The Lawfare Podcast

The Lawfare Podcast: My Constitution Day Speech at NSA

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, February 21, 2015, 1:55 PM

In mid-September, I delivered the annual Constitution Day address at the National Security Agency.

I had meant to post the speech back then, except that it being NSA and all, I wasn't allowed to bring my own recording equipment into the building and thus had to wait until the NSA folks released the audio of my own speech to me. This took a while---a long, long while, as it turned out.

For reasons still unclear to me, my speech had to go through a lengthy review before it could be released, even to its author. This was particularly odd, since the event was unclassified, since I am not cleared to receive classified information in any event, since I was free at any time in the interim to give exactly the same speech somewhere else, and since I requested only my own words---not the words of any NSA official or any of the Q&A.

In any event, five months later I am pleased to be able to provide the speech in full. The address itself covers some ground I have never spoken about elsewhere and some themes I am very interested in developing further. Specifically, it deals with the question of the complicated relationship between the intelligence community and the sort of neutral principles on which constitutional democracies normally operate. It explores just why so many people now struggle to trust the intelligence community, and concludes with three major challenges the community must address in order to maintain public confidence into the future. I would be very interested in reader and listener feedback and thoughts on these ideas.

On a personal note, yes,  I am fully aware that my critics will find my being the Constitution Day speaker at NSA amusing---all the proof they need both that I am in the tank for the agency and that the agency is only interested in hearing from, as ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian never tires of calling me, "self-described NSA apologists" like me.

So here's my preemptive response: It was an honor and pleasure to give this speech before an agency in whose work I believe and whose workforce has taken a huge and largely unfair beating. I hope my comments stimulated thought and challenged people at the agency. And while people are free, of course, to decide that either the fact of the speech or its contents confirm whatever they already believed about me and NSA, I would hope they might instead---or in addition---engage some of the ideas I put forth.


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