The failed writer who became NSA's in-house "philosopher"

Deep in the Snowden leaks are a series of columns by the "Socrates of SIGINT," an NSA spy who answered an internal help-wanted ad to write about the philosophy of surveillance.

Socrates's initial column explains how he was originally opposed to mass surveillance, until he failed a polygraph test because the person administering it didn't have enough data on his personal life, and thus couldn't understand his answers. "We tend to mistrust what we do not understand well," he wrote, and generalized from his sample size of one, deciding that because he had nothing to fear from his co-workers, none of us had anything to hide either.

The counterargument is trivial: today, being gay isn't a deal-breaker for the NSA. A couple decades ago, it was. Twenty years ago, a gay person had a totally legitimate reason to want to hide her personal data from her bosses at the Agency. Unless you believe that the NSA's HR policy will never, ever change again, there are definitely people working there today whose reasons to keep their private lives private are totally legitimate. (For the national case, multiply this by over 300 million).

The Intercept's Peter Maass figured out who "Socrates" was, and found his blog, in which he documents the frustrating course of his life: he set out to be a writer, went into awful debt to get a creative writing degree, failed to sell any work, and became embittered at the idea of writing — then tried again, decades later, only to meet with failure again.

Failing as a writer is no shame. I have taught and know writers who were better than me, and failed to get any commercial recognition or substantial publication. The single strongest correlate with success in writing isn't talent, it's perseverance.

But as Maass writes, Socrates's writings provide a rare glimpse into the surveillance rationalizations deployed by workaday spies, as opposed to the bland rubbish spouted by the upper cadres. And his personal writings reveal a new kind of spy identity: "a post-modern version of the literary eavesdropper."

"One of the many thoughts that continually went through my mind was that if I had to reveal part of my personal life to my employer, I'd really rather reveal all of it," he wrote. "Partial revelation, such as the fact that answering question X made my pulse quicken, led to misunderstandings."

He was fully aware of his statement's implications.

"I found myself wishing that my life would be constantly and completely monitored," he continued. "It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself, but here was my rationale: If people knew a few things about me, I might seem suspicious. But if people knew everything about me, they'd see they had nothing to fear. This is the attitude I have brought to SIGINT work since then."

When intelligence officials justify surveillance, they tend to use the stilted language of national security, and we typically hear only from senior officials who stick to their platitudes. It is rare for mid-level experts — the ones conducting the actual surveillance — to frankly explain what they do and why. And in this case, the candid confessions come from the NSA's own surveillance philosopher. The columns answer a sociological curiosity: How does working at an intelligence agency turn a privacy hawk into a prophet of eavesdropping?

The Philosopher of Surveillance [Peter Maass/The Intercept]