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The Almighty Buck United States Politics

NSA's Top Talent is Leaving Because of Low Pay, Slumping Morale and Unpopular Reorganization (washingtonpost.com) 225

Ellen Nakashima and Aaron Gregg, reporting for the Washington Post: The National Security Agency is losing its top talent at a worrisome rate as highly skilled personnel, some disillusioned with the spy service's leadership and an unpopular reorganization, take higher-paying, more flexible jobs in the private sector (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source). Since 2015, the NSA has lost several hundred hackers, engineers and data scientists, according to current and former U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter. The potential impact on national security is significant, they said. Headquartered at Fort Meade in Maryland, the NSA employs a civilian workforce of about 21,000 there and is the largest producer of intelligence among the nation's 17 spy agencies. The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analyzing the intelligence that goes into the president's daily briefing. Their work also included monitoring a broad array of subjects including the Islamic State, Russian and North Korean hackers, and analyzing the intentions of foreign governments, and they were responsible for protecting the classified networks that carry such sensitive information.
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NSA's Top Talent is Leaving Because of Low Pay, Slumping Morale and Unpopular Reorganization

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  • Gee, I can't imagine why people are losing their enthusiasm for working for the government. Unless, of course, they can see that it's counterproductive to the goal of freedom.

    • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:09AM (#55855007)

      Old Joke:

      "But Timmy, why did you say your dad is working as a male stripper?"
      "Because it's less embarrassing than admitting he's working at the NSA".

    • by jbmartin6 ( 1232050 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:19AM (#55855073)
      They are probably going to better managed and higher paying jobs as contractors doing the same work for the NSA. Just without all the annoying crap that an actual federal agency has to deal with. And there is this from TFA:

      Although the departure rates are low, compared with attrition levels in the civilian technology industry

      • Not to mention all the other demands of working for a three letter agency. I have read that NSA workers must submit to; random phone taps, investigators check with neighbors asking about your sex life, any aspect of your life can be reviewed at anytime. All this plus low morale, average pay in an expensive city. No wonder positions are hard to fill
    • And that changed when?

      If your answer references a date before January 20, 1981, you are wrong.

    • “Nearly 30,000 rank-and-file federal employees who received more than $190,823 out-earned each of the 50 state governors,” the report said.

      http://www.foxnews.com/politic... [foxnews.com]

  • I could never see any morale in what the NSA does. Another case of a Pandoras box opened with grim consequences for everyone.

    Instead of a Information network contributing to human kind we now have a weapons platform that allows to kill without a trace.
    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      "moral" or "morale"?

      To be honest, I can't quite work how they find people clever enough to do that kind of thing properly, who are dumb enough to want to do it.

      "Protecting the nation" is all well and good but anyone with a brain should be able to tell that they go far, far beyond such a remit, into things that they really shouldn't.

      I think the same about GCHQ etc. and even Turing (kind of a hero to me). You can romanticise it, and say how many lives they save, but to me that's marred by the freedoms they i

      • Re:What morale? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @11:25AM (#55855451)

        But when you meet someone who obviously has a brain and would have been successful even if they hadn't chosen to be a high-ranking officer, you have to wonder what their motivation is. I've never really got to the bottom of it because those people I've met like that are quite cagey and tend to hide behind some argument about "service to the country" and so on.

        That's a bit cynical and possibly says much about you. Certainly you cannot totally disbelieve that there are people who truly are motivated by a moral imperative to serve their country. I understand that you may not agree with their motivations, but why can't you at least believe their stated reason?

        One apropos example that has served as a sort of personal inspiration for my whole life is the case of the father of a friend of mine. The man was a successful surgeon, and an immigrant to the US. When I was in high school he resigned from private practice and joined the military as a surgeon with the stated purpose that he wanted to give back to the country that he was so proud to have joined. I'd hate to be the type of person who suspected some ulterior motive there.

        A word of advice for you, since you say you've "never really gotten to the bottom of it" when trying to understand these people: Maybe you should try listening to and accepting what they say are their reasons instead of assuming they are some cagey deceivers.

        • Re:What morale? (Score:4, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @12:19PM (#55855849)

          As ex-military I will say that the "I love my country" guys were mostly in the military to do shit that is hard to do as a civilian. Mostly blowing stuff up, but the outright psychos just enjoyed treating others like shit. Some used it to rationalize their brainwashing. "Exactly why the fuck do I keep signing up?"
          Your surgeon friend would be a rare breed but was probably a good guy.

        • by ledow ( 319597 )

          I would make a conscious exception for army medics, especially those higher skilled like surgeons etc.. I don't imagine (though I'm not sure) that they are there to kill people.

          But even then... they've basically chosen the job of a doctor/surgeon and then they are ordered to ignore the Hippocratic oath, because they then fail to attend to the enemy wounded too. I'm sure they look after prisoners (though there was little evidence of such at Guantanamo?), I'm sure they mend up their own people, and innocent

      • Re:What morale? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by kilfarsnar ( 561956 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @11:34AM (#55855519)

        Political colouration, etc. aside (which is really just pettiness... literally classing billions of people as "one of those two types of people"), how do intelligent people work in blind obedience to service to their nation?

        I think the answer is, they buy into the propaganda and the myth of what America is and stands for. They basically believe the reasons we are given for why we go to war. They think that while the US may occasionally behave badly at home or abroad, it is generally a good nation that tries to live up to its ideals.

        Personally, I agree with Gen. Butler's view that war is a racket, waged to make money for the corporations involved, extend American power and influence, and to make the world safe for American business. I would never work for the military or intelligence industries, because I do not share their perspectives and values. But for those who take the world at face value, and generally don't look too deeply into what is going on and why, it can be an attractive option.

      • Re:What morale? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Notabadguy ( 961343 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @02:10PM (#55856799)

        "moral" or "morale"?

        When you meet a guy who goes into the army because he failed school, sure, that's a good option for him... job security, a decent amount of respect and professionalism, transferable skills. It makes sense. But when you meet someone who obviously has a brain and would have been successful even if they hadn't chosen to be a high-ranking officer, you have to wonder what their motivation is. I've never really got to the bottom of it because those people I've met like that are quite cagey and tend to hide behind some argument about "service to the country" and so on.

        You are the people fake news is written for. There is a world of information available to you, but you only want to hear what is slanted for you. I'll give it a shot since you haven't gotten to the bottom of it - the words will be wasted, but you've provoked my moral outrage.

        I enlisted in the US Army in 1998; among different scholarships I had a full four-year scholarship to Michigan State. I opted to join the army instead. I enlisted for the maximum enlistment (six years) because of my intent to make a lifetime in service to trying to make the world a better place - to do my part to see that kids didn't grow up like I did. I joined the infantry - 11B. My ASVAB scores were phenomenal - I could have done anything.

        I didn't join for guns, or for a uniform, or for failing school - I joined because I wanted to help - to be a part of something with a noble cause - protecting America, bringing peace to war torn parts of the world. Patriotism is a real thing. Young men committed suicide when they were denied entry to service during World War 2. This country's administration, its choices, and treatment of its citizens might not be worthy of such loyalty, but infantrymen enforce the last 300 meters of foreign policy; they don't make it.

        Two years into my enlistment, I was much...much more worldly. I was regretting having turned down college because I'd met so many retired infantry NCOs serving food in mess halls and defacs with the same story: "I've been infantry for 30 years, retired, and I don't have any useful life skills in the civilian world, so now I serve food." That's a terrifying future for a 20 year old. In theory, the military pays for 75% of the schooling costs for classes you take in service, but trying to go to college while being a soldier isn't very plausible. At least for an infantryman.

        Three of the officers in my company were West Point graduates (USMA). I was young, impressionable, and that's what I wanted to look like when I grew up. Officers could do more; help more - I wanted that. I wrote a letter to my senator, my congressman, the President - I went up my chain of command and got a letter of recommendation from my battalion commander; paired with the nomination of my Senator (and I had a powerful story to tell about overcoming adversity), I got into West Point.

        My army career ended up taking me into the world of Information Assurance - and here I'm going to get hazy - but I helped develop and test zero day exploits, develop cyber policy for the army - did some really interesting things. I still have my "I am the Fed" T-Shirt from one of the DefCons I went to when I got targeted in the "Spot the Fed" game. In the last decade, there's been lots of feds, so I don't know if they even play it anymore.

        I have a thousand stories of helping people - because its the right thing to do.

        Patriotism is real. It exists for people of all backgrounds and all educations. People make choices beyond their self interest - philanthropy is a word. If you truly discard that story and look for ulterior motive, its because you have self-imposed blinders and earplugs and refuse to hear or see anything you don't already believe - *YOU* have an ulterior motive.

  • NATO (Score:4, Interesting)

    by M0j0_j0j0 ( 1250800 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:08AM (#55855005)

    One way they can solve this is the same way as NATO, make them tax exempt on income tax it can help level the field with private pay.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Or we could reform the NSA so you know...it's not a freedom-hating shithole of an organization?

    • Government salaries should be tax exempt a priori, otherwise, it's a Ponzi scheme.
      • It's easier for accounting. Nothing more.

      • by JeffSh ( 71237 )

        we should have an economy that is far more equal. i do not advocate for a perfectly equal economy, but the highest earner should be much closer to the lowest earner than they are today. wealth and income inequalty break the ability of the government to compete in the marketplace.

        which is probably the point that's happening here, our government is being usurped completely by people who have found a way around it because they have the power and control

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:13AM (#55855025)

    Just like in Russia. When the KGB did something like that, a man named Eugene Kaspersky saw this as a good moment to start hiring more people...

    • Just like in Russia. When the KGB did something like that, a man named Eugene Kaspersky saw this as a good moment to start hiring more people...

      If I had to guess, many of the departing employees are already heading to small startups bathing in VC funding. Why be a Security Analyst for the NSA when you can print money as a Security Analyst for Blockchain Security Inc?

  • by ant-1 ( 120272 ) <ant-1@pouc h . n ame> on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:14AM (#55855037)
    ...of value was lost!
  • by SlideRuleGuy ( 987445 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:19AM (#55855071) Journal

    ...who will then charge the gov't 10x what that person was costing us before. So is the NSA's actual functionality being reduced--or just shifted elsewhere?

    (And why are only NSA people demoralized? I'd be demoralized if I worked in _any_ branch of gov't...the way things are going. Private-sector jobs providing goods and services that people actually want is the most satisfying kind of work, IMHO.)

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There is so much truth to this, 10x is high, more like 3-4x when the full burdened costs are taken into account. I used to manage the interop matrix and upgrade SOP for a generic comms truck. There were like 200 of these trucks floating around and it took a couple days to upgrade and PM the equipment. It was literally me another guy and 2-5 interns, depending on the time of the year. Some weeks we worked more other weeks we worked less to make up for the extra, but we never missed a deadline and getting don

    • by mikael ( 484 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @11:43AM (#55855567)

      It's the usual strategy when a right-wing government comes into power. The mantra is "the private sector can do things more efficiently and cheaply that the public sector". So all those departments are required to reduced people count. They then rehire their staff as private sector consultants and contractors to do the same work as before, then claim more jobs have been created while reducing the size of the public sector.

    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      (And why are only NSA people demoralized? I'd be demoralized if I worked in _any_ branch of gov't...the way things are going.

      I assume working conditions have gotten worse due to steps taken to prevent future Snowdens.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Snowden leaks showed they'd built a giant surveillance machine that could be turned at a whim against US citizens.
    Putin showed how trivial it is to leverage party-above-country loyalty and gain access to that surveillance engine with his needy orange puppet.
    THEY are part of that surveillance engine, it's THEIR work that funnels intelligence to US enemies. So of course they don't want to undermine their own country anymore.

    Perhaps Trump will fill the void by co-operating on Intelligence matters with the Puti

  • Same people who couldn't foresee arc of the Arab Spring.
    • The Arab spring was predicted, but the predictions were discounted because they were unbelievable. We trusted hindsight instead of the data.

      I don't recall the exact methodology, but it's something about the population distribution and unemployment. My recollection is that it's something about more people unemployed people between 15 and 25 than employed 30+ that it rolls up with a very strong correlation. Let me see if I can dig up the reference.

  • This is nothing new (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:29AM (#55855133)
    these guys can clear $500k/yr working for Wallstreet. It's no wonder they don't want to settle for $140k/yr working for Uncle Sam. Having their Boss call them out for being part of the "Deep State" conspiracy is just a dingleberry on that shit cake.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      these guys can clear $500k/yr working for Wallstreet. It's no wonder they don't want to settle for $140k/yr working for Uncle Sam. Having their Boss call them out for being part of the "Deep State" conspiracy is just a dingleberry on that shit cake.

      As a non native speaker I didn't know the meaning of the word "dingleberry" and looked it up ... Thank you for my new personal nightmare.

  • Probably some of them are BTC rich.
  • . . . .among her complaints were being pigeonholed (i.e. if you were good at a particular thing, they want you to concentrate on that thing, instead of broadening one's skill base), promotions were glacial (she had her Masters and STILL was a GS-9-equivalent), and the pay is abysmal, compared to their peers in the private sector.

    On the other hand, 6 years experience out of undergrad, plus a Masters, and she wanted 300+K. You're not going to get that ANYWHERE in Club Feb. . . .

  • by EndlessNameless ( 673105 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @10:52AM (#55855267)

    Trump has called out the intelligence community as being part of some "deep state" conspiracy. True or not, that clearly indicates he will view their work as suspect.

    If anyone worked in that agency with a sincere desire to protect the American people and inform their national leaders of threats against the country, then that person's motivation is going to evaporate. When your leader has basically announced that he won't extend any consideration or trust to your organization, is there any value to your work? At the end of the day, what will all of your efforts accomplish?

    This is not encouraging at all, but I can understand why they might feel this way.

    • If anyone worked in that agency with a sincere desire to protect the American people and inform their national leaders of threats against the country, then that person's motivation is going to evaporate.

      I really question how many people are described by this. I still don't see how one can call themselves a patriot when they violate the 4th amendment around the clock.

      • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
        Re "I still don't see how one can call themselves a patriot when they violate the 4th amendment around the clock."
        People are told it was always against the Soviet Union, Russia, other nations mils, bad people in other nations.
        That legal generational group think within an agency flows to forums, chat sites, popular culture, movies.

        When the 4 hops of illegal domestic spying is questioned the usual decades of talking points get rolled out.
    • If anyone worked in that agency with a sincere desire to protect the American people and inform their national leaders of threats against the country, then that person's motivation is going to evaporate. When your leader has basically announced that he won't extend any consideration or trust to your organization, is there any value to your work? At the end of the day, what will all of your efforts accomplish?

      And that's the problem: The pay is *not bad* though less than private for some folks. So what's the motivation to stay? Serving your country and all that. When the President starts bad-mouthing what you do, why you do it, and calling into question your patriotic motivations, YES, it's no longer worth it.

      This is why I've just left Federal servoce.

    • So how do you reconcile Trump's attitude as the cause when rate of the people leaving the NSA as described started in 2015, peaked in 2016 and then went down once Trump was elected?

      I guess you could blame Obama instead, but back in the non-politically-motivated reality you seem to have missed, less than 1% turnover in a few years is still lower than most government agencies and certainly most companies. It's probably just people noticing they can make more money in the private sector because security analys

  • > The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analyzing
    > the intelligence that goes into the president's daily briefing.


    Do we actually need those people? My understanding is that the current administration demanded a change to the daily intelligence briefing such that it is now a single page, with pictures. Yes, really. I'm serious.

    Just how many NSA, CIA and other TLA people do we need to produce this? Could they employ much younger people using finger-painting and still
    • But it comes with a box of crayons and a free ice cream cone!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      You can't lay off those people, the president will need them in 2020 for her presidential briefs!
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The traditional mil work done by the US army and navy was just too good. They know what they are doing when they look at other nations mil and the reports did not allow for political spin.
      The CIA can do the international spy work. The FBI can fully protect the USA.

      The why of the NSA is a historical issue that goes back to the end of WW2 and not wanting to trust the Navy, Army code breakers, domestic reports by the FBI.
      A new agency with new methods, trusted new staff and global collection.
      The Army w
  • by StormReaver ( 59959 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @11:05AM (#55855349)

    I can completely understand NSA workers being demoralized. Their mission has changed from protecting U.S. citizens from externals threats to becoming the threat to U.S. citizens. If my job were to continuously violate the U.S. Constitution, and thereby be hated by most of America, I would be demoralized, too.

    • not really. What snowden reported was that a FEW of the employees had mismanaged the data and clearances. That is it.
      The real issue now, is having a president that is claiming that the entire intelligence world is lying, when they are reporting that the president , VP, and others in the admin were committing treason and half of CONgress is claiming that they are lying.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analyzing the intelligence that goes into the president's daily briefing

    Their jobs have been replaced by a script that generates random quotes from FoxNews with the President's name on it and happy emoji faces.

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @11:18AM (#55855421)

    Believe it or not, there are still people who are loyal to the country and "believe in the mission." Lots of people in these agencies come from the military, so you're bound to have a committed core of individuals. But it's an organization like anywhere else...the place I work has serious faults but they're definitely not something to throw a temper tantrum about. Some people think differently about this, get fed up and leave. It's all up to personal choice, and I would think anyone smart enough to get a technical position at the NSA would be able to go work anywhere else...these aren't your typical Keyboarding Specialist III civil service workers who make a home for themselves deep in an agency's bureaucracy. I don't throw a fit and leave my position because I have the opportunity to do interesting work even if I have to work around dumb decisions above my level.

    Just like businesses, government agencies outsource everything they can as well. I would think that some of the defection is to contractors, where they would trade job security for a higher salary. I imagine there's basically a few "Spies R Us" firms right in the DC metro area that does the same analysis work the official TLAs do.

    Another place they could end up at is management consulting firms. I work for an IT services company and we respond to RFPs all the time -- there's a lot of pressure to keep up the credentials on the individuals presented as the "A Team" (who gets swapped out when the contract is signed.) There's a lot of cache in saying "Dude, this guy's ex-NSA" when referring to a security consultant. Even if they barely do any work, just having them is like the big tech companies employing Technical Fellows.

    Still other employers are basically anywhere else math geniuses get jobs. Insurance companies still pay actuaries handsomely. Investment banks doing HFT would love to have a few NSA people on staff and would probably overlook some of their quirks. The private sector does pay much better than government work over the short term. And, post-Cold War and post-Snowden, there's less public acceptance of the spy agencies. I'm sure there's tons of issues they silently prevent or give advance notice of, and I'll bet that's what's keeping some people on staff...it's naive to think that other countries aren't spying on their citizens or foreign governments as well.

    • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

      It's all up to personal choice, and I would think anyone smart enough to get a technical position at the NSA would be able to go work anywhere else...these aren't your typical Keyboarding Specialist III civil service workers who make a home for themselves deep in an agency's bureaucracy.

      Yes, yes. I heard in Opportunist's above post, some of them have quite advanced exotic dancing skills. Quite valuable in the private sector at certain establishments.

    • by Subm ( 79417 )

      > Believe it or not, there are still people who are loyal to the country and "believe in the mission."

      If the mission has something to do with following the Constitution and "We the people," probably most of us are. The Constitution is a great document. The most prominent violators of the Constitution are in the White House, enriching themselves at the expense of the mission.

  • So employees of a government run organization are not seeing similar pay increases (cost of living, experience, etc) as the free market employees see? WHAT A SURPRISE!!
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re "So employees of a government run organization are not seeing similar pay increases (cost of living, experience, etc) as the free market employees see? "

      The GCHQ did a lot of work on that issue in the 1950-70's. What insight did the Soviet Union have about once loyal staff that had offers to spy accepted?
      Staff got blackmailed? Political? Cash? Long working hours globally? Poor working conditions at US and US sites around the world for very low pay?

      After much funding, review and study the resul
  • For a second there, I was extremely worried. I read NASA instead of NSA.

    Carry on.

  • by magzteel ( 5013587 ) on Wednesday January 03, 2018 @12:50PM (#55856163)

    An employer with 21,000 employees losing "several hundred" over two to three years would be thrilled.

    A better headline might be "NSA has 99.9% annual employee retention rate"

  • "Since 2015, the NSA has lost several hundred hackers, engineers and data scientists, according to current and former U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter."

    I don't think Trump was president in 2015, but I could be wrong.

  • I applied to Cybercom last year. I have over 20 years of technical and technical leadership experience - they offered me a salary of $86K. Have fun living anywhere near Ft Meade on that - never mind that making almost twice that I have mortgage and bills to match.

  • From the summary: "The people who have left were responsible for collecting and analyzing the intelligence that goes into the president's daily briefing."

    Not much of a loss for now, the president doesn't read anyways. Let's hope they all these people got hired by Fox News, though I highly doubt it.
  • One thing about NSA is that they do not have any real powers, other than to spy and USED to keep American networks safe.
    As such, they spend all their time listening in on what foreign gov and terrorists were up to so as to avoid any foolishness on our part.
    Now, with this crumbling, the west is likely to have less intel which will mean that is is easier for a foreign power to set off a war.
    Keep in mind that we saw what happens when NSA is forced to lie, even by our own side. We invaded Iraq based on ou
  • PROBLEM: Many NSA officers are decent red-blooded Americans who signed up to serve their country and protect it from foreign enemies. Fighting the Soviets, the Chinese, Dr Evil, etc.

    Now they are demoralized. Because their job has nothing to do with defending against foreign threats, and everything to do with turning America into a police surveillance state. They basically work for the Stasi, and don't like it.

    PROPOSED SOLUTION: Crank up spending on the Stasi surveillance state!

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?

Working...