On the Sunday when the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was launched, Jon Darby walked into work thinking that U.S. intelligence knew right where Bin Laden was. But he wouldn’t have bet his salary on it, he said here Wednesday, much less his presidency.
President Obama’s decision to launch the raid in the face of uncertainty was typical of the tough calls U.S. policy makers have to make with limited and possibly faulty intelligence.
Darby, deputy director for signals intelligence analysis and production at the National Security Agency, said that gathering intelligence is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when pieces are scattered all over town, some pieces don’t even exist, and there is no box lid to tell what the final picture should look like.
“Intelligence is really freaking hard,” he said. NSA is responsible for gathering signal intelligence, or SIGINT, and for protecting U.S. communications. It is made up of both military and civilian workers.
Darby, a 1979 graduate of Billings Senior High School, has worked for NSA for 32 years. He spoke at Montana State University Billings before about 15 people on Wednesday.
Darby, who studied Russian in college, said he started as a Russian linguist at NSA but soon become bored with translating tape recordings all day long. He has since held some 25 different positions at NSA, including 10 years working in counter terrorism.
He has visited some 50 countries and has worked with the CIA, FBI and all branches of the military. His rank is the civilian equivalent of a major general in the Army.
NSA has had a series of successes in foiling terrorists, Darby said, but details of many of the operations remain classified. In one case he could talk about, a young NSA analyst monitoring an Al Qaida operative in Southeast Asia saw an email from Denver asking for help building a bomb.
The analyst tipped off the FBI, which followed the man on a high-speed trip to New York. There he was caught and confessed to a plan to attack the New York subway system.
The NSA’s top challenge now, Darby said, is trying to get information on ISIS, especially as it expands overseas and begins relying on “lone wolf” terrorists who act without orders or a network. He predicted there would be another terrorist attack in the United States.
“We’re never going to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said.
But he spent much of his talk praising the work of the NSA, which is attempting to become more open about its work. When he started with the agency, he said, a talk such as the one he gave on Wednesday would have been unthinkable. Employees at the time weren’t even allowed to say they worked at NSA, which was given such nicknames as Never Say Anything and No Such Agency.
Even in Wednesday’s talk, he declined to answer questions about political or classified matters. Asked about the use of private email servers, he said, “I’m going to stay away from that one.”
But he did try to dispel what he called myths about how NSA operates. The myths included:
♦ NSA acts like a “vacuum cleaner” sucking up communications from all over the world. The data that NSA collects, compared to the total data available, amounts to the size of a dime on a basketball court, he said. Moreover, he said, NSA has authorization for everything it gathers, and it gathers no information that isn’t requested.
♦ NSA spies on Americans. The agency does not collect information on U.S. citizens, he said, except in two cases: inadvertently when an American contacts a foreigner being monitored or when an American consents to being monitored.
Who would consent to such a thing? Darby himself did when he was involved in the Bin Laden operation. He wanted to know who might be trying to find out information about him.
♦ FAA 702, a provision of the FISA Amendment Act, allows domestic surveillance. This has been a recurring thread on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Darby said, but while the amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does allow the federal government to compel U.S. companies to provide it with certain information, it does not allow surveillance of private citizens.
The provision expires at the end of next year, Darby said, and debate over its renewal is likely to be heated.
♦ NSA operates without oversight. NSA not only is under the authority of the executive branch, it also is subject to congressional and judicial oversight, Darby said. While the secret FISA court often has been criticized for rubberstamping surveillance requests, that is only because NSA works closely with the court to reach consensus before final decisions are made, Darby said.
People often assume that the president makes decisions about national security all on his own, Darby said, but that is not the case. Before final decisions are made, a range of interagency policy committees gather information on all aspects of issues such as vetting of Syrian refugees or troop levels in Afghanistan.
“It can be bureaucratic, it can be frustrating, but it’s there for a reason,” Darby said.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a pivotal point for the intelligence community, Darby said, leading to more coordination among the 16 U.S. agencies that are involved in intelligence. All 16 agencies now operate under the direction of James Clapper, director of national intelligence.
The release of classified documents by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who then defected to Russia, also alerted the agency to the dangers of threats from the inside as well as external threats, Darby said.
But Darby again emphasized that NSA employees are overwhelmingly capable and dedicated public servants. Over the years, 176 NSA employees have lost their lives in the line of duty, he said. But other Americans are alive today because of NSA’s efforts.
“Our job is to make sure soldiers become veterans,” he said.
After 32 years, he said, he is still attracted to the job because of the intellectual challenge, the chance to work with smart and motivated people and the opportunity to make a tangible difference in the world.
“It’s freaking awesome,” he said. “I love my job.”