Category Archives: NSA

Postscript ||: Our Government has No Right to Hide Its Actions

This is a guest post by Jesse Stavis, another one of the students at the NSA session. The first postscript by me (Madiha) available below.

My name is Jesse Stavis.  I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was the male student in the recording.  Madiha has graciously invited me to share some final thoughts on our confrontation with the NSA.  I’ll try to keep this brief:

1. I have never been involved in anything that’s come anywhere close to receiving the exposure that this incident has.  I will admit that it was exciting to see this story go quasi-viral.  The fact that comments that were made in a room with perhaps twenty audience members eventually reached hundreds of thousands of people speaks to the power that the internet has as a tool for political and social advocacy.  This should remind us of why it’s so important to protect the openness of the internet and the privacy of our communications on it.

2. A few days after this story broke, my feelings of excitement and pride in what we had accomplished gave way to a lingering feeling of depression.  To put it bluntly, this should not have been a big story.  The big story should have been about congressional representatives asking tough questions of the people at the top levels of the NSA.  We should have been reading about Lt. Gen. Clapper being investigated for perjury.  The fact that a few graduate students peppering recruiters with tough questions received so much attention speaks to the utterly dysfunctional condition of our political system as a whole and of the Democratic Party in particular.

3. While most people have been supportive of what we did, a number of commenters have suggested that we were wrong to confront low-level employees who were just doing their job.  I want to make one thing clear: These were not low-level employees.  They were what I would describe as upper mid-level managers.  They told us that they had a combined fifty-five years of experience at the NSA. Without the support and consent of people like this, the surveillance machine could not exist.  I don’t think that they are stupid people or evil people.  I do think that they are people who have abdicated their moral agency and thus allowed for something very scary and very evil to come into existence.  It’s our responsibility as educated citizens to remind these people that they do have the power to effect real change.

4. A number of people have written that they wished that there were a video recording of this event.  I’m not so sure that they would have liked what they would have seen.  They would have seen three people aggressively challenging the recruiters while fifteen or twenty other people who were actually considering working at the NSA sat stone-faced and bored, waiting for this unfortunate interruption to end.  They would have seen the high school teacher sitting next to me muttering through a clenched jaw about how indescribably rude we were being.  They would have seen just how much more we have to accomplish when it comes to convincing our fellow citizens that our government has no right to hide its actions from its citizens.

5. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, I want to make it clear that I take very little credit for anything that was accomplished at that meeting.  Without someone as brave, informed, and articulate as Madiha Tahir, this wouldn’t have been a story at all.  I am deeply, deeply impressed by her, and I hope that you are too.

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Postscript: The Present through a PRISM

See also guest post by Jesse Stavis. He has also published an article about what happened at the Progressive here.

Since I posted about our engagement with NSA recruiters who were visiting the campus at the Univ of

Good Muslim anyone? (Internal flap of NSA brochure)

Good Muslim anyone? (Internal flap of NSA brochure)

Wisconsin, I’ve been inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of tweets, emails and messages from people, both Americans, but also folks from Germany, the UK, France, Pakistan and elsewhere. They have been overwhelmingly positive, heartfelt messages (with a few nastier comments thrown in, but I imagine that is par for the course). I’ve tried my best to keep up and respond to, and/or acknowledge the messages in some way, but once again: Thank you for all of your messages of support.

It has been inspiring for us to hear from all of you!

When we posed our questions to the NSA recruiters, we did not expect to go viral. But some time soon after tweeting out my post, my blog crashed. So did the blog PrivacySOS (follow @onekade!) who had posted about it. By next afternoon, Huffpo had picked it up. Numerous blogs, local sites and news sites also reported the story including: Business InsiderThe Guardian, Firedoglake, Sueddeutsche Zeitung (the largest German-language daily in Germany), WORT Radio, NBC15 (Wisconsin’s local channel which also features Jesse Stavis @tolstoved. Means one who studies Tolstoy), one of the other students who spoke), WeAct Radio, Isthmus, Wisconsin ReporterWonkette, ActivistPost, Daily KosTruthdig and RT America here and here (see below for one of the videos), among others. There have been some Youtube videos posted as well.

I’ve made the audio downloadable as per several requests.

Here, I want to add some things I left out in my initial post (because I wasn’t expecting so many people to read it), make some corrections, and finally make some notes on a few things I thought were interesting:

1. The recruiters in question were  seasoned employees of the NSA, not newbies. They told us that together, they had 55 years of experience with the NSA. The female recruiter worked on South Asia and implied that she was in a senior position in that office. That was the impression others I’ve spoken with also had. The male recruiter worked on China and Korea.

2. Anybody can be an “adversary.” That means foreign governments, allies, and American citizens. Anyone can become an adversary at any time as far as the American government is concerned. That means OWS anarchists, socialists, activists and leftists of various stripes, environmentalists or just stupid kids. That means Anwar al-Awlaki because his opinions were reprehensible, or his teenage son –also an American citizen– who was killed in a drone attack just because, or Tarek Mehanna, or Fahad Hashmi, or the Muslim Students’ Association, or Muslims generally, or me or you. As Atlantic Wire reported last month,

And the NSA would never abuse its awesome surveillance power, right? Wrong. In 2008, NSA workers told ABC News that they routinely eavesdropped on phone sex between troops serving overseas and their loved ones in America. They listened in on both satellite phone calls and calls from the phone banks in Iraq’s Green Zone where soldiers call home. Former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk described how a coworker would say, “Hey, check this out… there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out.” Faulk explained they would gossip about the best calls during breaks. “It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy.'”

In a word: creepy. But, what’s more worrisome to me than the eavesdropping on the pillow talk of American troops is the differential burden that the surveillance state levies on the marginalized. For example, it is not accidental that the names on my little list above are largely Muslim. When bureaucrats or the government or the police are managing large populations, they narrow down categories of presumed suspects through racial profiling. That is why stop-and-frisk disproportionately

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affects African-Americans and Latinos. And, it’s the same reason why –when hunting for ‘terrorists’– American security forces obsess over Islam, and the mainstream media tends to present Muslims as the face of terror even though white hate groups are on the rise. In fact in 2009, conservatives so heavily criticized the Department of Homeland Security when it “reported that white supremacy is the US’s biggest threat for domestic terror” (ThinkProgress) that Janet Napolitano ended up withdrawing its report.

So, there’s a racial politics to the surveillance state. The marginalized, poor and non-white are likely to bear the brunt of the state’s violence. But, in the end, it affects the entire social space. First of all, it has a chilling effect on dissent, particularly in these communities.

Secondly, for the police or the FBI or the NSA or the drones to come for some of us requires that the rest of us agree or at least, remain silent. I think that silence is produced: through the jingoism of television whether it’s the evening news or shows like NCIS, 24, or Homeland as well as through attacks on education, research and dissent. Finally, there are all the smaller ways of disciplining people into silence, things we even do to each other. You are told it’s rude to ask questions. This is not the right time. This is not the right space. Those are not the right people. Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP.

That kind of social space kills independent thought. It produces thinking that is vehemently opposed to asking questions of NSA recruiters and by extension, the state. Such thinking is more angered by the whistle-blowing than what it reveals. To paraphrase a dead French guy badly, the surveillance state has to change people/populations into the kind of group that basically remains silent. That is what is needed first in order to make the unthinkable possible and finally, normal.

This is why, when they come for some of us, they actually come for all of us.

Therefore, a critical response can only succeed if it is able to understand the entire structure as a whole, that is, as long as we continue to draw distinctions between people that ought to be surveilled and those that should not be surveilled, we will fail. The point –and the real test– is learning to stand in solidarity with people who are not like you or me or us.

3. “The globe is our playground.” A little nugget of honesty about the worldview of the intelligence and military community.

4. They are just doing their jobs. I’m not sure why this is a defense. It didn’t work at Nuremberg. And, it shouldn’t work now. This is not to compare what is happening now as somehow equal to or better or worse than the German holocaust, but to underscore a philosophical point Hannah Arendt made about the nature of modern evil: It’s banal. That means it hasn’t got a pitchfork or horns sprouting out of its head. Rather, it is thousands of ordinary people just doing their jobs.

The question of whether they are “good” people and love their families or “bad” people is irrelevant here. The routinization of such work into small tasks turns the victims of that work into an

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abstraction or a mathematical problem for the people-just-doing-their-jobs. (Thanks to a commenter at the Guardian, the prior link is to a discussion of how the NSA reconfigures issues into an abstract mathematical problem that is then handed over to its mathematicians –none of whom actually know the real-world ‘problem’ that they are working on or to what end their mathematical solutions will be applied. For another instance, take the discussion of drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. In the mainstream media, it is a discussion that lacks imagination and has been reduced to counting up the dead and categorizing them as “civilian” or “militant” –effectively turning it into a numbers problem: are we killing more of the “bad” ones than the “good” ones or vice versa? Needless to say, this is a terrible, even a horrifying kind of question.)

So, some people go on just doing their jobs and other people go on not asking questions for fear of appearing rude (Jesse talks about how the high school teacher sitting next to him during the session kept muttering about our ‘rudeness’), enraged, irrational, naive. This is how, together, we build monsters.

What has struck me about the anti-war movement in America in these last few years –perhaps it is different elsewhere and perhaps it was different before– is generally how polite it has been. How ironic to chant, “Whose streets! Our streets!” while politely walking into pens and free speech zones. How strange to demand an end to the war while politely conceding to the demands of the NYPD that protesters not use Central Park, that they only march on these streets and not those streets so that order can be maintained, so that things can carry on as if there were no protest at all. I am not arguing for blind rage, but I think anger –articulate, politically engaged, critically minded anger that holds the line– can be a virtue in these times.

5. Edward Snowden should’ve stuck it out instead of “running away.” This is interesting to me because I think this speaks to a kind of Christian imaginary: the hero as martyr, like Jesus, who should hang on the cross. That is apparently what will redeem the worth of these revelations. I am not saying that the people who make this claim are Christian; I am only observing that long after secularization, forms of Christian thought and habit hang around, and I think this is one of them. It is a very specific kind of typology for a hero, and one that only makes sense in a context where people (whether they be actually Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews or atheists or whatever) are habituated to the idea of Jesus’ martyrdom for our redemption. It’s out there in the social space. Hell, think about the end of Harry Potter.

6. To the people telling me to grow up, I’m 5 ft 1.75 inches, and I’m pretty sure I’m not growing any taller. And to those wondering if I’m a “foreigner,”  well, if I am one, so are you. I do get how my name trips up your black-and-white world though. If it helps, you can call me Maddie.

Some links I thought were worth sharing:

Prism Break

Restore the Fourth

Mass Surveillance in America: A Timeline

Let’s not forget about the corporations who surveil us too.

PRISM by the numbers

Security Data-Mining and Other Forms of Witchcraft 

Update: RT America video from the program “Breaking the Set”

Finally, once again thank you so much for your messages. It has been inspiring for us.


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The NSA Comes Recruiting

Some students and I had an exchange with NSA recruiters today. The audio and a rough transcript below.

The NSA came to recruit at a language program at the University of Wisconsin where I am spending my summer learning a language. Two recruiters, a redhead who looked more like a middle-aged 2013 NSA flyer copymother (listed as “NSA_F” below) and a portly, balding man (“NSA_M”), began to go through slides explaining the NSA and its work.

I had intended to go simply to hear how the NSA is recruiting at a moment when it’s facing severe challenges, what with the Edward Snowden and all. Dismayingly, however, a local high school teacher had thought it was good to bring 5 of his students to the session. They were smartly dressed, some of them even wearing ties as if there might be a job interview, young faces in a classroom of graduate students. They sat across from me at the roundtable. It was really their presence that goaded me–and I think a couple of other students–into an interaction with the recruiters.

Roughly half an hour into the session, the exchange below began. I began by asking them how they understood the term “adversary” since the surveillance seems to be far beyond those the American state classifies as enemies, and their understanding of that ties into the recruiters’ earlier statement that “the globe is our playground.” I ended up asking them whether being a liar was a qualification for the NSA because:

The NSA’s instrumental understanding of language as well as its claustrophobic social world was readily apparent. One of the recruiters discussed how they tend to socialize after work, dressing up in costumes and getting drunk (referenced below). I can imagine that also exerts a lot of social pressure and works as a kind of social closure from which it would be difficult to escape. The last thing I want to point out –once again– their defense seems to be that it’s legal. What is legal is  not just.

Someone else happened to record it on an iPhone, hence the audio quality. It’s been edited mainly to cut garbled audio or audio that wouldn’t have made sense  and  edit out questions and comments from people who didn’t explicitly say it was ok to post their audio.You’ll hear the sound drop out for a second to mark the cuts.

Rough Transcript

Me: You said earlier that the two tasks that you do: one is tracking down the communications of your adversaries and the other is protecting the communications of officials. So, do you consider Germany and the countries the US has been spying on to be adversaries or are you, right now, not speaking the truth?

Me: I mean do you consider European countries, etc, adversaries or are you, right now, not telling us the truth and lying when you say that actually you simply track – you keep focusing on that, but clearly the NSA is doing a lot more than that, as we know, so I’m just asking for a clarification.

NSA_F: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [garbled] so, I mean you know, You can define adversary as enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy but would we have foreign
national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe. Yeah, we do. That’s our requirements that come to us as an intelligence community organization from the policymakers, from the military, from whoever –our global so–

Me: So adversary –adversaries you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody then by your definition that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA_F: That is not correct.

Me: Who is not an adversary?

NSA_F: Well, ok. I can answer your questions but the reality is—

Me: No, I’m just trying to get a clarification because you told us what the two nodes of your work are but it’s not clear to me what that encompasses and you’re being fairly unclear at the moment. Apparently it’s somebody who’s not just an enemy. It’s something broader than that. And yet, it doesn’t seem to encompass everyone.

NSA_M: So for us, umm, our business is apolitical. Ok. We do not generate the intelligence requirements. They are levied on us so, if there is a requirement for foreign intelligence concerning this issue or this region or whatever then that is. If you wanna use the word adversary, you ca– we

This is not a tampon.

This is not a tampon.

might use the word ‘target.’ That is what we are going after. That is the intelligence target that we are going after because we were given that requirement. Whether that’s adversary in a global war on terrorism sense or adversary in terms of national security interests or whatever – that’s for policymakers, I guess to make that determination. We respond to the requirements we are given, if that helps. And there’s a separation. As language analysts, we work on the SIG INT side of the house. We don’t really work on the information assurance (?) side of the house. That’s the guy setting up, protecting our communications.

Me: I’m just surprised that for language analysts, you’re incredibly imprecise with your language. And it just doesn’t seem to be clear. So, adversary is basically what any of your so-called “customers” as you call them –which is also a strange term to use for a government agency– decide if anybody wants, any part of the government wants something about some country, suddenly they are now internally considered or termed an ‘adversary.’ That’s what you seem to be saying.


NSA_M: I’m saying you can think about it using that term. 

NSA_F: But the reality is it’s our government’s interest in what a foreign government or foreign country is doing.

Me: Right. So adversary can be anyone.

NSA_M: As long as they levy their requirement on us thru the right vehicle that exists for this and that it is defined in terms of a foreign intelligence requirement, there’s a national framework of foreign intelligence – what’s it called?

NSA_F: nipa

NSA_M: the national prioritization of intelligence framework or whatever that determines these are the issues that we are interested in, these are how they are prioritized.

Me: Your slide said adversary. It might be a bit better to say “target” but it’s not just a word game. The problem is these countries are fairly –I think Afghanistan is probably not shocked to realize they’re on the list. I think Germany seems to be quite shocked at what has been going on. This is not just a word game and you understand that as well as I do. So, it’s very strange that you’re selling yourself here in one particular fashion when it’s absolutely not true.

NSA_F: I don’t think we’re selling ourselves in an untrue fashion.

Me: Well, this is a recruiting session and you are telling us things that aren’t true. We also know that the NSA took down brochures and fact sheets after the Snowden revelations because those brochures also had severe inaccuracies and untruths in them. So, how are we supposed  to believe what you’re saying?


Student A (female): I have a lifestyle question that you seem to be selling.  It sounds more like a brochure smallercolonial expedition. You know the “globe is our playground” is the words you used, the phrasing that you used and you seem to be saying that you can do your work. You can analyze said documents for your so-called customers but then you can go and get drunk and dress up and have fun without thinking of the repercussions of the info you’re analyzing has on the rest of the world. I also want to know what are the qualifications that one needs to become a whistleblower because that sounds like a much more interesting job. And I think the Edward Snowdens and the Bradley Mannings and Julian Assanges of the world will prevail ultimately.

NSA_M: I’m not sure what the —

Me: The question here is do you actually think about the ramifications of the work that you do, which is deeply problematic, or do you just dress up in costumes and get drunk? [This is in reference to an earlier comment made by the recruiters in which NSA_F said: they do heady work and then they go down to the bar and dress up in costume and do karaoke. I tweeted it earlier.]

NSA_M: That’s why, as I was saying, reporting the info in the right context is so important because the consequences of bad political decisions by our policymakers is something we all suffer from.

Student A: And people suffer from the misinformation that you pass along so you should take responsibility as well.

NSA_M: We take it very seriously that when we give info to our policy makers that we do give it to them in the right context so that they can make the best decision with the best info available.

Student B: Is that what Clapper was doing when he perjured himself in front of Congress? Was he giving accurate information when he said we do not collect any intelligence on the US citizens that it’s only occasionally unintentionally or was he perjuring himself when he made a statement before Congress under oath that he later declared to be erroneous or at least, untruthful the least truthful answer? How do you feel personally having a boss whose comfortable perjuring himself in front of Congress?

NSA_F: Our director is not general Clapper.

Student B: General Alexander also lied in front of Congress.

NSA_F: I don’t know about that.

Student B: Probably because access to the Guardian is restricted on the NSA’s computers. I am sure they don’t encourage people like you to actually think about these things. Thank God for a man like Edward Snowden who your organization is now part of a manhunt trying to track down, trying to put him in a little hole somewhere for the rest of his life. Thank god they exist.

Student A: and why are you denigrating anything else with language? We don’t do this; we don’t do that; we don’t read cultural artifacts, poetry? There are other things to do with language other than joining this group, ok. [last line of this comment was directed at the high school students.]

NSA_M: This job is not for everybody. Academia is a great career for people with language.

Me: So is this job for liars? Is this what you’re saying? Because, clearly, you’re not able to give us forthright answers. Given the way the way the NSA has behaved, given the fact that we’ve been lied to as Americans, given the fact that fact sheets have been pulled down because they clearly had untruths in them, given the fact that Clapper and Alexander lied to Congress — is that a qualification for being in the NSA? Do you have to be a good liar?

NSA_F: I don’t consider myself to be a liar in any fashion and the reality is I mean, this was billed as if you are potentially interested in an NSA career come to our session. If you’re not, if this is your personal belief and you’re understanding of what has been presented then there is nothing that says you need to come and apply and work for us. We are not here — our role as NSA employees is not to represent NSA the things that are in the press right now about the NSA. That’s not our role at all. That’s not my area of expertise. I have not read–

Me: Right, but you’re here recruiting so you’re selling the organization. I mean I’m less interested in what your specialized role is within in the NSA. I don’t care. The fact is you’re here presenting a public face for the NSA and you’re trying to sell the organization to people that are as young as high schoolers and trying to tell us that this is an attractive option in a context in which we clearly know that the NSA has been telling us complete lies. So, I’m wondering is that a qualification?

NSA_F: I don’t believe the NSA is telling complete lies. And I do believe that you know, people can, you can read a lot of different things that are portrayed as fact and that doesn’t make them fact just because they’re in newspapers.

Student A: Or intelligence reports.

NSA_F: That’s not really our purpose here today and I think if you’re not interested in that. There are people here who are probably interested in a language career.

Me: The trouble is we can’t opt out of NSA surveillance and we don’t get answers. It’s not an option. You’re posing it as a choice like ‘oh you know people who are interested can just sit here and those of us who are not interested can just leave.’ If I could opt out of NSA surveillance and it was no longer my business, that would be fine. But it is my business because all of us are being surveilled so we’re here.

NSA_F: That is incorrect. That is not our job. That is not our business.

Me: That doesn’t seem to be incorrect given the leaks. Right, and the NSA has not been able to actually put out anything that is convincing or contrary to that.


Student A: I don’t understand what’s wrong with having some accountability.

NSA_F: We have complete accountability and there is absolutely nothing that we can or have done without approval of the 3 branches of the government. The programs that we’re enacting–

Student B: Did you read the NY Times? Did you read about the illegal wiretapping? Why are you lying?

NSA_M: Did you read the Senate judiciary report that said there have only been 15 (?) instances, and they were all documented and done correctly by the FISA courts–

Student B: I’d love to read the opinion of the FISA court that says that this program one of the NSA’s programs was violating the 4th amendment right of massive amounts of Americans, but it’s a big ‘ol secret and only people like you who will not talk with their wives when they get home about what they do all day are able to…[garbled]…protecting us from the ‘terrorist threat’, but let’s let everyone here hear more information about karaoke.


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