About a year ago, I wangled a media invitation to a “leadership dinner” in northern Virginia sponsored by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. INSA is a powerful but little-known coalition established in 2005 by companies working for the National Security Agency. In recent years, it has become the premier organization for the men and women who run the massive cyberintelligence-industrial complex that encircles Washington, DC.
The keynote speaker was Matthew Olsen, who was then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He used his talk to bolster the morale of his colleagues, which had recently been stung by the public backlash against the NSA’s massive surveillance programs, the extent of which was still com-ing to light in the steady release of Edward Snowden’s huge trove of documents. “NSA is a national treasure,” Olsen declared. “Our national security depends on NSA’s continued capacity to collect this kind of information.” There was loud, sustained applause.
One of those clapping was a former Navy SEAL named Melchior Baltazar, the CEO of an up-and-coming company called SDL Government. Its niche, an eager young flack explained, is providing software that military agencies can use to translate hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook postings into English and then search them rapidly for potential clues to terrorist plots or cybercrime.
It sounded like the ideal tool for the NSA. Just a few months earlier, Snowden had leaked documents revealing a secret program called PRISM, which gave the NSA direct access to the servers of tech firms, including Facebook and Google. He had also revealed that the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, had special units focused on cracking encryption codes for social media globally.
SDL’s software is perfectly designed for such a task. It might be useful, say, for a team of SEALs on a covert operation trying to make sure their cover wasn’t blown by somebody on social media—something that almost happened when an alert Twitter user in Pakistan picked up early signs of the secret US raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. And, of course, we don’t know the extent to which the NSA could deploy it.
In any case, the software, SDL boasts, is “securely deployed on-premise, behind the firewall, at over 75 government organizations, including the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.” No wonder Baltazar was at the INSA event, rubbing shoulders with the kings and queens of the intelligence-contracting industry.
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This small company, and INSA itself, are vivid examples of the rise of a new class in America: the cyberintelligence ruling class.
These are the people—often referred to as “intelligence professionals”—who do the actual analytical and targeting work of the NSA and other agencies in America’s secret government. Over the last 15 years, thousands of former high-ranking intelligence officials and operatives have left their government posts and taken up senior positions at military contractors, consultancies, law firms, and private-equity firms. In their new jobs, they replicate what they did in government—often for the same agencies they left. But this time, their mission is strictly for-profit.