NSA's Public Relations Campaign Targets Reporters

Your tax dollars at work:

Frustrated by press leaks about its most sensitive electronic surveillance work, the secretive National Security Agency convened an unprecedented series of off-the-record "seminars" in recent years to teach reporters about the damage caused by such leaks and to discourage reporting that could interfere with the agency's mission to spy on America's enemies.

The half-day classes featured high-ranking NSA officials highlighting objectionable passages in published stories and offering "an innocuous rewrite" that officials said maintained the "overall thrust" of the articles but omitted details that could disclose the agency's techniques, according to course outlines obtained by The New York Sun.

Posted on October 4, 2007 at 3:11 PM • 25 Comments

Comments

Alexandre Carmel-VeilleuxOctober 4, 2007 3:54 PM

Frankly not the worst thing they could've done. As mean of discouraging leaks and doing damage control, while not compromising freedom of the press, "education" is a pretty good approach.

I wish the suggested rewrites had been in the article as it would've helped getting an idea of exactly what an "innocuous rewrite" looks like to the NSA.

As for the cost, this is probably peanuts on the overall PR budget of the NSA, let alone the whole budget. Focusing their dollars on reporters seems to be a good cost-benefit decision.

Valdis KletnieksOctober 4, 2007 4:12 PM

@Alexandre:

They of course can't include the rewrites, because the "before" text would be the exact same text that the NSA is trying to avoid getting into print.

jbOctober 4, 2007 4:15 PM

@vladis


They're already in print, and out there. So the "before" isn't exactly harmful.

BetaOctober 4, 2007 4:33 PM

Actually, from the NSA's point of view it would be bad to draw attention to those articles by republishing them, and even worse to print them alongside the sanitised versions (thereby drawing attention to the juiciest parts).

One problem with this approach is that anyone interested in these stories will flock to the sources that don't self-censor. Another is that I don't like the idea of the press quietly agreeing to keep me in the dark about a certain branch of the government.

CriticOctober 4, 2007 4:46 PM

@Beta

"Another is that I don't like the idea of the press quietly agreeing to keep me in the dark about a certain branch of the government."

I don't like the idea that anyone out there would read something 'the press' has published, and not assume by default that they were being 'kept in the dark' about a large number of things. Censorship is everywhere in this country, and so is private interest. Mass media is a product like any other, packaged, sugar-coated and chemically treated for quick absorption. No contemporary news reports or even 'non-fiction' works should be read without a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thought.

Money's a hell of a drug.

P. JuergensOctober 4, 2007 4:53 PM

Actually, ex post facto criticism was one of the more efficient means of censorship that nazi Germany used. There was a daily press meeting at the RMVP (ministry for education of the people and propaganda) where unfavorable reports were torn to pieces. Reichsminister Goebbels himself enlightened journalists on their duty to keep classified information secret from the enemy and the value of true patriotism. Attendance was quasi-mandatory for Berlin correspondents, and repeated offense (critical articles) could lead to extra-judical punishment (though that was more useful as a means of spreading fear rather than eliminating people).

OTROctober 4, 2007 5:59 PM

Wouldn't it make more sense for the NSA to plug the leaks rather than try to fix the problem after the fact?

Filias CupioOctober 4, 2007 6:12 PM

OTR: This is sensible 'defense in depth'. Yes, they try to plug the leaks, but they also try to mitigate the damage of leaks. On computers, we try to stop strangers from logging in, but we also try to reduce the damage they can do if they do get logged in.

BWAHAOctober 4, 2007 6:14 PM

What a total crock of bullshit.

In order to justify its own existence, its own budget, and to spread fear and uncertainty among the masses, the NSA created this b.s. journalism program.

It's all b.s. The NSA is just asking the press to stop reporting on the illegal wiretapping scandal. There are no SIGINT leaks in the media. Again, it's all b.s.

BTW, Bruce Schneier does not have a Ph.D. degree.

Kadin2048October 4, 2007 9:30 PM

It makes a certain amount of sense, and it doesn't really surprise me, although I question its effectiveness.

The NSA was rather famous for a particular lecture/presentation it used to give to freshman Representatives in Congress during the Cold War, which basically amounted to "if you knew what we knew, you'd be scared, too." (There's a big discussion of it in Levy's "Crypto")

The point is that these lectures were only effective when the threat from the USSR was plausible. When that enemy disappeared, the lecture stopped having much effect and started to seem anachronistic and quaint.

Given the low public opinion of the Administration at the moment, I wonder how seriously reporters are going to take the NSA's warnings.

Quiet as a FishOctober 4, 2007 9:33 PM

It does make you wonder about the Constitutionality of it. Are we a society that embraces secrets and secret agency agendas? And if so, how is freedom defined? How do we know when we've become a Nazi like environment? No potent political agenda here, just asking. Who are we these days? I respect the NSA, but they need some PR to remind the American public that the NSA does in fact respect that they work for the American People. Lots of tightropes in this game--aren't there?

antimediaOctober 4, 2007 10:23 PM

It would help if more than a handful of people understood what the NSA is. It's a military agency. Therefore it cannot, by law, spy on Americans. That's the job of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Read up on posse comitatus some time.

If people had a single clue about what goes on, they would understand that the NSA can't investigate Americans nor can it pursue court cases against them. Only law enforcement can do that. And law enforcement cannot use the information the NSA might pass on to them without the approval of the courts or without following federal procedures, which are quite strict. The FBI can't pursue a case, based upon information gotten from the NSA, without getting a FISA warrant first so they have authorization to begin the investigation.

Most of what you read in the newspapers is bovine excrement stacked knee deep.

bzelbobOctober 4, 2007 10:43 PM

A few points:

It is not the job of journalists to keep classified information secret. That lies with those who give that information it's classified status. The fact they have leaks means they are failing (at least partially) in that job. This is CYA by the NSA.

Some of the "classified information" doesn't seem so secret after all...Since when is the fact that we have recon satellites and use them to listen into calls a secret? Any terrorists who are too dumb to realize that are not going to be much of a threat.

If we were talking about journalists publishing atomic bomb blueprints, NSA might have some legit concerns, but as it is, they appear to engaging in a propaganda effort by assuming journalists need to be "re-educated".

I think the NSA and the government have a bigger need to be re-educated as to the legality of warrantless wiretaps and a host of other things.

marcOctober 5, 2007 8:18 AM

antimedia, a revision:

"If people had a single clue about what goes on, they would understand that the NSA can't *legally* investigate Americans nor can it pursue court cases against them. Only law enforcement can *legally* do that. And law enforcement cannot *legally* use the information the NSA might pass on to them without the approval of the courts or without following federal procedures, which are quite strict. The FBI can't pursue a case, based upon information gotten from the NSA, without getting a FISA warrant first so they have *legal*authorization to begin the investigation."

Yes, it sounds pedantic. However, there is a remarkable trend of government branches and agencies to ignore the law when they find it inconvenient. What the government should be able to do, and what it actually does are two different things. This gulf is part of what spawns such concern.

Gas SCADA GuyOctober 5, 2007 8:30 AM

@OTR: Wouldn't it make more sense for the NSA to plug the leaks rather than try to fix the problem after the fact?

Hear hear!

AnonymousOctober 5, 2007 8:35 AM

bzelbob:

"It is not the job of journalists to keep classified information secret. That lies with those who give that information it's classified status. The fact they have leaks means they are failing (at least partially) in that job. This is CYA by the NSA."

Not just that, but if genuinely critical information has been leaked, you should always assume the worst, i.e. that the information is now known to your adversaries, and trying to further stop its spread is pointless.

Full disclosure makes even more sense with leaks than with security vulnerabilities in software; if you discover a vulnerability, you may be the only one so far, and initially reporting directly to the vendor is a good idea. If you find sensitive information that has been leaked - especially when it has reached journalists - it's already out "in the wild".

Dr. YesOctober 5, 2007 9:53 AM

Just a way for the NSA to shake hands with a few in the press. It's good for them to make contacts that they might be able to use in the future.

Nothing of significance ever leaks directly from the organization.

@BWAHA:

What does Schneier not having a Ph.D. degree have anything to do any of this? He's done quite well without one, and I don't see that it would add to his credibility even amongst "academics."

A Nonny MouseOctober 5, 2007 10:43 AM

There is a good chance that the NSA's opinion on the damage caused by the leaks is mistaken.

One of the more famous incidents of this came during the Pentagon Papers case, when the NSA sent someone to testify that if certain information was printed by the New York Times, it would let North Vietnam know that their codes were being broken.

It turned out that the exact same information had been printed in the Congressional Record sometime before.

One of the side effects of the overclassification problem (where people stamp something as classified when it isn't) is that government agencies often have no clue what is and isn't public knowledge.

There is also the possibility that the NSA is flat-out lying about what damage has been caused, something which the organization has done in the past. (The NSA's part in the Gulf of Tonkin incident comes to mind.)

Valdis KletnieksOctober 5, 2007 10:50 AM

@Kadin2048: "Given the low public opinion of the Administration at the moment, I wonder how seriously reporters are going to take the NSA's warnings."

Given the low level of hardball journalism we see coming out of the Wash DC area the last few years, I predict that the press in attendance will buy it hook line and sinker without bothering to apply much critical thought.

FrmrFedOctober 5, 2007 12:13 PM

"Wouldn't it make more sense for the NSA to plug the leaks rather than try to fix the problem after the fact?"

That would make too much sense.

"One of the side effects of the overclassification problem (where people stamp something as classified when it isn't) is that government agencies often have no clue what is and isn't public knowledge."

Very true. When in doubt, classify it at the higher level.

HmphOctober 5, 2007 1:08 PM

What overreactions.

This sounds like nothing more than appeal to journalists to consider whether certain types of detail are really needed when:

1) Their story's factual or rhetorical focus is not compromised.

2) Details are of a type that may harm operations or operatives.

This appears to be about a sense of responsibility not censorship. "I CAN freely choose to print this, but do I really feel the need to demonstrate it today?"

Reporters should be able to tell the difference between a "don't make us look stupid" appeal and "do you need to mention our operative was in such-and-so restaurant on the 10th?" It is possible to be a government watchdog and at least consider applying discretion at times.

HalbritterOctober 6, 2007 8:38 PM

@BWAHA:

So how does your retort and dribble contribute to the conversation? I don't see your value add by trying to poke at Bruce.

BTW: You're not even entertaining and boring.

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