The Professional Paranoid

Why NSA whistle-blower Russ Tice may be right.

If the congressional hearings on domestic spying have anything like a star witness when they get under way next month, it will probably be a 43-year-old intelligence officer named Russ Tice. Until last May, Tice worked at the National Security Agency, on what are known as Special Access Programs—the umbrella designation for “black world” operations that includes the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping. In December, Tice said he was willing to testify about “probable unlawful and unconstitutional acts” by the NSA, and he has since acknowledged that he was one of the sources for James Risen’s original scoop in the New YorkTimes.

This appears to be great news for Congress: Because current NSA officials are likely to stonewall when asked about “sources and methods,” arguing that even closed-session testimony could jeopardize national security, a chatty insider like Tice might save the investigation. But there’s a catch. Shrill, twitchy, and Manichaean, your average whistle-blower often comes off as more crazy than confidence-inspiring. And when the whistle-blower happens also to be a professional eavesdropper—which is effectively to say, a professional paranoid—the weird factor can be especially pronounced. It may be tempting to write Tice off. But that would be a mistake. His intimate knowledge of America’s surveillance apparatus might make him a little paranoid. In this case, however, it might also make him right.

Whenever a whistle-blower parts rank with a government agency or a major corporation, it’s in the interests of the betrayed employer to depict the whistle-blower as unhinged. This skillfully plays on the public’s preconceptions. If there’s one naysayer in an institution of thousands, we’re more apt to believe that she’s nuts than that she’s the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. So far, the NSA hasn’t responded to Tice. But if he holds forth before Congress about spying abuses, the agency will reply that he was dismissed last year after a pair of psychiatric evaluations deemed him “mentally unbalanced.” In 2001, while he was working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Tice became convinced that an Asian-American woman he was working with was a Chinese spy. He reported his suspicions and was told they were unfounded. When he transferred to NSA the following year, he continued to report his concerns to DIA. Learning of his persistence, NSA administered the psychiatric evaluations, which led to what is known as “red badge” status, or suspension of security clearance, a stigma that in Tice’s secretive business can be professionally debilitating.

So, Tice’s departure from the agency had nothing to do with the misgivings about domestic eavesdropping that he now professes. This isn’t unusual. In the eavesdropping business, which relies for its survival on a code of silence more entrenched than anything the Mafia ever came up with, defectors seem to simmer in silence for years and then suddenly—and perhaps opportunistically—to blow their tops, detailing every infraction and violation they observed throughout their careers.

Tice’s bid for credibility isn’t helped by some whistle-blowers who have come before him. In 1988 a recently fired NSA contractor, Margaret Newsham, went public with an alarming story. Newsham had worked at Menwith Hill, the biggest eavesdropping base on the planet, located in England’s Yorkshire moors but home to 1,400 American spies. One day, she said, a colleague handed her a pair of headphones and let her listen to a conversation in Washington. One voice sounded familiar and when Newsham asked who it was, her colleague told her the speaker was Sen. Strom Thurmond. But Newsham did not protest this violation of protocol at the time. She waited until she’d been fired and was embroiled in a wrongful termination suit. Then she blew the whistle with such promiscuity—alleging not only privacy violations, but also over-charging by contractors and sexual harassment—that she accomplished little. It didn’t help that Newsham seemed like a textbook paranoid: She lived alone with a 120-pound guard dog named Mr. Gunther and once told a reporter she sleeps with a gun under her pillow for fear of government reprisals.

Another recent eavesdropper-turned-whistle-blower was Canadian spy Mike Frost, who was featured on 60 Minutes II in 2000. He made news by claiming that the United States and Canada were working together to wiretap civilians as part of the Echelon eavesdropping network. Frost related an alarming story about a soccer mom who ended up on a terrorist watch-list because she telephoned a friend to describe how her son had “bombed” in the elementary school play. But experts soon poked holes in this story. Frost tended to describe surveillance systems as all-powerful and omniscient; like Newsham, he sounded a little paranoid. And also like Newsham, he had held his tongue about his reservations until he parted ways with his agency for an unrelated reason. (In this case the reason was alcoholism—Frost’s tell-all book reveals that he and his ghostwriter first met in AA.)

So far, though, Tice seems much more credible than Newsham or Frost. On ABC News and Larry King Live, he has come across as a pragmatic veteran of an esoteric front in the war on terror. Even before the wiretapping scandal, Tice’s dismissal was being investigated by the Pentagon for possible improprieties. Independent psychiatric evaluations have deemed him perfectly stable. Agency officials can’t be all that confident he’ll be dismissed as a kook, because they’re taking steps to keep him quiet. In a January 9 letter, the agency’s director of Special Access Programs, Renee Seymour, warned Tice that he should not testify because members of the congressional intelligence committees are not cleared to hear information about secret intelligence (the basic problem with congressional oversight in a nutshell).

With its secretive culture and longstanding devotion to the pseudoscience of the polygraph exam, the NSA tends to throw around “mentally unbalanced” the way Marxists do “counterrevolutionary.” In fact, the environment in which Tice, Newsham, and Frost spent their careers is a petri dish for paranoia. The profession breeds suspicion and isolation—from the yearlong interview and clearance process that it takes to get a job, to the regular polygraphs and psychological evaluations, to the instruction to tell neighbors only that you work “for the government.”

In case all the secrecy isn’t enough to make them five kinds of crazy, eavesdroppers also spend their days riffling through other people’s private communications. Whether your target is a soccer mom or Osama Bin Laden, you spend whole workweeks listening in—not just to the logistical preparations of terrorist plots but to gossip and grocery lists as well. When civilians gain unusual insight into the scope of America’s eavesdropping apparatus, as they have through the Times revelations, it often seems like science fiction. But for eavesdroppers, it’s what allows you to do your job. This is why when Russ Tice suggests that the number of Americans subject to Bush’s eavesdropping program could be “in the millions,” we should not immediately write him off as alarmist.

Sources in addition to Tice sketched out the wiretapping program for the Times. But since the revelations became public, no one else has come forward. In an echo chamber of unnamed “senior officials,” Tice has the virtue of being a flesh-and-blood witness with a name and a professional history. He can testify about his experiences working in the most secret divisions of the most secret intelligence agency in the country. He will be vigorously criticized by the administration and the NSA. And the details of his professional history, to say nothing of the Orwellian stories he may relate, will make it all too easy to dismiss his claims. But as the old joke goes, “You’d be paranoid too, if they were trying to kill you.” Perhaps if we knew what he knows, we’d be a little more paranoid ourselves.