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Soul-Searching, NSA-style

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Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com

It's rare to hear a government official speak in contrite tones; rarer still if that official represents the National Security Agency. Recently, however, Anne Neuberger, a special assistant to former NSA Director Keith Alexander, did just that.

A year of revelations, courtesy of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, prepared the way. Since last June, the world has learned that the agency collects information on almost all U.S. domestic phone calls, spies on Internet activity -- courtesy of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook -- taps fiber optic cables and other key Internet infrastructure, uses digital dirty tricks to undermine worldwide computer security, breaks its own internal privacy rules, and as Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept revealed earlier this year, is using "complex analysis of electronic surveillance... as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes -- an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people." And that's only the beginning.

In the wake of all of this, Neuberger offered a reply, though you could be excused for not noticing. After all, she took to DefenseNews TV with her mea culpa.

"Above all, NSA feels a sense of responsibility," she told interviewer Vago Muradian. She sounded earnest and everything about her look and gestures suggested penitence. She talked of understanding and appreciating people's "concerns" and skated to the very brink of apology more than once. Was she there to ask for forgiveness? To admit the NSA had violated the public trust? To offer up the first evidence of soul-searching at an agency that has, for years, spied upon the most intimate communications of untold numbers of people?

In a word: no.

She was there, it turned out, not to express regret to the many millions of people around the world who have been touched by the agency's digital tentacles, but as part of a charm offensive aimed at wooing tech companies, whose long-secret cooperation with the NSA has angered their global customers, back into the espionage fold. "We hear the private sector concerns," she said. "We didn't get out as quickly as we could have, following the media leaks... to explain the roles of the companies, the fact that they are compelled to participate by law, the fact that such programs are really common and almost uniform among Western democracies looking to gather data." This was as close as she came to apology for anything.

The NSA had not done right by its industry partners and, claimed Neuberger, whose official title is director of the agency's Commercial Solutions Center, was looking to make amends. The idea was to pave the way for the spy agency and the tech industry to resume their long-running relationship in the digital shadows. "The core concern we hear," she told Muradian in a fog of vagueness, "is companies saying 'we're global businesses, so while we appreciate the protections for U.S. persons, you need to extend those protections.'" The NSA and the U.S. government, she insisted, had "really begun taking big steps to address some of those concerns."

While the National Security Agency may not be engaging in soul-searching, some of the men and women who have been involved in Washington's drone assassination campaigns in distant parts of the world using the fruits of the NSA's electronic surveillance and other technological wizardry are stepping forward to do so in an impressive way, as Pratap Chatterjee reveals in his latest investigation, "The Three Faces of Drone War." While the NSA works to smooth things over with the tech industry, others are hoping to draw attention to the grave costs of some of the NSA's activities thatNeuberger neglected to mention.

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