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Ear to the Ground

The NSA Has an Advice Columnist

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Posted on Mar 8, 2014

Photo by Ed Yourdon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An NSA official writing under the pen name “Zelda” advises spies on everything from “co-workers falling asleep on the job, sodas being stolen from shared fridges, [and] supervisors not responding to emails,” Peter Maass reports at The Intercept.

The columns, which are distributed on the agency’s internal Web and accessible only to those with security clearance, are among the documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. One of the most interesting among them, Maass reports, involves a letter from an NSA staffer who complains that his or her boss continuously spies on employees.

In the letter, published in Zelda’s column on Sept. 9, 2011, an employee calling him or herself “Silenced in SID,” which stands for Signals Intelligence Directorate, writes:

Dear Zelda,

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.

Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too “chummy.” (It’s been done under the guise of “creating teams.”)

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?

Silenced in SID

Zelda responds:

Dear Silenced,

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?

Read the rest of Zelda’s response and Maass’ criticism of the exchange here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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