NSA Isn’t Interested In Your Pumpkin-Pie Recipes, Says Senior Official

Brett M. Decker Consulting Director, White House Writers Group
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Charlie Speight is a retired executive from the National Security Agency, which he joined in 1975. During his time at the NSA, he was a National Intelligence Officer, analyst, watch officer, operational staff officer, interagency liaison, senior editor in the Strategic Communications Directorate, and communications officer for the NSA director. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a lot of public information available about someone who spent 35 years as a secret squirrel. Mr. Speight’s Twitter bio simply states, “I know things.” Below is an exclusive interview about what he knows:

Decker: The general impression out there is that the NSA has been vacuuming up every detail about private citizens’ personal lives, from email and phone conversations to bank-account information and everyday consumer transactions. The perceived purpose is not only to prevent terrorist activity but also for the federal government to keep tabs on the population. How do you explain NSA data-collection operations, and what are the implications for individual civil liberties?

Speight: The “digital age” means that everyone now communicates on the same worldwide grid. This is where the bad guys live. They communicate, educate, recruit, surveil and steal on the same networks used by American schools, churches and individuals. The volume of telephone and internet traffic is mind-boggling, and it grows every year. Text messages and emails sent every year number in the trillions. There are more cellphones in the United States than there are people, and if just one-third of those phones make one 60-second call in a 24-hour period, it would generate 205 years of conversation per day – every day. As for email, at least 300 billion are sent daily (3.4 million every second), 80-90 percent of which are spam and viruses.

The point is that the mass of information the National Security Agency must sift through in pursuit of real threats is so astronomical that collecting all email and listening to all phone calls is more than just illegal, it’s not possible, efficient, smart or worthwhile. NSA has no interest in pumpkin-pie recipes, breakup stories, gossip, pictures of your lunch, drunk calls to ex-girlfriends or details of your trip to Disney World. It is trying to find bad guys.

When comparing the allegations to reality, only the uniformed, the politically motivated or the nefarious would conclude that NSA is monitoring the population. Not only is it technologically impossible, there is no reason to do it.

Decker: We’ve all heard horror stories about federal officials using classified files and surveillance technology to do background checks on dates or keep an eye on their wives. A few bad apples really can spoil the bunch, at least as far as public opinion goes. Can you detail what hasn’t gotten as much publicity regarding the NSA’s mission and how analysts work to achieve it?

Speight: A very few people – I think the number is in the single digits – have violated NSA’s rules on privacy. Their activity was immediately noticed and shut down and the violators quickly dealt with. NSA has very strict procedures in place and enforced to prevent illegal actions. The sanctity of the Fourth Amendment is paramount at NSA and is drilled into every employee from the first day on the job and repeatedly thereafter. NSAers are required to review legal procedures and protocols every year and reminders of the agency’s commitment to the law from the Director and other leaders are routine. In fact, an employee’s adherence to reviewing those protocols is a factor in their personnel assessment.

NSA’s mission is much more than a terrorist-monitoring agency. It is the world’s premiere code-making and code-breaking operation. It protects America’s government communications from being compromised, and it develops the means to break the codes of adversaries. This includes our country’s nuclear codes. In this effort, NSA employs more mathematicians than any other organization in the world and the top computer and network engineers, programmers and analysts.

The agency does its intelligence work in response to requirements put to it by other departments in the executive branch. The mission is massive and it requires an army of linguists, engineers of all disciplines, financial experts, cryptanalysts, digital forensicists, intelligence analysts, military specialists, psychologists, chemists and many more.

Decker: The theft and disclosure of classified information are referred to as “leaks” by the media. This sounds relatively benign and plays into the narrative that flagrant espionage is nothing more than a well-intentioned whistleblower trying to stop bureaucratic abuse. What’s wrong with this picture? How are the national-security apparatus and U.S. military operational effectiveness affected by this spy game?

Speight: Often it’s merely the simple knowledge of an activity that is damaging. When it was mentioned by a congressman that the United States was listening to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone calls, bin Laden stopped using that phone as well as other types of electronic communication assuming he was being monitored. That “leak” delayed finding him by years.

The infamous Walker spy family stole vital U.S. naval data and provided it to the Soviet Union giving them information on weapons systems, training, readiness and U.S. and allied tactics. There are other examples from the Rosenbergs to Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen in which American defense capabilities were compromised and, in doing so, our adversaries were given information that helped them advance their own.

The difference between the classic espionage cases and Edward Snowden is that Snowden didn’t just steal documents – which he did, and on a scale that dwarfs all others – but he publicly portrayed himself as a “whistleblower,” an altruistic champion of citizen rights. This twist is an attempt to make NSA the bad guy. It’s a PR campaign to cover his true intent and to neutralize Russia’s greatest fear and its most ominous obstacle: U.S. intelligence.

Decker: You previously told me that, “It is reasonable to assume that Vladimir Putin is giving information obtained via Snowden to ISIS or al Qaeda so they can damage U.S. infrastructure as his proxy.” In what ways are America’s enemies taking advantage of insights they now have into the strategic and tactical readiness of the United States and its allies?

Speight: The crown jewels of any intelligence organization are its sources and methods – the means by which information is obtained. I have no doubts that, thanks to Edward Snowden, Russia and China now have an extraordinary volume of data on NSAs sources and methods for collecting information from communications. That means they now know the weaknesses in their and other of our adversaries’ communications procedures and our strengths in exploiting them.

And not just voice communications, but also radar, telemetry, missile and rocket command and response, military GPS locationing and weapons systems countermeasures. On far too many subjects, Russia and probably China know what we know about them and about ourselves.

This compromise puts at risk our troops on the ground, ships at sea, our air forces, our command and control, military alliances and, as we’ve seen recently, even our banking system. As if that wasn’t bad enough, to mitigate the damage, the United States will have to spend multiple billions of dollars to change our own military and financial systems to prevent what are now critical weaknesses in our national defense. So will our allies.

Decker: There is considerable sentiment within factions of the left and right that Edward Snowden is a hero. That’s not your conclusion. Why not, and what do you think should happen to him?

Speight: Snowden has created a situation in which both the far right, particularly libertarians, and the left can coexist in their furor. The right considers this another Obama grab for our freedom and that by attacking NSA they are attacking President Obama. Their perception of Obama as a socialist coupled with revelations about the IRS, Fast and Furious, Benghazi and Bowe Bergdahl fits in nicely with the acceptance of Snowden’s allegations and the idea that NSA is a tool of the president’s agenda. The left is always up for any hint of civil rights violations, and it has never liked the military or intelligence services. Since NSA is part of the Department of Defense, that’s an added check mark on their list of enemies.

Edward Snowden stole thousands of highly classified digital documents from America’s most sensitive source of intelligence. He ran like the thief he is to not just any foreign country, but to our two greatest foreign national adversaries: China and Russia. He has publicized a miniscule number of those documents and no doubt provided to those two foreign powers information of critical national security. He has done this, I believe, as an agent of Vladimir Putin, in such a way as to make himself a sympathetic figure. With misguided public sympathy on his side and strictures on the Intelligence Community that won’t allow it to introduce or even discuss classified information in public, a trial would be unlikely to deliver the justice he and our country deserve.

There is no punishment commensurate with his betrayal, but there are things I would like see happen to him. I’ll leave it at that. 

Brett M. Decker, consulting director at the White House Writers Group and author of “Bowing to Beijing,” is a former senior vice president for the Export-Import Bank.