Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk (Transcript)

In response to Edward Snowden at TED2014, NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett answers Anderson’s questions about the balance between security and protecting privacy. This event happened in March 2014.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Richard Ledgett_ The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk


Chris Anderson: We had Edward Snowden here a couple days ago, and this is response time. And several of you have written to me with questions to ask our guest here from the NSA. So Richard Ledgett is the 15th deputy director of the National Security Agency, and he’s a senior civilian officer there, acts as its chief operating officer, guiding strategies, setting internal policies, and serving as the principal advisor to the director. And all being well, welcome Rick Ledgett to TED.

Richard Ledgett: I’m really thankful for the opportunity to talk to folks here. I look forward to the conversation, so thanks for arranging for that.

Chris Anderson: Thank you, Rick. We appreciate you joining us. It’s certainly quite a strong statement that the NSA is willing to reach out and show a more open face here. You saw, I think, the talk and interview that Edward Snowden gave here a couple days ago. What did you make of it?

Richard Ledgett: So I think it was interesting. We didn’t realize that he was going to show up there, so kudos to you guys for arranging a nice surprise like that. I think that, like a lot of the things that have come out since Mr. Snowden started disclosing classified information, there were some kernels of truth in there, but a lot of extrapolations and half-truths in there, and I’m interested in helping to address those. I think this is a really important conversation that we’re having in the United States and internationally, and I think it is important and of import, and so given that, we need to have that be a fact-based conversation, and we want to help make that happen.

Chris Anderson: So the question that a lot of people have here is, what do you make of Snowden’s motivations for doing what he did, and did he have an alternative way that he could have gone?

Richard Ledgett: He absolutely did have alternative ways that he could have gone, and I actually think that characterizing him as a whistleblower actually hurts legitimate whistleblowing activities. So what if somebody who works in the NSA — and there are over 35,000 people who do. They’re all great citizens. They’re just like your husbands, fathers, sisters, brothers, neighbors, nephews, friends and relatives, all of whom are interested in doing the right thing for their country and for our allies internationally. And so there are a variety of venues to address if folks have a concern.

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First off, there’s their supervisor, and up through the supervisory chain within their organization. If folks aren’t comfortable with that, there are a number of inspectors general. In the case of Mr. Snowden, he had the option of the NSA inspector general, the Navy inspector general, the Pacific Command inspector general, the Department of Defense inspector general, and the intelligence community inspector general, any of whom would have both kept his concerns in classified channels and been happy to address them. He had the option to go to congressional committees, and there are mechanisms to do that that are in place, and so he didn’t do any of those things.

Chris Anderson: Now, you had said that Ed Snowden had other avenues for raising his concerns. The comeback on that is a couple of things: one, that he certainly believes that as a contractor, the avenues that would have been available to him as an employee weren’t available, two, there’s a track record of other whistleblowers, like Drake [Thomas Andrews Drake] being treated pretty harshly, by some views, and thirdly, what he was taking on was not one specific flaw that he’d discovered, but programs that had been approved by all three branches of government. I mean, in that circumstance, couldn’t you argue that what he did was reasonable?

Richard Ledgett: No, I don’t agree with that. I think that the — sorry, I’m getting feedback through the microphone there — the actions that he took were inappropriate because of the fact that he put people’s lives at risk, basically, in the long run, and I know there’s been a lot of talk in public by Mr. Snowden and some of the journalists that say that the things that have been disclosed have not put national security and people at risk, and that is categorically not true. They actually do. I think there’s also an amazing arrogance to the idea that he knows better than the framers of the Constitution in how the government should be designed and work for separation of powers and the fact that the executive and the legislative branch have to work together and they have checks and balances on each other, and then the judicial branch, which oversees the entire process. I think that’s extremely arrogant on his part.

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Chris Anderson: Can you give a specific example of how he put people’s lives at risk?

Richard Ledgett: Yeah, sure. So the things that he’s disclosed, the capabilities, and the NSA is a capabilities-based organization. So when we have foreign intelligence targets, legitimate things of interest — like, terrorists is the iconic example, but it includes things like human traffickers, drug traffickers, people who are trying to build advanced weaponry, nuclear weapons, and build delivery systems for those, and nation-states who might be executing aggression against their immediate neighbors, which you may have some visibility into some of that that’s going on right now, the capabilities are applied in very discrete and measured and controlled ways. So the unconstrained disclosure of those capabilities means that as adversaries see them and recognize, “Hey, I might be vulnerable to this,” they move away from that, and we have seen targets in terrorism, in the nation-state area, in smugglers of various types, and other folks who have, because of the disclosures, moved away from our ability to have insight into what they’re doing. The net effect of that is that our people who are overseas in dangerous places, whether they’re diplomats or military, and our allies who are in similar situations, are at greater risk because we don’t see the threats that are coming their way.

Chris Anderson: So that’s a general response saying that because of his revelations, access that you had to certain types of information has been shut down, has been closed down. But the concern is that the nature of that access was not necessarily legitimate in the first place. I mean, describe to us this BULLRUN program where it’s alleged that the NSA specifically weakened the security in order to get the type of access that you’ve spoken of.

Richard Ledgett: So there are, when our legitimate foreign intelligence targets of the type that I described before, use the global telecommunications system as their communications methodology, and they do, because it’s a great system, it’s the most complex system ever devised by man, and it is a wonder, and lots of folks in the room there are responsible for the creation and enhancement of that, and it’s just a wonderful thing. But it’s also used by people who are working against us and our allies. And so if I’m going to pursue them, I need to have the capability to go after them, and again, the controls are in how I apply that capability, not that I have the capability itself. Otherwise, if we could make it so that all the bad guys used one corner of the Internet, we could have a domain, That would be awesome, and we could just concentrate all our efforts there. That’s not how it works. They’re trying to hide from the government’s ability to isolate and interdict their actions, and so we have to swim in that same space.

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But I will tell you this. So NSA has two missions. One is the Signals Intelligence mission that we’ve unfortunately read so much about in the press. The other one is the Information Assurance mission, which is to protect the national security systems of the United States, and by that, that’s things like the communications that the president uses, the communications that control our nuclear weapons, the communications that our military uses around the world, and the communications that we use with our allies, and that some of our allies themselves use. And so we make recommendations on standards to use, and we use those same standards, and so we are invested in making sure that those communications are secure for their intended purposes.

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