NSA’s Big Surprise: Gov’t Agency Is Actually Doing Its Job

When people claimed after 9/11 that the NSA was ill equipped to deal with a changing world, I wonder what they expected to happen.

Ira Winkler, Field CISO & Vice President, CYE

April 4, 2014

3 Min Read
NSA Director Keith Alexander.

As I read all of the stories about the NSA, they come across as if this is somehow surprising. You can search back to the early 2000s and find stories that state how the NSA was behind the technology curve, and was woefully unprepared to deal with the ever-growing Internet and new technologies.

The Sept. 11 attacks seemed to further highlight how the NSA was unable to do its job, because it was focused on Cold War enemies and ill equipped to handle the new terrorist threat.

Well, it now appears that the NSA has made up for lost time.

People want to portray it as an ominous entity that operates independently from all control, but the fact is that the NSA only does what it has been asked to do. It takes direction from the executive branch of the government. Requirements for NSA operations come through the director of national intelligence. All programs are funded through Congress, despite the selective amnesia of many prominent senators and congressmen. Despite any disdain people may have for the FISA court, programs go through that court when required. The NSA is not a rogue agency that operates without oversight.

The leaks resulting from Edward Snowden's treason demonstrate that the NSA is making inroads where everyone previously doubted its capability and said it was failing at its mission. When people claimed that it was ill equipped to deal with a changing world, I wonder what they expected to happen. Did they expect Congress to just dissolve the NSA? Did they expect it just to accept its current technology capability? No, the NSA found a smart group of people and started using its money to work on its supposed shortcomings.

If you don't like what it is doing, you can't really protest the NSA itself. It just found a way to do what people said it couldn't do but was supposed to do. It is only doing exactly what it has been tasked to do.

Easy target? Talk to Congress
Yes, people like to have something to embody their frustration (and the NSA makes an easy target). But if you have a complaint, talk to your representatives in Congress. The NSA director, and actually the incredibly small number of staff members who work on the programs in question, are doing what they believe to be in the best interests of the country, as well as what is morally and legally right. If you think otherwise, then find the people who allocate the funding for the NSA, and deal with them.

As for the protesters who focus their attention on the NSA, they ignore the people who are actively harming hundreds of millions of people. When they criticize the NSA, they ignore the fact that Snowden first ran to China, which has hundreds of political dissidents in jail. China is monitoring its citizens on a scale well beyond anything the NSA is accused of doing -- and that isn't even up for debate. Likewise, they ignore China's supposed wide-scale hacking of the accounts of US citizens and companies.

I actually don't begrudge China for doing what it is doing in theory. The people doing the work are only doing what they believe is in the best interests of their country. The only difference that people should consider is that, at least in the US, there is a public conversation about it. Nor does there seem to be any public outrage toward the criminals who stole the credit cards from Target or who committed similar thefts of personal information or caused financial loss to hundreds of millions of people.

I guess that people just like to go after an entity that appears to actually care about what they think, despite the actual damage caused.

About the Author(s)

Ira Winkler

Field CISO & Vice President, CYE

Ira Winkler, CISSP, is the Director of the Human Security Engineering Consortium and author of the books You Can Stop Stupid and Security Awareness for Dummies. He is considered one of the world’s most influential security professionals and was named “The Awareness Crusader” by CSO Magazine in receiving its CSO COMPASS Award. He has designed, implemented, and supported security awareness programs at organizations of all sizes, in all industries, around the world. Ira began his career at the National Security Agency, where he served in various roles as an Intelligence and Computer Systems Analyst. He has since served in other positions supporting the cybersecurity programs in organizations of all sizes.

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