Former DHS Chief Privacy Officer Recounts How She Was Regularly Called A 'Terrorist' By The Intelligence Community

from the sickening dept

Mary Ellen Callahan was the Chief Privacy Officer (and the Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer) at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 until 2012 (though, don’t tell DHS, since they still have a page on their website about her claiming she still has that role — even though she left over a year ago). You have to imagine that being the Chief Privacy Officer within DHS (or any part of the federal government, really) is a pretty thankless job, and it appears that was absolutely the case when Callahan was there. Last night, she was given an award by the IAPP, the International Association of Privacy Professionals — and used it as an opportunity to reveal the work environment in her old job. From the sound of those in attendance, she gave quite a speech, unloading on the lack of respect for privacy in both the Department of Homeland Security and the wider intelligence community.

She apparently claimed that the number of privacy officers at the NSA was zero — including the Chief Privacy Officer of the NSA. In other words, the position within the NSA is a joke, and that person has no interest, at all, in protecting Americans’ privacy. But, apparently, she was just warming up, because (according to other attendees), she claimed that her office was accused of being “terrorists” once a month both by others at DHS as well as in the wider intelligence community. Furthermore, she was told that they would make her testify after the next terrorist attack, claiming it would be her fault, for daring to protect Americans’ privacy. To her credit, Callahan apparently told those pressuring her that she would “happily” testify in support of her efforts to protect the privacy of Americans.

While this won’t surprise the more cynical among you, it’s an incredibly damning statement about how our intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security view privacy, and piddly little things like the 4th Amendment. It also shows how merely hiring a “chief privacy officer” doesn’t mean that an agency actually is concerned about privacy or that it makes sure to protect the privacy of the American public. It’s quite common that defenders of DHS, DOJ and NSA overreach will point to things like “privacy officers” as if that means they take privacy seriously. However, it’s often somewhat like a privacy policy — something you can point to, but which no one pays attention to. And, there had always been assumptions that anyone who took that role seriously would get pressure, but it sounds like the pressure was even greater and more ridiculous than most people expected. Hopefully Callahan will speak out further on the kind of pressure she was put under while in that job.

Hat tip to Ryan Calo and Joseph Lorenzo Hall, for tweeting from the event.

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Comments on “Former DHS Chief Privacy Officer Recounts How She Was Regularly Called A 'Terrorist' By The Intelligence Community”

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Ninja (profile) says:


You have to imagine that being the Chief Privacy Officer within DHS (or any part of the federal government, really) is a pretty thankless job, and it appears that was absolutely the case when Callahan was there.

I’d think that anybody involved with the Constitution or with any rights of the ordinary citizen is being mocked and called a terrorist as well. After all the US has nearly 300 million terrorists within its borders, no?

Jay (profile) says:

Hold on...

our intelligence communit

Mike, I care for the articles, the research, and the economics that you hold to scrutiny.

But this just can’t slide.

You see, that’s not our intelligence community. That… Thing of LEOs is a beast that grew and grew into a hydra with many heads. We got the NSA as a result of the Second World War (give or take) and it’s been working tirelessly to usurp democracy for generations.

James Bamford has great books on the subject. But the NSA doesn’t CARE about the American people. It didn’t in the 50s under Nixon, it didn’t under any other president since and the American people have seen this exposed for the second or third time. This hydra cares only about the people that feed it and it isn’t the American public. The public it serves has interest only in war and the money it receives in destruction.

To them, the Constitution is a piece of paper only meant to serve the needs of its master. It doesn’t protect every single American born in the US.

So with all due respect, that isn’t an intelligent thing to do. It also isn’t intelligent to only serve the largest monetary interest. It’s greed and dishonesty that brought down Nixon and even Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.

If we want an intelligence community, it would be with academics, researchers, and people interested in these topics without assumptions, without backwards thinking, and able to present ways to discuss these issues without trying to have power over others.

I don’t know… Maybe it’s a pipe dream now, but that sounds like something better than a drone strike in a foreign country with nothing more than a gut belief.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hold on...

Actually I think many of the common workers in NSA are ordinary researchers and academics. The problem is the tradition among higher tiers where you see generals like sir Clapper, sir Alexander and especially the civilian only by title sir Inglis who has a long military carreer as a… General. Even though deputy director is reserved for a civilian, the post has been on unquestionably military hands since 2000.

That, my friend, is the problem. Generals are good at some things but are trained to prevent transparency. The composition in the top of NSA lack the feel of the daily operations of someone with a different perspective.

What NSA is trying to do is adding an advisor instead. Advisors are that much easier to ignore than actually breaking the purity of the directors:

Richard (profile) says:

Only Long Practice in Cynicism Keeps My Head from Exploding

…while trying to reconcile my inclination to renewed faith that the gov’t owns “a few good (wo)men” with my horror at Ms.Callahan’s treatment.

I can only hope there are others of integrity as high as Ms. Callahan’s, who are sneaking around and protecting our privacy while keeping a low profile. Not that I’m betting anything I cherish on that hope.

Anonymous Coward says:

See the institutional culture inside those places is what make them what they are, that is a very, very hard thing to change, mainly because they don’t believe they are doing anything wrong, it may have started with someone using some excuse to justify one case where it may have been appropriate but that lie turned grew and took a life of its own after that.

Is like the “for the children”, “rape” or any hardcore subject, people get blinded by it and want to see it done no matter the cost in the end they always get screwed and keep wondering why it happens.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What convinces you that much of what was related reflects more than workplace banter of the type seen every day?

Every day? I have never seen workplace banter and “chain-pulling” of that sort in my entire 30+ year career arc spanning multiple companies. Not once.

I guess I’ve been fortunate in always having worked with professionals.

Pragmatic says:

So that Wired comment wasn’t an anomaly, then.

It really is how they see anyone who disagrees with them.

Here’s the thing; I disagree with both liberals and socialists, but I’m friendly with a number of them because they’re reasonable, decent people trying to do the right thing for as many people as possible, with a view to encouraging equality of opportunity. What we disagree about is how to get there.

My point is, disagreeing with someone doesn’t make you the enemy, and if they think you are one just for that, they’re immature and paranoid. Not the kind of people you want to have in charge.

Anonymous Coward says:

And this kind of group thinking is why our government is stuck in an endless cycle of stealing more of our freedoms in the name of national security.

You don’t want to be blamed for the next terrorist attack by voting against more security spending and laws! In fact, all those who oppose any of national security spending, or laws stripping civilians of their rights in the name of national security must either be a terrorist, or secretly working with terrorists, because Bush said you’re either with us or with the terrorists!

Anonymous Coward says:

She was lucky

They could simply dig into her private life and find something to force her out of her job. That’s the most likely approach, done to two Generals so far and sundry politicians around the world.

NSA can spoof email (which is what I think they wanted to do to Snowden using Lavabit), so they can fake incriminating emails against her.

Or if she’s really got nothing, they could plant drugs on her car, tip off the DEA to ‘random’ stop her car and lie in court to cover it up. She can’t even say ‘well NSA set her up, because DEA officers lied in court to say it was purely a random stop.

bobmorning (profile) says:

I worked with her.

I got out of DHS in April 2012. Couldn’t deal with the ineptness and waste. Went back to civilian work.

She was one of the rare professionals in DHS. I worked with her on many Privacy Impact Assessments and Privacy Threat Assessments.

She gets it, unfortunately there are too few of her types in the federal workforce.

For the NSA (good luck on reading this):



Aissa says:

While this article provides minor entertainment, I found it rather useless and irritating. I find it hard to read articles that appear to want to genuinely give readers facts but in essence provide a lot of fluff. It sounds so much like gossip and it’s a little embarrassing. While I am not a huge fan of what the NSA has been doing with individual privacy rights, I don’t need to hear “apparently’s” and “according to”. I don’t want your guess work. If you are going to write an article to shed light about how unintelligent our intelligent agencies are, please do first hand research.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

While this comment provides minor entertainment, I found it rather useless and irritating. I find it hard to read comments that appear to want to genuinely give readers facts but in essence provide a lot of fluff. It sounds so much like gossip and it’s a little embarrassing. While I am not(not) a huge fan of what Techdirt has been doing with providing plenty of links to draw my own opinions from, I don’t need to hear about your “Dislike of having to think for yourself”. I don’t want to be told what I should be thinking. If you are going to write a comment complaining about how an opinion blog provides information for readers to draw their own opinions on the topic while providing the basis for a discussion, please consider you might have some flawed expectations

any moose cow word says:

I get the feeling that Callahan is still on the DHS website because of a technicality that requires someone be listed for Chief Privacy Officer and Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer. Her vacated office surely makes an excellent place to heap all of those unprocessed FOIA request. Dormant email accounts and voicemail also serve well as black holes for other unwanted communications.

Ken (user link) says:


If this is their attitude towards people within the DHS who spoke up for privacy, you can imagine how they feel about the rest of us in America.

These people have truly been radicalized by their own rhetoric.

The views of most people who care about freedom and liberty haven’t really changed. It is THESE people who have changed.

THEY are the terrorists. THEY are the radicals. THEY are guilty of treason.

Laser Guided Loogie

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