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Meet the Young Journalist Who Ruined a Couple of NSA Spooks' Day

What started out as a routine recruiting session went terribly wrong when students put recruiters on the spot.
 
 
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Last week, a couple of NSA language analysts had a very, very bad day at the University of Wisconsin.

It started out well enough. They headed to a recruiting session, hoping to entice a few bright young minds to join the agency. They showed the two dozen or so students who had assembled a brief slideshow touting the benefits of a career in snooping. It offered important work protecting the country. And it came with good benefits and a fun lifestyle!

Then came the question-and-answer period. Madiha Tahir, a journalist working toward her PhD, started asking questions about the latest revelations on NSA surveillance. Other students joined in and the session went downhill quickly.

An audio recording of the exchange made by Tahir went viral. By the end of the tape, one could almost picture the two agents drowning their sorrows in white Russians (the official cocktail of the NSA) at the Holiday Inn bar after the session.

Tahir joined us for the AlterNet Radio Hour this week. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Joshua Holland: So, Madiha, you saw that they were having an NSA recruiting session, and you decided to go down and check it out. Can you set the scene for us?

Madiha Tahir: Sure. I received an email from the program a day before letting us know that this recruiting session was happening. I went there not actually to speak up but simply because I was curious to see how the NSA would sell itself at a time like this.

I went there, and it was two recruiters, a male and a female. I think at most there were probably 25-30 graduate students in the room, and additionally, there were five high school students who had been brought there by a high school teacher.

JH: Was everybody there out of curiosity like you? Do you think there were people there who were seriously considering a career at the NSA?

MT: When I went there, I thought maybe people were there actually to find out about careers with the NSA, and maybe there were. I have no way of knowing. I do know that once I started to ask questions, a couple of other students joined in. After the exchange, several students got up and left at the same time. I'm told that by the end of the session, there were maybe four people left not including the high school students.

JH: Okay. This is Madiha Tahir asking some questions of a couple of NSA recruiters. Let's take a little listen here:

Madiha: Yeah, I just had a question. You said earlier that the two tasks that you do, one is sort of figuring out the … tracking down the sort of communications of your adversaries, and the other is protecting the communications of officials.

Recruiter1: Right.

Madiha: Do you consider Germany and the countries that the NSA has been spying on to be adversaries, or are you right now not speaking the truth? I'm just asking for clarification.

Recruiter1: I'm focusing on what our foreign policy requirements are, so, I mean, you can define adversary as enemy, and clearly Germany is not our enemy. But would we have foreign national interests from an intelligence perspective on what's going on across the globe? Yeah, we do. I mean, our requirements that come to us as an intelligence community organization -- from the policymakers, from the military, from whoever -- are global.

Madiha: By "adversary," do you actually mean anybody and everybody? There's nobody then, by your definition, that is not an adversary, is that correct?

 
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