Daniel Drezner has a fairly incredible short blog post over at Foreign Policy magazine about his experience visiting the NSA as the organization is seeking to ramp up its PR campaign about how it’s not actually evil. We’ve already covered the 60 Minutes debacle, but in many ways this piece is just as enlightening, as he notes just how incredibly tone deaf NSA officials appear to be — unable to understand why people are upset about what they’re doing.
The NSA’s biggest strategic communications problem, however, is that they’ve been so walled off from the American body politic that they have no idea when they’re saying things that sound tone-deaf. Like expats returning from a long overseas tour, NSA staffers don’t quite comprehend how much perceptions of the agency have changed. The NSA stresses in its mission statement and corporate culture that it “protects privacy rights.” Indeed, there were faded banners proclaiming that goal in our briefing room. Of course, NSAers see this as protecting Americans from foreign cyber-intrusions. In a post-Snowden era, however, it’s impossible to read that statement without suppressing a laugh.
It might be an occupational hazard, but NSA officials continue to talk about the threat environment as if they’ve been frozen in amber since 2002. To them, the world looks increasingly unsafe. Syria is the next Pakistan, China is augmenting its capabilities to launch a financial war on the United States, and the next terrorist attack on American soil is right around the corner. They could very well be correct — except that the American public has become inured to such warnings over the past decade, and their response has been to tell politicians to focus on things at home and leave the rest of the world alone. A strategy of “trust us, the world is an unsafe place” won’t resonate now the way it did in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But, perhaps the most tone deaf of all, was the statement from one NSA official suggesting that it’s time to reform the First Amendment, because he’s not at all happy about how reporters have covered the NSA recently. As Drezner notes, he’s not sure if it’s a joke or not, but it really doesn’t matter. That seems like something you should not joke about if you’re an NSA person, given everything that’s going on.
The NSA’s attitude toward the press is, well, disturbing. There were repeated complaints about the ways in which recent reportage of the NSA was warped or lacking context. To be fair, this kind of griping is a staple of officials across the entire federal government. Some of the NSA folks went further, however. One official accused some media outlets of “intentionally misleading the American people,” which is a pretty serious accusation. This official also hoped that the Obama administration would crack down on these reporters, saying, “I have some reforms for the First Amendment.”
It seems that the public might have some reforms for the intelligence community as well. And those would actually be constitutional, unlike what that particular NSA officials had in mind for free speech and the press. There’s even more in the Drezner piece that is well worth reading, including the how the NSA was unable to properly manage his own personal information which he had to send them in order to get his pass to come for a visit…