The Man from Uncle: An Interview with Jeremy Black

Lincoln's Bible's "Unc" discusses his long career with the NSA, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, Russian bounties, and spies in pop culture

THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY is comprised of individuals who, by temperament and training, eschew media attention. After all, part of the job is to keep secrets. Anonymity makes that easier. How many famous American spies can you name who are currently active? Answer: none.

Thus, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when career IC professionals sound the alarms, it’s a big deal. When Michael V. Hayden and John O. Brennan take to Twitter to lambaste Donald John Trump, it goes against every fiber of their being. They are not supposed to be courting media attention, they are not supposed to be “political,” and they are certainly not supposed to criticize a sitting president. Their words carry more weight, and we must heed their warnings.

Jeremy Black spent his entire career working a variety of senior jobs at the National Security Agency. Like so many public servants, he served the country without requiring any recognition. Again: It is uncomfortable for career men and women of the IC to speak publicly. It goes against everything they’re about. But we need to hear from them now, more than ever. The stakes are that high.

Black was gracious enough to answer a bunch of questions I asked him; his answers were all determined by officials at the NSA to be “UNCLASSIFIED and APPROVED FOR PUBLIC RELEASE.” The interview proper begins after the jump. Everything below the image has been NSA-approved; everything above it is mine.

Having had the pleasure of speaking with him, I am assured that, if our IC is made up of people like Jeremy Black, we are in good hands indeed.

And, yes, it’s true: our own “Man from Uncle” is really named “Mr. Black.”

Greg Olear: You enjoyed a long career at the National Security Agency—the largest of the 17 intelligence agencies that make up the intelligence community of the United States. I was surprised to learn that the NSA was the biggest, because I’d never heard of it before Snowden. How does the NSA differ from the better-known CIA, when did the former eclipse the latter in size, and what were the circumstances for the shift from HUMINT to SIGINT?

Jeremy Black: It's not surprising that you hadn’t heard of the agency. Most people haven’t either. It is, after all, an intelligence activity that shuns publicity and relies on secrecy and tight-lipped affiliates. Many break out NSA to: No Such Agency or Never Say Anything.

The National Security Agency has been around nearly as long as the Central Intelligence Agency. In late October 1952, the president created NSA by putting the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) out of business. He replaced it with the NSA. AFSA was an unsuccessful attempt to consolidate disparate and inefficient signals intelligence missions and functions from the various uniform services. Where AFSA failed, most agree that NSA has proven its worth.  

The CIA and NSA differ in many respects, most importantly, of course, in the pursuit of their separate and distinct missions. While both are responsible for collecting, analyzing, and distributing sensitive information, each has their own function. The CIA gathers intelligence though HUMINT, or human intelligence and all that that entails. NSA’s function is known as SIGINT, or signals intelligence - the intercept of foreign communications. A primary difference is that NSA’s culture and workforce are very technical in nature. An often-heard joke at the agency is that you can tell if someone’s an extrovert there because they look at your shoes instead of their own when talking with you.

NSA also is responsible for protecting the nation’s communication, and NSA is an important DoD agency with combat support responsibilities.

NSA’s complex missions (for both the IC and the DoD), increasingly dangerous world geopolitics, and the growing need to develop leading edge computers and specialized code making and code breaking applications are among the principal reasons the agency rapidly grew so large during the 70s, 80s. The dissolution of the USSR brought staffing decreases, but 9/11 reversed that trend.

Folks can learn quite a bit about the agency by visiting

GO: Snowden co-opted a term, whistleblower, that has a specific legal meaning. He claimed to be a whistleblower, but he was not, in fact, a whistleblower at all, in the strict sense of the word. The Snowden odyssey is well-known—our great champion of America and freedom flew to an airport controlled by the Russian mafiya and now lives in Putin’s autocracy—but I’m curious what effect he had on whistleblowing in the IC.

 JB: As a former NSA Inspector General official, I can assure you that the Intelligence Community takes whistleblowing very seriously. Presidential Policy Directive 19 is the first executive branch policy to prohibit reprisal personnel actions for employees and contractors who report waste, fraud, and abuse in community operations. Among other things, it protects them from having security-clearances lifted because of whistleblowing activity.

More fundamentally, every Community affiliate is reminded frequently of their responsibilities to report waste, fraud, and abuse and of the consequences of not reporting such wrongdoing.

You’re right in pointing out that whistleblowing is a separate process with discrete steps that need to be followed carefully in order for the employee to be protected by the processes’ policies.

Aside from the irreparable damage he caused to critical intelligence programs and the resultant loss of irreplaceable sources and methods, I’m not aware of any Community-wide problems that have arisen because of the results of Snowden’s actions, but I haven’t been involved on a daily basis for several years.

GO: I struggle with Reality Winner. She obviously broke the law, just like Snowden did, and Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. Also like Snowden, she did not go through the proper whistleblower channels. She also gave the stolen documents to The Intercept of all places, Glenn Greenwald’s organ, and an intelligence analyst should have known better. On the other hand, her motives for doing what she did seem to have been pure. One could argue that Reality Winner did, or tried to do, what your niece has been begging everyone in the IC to do: spill the beans to save the country. What is your take on her?

 JB: I feel badly for her because I’m sure that a root cause of her illegal activity was, as you say, dismay over learning about Russian interference in our election to swing the vote in favor of Trump. It’s tough to handle such critical intelligence properly.  Nevertheless, that is our expectation and mutual commitment to one another. In any other administration, following normal procedures would have been sufficient to get this explosive kind of information to the right people at the right time.

Still and all, she committed a serious crime and was deservedly prosecuted. I’m dismayed to learn that she is counting on Trump to come to her rescue on August 31st with some sort of clemency arrangement.

GO: A few months ago, I had a strange thing happen. Richard Grenell, who was at the time the Acting Director of National Intelligence, tweeted something that supported some ridiculous thing Trump had done. I retweeted him, commenting, “The traitors are easy to spot,” which is something I do on Twitter a lot to Trump enablers and Vichy GOP. He then retweeted me, saying, “Hey Greg, let’s debate without calling people traitors or Russian operatives. I love America. I’m absolutely focused on ensuring intelligence isn’t politicized from the inside - or on the outside.” Is it appropriate for the DNI to engage in Twitter debates with civilians?

JB: At best, it’s unseemly. We are after all intelligence professionals. A hallmark of this professionalism is to stay out of such public fora. If not that, then in the background at the very least. All this tweeting by public officials leads me to wonder what important matters are being overlooked. I think Trump’s tweets have been incredibly unhelpful to everyone.  

GO: Grenell was only there for a short time, and he had no idea what he was doing. On the other hand, he’s 100% Trump’s lickspittle, so maybe the seasoned hands at CIA and NSA might have withheld information from him. How much damage could he have done while he was there? (Note: I’m hoping for reassurance here).

JB: The most serious damage he probably did was to shape whatever meager amount of intel that was getting into the White House and up to POTUS in ways that sync up with Trump’s and his minions’ management by conspiracy efforts. Fake news, deep state plots and activities, fawning over Putin, and admiring the leadership of dictators and strong men are just some of the issues bedeviling those in the government trying their best to serve the country. These off-the-wall notions make telling truth to the powerful so much more difficult than it needs to be.

I can’t comment on the motivations of current IC agency heads in terms of withholding data and information from POTUS. I think it is unlikely because most information of that type is also distributed to the Vice President and others. Also, many of these officials have long, successful military careers at the highest levels. I’m always impressed to be around them when they speak profoundly of duty and service to the country. Trump and his fixers, on the other hand, have plenty of experience in withholding unsavory information from the public. 

GO: Is there any reality in which the intelligence concerning the Russian-Taliban bounty program—which was included in the PDB, likely because Russia had actually paid the Taliban for a successful kill—could have escaped Trump’s attention? That is, would someone doing the briefing, or writing up the brief, have ever decided not to tell him?

JB: Yes, I think it is possible for a couple reasons. Trump’s behavior concerning the Russians and Putin over the past years demonstrate his severe blind side to the Russian effort to destabilize our democracy. In Trump, they found the perfect patsy to further this objective. Secondly, Trump’s intellectual laziness; his “I’ve forgotten more about this than you’ll ever learn” arrogance; his quickness to retaliate against those he becomes unhappy with; and his reliance on inexperienced family staff members to handle difficult matters of statecraft all create an environment in which he can easily miss or ignore information on issues like the on-coming pandemic or the so-called Bountygate.

Trump is also known to be dismissive of IC efforts to bring him daily briefings. He only takes two or three a week on average. Many familiar with his approach and behaviors during the briefings he does participate in have concluded that he is “unbriefable,” as Chris Whipple writes in his recent opinion piece in the Washington Post. By the way, I’m looking forward to reading Whipple’s forthcoming book entitled: The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future.

GO: Biden calls you up and asks for your input. “What’s the first thing I need to do to right the ship at the IC?” he wants to know. What do you tell him?

JB: Immediately send any and all Trump appointees and loyalists packing. Let none of them linger or insinuate themselves into permanent IC positions.

Be exceedingly clear about your expectations of the IC. Let your DNI and his leadership team know what you need from them. You sat in on innumerable PDBs with President Obama, so you know how that process works and what it can do for you. Once that process is smoothed out, many other parts and pieces of intel work will fall into place. I’d also tell him not to be too concerned about morale issues or other problems in parts of the community. Left to their own devices, the Agencies will right their ships once the Trump people leave town. 

GO: What is one stereotype about intelligence work that rings true, and what’s one that doesn’t?

JB: The work is fascinating and gives one a great deal of satisfaction, despite the comparatively low pay. You won’t get rich working for an intel agency. One that doesn’t? NSA does not listen to your calls. Never has; never will.

GO: Which novel, film, or TV show comes the closest to describing what intelligence work is really  like?  

 JB: I will say not to put too much faith in Matt Damon and The Bourne Conspiracy (happens to be my favorite movie). There was a documentary about Ames and his treachery that I thought was especially good and revealing. I can’t recall its title right off the bat, but I think it was on “60 Minutes.” I also liked A Gentleman in Moscow.

A good read on NSA is Stephen Budiansky’s Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union. I also found David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy; a True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal to be an exciting read.