A Former NSA Agent Asks, “What was Wrong with the Warrantless Wiretapping Program Stellar Wind?”

National Security Agency, NSA

I am confused and disappointed to learn in the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) is publicly admitting that it deleted surveillance data that it had promised to preserve as evidence for pending lawsuits (Josh Gerstein, Politico.com, January 19, 2018).

National Security Agency, NSAAn NSA official, publicly, though cryptically, identified as “Elizabeth B” states that: “The NSA sincerely regrets its failure to prevent the deletion of this data. NSA senior management is fully aware of this failure, and the Agency is committed to taking swift action to respond to the loss of this data.”

I worked at the NSA as an Arabic linguist from June 2002 until July 2006, when I left the Agency to become a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey. In 2004, I even went on a deployment in Iraq, for which I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal.

When I returned to the States and the Fort Meade Campus, I was assigned to the Counter Terrorism Office. And I quickly noticed that something peculiar was going on in our “traffic” (the intercepted materials that we linguists would translate for Intelligence Reports). My boss would look through the bins of traffic and he said, “You can do this (holding up a piece of paper), but you aren’t cleared just yet for this (setting another piece of paper aside).”

A few weeks later, I was told I was receiving a very sensitive clearance. I go to a room and I see a powerpoint presentation. It explains “Stellar Wind” and the presentation included the information that the New York Times knows about the program and is holding off on reporting it, having been asked to do so for National Security reasons. The presentation describes the program technically. This had been ordered by then President George W. Bush. From what I understood of the presentation, I had no problem signing into access, although they did make it clear to me that I could opt not to do so, given the sensitivity of the program. The program as described to me closed a gap in our Intelligence Collection that we crucially needed to close in order to execute the War on Terrorism.

The New York Times finally broke the story while I was still working at the NSA. Senators even came and interviewed co-workers (but not me) about the program.

National Security Agency, NSAOn the day I left the NSA, I was officially “read out” of Top Secret clearance. Late in the day, someone asked me if I went and was read out of “Stellar Wind.” It never occurred to me that I needed to be “read out” of a special access. That person told me, “Yeah, you were supposed to be read out.” But I didn’t.

Fast forward to the present. Based on everything I knew about Stellar Wind when I was processing Intelligence collected through it, I never believed it was in any way illegal. I still don’t.

But that is all the more reason why I am deeply disappointed that the NSA is now admitting that data pertinent to ultimately ruling on the legality of the program was “deleted.”

The NSA says it will try to recover the data and provide it, as promised. I hope they do. Nothing I ever processed through “The Program” is something to be ashamed of and hide. I further hope that “The Program” was not bigger and yet more sensitive than I was cleared for.

 

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