NSA Holds Seminar Teaching Media How to Not Report on NSA
The NSA, the domestic intelligence agency that really wishes you still hadn't heard of it, was frustrated by their growing inability to keep their close-kept secrets out of the newspapers. So between 2002 and 2004 they held some off-the-record "media seminars" where they explained to reporters that they really shouldn't report anything they know about the NSA and its many probably unconstitutional programs. And then, a couple years later, the New York Sun is reporting the details of those seminars. Meta!
The NSA knows, as most smart government officials do, that reporters are very easily distracted and then won over by fraternal chumminess, exclusivity, shiny object, and exciting movies.
The NSA's seminars, delivered over tea and pastries, and accompanied by a clip from "Top Gun," seemed designed to elicit a chummy atmosphere and to highlight commonalities between reporters and the agency's electronic sleuths. "Reporters go to great lengths to protect their sources, as do we," one talking point for the classes said. "We need your help."
Journalists were also treated to technical demonstrations and encouraged to feel that they had gotten a rare behind-the-scenes view of the agency. "Stress that this is the first-ever such course in NSA's history," another talking point said. During one sensitive discussion, journalists were to be told they could not take any notes.
The program kinda worked, in that no one reported on borderline coercion of the press until the Sun got the syllabus through a FOIA request, but it didn't really work that well, because the Times broke the warrantless wiretapping story a year later. Then the NSA switched to our suggested "viciously persecute the leakers" strategy which pretty much works better except when it's White House people doing to score political points. And then everything was fine again forever.
Also: tea and pastries?? You'll never elicit a "chummy atmosphere" without booze, guys. No wonder the Times ran with the story.