Explaining a rough patch at work to sympathetic family and friends over the holidays can be tough when your job is classified top secret.
So the National Security Agency helpfully gave employees a list of authorized talking points ahead of the Thanksgiving break, according to the blog Firedoglake, which obtained a purported copy of the memo. The Washington Post also posted a copy of the memo on its blog The Switch.
The memo follows months of shocking revelations about the NSA's massive surveillance network as described in internal reports and documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The agency gathered phone records and Internet communications from hundreds of millions of people, sometimes misleading its government overseers in the process.
The holiday talking points memo includes plenty of mission statement-like declarations of pride. “NSA’s mission is of great value to the nation,” the two-page memo begins. “We strive to be the best that we can be, because that's what America requires as part of its defense in a dangerous world,” another section states.
But there’s also a lot of pretty wiggly-worded, lawyerese that Cousin Sally might not grasp.
For example, the talking points claim that controversial NSA snooping helped “understand and disrupt 54 terrorists events since 9/11” and “thirteen of those had a homeland nexus.”
Not sure what to make of a “homeland nexus”? It almost certainly doesn’t mean that 13 terrorist plots were stopped in the United States. Under tough questioning from senators in July, NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis was reduced to conceding that “there is an example that comes close to a 'but for' example,” meaning just one plot at most averted on U.S. soil.
The NSA talking points also say that the agency “does not target U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens unless that targeting is premised on a finding of probable cause to believe that the person is a foreign power or the agent of a foreign power.”
The key word in that sentence is “target.” The NSA’s actual data collection effort vacuums up email and calling records on just about everyone. The agency has asserted that specific information is pulled from the vast databases only with proper authority, but even that claim is in dispute.
The secret court that oversees the data gathering found that the “NSA exceeded the scope of authorized acquisition continuously” leading to “"systemic overcollection," in an opinion released by the government with significant redactions. And in at least a dozen instances, NSA employees used information from the surveillance programs improperly, including to snoop on spouses and lovers, CNN reported.
But those facts may be a little harder to defend over a slice of pumpkin pie.