Sunlight and Secrecy: Whistleblowing, Corruption, and the NSA

While press coverage of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been dominated by revelations, and concerns, regarding the scope of the NSA’s surveillance programs, recently this organization has been in the news for an altogether different reason. A number of recent articles have highlighted the remarkably porous nature of the relationship between the NSA and the private sector as well as potentially improper conduct on the part of a number of NSA officials. In October alone, several stories emerged regarding the fact that: (1) the husband of a high-ranking NSA official was registered as the resident agent of a private signals intelligence consulting firm located at the pair’s residence while the official herself served as the resident agent for an office and electronics business, also headquartered at her home; (2) the NSA’s Chief Technical Officer had been permitted to work for up to 20 hours a week for a private cybersecurity firm while still holding his post; and (3) the former head of the NSA had founded a private consulting company shortly after his retirement in spite of the fact that many commentators have questioned the degree to which he will be able to set aside confidential information he learned during the course of his time as the head of this organization.

To be clear, while a few commentators have thrown around the term “corruption” when discussing the apparent impropriety of some of these arrangements, there have been no allegations that the officials involved broke any laws or otherwise acted in a manner that can be deemed “corrupt” in any formal sense. Nonetheless, this cluster of incidents provides an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the inherent difficulties of identifying and addressing instances of corruption within the context of an organization which is extremely insular and unavoidably secretive. More specifically, the crucial part that whistleblowers and the media have played in bringing these incidents to light raises the question of what role, if any, we believe that greater transparency may play in exposing instances of corruption within the NSA. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, as Justice Brandeis famously noted, but can or should it play a role when the organization in question is, by necessity, shrouded in secrecy?

Continue reading