I Spent Two Hours Talking With NSA Senior Officials. Here’s What Has Them Hoppin’ Mad

NSA headquarters. Image: Wikimedia Commons

They Really Hate Snowden. Really. Hate Hate Hate Him.   NSA headquarters. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Steven Levy writes:  My expectations were low when I asked the National Security Agency to cooperate with my story on the impact of Edward Snowden’s leaks on the tech industry. During the 1990s, I had been working on a book, Crypto, which dove deep into cryptography policy, and it took me years — years! — to get an interview with an employee crucial to my narrative. I couldn’t quote him, but he provided invaluable background on the Clipper Chip, an ill-fated NSA encryption runaround that purported to strike a balance between protecting personal privacy and maintaining national security.

my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

“…my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives...I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide…”

Oh, and I was not permitted to interview my Crypto source at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. I was crushed; I had grown obsessed with the vaunted triple fence surrounding the restricted area and had climactic hopes that I’d get inside. Instead, the meet occurred just outside the headquarters’ heavily guarded perimeter, at the National Cryptologic Museum. (I did buy a cool NSA umbrella in the gift shop.)

This time around, the NSA’s initial comeback was discouraging. The public relations person suggested that perhaps some unidentified officials could provide written responses to a few questions I submitted. A bit later, an agency rep indicated there was the possibility of a phone conversation. But then, rather suddenly, I was asked if I would be interested in an actual visit to meet with a few key officials. And could I do it… later that week?

Um, yes.

Why the turnaround? Apparently, the rep told me, Crypto has some fans at Fort Meade. But my professional credentials were obviously not the sole reason for the invite. The post-Snowden NSA has been forced to adopt a more open PR strategy. With its practices, and even its integrity, under attack, its usual Sphinx-like demeanor would not do.

They really hate Snowden. The NSA is clearly, madly, deeply furious.
"I'd rather you just said THANK YOU"

“I’d rather you just said THANK YOU”

Soon I was swapping emails with a “protocol officer” who would coordinate my visit; she requested some personal data and asked for the make, model and serial number of my voice recorder. (I was happy about the latter — when I interviewed companies like Facebook for this story, they did not permit taping.)

So there I was, driving down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, taking the exit that countless drivers have passed with a shudder of frisson. I got checked out at two gatehouses, and found my assigned parking space. Then I entered the glass leviathan whose image accompanies virtually every story in which a new Snowden leak is revealed.

Perhaps befitting the agency’s persistent stealth, the entrance foyer does not have the grandeur of, say, the CIA’s iconic marble lobby. When you go to Langley, you feel you’re on a movie set. This was more like going through security for jury duty. I met my escort, signed in, and got badged. And, yes, they checked my recorder’s serial number.

"You WANT me on that wall, you NEED me on that wall"

“You WANT me on that wall, you NEED me on that wall”

Once inside, however, the scene became more cinematic. The passageways have a bustling, Pentagon-ish feel. Many people, in fact, are in uniform, a reminder that the NSA is, after all, part of the defense department. All of its directors have been high-ranking officers like admirals or generals. Even the civilian employees communicate with the crisp, respectful efficiency of the armed forces: It’s all direct sentences, sir and ma’am, acronyms and numbers. That military mentality is built into the mindset there — NSA people view themselves, as soldiers do, as serving, protecting the nation, doing a job that must be done and stoically shrugging off its thanklessness. One always suspects that in NSA interactions with outsiders, an unspoken phrase hovers over the conversation, that of Jack Nicholson’s embittered warrior in A Few Good MenYou can’t handle the truth.

[A Few Good Men: Special Edition]

My escort gave me a brief tour, including a stop at the wall honoring those who had given their lives in service to the agency. She told me that when names (or in some cases, anonymous markers) are added, as had happened recently, colleagues line the long hall for the ceremony….

Read more…


2 Comments on “I Spent Two Hours Talking With NSA Senior Officials. Here’s What Has Them Hoppin’ Mad”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Steven Levy writes: My expectations were low when I asked the National Security Agency to cooperate […]

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