The NSA changed its mission statement, deleting honesty and changing the definitions of integrity and transparency. The changes are revealing, because changes in mission statements reflect changes in how an organization views itself.
Mission & Values
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations (CNO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.
From a clarity standpoint, this is terrible. Are we allowed to say spying? If not, who are we trying to fool? There’s no need for the acronyms, which don’t appear anywhere else in the statement. I’d heard of SIGINT before (since I watch spy movies and read about it in news articles) but I was unfamiliar with Information Assurance, which isn’t defined here. There is no clear definition of Computer Network Operations anywhere on the site; this job description implies it entails defending and exploiting computer networks. Extra words like “encompasses,” “enables,” and “under all circumstances” waste space. Here’s a rewrite:
The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) uses cryptology to defend and exploit computer networks, supporting critical decisions by leaders in government.This includes both Signals Intelligence (spying on foreign messages) and Information Assurance (keeping our own critical and classified information systems secure).
Deleting honesty and openness
Here’s the original set of values that the NSA listed:
- Honesty – We recognize that national leaders and the American people at large have placed great trust in us, and we strive at all times to be deserving of that trust. We will be truthful with each other, and honor the public’s need for openness, balanced against national security interests.
- Respect for the Law – Everything that we undertake in our missions is grounded in our adherence to the U.S. Constitution and compliance with U.S. laws and regulations that govern our activities.
- Integrity – We recognize that national leaders and the American people at large have placed great trust in us, and we strive at all times to be deserving of that trust. We will behave honorably and apply good judgment as we would if our activities were under intense public scrutiny.
- Transparency – We embrace transparency to the fullest extent possible. We never forget that we, too, are Americans and that every activity we engage in is aimed at ensuring the safety, security, and liberty of our fellow citizens.
Here’s the new set:
- Commitment to Service – Knowing that the country, our friends and allies are relying on us, we are dedicated to fulfilling our commitment to serve and to excellence in the pursuit of our critical mission.
- Respect for the Law – Everything we undertake in our missions is grounded in our adherence to the U.S. Constitution and compliance with the U.S. laws, regulations and policies that govern our activities.
- Integrity – We are committed to communicating honestly and directly, acting ethically and fairly and carrying out our mission efficiently and effectively.
- Transparency – We are committed to fostering public understanding of NSA’s mission and to providing complete transparency to those who authorize and oversee NSA’s work on behalf of the American people.
- Respect for People – We are committed to ensuring that all NSA personnel are respected, included and valued for their diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills and contributions to our mission and culture.
- Accountability – We are accountable for our actions and take responsibility for our decisions, practicing wise stewardship of public resources and placing prudent judgment over expediency.
Let’s examine what’s changed. The first value of honesty is gone, now subsumed into “Integrity.” I understand why the NSA leaders took this action: the previous values of honesty and integrity overlapped, and the new explanation of integrity — “We are committed to communicating honestly and directly, acting ethically and fairly” — says much the same thing. But in a list of bullets, the top one communicates what’s most important. In this case, honesty is no longer the most important value.
The transparency value has changed from “We embrace transparency to the fullest extent possible” to “We are committed to fostering public understanding of NSA’s mission and to providing complete transparency to those who authorize and oversee NSA’s work.” This is a substantive change. So is the change in the integrity value, which no longer includes “We will behave honorably and apply good judgment as we would if our activities were under intense public scrutiny.” The replacement for these values is the accountability value. As the NSA has become more secretive, transparency is no longer a core value. Now we have to trust its overseers (Congress and the President) to make sure it works in an appropriate way. I’m not sure which would be better here, the previous hypocritical commitment to transparency or the new honest commitment to a lack of transparency.
Commitment to service, the new top value, is a hash of meaningless bullshit. “We are dedicated to fulfilling our commitment to serve and to excellence in the pursuit of our critical mission” has no meaning whatsoever — it basically says “we try to do our jobs well.” I cannot see this inspiring anyone at the agency or allowing them to make decisions on what work to do and how to do it.
The other new value is respect for people, a diversity value. Why do you think this new value is included? I don’t think it’s to placate social justice warriors. Reading between the lines, I imagine a battle between those in the agency who embrace the value of diverse personnel for their skills and viewpoints (women, Muslims, supporters of all political parties) and those who are concerned that some of those people might be soft or untrustworthy. Perhaps we should be heartened that the former group were able to get their key value into the list.
If you change your values, people notice
According to The Intercept, NSA Spokesman Thomas Groves said: “It’s nothing more than a website update, that’s all it is.”
I’m not buying that.
When an organization changes how it describes itself and its values, that description reflects a new understanding of the organization — and is likely to influence decisions the organization makes. This is the new NSA telling you who it is.
I have undertaken projects like this values statement for clients, and am about to do another. This exercise has reminded me to be careful, because what we leave in and what we take out will shift the organization’s sense of itself. Words like these are far more than just words, they are watchwords.