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Inside NSA: We Brought In a Recording Device So You Don’t Have To

By and
Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 12:55 PM

The NSA is not exactly known for engaging with the public. The old “No Such Agency” joke more or less captured the agency’s traditional posture:  the less said, the better. Whatever the merits of that approach from the perspective of protecting sources and methods of SIGINT collection, however, it comes at a huge cost in terms of public credibility, as the events of the past six months have underscored.

Well, some agencies are born open, some achieve openness, and this one has had openness thrust upon it.

In recent months, the agency been taking preliminary steps—themselves dramatic for a signals intelligence agency—to engage the public debate. Tomorrow evening, for example, 60 Minutes will air a segment on NSA that reflects considerable cooperation with CBS. A preview snippet is posted here, and the full program will be well-worth watching. 

For those who want a more granular and lengthy glimpse behind the curtain? Well, that’s where Lawfare comes in. All this week, starting Monday morning, we’ll be posting a series of podcasts we’re calling “Inside NSA: We Brought in a Recording Device So You Don’t Have To.”

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As you may recall, we posted a few months ago about a new research initiative jointly sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law (where Bobby recently was appointed director) and UT’s Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft (recently launched under the directorship of Dr. Will Inboden). Called the Intelligence Studies Project, the initiative aims to promote policy-relevant, interdisciplinary research into the activities, structure, and regulatory environment of the Intelligence Community. Which brings us to the NSA. The first fruit of the Intelligence Studies Project, developed in coordination with Dr. Michael Desch and the International Security Program at Notre Dame, was an expedition to NSA in which a group of scholars from a variety of institutions and backgrounds—including both of us—spent the day having frank discussions with members of NSA’s senior staff. It was an illuminating experience on all sides, and during the meeting we delivered a strong message regarding the need for NSA to become more transparent to the public in general and scholars in particular. This had some interesting consequences.

First, NSA invited Bobby to assemble a second, similar group for a similar set of discussions that took place just this past week. Second, we were given to understand that there are fresh efforts underway to improve the historical-materials declassification process. And third? NSA agreed to Ben’s suggestion that we be allowed to bring microphones into the building in order to record interviews with key members of NSA’s senior staff.

It is an unsettling experience to get out of the car in NSA’s parking lot and begin walking towards the entrance while holding two very large, very conspicuous microphones. You feel certain someone is going to tackle you before you reach the front door. We made it in unmolested, however, and soon enough we were set up for a day’s worth of on-the-record discussions with NSA’s General Counsel, its Chief Compliance Officer, the head of its Technology Directorate, its lead official for relations with the private sector, and later, Ben returned to interview the executive director who is currently acting deputy director. This week, we will be posting all of these interviews as episodes of the Lawfare Podcast. For anyone interested in developing a better sense of the institutions and procedures of the NSA, of the people who hold leadership positions there, and above all the NSA’s own self-perceptions, it is a unique resource.

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