January 14, 2014

STEVEN LEVY: I Spent Two Hours Talking With the NSA’s Bigwigs. Here’s What Has Them Mad.

The dual mission of the NSA generates cognitive dissonance. Right on its home page, the NSA says its core missions are “to protect U.S. national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information.” The officials repeatedly claimed they pursue both responsibilities with equal vigor. There’s a built-in conflict here: If U.S. industries distribute strong encryption throughout the world, it should make the NSA’s signals-gathering job much harder. Yet the NSA says it welcomes encryption. (The officials even implied that the tension between the two missions winds up making both efforts more robust.) Nonetheless, the Snowden leaks indicate that the NSA has engaged in numerous efforts that tamper with the security of American products. The officials resisted this characterization. Why, they asked, would they compromise security of products they use themselves, like Windows, Cisco routers, or the encryption standards they allegedly compromised?

They believe their intelligence gathering is palatable because it’s controlled by laws, regulations, and internal oversight. Looking at the world through their eyes, there is no privacy threat in collecting massive amounts of information — if access to that information is rigidly controlled and minimalized. This includes efforts to excise data (about Americans, mainly) that should have not been collected in the first place. The NSA feels that if people knew about these controls, they’d be OK with the collection. This argument reminded me of something I learned from my approved NSA source in the 1990s. The official who concocted the Clipper Chip scheme had a vision where private citizens could use encryption. But the NSA, though its built-in backdoor chip, would be able to access the information when it needed to. The official called his vision “Nirvana.” The NSA is still envisioning Nirvana, this time a system with huge haystacks accessed only when national security is at stake. But many people believe the very creation of those government-owned haystacks is a privacy violation, and possibly unconstitutional.

They really hate Snowden. The NSA is clearly, madly, deeply furious at the man whose actions triggered the biggest crisis in its history. Even while contending they welcome the debate that now engages the nation, they say that they hate the way it was triggered. The NSA has an admittedly insular culture — the officials described it as almost like a family. Morale suffers when friends and neighbors think that NSA employees are sitting around reading grandma’s email. Also, the agency believes that the Snowden leaks have seriously hurt national security (though others dispute this). NSA officials are infuriated that all this havoc was caused by some random contractor.

Well, that last isn’t really to their credit, since they granted some random contractor access. But to my mind, it’s actually the IRS that has done the most damage to the NSA, by illustrating how an agency that’s supposed to be disinterested and technical can act as a rogue, politicized agency.

UPDATE: From the comments: “If the NSA is seeking redemption, they could look into the IRS for us.”