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.
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