The NSA Has An Internal Office Advice Columnist And Yes, She’s An Inconsistent Hypocrite Too

Tech Dirt – by Karl Bode

Peter Maass, who I’ve been fortunate to meet and has had a pretty amazing career as an embedded war journalist, has penned a pretty fantastic read over at Glenn Greenwald’s new The Intercept venture. In it, Maass points out that among the ocean of compelling bits buried in the Snowden documents is this strange little fact: the NSA has an advice columnist who routinely provides NSA employees with office politics and interpersonal advice under the pen name “Zelda.” Her column, titled “Ask Zelda!,” routinely appears for employees with adequate security clearance via the agency’s intranet.     

Many of the advice columns released via Snowden’s document dump deal with perfectly ordinary office politics, like complaints about stealing sodas out of refrigerators, stinky co-workers, or bosses who can’t be bothered to respond to e-mails. But Maass points out that one of the more entertaining columns involves complaints by an NSA worker who is concerned about their boss spying on them. In a column signed “Silence in SID,” an employee writes in:

“Here’s the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it’s mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we’re all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.”

The tension created by having an overly nosy boss has resulted, the employee claims, in workplace efficiency problems and a growing lack of trust in the establishment:

“We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite “Idol” contestant to break the tension, but now we’re getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations (“Did you have a good weekend?”). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we’re more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?

Zelda is quite-amusingly shocked by the boss’s behavior inside of an agency of spies:

“Wow, that takes “intelligence collection” in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction. …. We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?

So spying over-broadly on people you don’t think should be spied upon destroys teamwork, fosters distrust and erodes overall efficiency, huh? Gosh, what if you took that concept and applied it to an entire planet? As Maass notes, at no point while giving advice on spying inside the NSA does Zelda seem to have awareness of the possible lessons that could be applied to spying going onoutside the NSA (at least that we get to see):

“Her response to “Silenced in SID” does not acknowledge the irony – or hypocrisy – of an employee at a spy agency complaining about being spied on. But Zelda directly addresses the long-lasting effects of inappropriate surveillance. “Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken,” she observes. “Your work center may take time to heal after this deplorable practice is discontinued.”

So remember, dear readers: inappropriate surveillance erodes trust, destroys teamwork, damages the overall community, and creates a general downward spiral that’s bad for everybody involved. Unless we’re doing it to the general public, in which case — who cares? Now get back to work!

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