Meet the Young Journalist Who Ruined a Couple of NSA Spooks' Day
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.
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?
Recruiter1: That is not correct.
Madiha: Who is not an adversary?
Recruiter1: Well, okay. I can answer your questions, but the reality is …
Madiha: I'm just trying to get the clarification, because you told us what the two nodes of your work are, but it's not clear to me what that encompasses, and you're being fairly unclear at the moment about what you consider to be an adversary. Apparently, it's somebody who's not just an enemy. It's something broader than that, and yet it doesn't seem to encompass everyone. What is the …
Recruiter2: For us, our business is apolitical.
JH: You can hear people snickering in the background when he says that. Did your jaw drop when they said that they're apolitical?
MT: Yeah. I think that's maybe me laughing and saying, "Okay." It just boggles the mind that this is their defense: "Our business is apolitical." In other words, "I'm just doing my job."
JH: That's never been used before.
MT: Yeah. [laughs]
JH: What a unique defense. Okay. Here's another chunk that's great:
Recruiter2: We don't really work on the Information Assurance side of the house. That's the guy who's setting up the … protecting our communication from …
Madiha: Yeah. I guess, I'm surprised that, for language analysts, you're incredibly imprecise with your language, and it just doesn't seem to be clear. “Adversary” is basically what any of your so-called customers – as you call them, which is also a strange term to use for a government agency – decide. If anybody wants -- any part of the government wants something about some country, suddenly they're now internally considered or termed an "adversary." I mean, that's what you seem to be saying.
JH: That was followed by a very long and very awkward pause.
Recruiter2: I'm saying you can think about it using that term.
Recruiter1: But the reality is, it's our government's interest in some aspect of what a foreign country is doing.
Madiha: Right, so it could be anyone.
Recruiter2: As long as they levy the requirement on us through the right vehicle that exists for this, and that it is defined in terms of being a foreign intelligence requirement, there's a national framework of foreign intelligence … what's it called? The …
Recruiter1: The NIPF.
Recruiter1: The NIPF?
Recruiter2: Yes. The National Prioritization of Intelligence Framework, or whatever, that determines these are the issues that we're interested in. These are how they're prioritized.
JH: Were you surprised that these two represented America's best and brightest, the hotshot intelligence agencies? Because you are just running circles around them.
MT: I was surprised that they were so unprepared. I mean, after all of the responses that I've gotten I probably should have mentioned that these were not young recruiters. They told us that between the two of them they had 55 years of experience with the NSA. The woman works in their South Asia languages section and seemed to imply that she led that section, and the male recruiter works with Chinese language.
JH: They had no idea that any of this stuff would be coming their way.
MT: Yeah. These are experienced NSA people. They're not young, newly hired recruits or even low-level employees, and yet they were just absolutely not prepared. They basically tried to say that the agency is apolitical. Then later on they tried to say that they were effectively not there to represent the NSA. I mean, that's what she said to me. She said, "I'm not here to talk about that."
JH: I enjoyed that part, too. Here's another student:
Student: I have a question about the lifestyle you seem to be selling. It sounds more like a colonial expedition. You know, "the globe is our playground" were the words that you used, the phrasing that you used. You seem to be saying that you can do your work, you can analyze said documents for your so-called customers, but then you can go and get drunk and dress up and have fun without thinking of the repercussions that the information you're analyzing has on the rest of the world.
I also want to know, what are the qualifications that one needs to become a whistleblower? Because that sounds like a much more interesting job.
JH: This is hilarious. Madiha, are they physically squirming at this point? Are they like shifting from foot to foot?
MT: They're sort of just standing there a little bit slack and kind of staring off into the distance looking for… trying to figure out answers to these questions, and you can hear the pauses as they try to scramble for the responses.
JH: Yes, you can. What did she mean when she was asking them about getting drunk? That was kind of enigmatic.
MT: Yes. That's the other thing. You hear this student mention that. This was in reference to an earlier statement by the female recruiter during which she told us that NSA people, after they do what she called heavy work, they go down to the bar, dress up in costume, do karaoke and get drunk....
She was trying to sell this as an attractive kind of lifestyle. Her reasoning for telling us this was that people who socialize together work better together. The other was that you're not able to really tell your family about the kind of work that you do—what it is that you do at the office all day—so that's why you hang out with your colleagues, because they actually have a sense of your office life.
JH: Okay, so then it's obvious that they're getting really awkward and he says, "Hey, this job isn't for everybody." Let's give that a quick listen:
Recruiter2: And this job isn't for everybody, you know, and that's part of the reason for coming out here is that academia is a great career for people …
Madiha: Is this job for liars? Is that what you're saying? Because clearly you're not able to give us forthright answers. I mean, given the way that the NSA has behaved, given the fact that we have been lied to as Americans, given the fact that fact sheets have been pulled down because they clearly had untruths in them, given the fact that [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and [NSA Director Keith] Alexander lied to Congress, is that a qualification for being in the NSA? Do you have to be a good liar?
Recruiter1: I don't consider myself to be a liar in any fashion, and the reality is, I mean, this was billed as, if you were potentially interested in an NSA career, come to our session. If you're not, if this is your personal belief and your understanding of what has been presented, then there's nothing that says you need to come and apply and work for us. We're not here … our role as NSA employees is not to represent NSA—the things that are in the press right now about NSA—to the public. That's not our role at all. That's not my area of expertise. I have not read everything….
Madiha: Right, but you're here recruiting, and so you're selling the organization. I'm less interested in what your specialized role is within the NSA. I don't care. The fact is you're here presenting a public face for the NSA, and you're trying to sell the organization to people that are as young as high schoolers and trying to tell us that this is an attractive option in a context in which we clearly know that the NSA has been telling us complete lies—so I'm wondering, is that a qualification?
Recruiter1: I don't believe the NSA is telling complete lies. I do believe that people can… you can read a lot of different things that are portrayed as fact, and that doesn't make them fact just because they're in newspapers and…
Madiha: Or intelligence reports?
Recruiter1: That's not really our… that's not our purpose here today, and I think if you're not interested in a… there are probably people here who are interested in a language career.
Madiha: The trouble is we can't opt out of NSA surveillance, and we don't get answers. It's not an option. You're posing it as a choice, like, "Oh, you know, people who are interested can just sit here, and those of us who are not interested can leave." If I could opt out of NSA surveillance and it was no longer my business, that would be fine, but it is my business, because all of us are being surveilled, so we're here.
Recruiter1: That's incorrect. That is not our business. That is not our business, and that is not what we do.
Madiha: That doesn't seem to be incorrect given the leaks, right? You are not able… the NSA has not been able to actually put out anything that is convincing contrary to that.
JH: That was just so much awesome. Madiha Tahir, I want to thank you so much for joining us.
MT: Thank you for having me.