The NSA Has Its Own Advice Columnist, Snowden Leaks Reveal

Among concerns the anonymous advice-giver addressed were employee privacy issues

Photo: Donovan Beeson

Among Edward Snowden's NSA leaks were documents expressing the mundane concerns of the individuals working in one of the country's most secretive organizations. As in any office, NSA employees have their own share of gripes. In fact, Snowden's files reveal that the NSA actually had an anonymous Dear Abby-like advice columnist to help deal with interpersonal drama and office woes.

Here's the Intercept on the advice column: 

An NSA official, writing under the pen name “Zelda,” has actually served at the agency as a Dear Abby for spies. Her “Ask Zelda!” columns, distributed on the agency’s intranet and accessible only to those with the proper security clearance, are among the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The columns are often amusing – topics include co-workers falling asleep on the job, sodas being stolen from shared fridges, supervisors not responding to emails, and office-mates who smell bad. 

For example, in one letter from 2010, "Prudish Prudence" wrote to Zelda, asking what to do about employees in the summer "dressing in ways that are less than professional," since the NSA does not have a formal dress code. "Oy!" Zelda begins. "Once the thermometer hits 80 degrees, it can look like Ocean City West around here. Somehow, shorts and flip-flops don't exactly convey the image of a fierce SIGINT warrior." Zelda advises that Prudish Prudence establish his/her own guidelines, explain why they are now in place and thank employees for thier cooperation. "The next time one of your employees looks like they work at the National Snorkeling Academy instead of the National Security Agency, try these tips and let me know how it turns out," she concludes. 

In one instance, however, Zelda addressed a more pertinent concern, especially in light of the recent Snowden leaks. Here's Ars Technica

As Intercept writer Peter Maass writes, the column featured one response in particular from September 2011 which might resonate with civil liberties advocates. In it, an NSA employee is concerned that his or her manager is listening in on the conversations of his employees to stay apprised of all the office gossip. The manager even designates “snitches” to fill him in on what employees are talking about, but the aim of his snooping is nebulous.

”Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere,” writes the NSA employee, “There is also an unspoken belief that [the manager] will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too 'chummy.'”

Zelda responds, “Wow, that takes 'intelligence collection' in a whole new—and inappropriate—direction!”

Zelda writes that trust, once broken, is hard to repair. Again, though, she recommends communication as key for solving the problem. In this case, she advises that the concerned employee, along with her team members, call a meeting with their supervisor to discuss the "deplorable" practice. 

As Ars Technica points out, in light of the recent NSA information-gathering revelations, "the parallels are striking." 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.