Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Common Sense Way to Stop Leaks at the NSA


I worked at the NSA for four years after 9/11 as an Arabic linguist. I'm proud of the work I did there. It included three months serving in Iraq in 2004, for which I was awarded the
Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal. 

Immediately upon returning from Iraq, I was assigned to the Counter Terrorism Office, where I would serve for two more years, at which time I left the NSA to return to teaching. I'm currently a Latin teacher at a public high school in New Jersey. While in the Counter Terrorism Office I was honored to serve in the critical capacity of direct anti-terrorism efforts, which included, I'll admit, being involved in the controversial Stellar Wind program, the so-called Warrantless-Wiretap Program. 

I remember sitting one day in the Counter Terrorism branch and I looked at my computer. The NSA buys computers from standard vendors, such as Dell, but then connects them to a Classified Network that is unconnected to outside networks such as the Internet. I looked at my computer and realized, this is just like my computer at home. It's got a thumb drive portal and even a CD burnable disk drive.

My boss happened by and I asked her, "Does this thumb drive on my computer work?"

She puzzled just for a moment over the question. "I assume so," she finally replied.

"Well, it shouldn't," I said. "If I ever need to send a file on my computer to someone else, I attach it to an email." (And, trust me, there are no file size restrictions inside the NSA.)

I remember her saying that whoever decided that our computers still have working thumb drives must know there must be a good reason. But I insisted there simply wasn't a good reason. These things should be disabled, hell, they should just be removed before these computers are connected to the Classified Network.

I left the NSA in 2006. Four years later, Bradley Manning walked out of a Classified facility with hundreds of thousands of Classified documents. He had downloaded them and removed them from the Classified network on, you guessed it, thumb drives!!!!!

Now, you would imagine the government, trying to make sure that a leak like Bradley Manning could never happen again, would identify that functional thumb drives on Classified computers is simply a stupid idea. I mean, really, there is no reason for them. If you need to send a file from your computer to another person in the Classified network, you email it. You don't move it from one computer to another on a thumb drive.

2013. Edward Snowden walks out of NSA Hawaii with Classified material. Saved on, you guessed it, a thumb drive!!!!!!

And so, what can we conclude? NSA Hawaii Classified computers have working thumb drive ports. This, after Bradley Manning proved an embarrassment to the Intelligence Community by stealing secrets off the Classified Network three years earlier.

I'll repeat what I said all those years ago. Computers in the Classified Network should not have working thumb drives. This is such a ridiculously easy fix!!

When I went to work every day, I drove past soldiers pointing machine guns at the passing cars. I walked past multiple security checks before I would eventually sit down at my work station and begin processing intelligence to try and keep America safe. And again, I'm proud of the work I did there. But the NSA security plan is stuck in the Cold War. The main security effort is designed to keep a Soviet agent from sneaking in. But recent news has shown that the greatest threat is some dweeb with a Top Secret Security Clearance walking out the front door with information on a thumb drive (which he downloaded from a computer that simply shouldn't have a working thumb drive!!!!!!!!!!). 

One final point. I must state that my former boss, General Keith Alexander, is a class act and a true Patriot. I had the honor of actually meeting him when I was called upon to brief the Director of the NSA and explain something I had done which other Intelligence Agencies which shall not be named (See, I, Aah, shouldn't say) disagreed with. He supported me and I am grateful. I describe the incident in question in more detail in the semi-autobiographical novel
Amor Vincit Omnia: an Andrew Valquist Adventure. I was required to submit the novel for approval to the NSA, lest I even inadvertently include a classified detail. They did require me to remove some things from the manuscript of that novel. But I was as equally surprised at what they let me keep in the manuscript, including my telling of the time I met the Director of the NSA. 

In closing, the people at the NSA really do bend over backwards to preserve the Right to Privacy of US Citizens. You don't need to worry that the NSA is listening to your phone conversations. They are working 24/7 to uncover intelligence that thwarts terrorist plots and keeps our homeland safe. I'm proud to have served in their ranks. 

UPDATE July 19

General Alexander today in an interview stated that the following measures are being taken to prevent incidents like the Snowden leak in the future:

"the government is limiting the number of employees who can transfer files to removable drives and changing security protocols at NSA offices."

This is what I said, all those years ago...