Skip to content

An Open Letter by Charles Seife to his Former NSA Colleagues ๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐ŸŒ๐Ÿ˜Ž

August 22, 2013

๐ŸŒ Most people don’t know the history of Von Neumann Hall, the nearly windowless building hidden behind the engineering quadrangle at Princeton. I found out my junior year, when, as a bright-eyed young math major, I was recruited to work at the National Security Agency.

๐ŸŒ Von Neumann Hall was the former site of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a math-heavy research organization that did work for an agency that, at that time, dared not speak its name. The close ties between Princeton and the NSA went back decades, I discovered, and some of the professors I had been learning from were part of a secret brotherhood of number jocks who worked on really tough math problems for the sake of national security. I was proud to join the fraternity, one that was far bigger than I had ever imagined.

๐ŸŒ According to NSA expert James Bamford, the agency is the single largest employer of mathematicians on the planet. It’s a good bet that any high-quality math department of a reasonable size has a faculty member who’s done work for the NSA. I worked for the NSA in 1992 and 1993 under the auspices of the Director’s Summer Program, which snaffles up hot young undergraduate math majors around the country each year. After clearing a security check, which included not just a polygraph exam but also a couple of FBI agents snooping around campus to see what mischief I had been up to, I wound up at Fort Meade, Md., for indoctrination.

๐ŸŒ It was more than 20 years ago that I received my first security briefing, and a lot of what I learned is now outdated. Back then, few had heard of what was nicknamed "No Such Agency," and the government wanted to keep it that way. We were taught not to breathe a word about the NSA; if anyone asked, we worked for the Department of Defense. That’s even what it said on my resume and one of my NSA-issued ID cards. Now there’s little point to such pretense. The agency has been outed and is a regular fixture of Page 1 headlines. In 1992, I was taught that the code words we stamped on all our classified documents were a closely guarded secret, that it was a crime to reveal them to outsiders. But a quick Google search shows that government websites are chock-full of papers clearly marked with words and phrases that were at one time for the eyes of only those few with the need to know.

๐ŸŒ Another thing they used to say at those briefings was that the might of the NSA would never be used against U.S. citizens. Back when I signed up, the agency made it crystal clear to us that we were empowered to protect our nation against only foreign enemies, not domestic ones. To do otherwise was against the NSA charter. More importantly, I got the strong sense that it was against the culture of the place. After working there for two summers, I genuinely believed that my colleagues would be horrified if they thought our work was being used to snoop on fellow Americans. Has that changed, too?

๐ŸŒ The mathematicians and cryptanalysts I met were from all over the country and had very different backgrounds, but we all seemed to be drawn to the agency for the same two reasons. First, we all knew that the math was sexy. This might sound bizarre to a non-mathematician, but certain mathematical problems just exude a certain somethingโ€”a feeling of importance, of gravity, along with a sense that the solution is not far outside of your grasp. It’s big, and it can be yours if you just think a little bit harder. When I signed up, I knew that the NSA was doing interesting math, but I had no idea what I was in for.

๐ŸŒ Within a week of arriving at the NSA, I was presented with an amazing smorgasbord of the most alluring mathematics problems I had ever seen, any of which could possibly yield to a smart undergraduate. I hadn’t seen anything like itโ€”and I never will again. The other thing that drew usโ€”or so I thoughtโ€”was an idealistic vision that we were doing something to help our country. I knew enough about history to have shed the notion that it was ungentlemanly to read your enemy’s mail. And once I was on the inside, I saw plenty of ways that the agency was having an effect on national security. Even as a rookie, I felt I had a chance to make a difference in some small way.

๐ŸŒ Some of the veteran mathematicians whom we met had clearly had a palpable effect on the security of the United States, legends almost completely unknown outside of our own club.
This isn’t to say that the idealism was naive. Anyone who’s spent any time on the other side of the intelligence game knows how high the stakes can be. We all understand that real human beings can die because of a seemingly minor breach of secrets we’ve been entrusted with. We also realize that intelligence gathering sometimes means using underhanded tactics to try to protect the nation. But we all knew that those tactics were constrained by law, even if that law isn’t always black and white. The agency insisted, over and over, that the weapons we were buildingโ€”and weapons they are, even if they’re weapons of informationโ€”would never be turned on our own people, but would only be used upon our enemies.

๐ŸŒ What do we do now that we have to face the fact that the Agency broke its word? We now know that every Verizon customer in the United States has had his telephony records turned over to the very agency that supposedly has no jurisdiction over calls originating and ending in the United States. On Wednesday more evidence emerged that the agency collected tens of thousands of โ€œwholly domesticโ€ emails. We know that the agency has extensive capabilities to snoop on U.S. citizens and regularly does so accidentally. And we have credible allegations that the agency sometimes uses that information quite on purpose. If the agency’s tools truly are used only against the enemy, it seems that ordinary citizens are now being counted among them.

๐ŸŒ None of the research I did for the NSA turned out to be particularly important. I’m fairly certain that my work is gathering dust in some classified government warehouse somewhere. I worked for the agency for only a very short time, and that was a long time ago. Yet I feel compelled to speak out to say that I’m horrified. If this is really what the agency stands for, I am sorry to have helped in whatever small way that I did.

๐ŸŒ I can only guess how much more horrified the ex-NSAers I knowโ€”you, my former colleagues, my friends, my professors, and my mentorsโ€”must be. Unlike me, you have spent much of your working lives helping the NSA build its power, only to see your years of work used in a way it was never supposed to be used. You could speak out now in a way that violates neither your secrecy agreement nor your honor. It’s hard to believe that the professors I know at universities around the country would remain silent as the NSA abuses their trust and misuses their work. Or would you?

๐ŸŒ Charles Seife’s ID Card Photo, courtesy of Charles Seife.

Pleased you are reading, as our readers ๐Ÿ“š thousands world-wide, give motivation ๐Ÿ“ข for new topics published every day. Spread the Word ๐Ÿ“ฌ to your friends, family, and associates; simply forward ๐Ÿ“ฎ the link below, post it on your Facebook and Twitter Pages for their review,, anyone may subscribe, its secure, confidential, as every time ๐Ÿ“… I publish a story ๐Ÿ“ the WordPress system {not I} sends ๐Ÿ“ฌ a reminder to you with a link to my new Article:

Perspective: These articles are created to inform a diverse audience, whether it be photography, digital cameras, lenses, Image editing, Apps, Smartphones, iPads, iPhones, Laptops and related products, Health & Wellness, or any news-worthy topic. The purpose is to inform, from sources that are believed to be reliable, and stimulate Dialogue.

To learn more about what else we do, take a moment and visit these links, browse around. We are pleased with over 22 million visits in recent years: For Health & Wellness; If digital Imaging is of interest, I teach this course "Principles of Digital Imaging and Post Image Processing" as an Adjunct Prof at FAU:

When I do, what I do, I usually do it here.

  1. Hi, I do believe this is an excellent web site. I stumbledupon it
    ๐Ÿ˜‰ I may come back once again since I saved as
    a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other

    • Thank you for your kind remarks. Pass our web-Page to your friends, family and on your Social networks. The More Readers we have the more I write. we have over 23,000 readers, and want to get to 50k. with your help… JimW

  2. I am no longer certain where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I must spend some time finding out much more or working out more. Thank you for fantastic information I used to be in search of this info for my mission.

    • Thank you for your kind remarks, please be free to link our site to your website. The more readers we have the more enthusiasm on my end, and so on, and so on. We now have just under 20,000 treader and growing every day, Thanks to you and many others. JimW.

  3. Does your blog have a contact page? I’m having problems locating it but, I’d
    like to shoot you an email. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.

    • Thank you for your kind remarks, please be free to link our site to your website. The more readers we have the more enthusiasm on my end, and so on, and so on. We now have just under 20,000 treader and growing every day, Thanks to you and many others. JimW email:

  4. Fantastic post however I was wondering if you could write a litte
    more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Kudos!

  5. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.
    I have read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you few
    interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article.
    I want to read even more things about it!

  6. Hi mates, its impressive piece of writing regarding cultureand entirely explained, keep it up all the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: