My Experience at NSA: Your Privacy Was Sacrosanct

Don Tennant

As the debate over communications privacy and national security continues in the wake of the disclosure by Edward Snowden of classified information regarding the National Security Agency’s data collection programs, it’s unsurprising that my background as a former NSA employee would spark the interest of journalists and others who are trying to get a better sense of what NSA is really like on the inside.                   

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dan Amira, a senior editor at New York Magazine, asking if I would contribute to a piece he was working on. Here’s how he approached it:

I’m a reporter with New York Magazine and I hope you’ll be interested in something I’m putting together.

As the national debate continues about the NSA’s surveillance programs, I believe the voices of former NSA employees themselves would be incredibly valuable.
Here’s what I’m not asking you to do: Reveal any kinds of secrets or operational details, or anything of that nature. And I don't care if you never worked with the programs currently at issue.


What I am doing is giving former NSA employees 100 words to share their two cents as they see fit. It could be your opinion on the tension between security vs. privacy, or on Edward Snowden. It could be something you think the American people should know, or something they misunderstand. Whatever you think is important to the debate.



I’m not going to edit your passage at all. It will be your words, word for word. I’ll simply preface it with your name, a mention of your former position at the NSA, and link to your website, if you want one. I’ll place it alongside the other passages I gather.


Please let me know if you’re interested, or even if you’re not.

I did indeed think there was something the American people should know, so I sent him my 100-word contribution. Amira posted his article a couple of days later, and he stayed completely true to his word. This is what I sent him:

As a research analyst at NSA in the 1980s, I worked in a large office that looked almost exactly like a newsroom. There were teams covering the equivalent of different beats, with a senior analyst on each team acting as the equivalent of an editor. The only noticeable difference was the omnipresence of “burn bags”—large brown paper bags for discarded classified materials that were taken away and burned every day. There was an essential, less noticeable difference: The privacy of U.S. entities was sacrosanct. If an incoming piece of intelligence violated that privacy, it went immediately into the nearest burn bag.

Later the same day that the New York Magazine piece appeared, I received an email from Shashank Bengali, national security correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He also wanted my input as a former insider:

I’m a reporter with the Los Angeles Times and I’d like to talk with you for a story I’m writing about Ed Snowden. I was wondering if you’d seen the online postings by Snowden that surfaced yesterday in which he discusses surveillance, computer piracy and other topics. (The Reuters story below includes some of his posts, which date back to 2003.) I wonder if these posts raise any red flags for you. Are these things that NSA and CIA vetters should have noticed or found troubling about his background? Are the libertarian, anti-establishment views he expresses just a product of his age and generation, are they common among NSA staffers of his age or should they have caused more concern?

I have no interest in offering commentary on Snowden or the CIA/NSA vetting process, so I politely declined. The only thing I wanted to get across was that the people working at NSA are no different from their fellow Americans when it comes to the desire to protect our freedoms, other than the fact that they’re among the people who devote their careers, or a portion thereof, to that noble cause. And in doing so they sacrifice a lot of their own personal freedoms, like the freedom to share with loved ones what it is they’re doing at work all day or night, the freedom to travel wherever they want, and the freedom to associate with whomever they want.

One last thing. To anyone who presumes that NSA might have lost its way since I worked there in the ‘80s, I would refer you to another former NSA employee who contributed to the New York Magazine article. Keith Massey, who worked at NSA from 2002 to 2006 as an Arabic linguist, called on readers to remember who those current NSA employees really are:

The NSA bends over backwards to preserve the privacy rights of US citizens. If you think Prism violates your rights, you're wrong. Pray for the Patriots who work there still.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 9, 2013 1:15 AM Jawdrop Jawdrop  says:
PRISM DOES violate my privacy rights and I don't need instruction to PRAY for anybody - especially not a divisive word like "patriots" - the patriots I'm praying for are the whistleblowers who are blowing the lid off programs like PRISM that violate the sanctity of our constitution and the goodwill of our nation! Reply
Jul 9, 2013 2:49 AM Ellen Sue Stern Ellen Sue Stern  says:
Hi Don I just came across your blog from 2012: You're not as Indispensable as You Think. I am the author of twenty books in fourteen languages including, The Indispensable Woman and Running on Empty: Meditations for Indispensable Women. I noticed your piece because I am in the process of deciding which of my books to revert rights from the publisher to update and convert to e-books. In doing so, I have come across several articles addressing the issue, which brought back memories of over 15 years ago, when Susan Boren, the then-director of human resources for Dayton/Hudson, now Macy's, hired me to create on-site support groups, where her highly pressure, comprtitve staff of buyers-most of them mothers with kids, could let down their guard, and see eachother as real people-an early experiment in work/life balance. I am surprised to see this is still a burning issue. A few months an article in Essence posed the question: Can women have it all? And the new book, Leaning, confronts these very same issues some 25 years since I first wrote and starting leading worshops on this topic. So I thought I'd reach out. If you care to respond: 612.910.9126 or elle@ellensuestern.com. Thanks! Reply
Jul 12, 2013 12:27 PM truthorfact truthorfact  says:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/11/microsoft-nsa-collaboration-user-data Not sure if things hv changed now Don Reply

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