Before Snowden, an NSA Spy Incited Change from the Inside. He Called Himself a “Curmudgeon.”

The Intercept
August 15, 2018

You know the type.

Middle-aged, male, tired of his job. He’s been around for ages and moans about how things were done 10 times better back in the day. Every so often, he snaps pointlessly at a co-worker. He’s the office curmudgeon. It’s time for him to go, and he probably realizes it.

Workplace grouches are usually ignored or fired, but the National Security Agency gave a unique platform to one of its own. In the mid-aughts, in an internal newsletter, the NSA published a series of articles by Rahe Clancy, an eavesdropper disillusioned with what the agency had become and what he was doing there. It’s not that Clancy disliked spying on people or governments — he supported the collection of signals intelligence, or SIGINT — but he felt that the NSA had lost its way.

After 30 years on the job, he wrote, “I found myself turning into a SIGINT Curmudgeon.” In 2005, he published his coming-out article for the newsletter, SIDtoday, which was targeted at the agency’s core Signals Intelligence Directorate. Clancy wrote that he was particularly worried about the future of his area of expertise, known as “collection,” through which the NSA intercepts and downloads a variety of transmissions, both earthbound and from satellites. “I was convinced,” he continued, “that collection was a dying career field and that NSA management was hastening its demise through neglect.” Clancy was writing for a distinctive audience — the thousands of eavesdroppers, hackers, and analysts who worked for the NSA. His articles for SIDtoday, posted on a secure computer network, were provided to The Intercept by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Clancy had a theory about what was going wrong: The NSA was being run like a corporation, not a spy agency. It emphasized managers, clients, products, and customer satisfaction. There were substantial pay-and-perk gaps between leadership and the workforce. And the lingo was maddening, a daily hailstorm of “paradigm,” “synergy,” “enterprise,” and “teaming.” It was all driving him nuts — literally. One day, he broke down and had a loud disagreement with his bosses in the middle of the office. He considered early retirement, but had to stick it out because he needed his full benefits.

“I fail to see how running a Cryptologic Intelligence Agency bears more than a superficial resemblance to running a corporation,” he wrote in his final column. “If we had a product to sell, and competition selling that product, I would gladly embrace the corporate model for NSA. But we don’t have competition.”

A strange thing happened on his grumbling way out the door. Clancy’s final column, published as he retired in 2006, was an unexpected hit. Titled “The SIGINT Curmudgeon’s Last Shot!,” it made bitter fun of what he defined as the “Corp-speak” that had overtaken the agency (“SYNERGISTIC: Isn’t that from ‘Mary Poppins’?”). In a follow-up article, the editors of SIDtoday said they received an “unprecedented amount of feedback” and published a sampling of it. “Spot on!” a staffer wrote. “Too many think it’s more important to ‘get ahead’ than get things done!” Another eavesdropper remarked, “Wonderful and to the point. Too much is spent on hype and pointless nonsense.” A longtime veteran added, “I have often mourned the NSA that I joined in 1982. … If anyone knows where it went, please send me a map.”

With his last shot, the curmudgeon became a hero.

A Bookworm and a Collector

In the style of tabloids, SIDtoday had a rotating cast of columnists drawn from the agency’s workforce. There was the “SIGINT Philosopher” who wrote about ethical issues of surveillance; there was a column called “Ask Zelda!” that was akin to “Dear Abby” for spies; and there was “Signal v. Noise,” which explored the intricacies of data collection. Clancy, as the “SIGINT Curmudgeon,” cast a critical eye on the internal discourse at the world’s largest eavesdropping agency. He was, in his cranky way, an amateur anthropologist of modern surveillance culture.

In retirement, Clancy continues his curmudgeonly ways, in the sense of being a bit grumpy about talking with a reporter. He eventually came around to discussing, in an exchange of emails, his critique of the agency, though he kept to generalities. “The numerous oaths I have taken to protect classified information and the Constitution are still very much real to me,” he told The Intercept. “If that leads to me being ‘overcautious,’ so be it.”

My attempts to contact Clancy began several years ago, when I was able to get an email address and phone number for his wife. The first time I spoke with her, in 2015, she said the NSA told her husband not to talk with me. The next time I spoke with her, in early July as I began writing this article, she gave me his phone number. I left several voicemails over several days and emailed his wife again; there was no response. However, about a week later, Clancy emailed me. “Apologies for ignoring your attempts to communicate for so long,” he wrote. “I was not anxious to discuss any of the leaked documents nor was I eager to have my name made public. I’m still not thrilled about it!”

I had sent a few general questions, and he answered some of them. He said he’s an avid reader — the genres he likes include alternative history, westerns, war novels, historical novels, Egyptology, and sci-fi, specifically space opera. He has 1,000 books in his home library and 500 in his digital collection. He does not consider himself a writer. “I wrote for work and sometimes for fun,” he said. “If I have any talent in that arena it’s because of dedicated teachers and a very small high school. There were never more than 100 students in grades 9-12.”

A few minutes on Google helped fill in the blanks about that high school and other parts of Clancy’s biography. He comes from salt-of-the-earth America. He was born in 1948, and his father was a North Dakota farmer and World War II veteran who served in the Guadalcanal campaign. He was raised in a small town, Buffalo, and after graduating from the local high school, he attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He left after a year to enlist in the Army and apparently served in military intelligence during the Vietnam War. But he lasted only three years — he acknowledged in one of his articles that “I’ve never been very good with authority, especially the military type.” After returning to North Dakota and getting married in 1974, he took a civilian job in England with the Department of Defense; this was the start of his career at the NSA, which is under the aegis of the DOD. His three children were born in England, and in 1990 they moved back to the U.S., settling in Maryland, not far from the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade.

Like pretty much everyone else at the NSA, Clancy’s work was classified. He described a bit of it in one of his articles, however, referencing “20 years of FORNSAT experience and 10 years of HF collection.” His reference to FORNSAT indicates satellite collection, which involves targeting the streams of data coming from satellites down to receivers on earth. His reference to “HF collection” seems to mean the collection of “High Frequency” radio signals, a traditional backbone of the NSA’s eavesdropping. In the last stretch of his career, Clancy served for 17 months as a senior collection officer at the NSA’s National Security Operation’s Center, where he was involved in responding to events as they happened across the globe. It was a job he loved, and it softened his curmudgeonly edges.

“I supported Afghan military operations, Iraqi military operations, numerous CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) missions, downed aircraft, hostage situations, and a myriad of other tasks,” he wrote in SIDtoday. “I helped track Al Qaeda operatives, Taliban members, members of the former Iraqi regime, and aircraft and ships carrying weapons to/from proscribed nations. Sometimes all at once! I was on duty the night we went into Iraq and I went home that night feeling wrung-out, but with a feeling of accomplishment. When I think back on all of the history to which I had a ringside seat during that tour, it’s almost overwhelming!”

Clancy had a different kind of ringside seat throughout his career: He saw the NSA metastasize.

“Corp-speak” Divides the NSA

When Clancy started in the 1970s, the NSA focused primarily on intercepting the pre-digital murmurings of foreign governments and armies. It was, for sure, a secretive organization and engaged in its share of legally dubious spying, but it wasn’t the hyper-controversial behemoth it later became. The advent of the web in the 1990s changed the scope of the NSA’s work. As the world’s communications broadened to the digital sphere, the NSA widened its eavesdropping beyond satellites, phone lines, and telegraph cables to include the new infrastructure for online communications used by governments, non-state actors, and regular people. After 9/11, the NSA took on new duties and resources in a huge rush, engaging in vast eavesdropping activities that, in many cases, again likely violated the law.

By 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, thanks to documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA’s budget was $10.8 billion. It had become a massive bureaucracy and adopted the techniques of large corporations, to the chagrin of Clancy and others. You don’t have to take the curmudgeon’s word for it. The archive of documents leaked by Snowden includes a large number of files that extoll a business school approach to managing the NSA, using a type of language that almost seems to parody corporate communications. For instance, one SIDtoday article was titled “The Customer Scorecard,” and here’s its first paragraph:

One of the key initiatives for the Customer Relationships Directorate for 2004 is to update and improve the customer Support Plans (CSPs) for each customer of the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID). The main element required in making the CSPs better is feedback from the customer. To obtain this feedback, the CRD began a pilot program called the ‘customer scorecard’. This scorecard will be used to determine how the Signals Intelligence Directorate is meeting its customers’ product and service needs.

Intentionally or not, the NSA was draping its life-and-death activities in corporate jargon, offering its staff a layer of semantic insulation that distanced them from the lethal nature of what they were doing. After all, their “customers” are not customers in the usual sense of the term. They are military services, intelligence agencies, the White House, State Department, and other parts of the U.S. government. The “products” of the NSA are, similarly, unlike the products most companies make. They are intelligence reports that include, for instance, electronic surveillance used to locate people for drone assassination and find targets in foreign countries to bomb.

Another SIDtoday document, titled “Making Customer Feedback Work for Everyone,” is a mind-bending exercise in funneling lethal activities through the blender of corporate pablum. “Today,” the document states, “our vision is providing the right information to the right customer at the right time — within their information space — completely focused on our customers’ successful outcomes.” It continues:

Toward that end, we are embracing processes and technology that will make available the intended outcomes of customer Information Needs, customer feedback, observed customer behavior and preferences, outright customer complaints and their resolution across the SIGINT enterprise at the touch of a button. We have been developing the business processes for this technology for the past 18 months and are now ready to prototype the technology that will lead us to trending and analysis of customer feedback and behavior. We expect this to result in improved one-to-one customer relationships that benefit many customers across the board.

Clancy was mystified by language of this sort.

“The lure of the ‘lingo’ is very strong,” he wrote in his last column. “To listen to someone speak ‘Corp-speak’ fluently is like listening to a Bushman speaking a Khoisan ‘click’ language. It’s absolutely fascinating, but, except for some of the hand waving, it’s totally incomprehensible to outsiders! A few months ago I was in a meeting that was attended by a couple of seniors who were not technical people. They were staff or HR types and they spoke ‘Corp-speak.’ One of them did a lot of talking during the hour meeting, but I have no idea what he said. I’m not a stupid person (really!) but I was clueless. I mean, I recognized the words: ‘Leverage,’ ‘paradigm,’ ‘synergy,’ ‘synergistic,’ ‘enterprise,’ ‘extended enterprise,’ ‘teaming,’ ‘corporateness,’ etc., but they didn’t fit together in a way that I understood.”

In response to Clancy’s column, the editors of SIDtoday published nine comments from NSA staffers. The final comment summed up the general reaction. “I laughed and cried,” the comment began. “It became a part of me. But seriously, Clancy hit the nail on the head for me. We spend so much time in this agency talking about unique product, as if it’s the greatest cleanser or whitener to hit the market, that we forget that as a government agency we are not in a ‘for profit’ business. … Our job, first and foremost, is to get intelligence out to the people who need it, period. Words such as ‘actionable’ or slogans like ‘Ahead with SIGINT that counts’ don’t really mean anything.”

The NSA, contacted by The Intercept, declined to comment on the accusations that the agency had become too corporate.

Life After the Agency

Clancy still lives in Maryland and, in his retirement, worked for a while as a dog trainer at PetSmart. He and his wife raise Alaskan klee kais, a smaller version of Siberian huskies. “About two litters each year for the love of our dogs,” he wrote me. “Our dogs are our family.” He has a Facebook page where he posts pictures and videos of their puppies, which are indeed very cute. He occasionally takes them on outings to a local Starbucks.

Some of his Facebook posts are exactly what you’d expect from a self-described curmudgeon. Last year, he posted a graphic that said, “The fact that Jellyfish have survived for 650 million years despite not having brains gives hope to many people.” He also shared a video that began with this notice: “Just because you went to college doesn’t make you smarter than anyone else. … Common sense doesn’t come with a degree.” He even looks a bit like a curmudgeon — bald head, long, gray beard, a few extra pounds at his girth — though in most pictures, he has a broad smile.

His parting with the NSA has the hallmarks of being quietly triumphant. I asked, in one of my emails, whether he was aware that his final SIDtoday article had elicited such a strong and positive response inside the agency. He didn’t reply directly, though he wrote, “I have been approached by current employees who found out who I am and just wanted to shake my hand, so I know that at least some people remember me.”

In his grouchy way, was the SIGINT Curmudgeon a whistleblower of some sort? Certainly not in the way of Snowden or Chelsea Manning — they took their critiques to the public by leaking vast amounts of classified documents, hoping that their actions would spur greater awareness of secret government abuses. Clancy was hardly a rebel of that type. Last year, he posted onto his Facebook page a graphic that said, “President Trump is focused on ‘America First’! Democrats are focused on stopping Trump! Think about that.” He also gave a five-star review to a pro-Trump outlet, One America News Network, and shared several posts from the Convention of States, which seeks to hold a constitutional convention that would greatly restrict the powers of the federal government.

These posts raise some interesting questions. In his nostalgia for returning the NSA to its cultural roots, does Clancy think the government should throttle back its post-9/11 spying activity? One of the most controversial aspects of the NSA’s work is that, in its efforts to vacuum up the worldwide communications of foreigners, it also acquires immense quantities of American citizens’ emails, texts, and phone records — what it calls “incidental” collection. Although conservatives tend to support NSA surveillance as an anti-terrorism matter, the scope of the agency’s spying has attracted deep criticism from, among others, libertarian lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul.

I asked Clancy about this.

“My personal political views had no bearing on my job performance,” he replied. “I am politically conservative and believe governance should be as close to the people as possible. Privacy must be protected but so must our intelligence gathering capability to protect the country.”

His aims were apparently modest: He sought to incite quiet changes from the inside. “I wrote these articles not only to voice my personal concerns (and frustration) about the state of the Agency but to get people talking and thinking,” he told me. “I had hoped to encourage the ‘worker bees’ to become more vocal and involved. Get ideas rolling uphill if possible.”

I asked for a bit of detail about the reforms he wanted to encourage, but he shied away from explaining more. In any event, he doesn’t appear to believe that his curmudgeonly dissent reached the people who matter the most. As he noted in one of his emails to me, “If I influenced Agency seniors in any way, I would be pleasantly surprised.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.