The NSA, gender, and some second thoughts

by fpman

“NSA analysts spied on spouses, girlfriends: documents,” says this headline from NY Daily News.

And then, below it, you eventually find the following excerpt from a document recently released by the National Security Agency upon a request from the American Civil Liberties Union:


Quote: “she had searched her spouse’s personal telephone directory without his knowledge” (highlighting in red by me)

In the case referenced there, the analyst in question was clearly a woman, not a man.

The headline, with its reference to “girlfriends” (in the plural), displays a very gendered view of espionage and life in general. Spying, serious work with data and even excesses in the process are seen as having a manly quality, whereas being the victim is a feminine thing. But there you have it. Life (i.e. empirical reality) is just more complicated than that.

Having said that, beyond the insensitivity (at least in the title) to details like that, another way in which the whole affair is somewhat misrepresented is by suggesting this is all about the abuse of a tool in the state’s repertoire for purely private purposes. Consider the following example, of another case cited in the article (by the way the only case involving a girlfriend as opposed to the reference to girlfriends in the plural in the title):

“An NSA intern reported his colleague for allegedly spying on his foreign girlfriend.”

There should be no question that spying on someone in this way is an abuse. But the reasons may be more complex. A foreign girlfriend, or even a foreign boyfriend for that matter, may always be interesting in the world of espionage. Not only from the purely private perspective of whether they are a loyal partner to the intelligence officer in question but also from the point of view of whether someone else may be using them to gain access to sensitive information (which is one of the reasons why no intelligence officer should try to deal with this in private).

Life is just complicated. In espionage, surely even more so.