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June 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the first story resulting from Edward Snowden’s theft and disclosure of classified U.S. government documents. Those documents detailed aspects of National Security Agency activities conducted as part of its signals-intelligence mission to produce foreign intelligence in support of U.S. and allied intelligence consumers such as policymakers, personnel engaged in understanding and countering terrorism, and military forces deployed around the world. The reporting on Snowden’s disclosures was sensational: It provided insights into extraordinarily sensitive and fragile techniques, operations and partnerships, along with a view into an agency about which most people knew very little. While some reports were accurate, many were not, and virtually all of them were characterized by Snowden and a credulous press as “proof” of an organization that had recklessly crossed clear red lines through massive and indiscriminate collection of communications with little or no relationship to its foreign-intelligence mission. Taken as a whole, press reports from early June through the long, hot summer of 2013 described a conspiracy of incredible proportions, involving tens of thousands of Americans—many working closely with dozens of allied counterparts—and all three branches of the U.S. government.
But what the media failed to describe, and what Snowden never understood, was what motivated the people who established the NSA in the aftermath of World War II and the hundreds of thousands of employees since who have made it a national treasure. The agency is a hard thing to understand: It is not easy to get hired by the NSA, and those who do work long hours, often in dangerous places and at government wages. Yet there is an inherent nobility in the work and in the character of the people who do it.
I spent almost 40 years in the business of cryptology—making and breaking codes—and the disciplines that surround it. The common thread of that experience was the people who devoted their efforts to something bigger than themselves and who made sacrifices every day to help keep their countrymen and -women and others around the world safe. It’s not the secret sites, powerful computers, and exotic collection gear that make the NSA the best in the world at what it does; it is those people. It is the mathematicians who discover how to use their tools in unusual and previously unknown ways; the language analysts who know how their targets think; the logisticians who figure out how to resupply an outpost on a remote mountaintop in hostile territory; the computer scientists and engineers who create new capabilities and discover unknown properties in software and hardware; the investigators who vet candidates for employment because they have critically needed skills; the operations officers who develop concepts and work with internal and external partners to array capabilities in unexpected ways.
They are all citizens with families and friends and hobbies. They want the same things so many other citizens do—to contribute to the greater good and to be happy, safe, and prosperous. The path they have chosen toward those ends involves sacrifices. They don’t get to go home and talk about their successes and failures with their loved ones. They may travel and not be able to tell their relatives where or why they’re going. They often miss family events. There is a palpable sense of mission at the NSA that imbues them. What they do matters—it informs national policy, affects international negotiations and prevents terrorist attacks. Their work helps to safeguard U.S. citizens, diplomats and military forces around the globe. NSAers are extraordinarily committed to the mission, and it colors everything they do.
Part of that commitment is the recognition that the NSA has been entrusted with extraordinary responsibilities and capabilities and that it is subject to extraordinary oversight and safeguards. Those safeguards include a deep culture of personal accountability within the agency and a willingness by NSAers to call themselves out when they make a mistake. Geoff Stone, a civil libertarian and law professor, was a member of the review group President Obama appointed in August 2013. When the review group’s work concluded, the NSA leadership asked him to speak to our workforce. He admitted that he had initially been skeptical of the agency but said:
Not only did I find that the NSA had helped to thwart numerous terrorist plots against the United States and its allies in the years since 9/11, but I also found that it is an organization that operates with a high degree of integrity and a deep commitment to the rule of law. Like any organization dealing with extremely complex issues, the NSA on occasion made mistakes in the implementation of its authorities, but it invariably reported those mistakes upon discovering them and worked conscientiously to correct its errors. The Review Group found no evidence that the NSA had knowingly or intentionally engaged in unlawful or unauthorized activity. To the contrary, it has put in place carefully-crafted internal procedures to ensure that it operates within the bounds of its lawful authority.
Every study conducted by every oversight organization has come to similar conclusions. That is not an accident or a coincidence. It is because the women and men of the NSA believe in doing the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way.
And using the NSA’s capabilities to protect our citizens and those of other nations is the right thing. This is a dangerous world, with threats from destructive cyberattacks and terrorists attempting to kill Americans at home and abroad; from nations with nuclear weapons and those that desperately seek them; from near-peer nations that use their economic and diplomatic muscle to expand their influence and those that use the force of arms to do the same. The material that Snowden chose to steal did not talk about the value of the NSA's work. While there is always a need in a democracy to discuss the balance between surveillance and privacy, at no time has anyone with deep knowledge of its value proposed eliminating it.
The fact of the matter is that the work done by NSAers saves lives, both at home and abroad. It underpins every other source of intelligence available to the nation. Congress recognized that when it reauthorized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Section 702 program. Those at the NSA have a sacred responsibility to do our best, within the law and within the strict guidelines under which we operate, to keep America and its allies safe.
Last Monday, as the nation celebrated Memorial Day, the NSA commemorated the day with a solemn ceremony at the National Cryptologic Memorial recognizing the 176 cryptologists who have died in the line of duty. It was a poignant reminder of the untold stories of the men and women committed to protecting our nation and its allies, and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.
This week, there will be many stories about the NSA. Some will be factual, some will be misleading, some will be outright nonsense. When reading them, keep in mind the less publicized but dedicated professionals whose sacrifices make a difference each and every day.