, as General Alexander testified.

If you’re a former NSA employee and you want to add your two cents, email intelligencer@nymag.com.


9 Former NSA Employees Speak Out