The NSA Has An Internal Office Advice Columnist And Yes, She's An Inconsistent Hypocrite Too

from the spy-versus-spy dept

Peter Maass, who I've been fortunate to meet and has had a pretty amazing career as an embedded war journalist, has penned a pretty fantastic read over at Glenn Greenwald's new The Intercept venture. In it, Maass points out that among the ocean of compelling bits buried in the Snowden documents is this strange little fact: the NSA has an advice columnist who routinely provides NSA employees with office politics and interpersonal advice under the pen name "Zelda." Her column, titled "Ask Zelda!," routinely appears for employees with adequate security clearance via the agency's intranet.

Many of the advice columns released via Snowden's document dump deal with perfectly ordinary office politics, like complaints about stealing sodas out of refrigerators, stinky co-workers, or bosses who can't be bothered to respond to e-mails. But Maass points out that one of the more entertaining columns involves complaints by an NSA worker who is concerned about their boss spying on them. In a column signed "Silence in SID," an employee writes in:
"Here's the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it's mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we're all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented."
The tension created by having an overly nosy boss has resulted, the employee claims, in workplace efficiency problems and a growing lack of trust in the establishment:
"We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite “Idol” contestant to break the tension, but now we're getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations (“Did you have a good weekend?”). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we're more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?
Zelda is quite-amusingly shocked by the boss's behavior inside of an agency of spies:
"Wow, that takes “intelligence collection” in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction. …. We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?"
So spying over-broadly on people you don't think should be spied upon destroys teamwork, fosters distrust and erodes overall efficiency, huh? Gosh, what if you took that concept and applied it to an entire planet? As Maass notes, at no point while giving advice on spying inside the NSA does Zelda seem to have awareness of the possible lessons that could be applied to spying going on outside the NSA (at least that we get to see):
"Her response to “Silenced in SID” does not acknowledge the irony – or hypocrisy – of an employee at a spy agency complaining about being spied on. But Zelda directly addresses the long-lasting effects of inappropriate surveillance. “Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken,” she observes. “Your work center may take time to heal after this deplorable practice is discontinued."
So remember, dear readers: inappropriate surveillance erodes trust, destroys teamwork, damages the overall community, and creates a general downward spiral that's bad for everybody involved. Unless we're doing it to the general public, in which case -- who cares? Now get back to work!

Filed Under: edward snowden, nsa, zelda

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2014 @ 3:01pm

    one of the interesting points in this post is how nothing was done as far as making those higher up the ladder aware of the workers feelings about being spied on. perhaps there is a little bit of a moral story going on here, one they would do well to cultivate, because the world is now watching these people!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2014 @ 3:05pm

    Life inside the bubble...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 7 Mar 2014 @ 3:14pm

    What would be really funny is if the letter wasn't in fact referring to their 'office life', but was a subtle stab at the overbroad, 'Grab Everything' spying the NSA loves so much, by rephrasing it in a smaller context like a boss spying on his employees.

    If that were the case, I'd say the one who sent in the letter did a brilliant job of highlighting the 'One set of laws/rules for us, another for the rest of you' mindset the NSA has.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2014 @ 4:16pm

    The whole thing is beyond parody.

    "NSA = No Secrets Allowed" (Ain't that right)

    "No-one likes a tattle-tale" (Whistle-blowers are so not cool)

    "keep your viagra stash at home or out of sight" (OR out-of-sight? why would they keep it at work in the first place, the mind is boggled, ahh no I don't want to think about it)

    Tapioca Pebble ? TAPIOCA PEBBLE ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2014 @ 7:45am

    In related news...

    A giant lightning rod has just been installed on the roof of NSA headquarters at Fort Meade and is directly connected to the chairs of every person employed there from the top down.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Mar 2014 @ 6:12am

    Business as usual at virtually every place of employment. A paranoid supervisor who has no business ever serving in a supervisory capacity.

    As for the source of the info, I have been led to believe that all docs taken from the NSA were vetted before being released to Greenwald and Co. Appears this is one that slipped by...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Robert, 9 Mar 2014 @ 6:18am


    Isn't it interesting that the professionally paranoid are in fact professionally paranoid. Imagine, nothing could possibly be worse for them psychological, than to see how easy and too what degree people can be spied upon, the deliciousness of it all, they are their own worst evil.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    HungryCats (profile), 9 Mar 2014 @ 6:45am

    Saw this happen, too

    When I was in the military, our new CO brought in a enlisted person from another unit, who we later found out was a snitch, not just a transfer. Definitely wrecked the trust and teamwork within our company, and to my knowledge did not result in any beneficial results (e.g., arrests for drug use, etc.). Certainly a lesson I'll never forget...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 9 Mar 2014 @ 3:21pm


    'Slipped by' how? Other than showing more of the NSA's hypocrisy, this doesn't seem to have any sensitive information that would have been better off held back.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Mar 2014 @ 4:35pm

    Re: Re:

    My recollection is that Snowden provided assurances he had reviewed each document before turning it over to Greenwald and Co., and that they each reflected some matter which he deemed to be contrary to law.

    Being a terrible supervisor is not illegal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Mar 2014 @ 3:09am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Not illegal no, but it does showcase the massive blinders the people working for the NSA seem to be operating with.

    Objecting to bosses that they feel are spying on their every action, because of what it does to them, yet having no problems doing the exact same crap to the nation as a whole(if anything the employees get off lighter), apparently not realizing that the troubles they deal with from pervasive surveillance are the same ones they're inflicting on everyone else.

    Not illegal to be sure, but hypocrisy of that magnitude is certainly a good thing to have pointed out like this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2014 @ 12:11pm

    I like That One Guy's suggestion that the question was just an allegory for NSA's actions worldwide. That would have been a supremely intelligent joke with an audience of one.

    They should have called the column, "Ask Winston."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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