By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Are you looking for a fast-paced career in wire-tapping, records grabbing and just general creeping?
Then look no further than the National Security Agency.
The embattled NSA — and its once-secret now-widely publicized program of collecting telephone records of average Americans — is hiring.
In fact, two veteran NSA workforce recruiters showed up on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on July 2, searching for recruits in a class of some 25 students enrolled in the South Asia Summer Language Institute – including five high school students.
If Madiha R. Tahir, a freelance journalist and language institute student, could write a want ad for the tech-driven spy agency she said she would borrow loosely from a 2008 CIA Powerpoint presentation for college seniors contemplating a career in espionage. It would go something like this:
“Are you good at manipulating people? Are you good at lying to people with a straight face?” suggested Tahir, who live tweeted and blogged about the recruitment session last week.
Let’s just say it was a rough recruiting session for the NSA.
Tahir posted 12 minutes of audio, in which the graduate student and a couple other classmates peppered the recruiters with questions about the agency and revelations, leaked by insider Edward Snowden, that NSA is tapping into conversations all over the world – including millions of Americans phone records.
The audio has since gone viral.
Tahir said one of the NSA recruiters had cavalierly described the NSA’s work, asserting “the globe is our playground.”
The student, who is learning Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, asked the recruiters what constituted an “adversary” in the minds of the NSA. A new report in a German magazine quoted Snowden saying the NSA spies for Germany and other western governments on a “no questions asked”-basis.
“So for us, our business is apolitical,” the male recruiter responds on the recording. “If you want to use the word ‘adversary,’ you know, we might use the word ‘target’ – that is what we are going after. That is the intelligence target that we are going after because we were given that requirement.
“Whether it’s ‘adversary’ in the global war on terrorism sense or adversary in terms of national security interests or whatever, that’s for policymakers to make that determination. We respond to requirements that we are given.”
Tahir, who reports on conflict, culture and politics in Pakistan, wasn’t satisfied with the answer.
“For language analysts, you are incredibly imprecise with your language and it just doesn’t seem to be clear,” she said in the recorded exchange, charging the recruiters with engaging in a game of semantics.
“I think Germany seems to be quite shocked about what is going on so this is not just a word game, and you understand that as well as I do. It’s very strange that you are selling yourself here in one particular fashion that is absolutely not true,” Tahir declared.
“I don’t think we’re selling ourselves in any untrue fashion,” a female NSA recruiter fired back.
The exchange heated up, and finally the male recruiter acknowledged the job isn’t for everybody.
“So is this job for liars?” Tahir asked. “Is that what you are saying? Because you clearly are not able to give us forthright answers. I mean, given the way NSA has behaved, given the fact that we have been lied to as Americans, is that a qualification for being in the NSA? Do you have to be a good liar?
“I don’t consider myself to be a liar in any fashion,” the female recruiter said, noting the recruitment session was designed for those interested in a possible NSA careers. “If you’re not, if this is your personal belief or understanding of what’s been presented, then, you know, there’s nothing that says you need to come and apply and work for us.
Tahir didn’t let her off the hook.
“But you’re here recruiting and selling the organization. The fact is you are here presenting a public face for the NSA and you’re trying to sell the organization to people who are as young as high schoolers and try 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,” Tahir said.
‘Inside the NSA’
Wisconsin Reporter asked NSA about the recruitment session at the university, and others like it.
Agency spokeswoman Vanee M. Vines in an email wrote, “Given the volume of media requests, we can’t assist you with your story at this time.”
She did point Wisconsin Reporter to the NSA website, the frequently asked questions section offering a glimpse at career life “Inside NSA.”
There’s decent money in high-tech spying, with salaries commensurate with a candidate’s education and experience, of course. Entry-level pay (including locality pay) starts out at $42,209 for language analysis and intelligence analysis; $55,293 for computer science; and $56,375 for computer electrical engineering, although the latter two fields are based on premium pay scales.
“NSA employees, in certain circumstances, may also be eligible to receive overtime compensation, holiday pay, night differential, Sunday premium pay, bonuses, and other allowances,” the agency notes.
The agency says the ability and potential for “flexible” career growth is one of its major strengths and benefits that “attracts and retains its excellent and highly-skilled workforce, and differentiates NSA from many other companies or agencies.”
Vines said NSA’s workforce includes more than 35,000 civilian and military employees worldwide. She did not respond to Wisconsin Reporter’s question about how many jobs it looks to fill.
The agency so under fire for its alleged invasion of privacy sees itself in patriotic, glorified terms.
“NSA is a national asset, a national treasure that provides information superiority to the U.S. and the free world,” the agency notes in describing NSA culture.
“NSA has a very rich heritage and its contributions have shortened wars, saved lives, and prevented conflicts,” the website states. “Additionally, some of the technology invested, such as supercomputers, cassette tapes, and biometrics have even created or contributed to new industries and businesses.”
That technology also has been used to wade into the lives of unsuspecting individuals who apparently pose no national security risk or interest – they merely were caught up in the net of information gathering.
Given the privacy revelations, Tahir believes the NSA has some nerve coming around university campuses recruiting, to high school students nonetheless.
“I think it speaks to the bubble in which the intelligence community lives, a certain kind of hubris and disengagement from the broader public to walk on campus and recruit in the same way they always have without answering questions,” Tahir told Wisconsin Reporter in a phone interview Monday.
But the NSA is a government agency, and like many other government agencies, such as military branches, the NSA is going to go where the fresh recruits are: college campuses.
UW-Madison spokesman Greg Bump said NSA has been holding recruiting sessions for several years. Bump was checking on whether federal funding for the language institute requires the university to open its doors to NSA recruiters.
He said UW-Madison is a place of varied ideas and opinions, as evidenced by the NSA recruitment session last week.
“Our students are capable of making up their own minds and coming to conclusions on the work of any government agency,” he said. “We’re not going to reduce their opportunities by shutting down any avenue (students) want to take.”
Contact Kittle at [email protected]