When Edward Snowden went public nearly two-and-a-half years ago with his explosive revelations about the National Security Agency, his former employer, the mask of secrecy that NSA had worn since its birth in 1952 fell for good. For NSA, America’s biggest and most important intelligence agency, this was a deeply unwelcome and uncomfortable change. For decades, the agency had gone about its top secret business with little public scrutiny or fanfare.
Out at its main base at Fort Meade, in the Maryland suburbs halfway between Baltimore and Washington, DC, NSA had long been regarded as “No Such Agency,” and for many years the Pentagon indeed denied its very existence, even though its sprawling headquarters complex, where tens of thousands are employed, was visible from the highway.
While the agency no longer denies it’s there, the Snowden compromise cast scrutiny on NSA of a degree and kind it had never imagined. The initial reaction at Fort Meade to Snowden was shock, then disbelief that the agency’s “crown jewels” had been exposed to the world. NSA was slow to react and, while much of that reticence can be blamed on the White House, which for months reacted to the Snowden affair by pretending it wasn’t going on, there’s no doubt that the agency fumbled its response too.
There was plenty of counsel being proffered – I gave some of it – that the Snowden saga, though admittedly a debacle, also offered an opportunity for NSA to turn the page from its spooky Cold War self and become less obsessively secretive about its activities. While current operations must remain behind a shroud of secrecy, much about NSA could be revealed to the public without loss of sensitive intelligence sources and methods.