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 mother (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.
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.
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_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 colonial 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.