Title: The SIGINT Philosopher: Descartes Would Have Been a Lousy SIGINT Reporter

Release Date: 2015-08-11

Document Date: 2012-06-15

Description: This 15 June 2012 article from the internal NSA newsletter SIDToday “SIGINT Philosopher” column tackles the subject of partial information: see the Intercept article The Philosopher of Surveillance, 11 August 2015.

Document: DYNAMIC PAGE -- HIGHEST
POSSIBLE CLASSIFICATION IS
TOP SECRET // SI / TK // RELTO USA
AUS CAN GBR NZL

Welcome! Saturday, 10 Nov 2012

• Web search

• Agency-all Emails

• SID-all Emails

• NSA Rolodex

• SCQAWK: The SID Mailbag

• SIDtoday Blog

• SIDtoday Series

• SIGINT Worldwide VTC

• SIDtoday Article

• Letter to the Editor

• SIGINT-y Social Media Page

(U) The SIGINT Philosopher: Descartes Would Have Been a Lousy SIGINT

Reporter

FROM: (U//FOUO) SERIES:

The SIGINT

Run Date: 06/15/2012

Philosopher

(U) I am about to go back on my word, and in only my
second entry as the SIGINT Philosopher. I said I wasn't
generally interested in Philosophy as an academic pursuit --1
was a goals-oriented philosopher. But here I'm about to get all
abstract and epistemological.* *

2. The SIGINT

1. The SIGINT

Philosopher Is
Back -- with a
New Face!

(U//FOUO) Perhaps this can't be helped. Most NSA
employees -- notjust in SID -- are intelligent, thoughtful,
somewhat introspective people. After we've been here for a
while, we start to ask fundamental questions about the
meaning of our work. For those of us in SID who are in the
business of interpreting SIGINT, those questions often revolve
around how best to share the information that SIGINT gives
us with others in the Intelligence Community.

Philosopher:
Descartes Would
Have Been a

Lousy SIGINT
Reporter

3. The SIGINT
Philosopher:
When Brevity Is
Just the Soul of
''Huh?''

4. The SIGINT

(S//SI//REL) NSA hasn't always reported SIGINT the way it
does today. Currently, we task, collect, scan, translate or
decrypt as necessary, and then try to interpret the raw

Philosopher: In
Praise of Not
Knowing

aecrypi as necessary, ana men iry lo mierprei me raw
information by writing reports that present the facts as a
finishea SIGINT report. But in the past — a past that
increasingly few here remember — we usea to simply pass
along raw collections ana translations to the customers. When
I worked with^^^^^^^^Hversion of NSA, I saw
that their reporting was the same thing — basicallyjust
transcriptions of intercepts with short context statements
tackea on.

(C//REL) Like many in S2, I both translate SIGINT ana
report it. I also have a hana in the collections process through
tasking selectors. This gives me a reasonably wiae vantage
point of the intelligence through a number of stages. That
vantage point often leaves me feeling that there is a lot
lacking in the final proauct that goes to customers. SIGINT is
usually partial information. Two communicants share
information on a subject for which they have context that the
analyst lacks. These communicants may or may not fully
unaerstana what they are talking about. So information is
missing from the beginning. Aaa to this the fact that errors —
or at least aifficult renaerings -- can occur in translation. The
information is alreaay several steps removea from fact (or
aare I say from "truth"?) by the time a transcript is finishea
ana I begin to write a report on it.

(U//FOUO) SIGINT analysts who report ao an amazingjob
of puzzling out what their collection means. They also are
careful to separate what they know ana what they think they
know by using woras like "probably," "possibly," ana "I've
only been working here for three weeks." But however
brilliantly we may report the information, I can't help
thinking that we are essentially another noae in the
"telephone game":

real information communicants talking about real
information collection translation reporting

(U//FOUO) That's a lot of steps before it ever gets to one of
our customers. To make matters epistemologically worse,
those customers typically use our reports to then write
ANOTHER report for their customers. Usually, when I see an
assessment from somewhere in the IC that has something I
aisagree with in it, the origin can be tracea to this long supply
chain of information.

The SIGINT
Philosopher:
Unlike All My
Terrible

Teammates, I Am
a Wonaerful
Teammate
The SIGINT
Philosopher:
Lessons for Civil
Servants from the
American Civil
War (That Don't
Concern Killing
Vampires)

(C//REL) Of course, gooa translation, gooa reporting, ana
gooa collaboration with customers can alleviate these issues.

And as one reporting legend in my office who remembers the
old days tells me, almost nobody -- our customers included —
wants to go back tojust dumping raw information
downstream. As many are pointing out now as we discuss
these very issues as part of analytic modernization, the
logistical hurdles we would have to endure (USSID 18
training for the entire IC, anyone?) to move our customers
more upstream in the information chain are possibly more
troublesome than the knowledge gaps that occur through our
current system. So this may all be a wistful, empty complaint
without a proffered solution. How like a philosopher of me.

(U//FOUO) But the philosopher in my head doesn't really
care about practical issues like these. Hejust knows that this
is all unsatisfying somehow. He doesn't like presenting
something to others as knowledge when it is reallyjust my
interpretation of knowledge. It is my painting of a scene that
somebody else has described to me.

(U//FOUO) But enough from that gadfly philosopher. I have
reports to write. I know -- I'll tell the philosophy professor in
my head that they're cutting his department's funding to fund
a new locker room for the football team. He'll be fuming so
much, I won't hear from him for months.

Notes:

* Epistemology, "the study of knowledge" is a branch of
philosophy that answers annoying questions like "What does
it mean to know something?" or "How do you know that you
know something?" Its chief purpose, according to the
possibly apocryphal memoirs of Leucippus, is to allow
philosophy professors to feel superior to us by deconstructing
what we all feel to be common-sense answers to these
questions.

(U//FOUO) The SIGINTPhilosopher is interested to know
what you, think. Is the idea that customers should be able to
hear whatIhear and read my best translation wordfor word
doctrinaire mumbojumbo? Or is itsomething long overdue
in the age ofneed to share? Is it a good idea that isjust too
impractical to work? Post your comments on the Tapioca
Pebble.

Comments/Suggestions about this article?

"(U//FOUO) SIDtoday articles may not be republished or
reposted outside NSANet without the consent of S0121
(DL sid_comms)."

Information Owner:

Page

LastModified: 11/10/2012 / LastReviewed: 11/10/2012

DYNAMIC PAGE -- HIGHEST POSSIBLE
CLASSIFICATION IS

TOP SECRET // SI / TK // RELTO USA AUS CAN GBR

NZL

DERIVED FROM: NSA/CSSM 1-52, DATED 08 JAN 2007
DECLASSIFY ON: 20320108

e-Highlighter

Click to send permalink to address bar, or right-click to copy permalink.

Un-highlight all Un-highlight selectionu Highlight selectionh