The NSA Has Its Own Advice Columnist

Here's perhaps the only lighthearted revelation from Edward Snowden's NSA leaks: The spy agency has its own advice columnist. The anonymous writer, who uses the pen name "Zelda," has covered everything from flip-flops in the office to nosey supervisors.

According to Snowden's documents, which were published in Glenn Greenwald's new outlet, The Intercept, the columns were available only to workers with security clearance and access to the NSA's intranet, though some were read by thousands; Zelda's most popular post in 2011 received 19,446 hits.

Here's a letter, from a column with the headline "Watching Every Word in Snitch City," about an overly curious boss, via The Intercept:

Dear Zelda,

Here's the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it's mostly work related). He has his designated "snitches" and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the "designees" in a really awkward position; plus, we're all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.

Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too "chummy." (It's been done under the guise of "creating teams.")

We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite "Idol" contestant to break the tension, but now we're getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations ("Did you have a good weekend?"). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we're more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?

Silenced in SID

Zelda's response:

Dear Silenced,

Wow, that takes "intelligence collection" in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction. …. We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?

You and your co-workers could ask [the supervisor] for a team meeting and lay out the issue as you see it: "We feel like you don't trust us and we aren't comfortable making small talk anymore for fear of having our desks moved if we're seen as being too chummy." (Leave out the part about the snitches.) Tell him how this is hampering collaboration and affecting the work, ask him if he has a problem with the team's behavior, and see what he says. …. Stick to the facts and how you feel, rather than making it about him ("We're uncomfortable" vs "You're spying on us.").

If you are bothered by snitches in your office, whether of the unwilling or voluntary variety, the best solution is to keep your behavior above reproach. Be a good performer, watch what you say and do, lock your screen when you step away from your workstation, and keep fodder for wagging tongues (your Viagra stash, photos of your wild-and-crazy girls' weekend in Atlantic City) at home or out of sight. If you are put in the "unwilling snitch" position, I would advise telling your boss that you're not comfortable with the role and to please not ask that of you.

In another column she expressed her disapproval of shorts and flip-flops in the office: "Somehow, shorts and flip-flops don't exactly convey the image of a fierce SIGINT warrior," she writes. "Not only is beach attire unprofessional in the workplace, but in certain cases it can be downright distracting to co-workers (if you get my drift)."

The columns were a hit, and became the most ready articles on SIDtoday, the NSA's regular office bulletin. From the Intercept:

"We usually end the calendar year by providing a suspenseful countdown of the top dozen most widely read SIDtoday articles of the year," noted a SIDtoday bulletin on December 27, 2011, "but this time around it is not really a nail-biter, because Zelda articles occupied all of the top five slots!"

[Image via AP]