Do You Trust The Washington Post's Sources on Morale at the NSA?

Former officials insist that employees are upset because President Obama hasn't visited to show his support.
Reuters

A strange Washington Post story gives readers the impression that morale is low at the NSA because President Obama hasn't visited to signal his support for the intelligence agency, even as Edward Snowden's leaks are causing many to criticize it.

The headline: "NSA morale down after Edward Snowden revelations, former U.S. officials say."

The lede:

Morale has taken a hit at the National Security Agency in the wake of controversy over the agency’s surveillance activities, according to former officials who say they are dismayed that President Obama has not visited the agency to show his support.

 What these "dismayed" sources told the newspaper:

Supporters of the NSA say staffers are not feeling the love.

“The agency, from top to bottom, leadership to rank and file, feels that it is had no support from the White House even though it’s been carrying out publicly approved intelligence missions,” said Joel Brenner, NSA inspector general from 2002 to 2006. “They feel they’ve been hung out to dry, and they’re right.”

A former U.S. official—who like several other former officials interviewed for this story requested anonymity because he still has dealings with the agency—said: “The president has multiple constituencies—I get it. But he must agree that the signals intelligence NSA is providing is one of the most important sources of intelligence today. So if that’s the case, why isn’t the president taking care of one of the most important elements of the national security apparatus?”

Is this just an attempt to exert pressure on the president and stave off even the mildest criticism of the NSA? The sourcing here seems awfully shoddy. Is a former NSA inspector general who hasn't worked for the agency in seven years really qualified to pronounce upon the current feelings of every employee? Is the proposition that NSA staffers are all of one mind about recent controversies something we'd credit even if a current NSA employee said it? Did the anonymous "former U.S. official" ever work for the NSA? What "dealings" does he or she presently have with the agency, and how remunerative are those dealings? 

After reading what these former officials had to say, Marcy Wheeler points out that NSA employees have a reason for low morale that has nothing to do with Obama's support:

Most of the NSA’s employees have not been read into many of these programs ... That raises the distinct possibility that NSA morale is low not because the President hasn’t given them a pep talk, but because they’re uncomfortable working for an Agency that violates its own claimed rules so often. Most of the men and women at NSA have been led to believe they don’t spy on their fellow citizens. Those claims are crumbling, now matter how often the NSA repeats the word “target.”

Skipping all the way to the end of the Post story, there is a bit of supporting evidence for that thesis:

Morale is “bad overall,” a third former official said. “The news—the Snowden disclosures—it questions the integrity of the NSA workforce,” he said. “It’s become very public and very personal. Literally, neighbors are asking people, ‘Why are you spying on Grandma?’ And we aren’t. People are feeling bad, beaten down.”

Set beside one another, "discomfort with what the NSA is doing" and "hearing their employer criticized" both seem like a lot better explanations for low morale than an inchoate, unfulfilled yearning for that cruelly withheld visit from the president. His charm and charisma may make him adept at obscuring what the NSA is doing when he speaks to a general audience. NSA employees aren't so easily fooled. In fact, they are perfectly positioned to see the full extent of any mendacity.

The disconnect between my take and the Washington Post's treatment of the story is doubtless due in part to the different ways we respond to a certain title: former NSA official. Given that the NSA carried out a massive, secret, illegal program of warrantless wiretapping in the era just previous to this one, along with more recent violations of the Fourth Amendment and FISA court orders, I see "former NSA official" as a warning that the source may not have scruples about misleading the American people in order to strengthen the surveillance state. 

In contrast, the Washington Post, like most newspapers, sees "former NSA official" as a title that bestows more credibility, and that usually justifies an extension of anonymity permitting the source to speak through the press for his or her own ends. 

What I wonder is what the impact on the NSA would be if morale really is falling, something that wasn't established to my satisfaction. It would arguably be heartening if surveillance-state employees are upset at the revelation that their employer has been doing wrong. But if NSA employees who have some discomfort with mass surveillance start to quit, who will replace them, and how much less trustworthy would that agency be?

Presented by

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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