A psychological history of the NSA

On June 6, the Guardian began publishing stories about how the U.S. National Security Agency intercepts as much as half of the world’s digital communications1, often between American citizens. That same day, Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor responsible for leaking details of the program, gave an interview to one of the paper's journalists, Glenn Greenwald, in his hotel in Hong Kong, where he had fled to escape prosecution. The whistleblower had given up his high-paying job at the agency and the life he’d built with his girlfriend in Hawaii. Greenwald, like the rest of the world, wanted to know why he did it.

“When you're in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for the sort of intelligence community agencies,” Snowden told Greenwald, “you're exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee, and because of that you see things that may be disturbing but over the course of a normal person's career you'd only see one or two of these instances.”

The whistleblower did not see himself as exposing the corrupt acts of any one NSA agent or program. Instead, Snowden was revealing that the once-small military outfit built for signals intelligence in the Korean War had since evolved into a domestic spying organization that today spends billions to fund thousands of agents inside a 60-building surveillance complex.2 The NSA exploits secret surveillance court warrants and encryption loopholes, and taps into fibre optic Internet cables in order to spy on millions of Americans. (And according to former NSA Senior Executive Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the agency in 2006, its internal goal for the past decade has been to “own the Internet.”)

To Snowden, the lesson was simple: Somewhere in its six-decade history, the agency had spun out of control. The question is, how did it all go wrong?.

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