Let's Give Every NSA Employee an Anonymous Whistleblowing Opportunity

A reform that would protect classified information even as it helped tip off Congress and the public to surveillance abuses
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What if every NSA employee and contractor was required, once a year, to fill out an anonymous civil-liberties survey? The anonymity of respondents would be persuasively guaranteed, and a multiple-choice format would prevent disclosing any classified information.

Answering would be as easy as putting a No. 2 pencil to an answer sheet.
1. The NSA targets the communications of American citizens
a) often
b) sometimes
c) rarely
d) never

2. In the last year I have witnessed Fourth Amendment violations
a) 0 times
b) 1 to 5 times
c) 5 to 10 times
d) 10 to 100 times
e) more than 100 times

3. Civil-liberties protections used by the NSA are
a) foolproof
b) more than adequate
c) only sometimes effective
d) totally ineffective

4. Congressional oversight of the NSA is 
a) if anything too onerous
b) just right
c) inadequate
d) failing to stop serious abuses
e) Congress isn't even aware of serious abuses

5. To your knowledge, how many of your colleagues are violating the law or the rights of Americans? 
a) none
b) one outlier
c) a few
d) a significant number
e) more employees than not
There may be much better questions than these (in fact, I'd be grateful if readers and other journalists helped to formulate some of them), but you get the idea. Every NSA employee would pledge to give honest answers, then fill out the anonymous survey. The results would be tallied by an independent party and made public. Sure, abuses could easily go undetected by this method, but folks who wanted to speak out could. Want to empower whistleblowers to tip off the public to abuses without risking an Edward Snowden-style leak? This approach is for you!

Today we're under-using whistleblowers.

When a federal official, employee, or contractor transgresses against the rights of a citizen, no one is more likely to witness the bad behavior than a colleague who also belongs to the federal workforce. Insofar as public policy encourages whistleblowers, we're all better protected from abuses.

Alas, President Obama has behaved in ways that discourage whistleblowers in the realm of national security, and that holds even if you set aside Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Illegal acts perpetrated under the Bush Administration have gone unpunished and uninvestigated, even as Team Obama has persecuted civil servants who spoke out against them:
The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.
NSA employees are predisposed to believe that they aren't doing anything wrong, whether or not that is true. Being part of a secretive organization inevitably skews a person's perspective. But given what has befallen other national-security whistleblowers, going back to the September 11 attacks, it's easy to imagine NSA employees who are aware of abuses but afraid to say so.

Employees like that, whether in the present or the future, ought to have a way to sound the alarm that doesn't require them to risk their careers or their freedom. Survey results could alert Congressional overseers and the public, if only by saying, "You'd better look more closely into what's happening." Critics of this method may claim that NSA employees could lie in both directions, claiming abuse when there are none. But if a significant number of NSA employees are lying despite their pledge, the scrutiny they'd invite would actually be needed, if for different reasons.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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