Why I Heckled the NSA
On July 1, I awoke to find two new emails in my inbox. The first was from the Central Eurasian Studies Summer Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and announced that, “The NSA is coming to YOUR CAMPUS.” The second was from a colleague who had moved away from Madison a few years ago to teach Russian in Massachusetts: “Dear Jesse, I hope you attend this and heckle them!” I took a gulp of coffee and shot back a quick response: “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Downtown Madison, Wisconsin is located on an isthmus, a thin strip of land between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. On the middle of the isthmus, four blocks from my apartment, is the Wisconsin State Capitol. Modeled after the nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C., the building stands almost 300 feet tall and features the largest dome in the country. By state law, the Capitol is the tallest building within a mile, and it serves as a natural gathering point for the citizens of Madison. According to its original design plan, the building was intended to be a public forum and a symbol of open government by and for the people.
In recent years, however, the Capitol has come to symbolize the dysfunction of our political system. In 2011, following the passage of Scott Walker’s odious Budget Repair Bill, tens of thousands of protesters converged on the Capitol. For weeks, the square resounded with the beating of drums and chanting demonstrators: “The people united will never be defeated!” At first, the protests filled me with hope for the future: “Yes,” I told myself,” this is what democracy looks like.”
As time went by, however, there was a decided shift. The protests were co-opted by political operatives. We went from raging against Walker to calling for the election of Democrats. Speakers on the square told us that if we wanted real change, then we had to get out the vote for JoAnne Kloppenburg, who was running for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Kloppenburg lost. Then we were told that we had to support Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett in his bid to replace Walker. By the time that election came around, the wind had gone out of the sails of our fledgling movement. Barrett, a politician no one actually seemed to like, lost by a substantial margin, and Walker became the first governor to survive a recall. The drum circles quieted down, the protests died out, and life returned to normal. The people united were handily defeated.
Ingraham Hall, where the NSA recruitment session took place, is located on the other side of the isthmus, about a mile away from the Capitol. Architecturally, it is the polar opposite of the Capitol. It is a modest, two-story building tucked between Bascom Hall, which houses administration offices, and Van Hise Hall, a massive, 18-story building where the closet-sized windowless office that I share with three other TAs is located. On the ground floor there is a deli that serves stale, grey sandwiches and unappetizing but inexpensive cafeteria fare. It is the sort of nondescript building that you would find on any college campus in America.
When I walked into the recruitment session, I hardly expected that anything newsworthy would happen there. There were perhaps twenty people who had come to hear the NSA make their pitch to language students and instructors. Most were graduate students, but there was also a group of five high-school students, neatly dressed in shirts and ties and accompanied by their teacher, a young man who, judging by his crew cut and toned physique, looked like he might have recently returned from Afghanistan.
When the session started, I didn’t have any clear plan in mind. I intended to “heckle” the recruiters a bit if possible and beat a hasty retreat. We started by going around the room and sharing our first names and the languages that we spoke. I had intended to wait for the question and answer session to zing the NSA, but this presented an opportunity to let them know how I felt about their agency. I wanted to say something snarky, maybe even a bit obnoxious: I am an American citizen. If you want to find out more about me, I’m sure that you have the resources to do so. But when my turn came to introduce myself, I lost my nerve. “I’m Jesse,” I muttered, “and I teach Russian here at UW-Madison.”
The NSA recruiters began by introducing themselves. The first was a middle-aged woman with red hair, who explained that she had majored in French at Penn State before going to work at the NSA at the end of the Cold War. The second, a paunchy man nearing retirement, had served in the army and learned Polish at the Defense Language Institute.
Between them, they told us, they had a combined fifty-five years of experience working at the agency. Although they were hardly top officials, they were certainly upper mid-level administrators, each of whom oversaw a group of analysts. I was surprised that the NSA had sent such experienced employees to a recruiting session.
What was even more surprising was that they didn’t seem to grasp why anyone would be upset about the recent revelations about their agency. To be sure, they were aware of the controversy and made passing references to it, but my impression was that they thought that the only people who had an issue with massive surveillance and data-mining were some dirty, drum-beating hippies, and certainly not the sort of person who would come to hear them speak.
That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why they thought it was appropriate to say things like, “The globe is really our playground,” to constantly refer to other agencies as their “customers,” or to brag about their weekly get-togethers at a local bar, where, after a long day of listening in on the lives of others, they don costumes and sing karaoke.
At one point, the male recruiter smugly informed us that there were three options available to language specialists: we could go into academia, work with them at the NSA, or become bartenders. At this point, the high school teacher sitting next to me leaned over and chortled, “Or baristas!”
As my rage grew, I was in a quiet frenzy, trying to come up with the perfect comment that would let them know just how unacceptable their agency’s conduct is. It turned out that I didn’t have to wait for the question and answer session. A young woman sitting across from me raised her hand. She had olive skin and a shock of black hair and stood barely over five feet tall. Until that moment, I had hardly noticed her, and I don’t imagine that anyone else had either. I had never met Madiha Tahir or heard her name, but for the next fifteen minutes she turned the recruiting session into a public interrogation. She forced the recruiters to admit that when the NSA refers to “adversaries,” they mean anyone and everyone and that their professional ethos is no more than, “We just follow orders.” She was calm, articulate, and unrelenting, and she managed to put representatives of the largest spy organization the world has ever known on the defensive.
They say that courage is contagious. That’s a cliché, but it’s true. Madiha’s brave act of defiance encouraged others in the audience to speak out. A female graduate student sitting next to her raised her hand and told the recruiters that they were advertising “a colonial expedition.” “I also want to know what are the qualifications that one needs to become a whistleblower,” she continued, “because that sounds like a much more interesting job.” The recruiters struggled to answer these pointed questions.
The male recruiter insisted that, “When we give info to our policy makers . . . we do give it to them in the right context so that they can make the best decision with the best info available.” I responded by asking him if that was what James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was doing when he blatantly lied to Congress and the American people by claiming that the NSA does not collect data on millions of Americans.
“How do you feel personally having a boss,” I asked, “who is comfortable perjuring himself in front of Congress?” Our aggressive questioning put the recruiters on their heels, and they started to make demonstrably false claims. “We have complete accountability and there is absolutely nothing that we can or have done without approval of the three branches of the government,” insisted the female recruiter.
This statement, I pointed out, was a lie: it is well known that the NSA engaged in warrantless, illegal wiretapping at the behest of the Bush administration.
When I left the room, I was filled with a sense of pride at our minor achievement. We had certainly gone far beyond mere “heckling.” Little did I know that the story wasn’t over yet. Over the next few days, our confrontation with the NSA went viral. The recruiting session was covered by news outlets as diverse as the Huffington Post and The Blaze, Glen Beck’s website. An account of the session was the second most-read story on the Guardian’s web page. As of today, nearly 275,000 people have listened to the recording of the event.
I certainly don’t want to overstate the impact of our actions. The NSA is still vacuuming up massive amounts of data. James Clapper still has a job and apparently will not be indicted for perjury or contempt of Congress, as he should be.
Edward Snowden is still stranded in an airport in Moscow.
In concrete terms, we changed very little. But I don’t think that what we did was without value. When I compare the massive protests at the state Capitol and our much smaller protest at Ingraham Hall, I am convinced that the latter was more effective in many ways.
Madiha Tahir has opened our eyes to a new form of protest. It is far more difficult than traditional public demonstrations but it has the potential to be far more effective. Instead of drum circles, placards, and chants, it relies on facts, arguments, and eloquence. It doesn’t target the upper echelons of the government—it’s become clear that people like Scott Walker and Keith Alexander don’t care if 100,000 or even a million people march on the Wisconsin state Capitol or the nation’s Capitol; they’re already too invested in their policies to back down.
Instead, it targets the low-level employees and middle managers, the people who are essential to the day-to-day operation of these agencies. Its goal is to remind these people that they have moral agency, that evil actions don’t occur simply because high officials order them, but rather require that people like them carry out orders that come down from on high. It aims to remind impressionable young people like the high school students in that audience that they don’t have to go to work for agencies like the NSA.
There is far more honor in being a bartender. Or a barista.
Jesse Stavis is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature who specializes in late 19th and early 20th century Russian literature. His dissertation, tentatively titled Conversion as Narrative, applies narrative theory to the fictional and religious writings of Leo Tolstoy.
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