How the NSA is fighting to win the PR War

Seal of the Office of the Director of National...

Seal of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. See more information: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the Snowden revelations were at their peak, I said that the NSA had lost the PR battle.[1] I concluded with Joe Stillwell’s message that they needed to find out what went wrong, fix it and take back the initiative. The NSA appears to have done that. They have begun to tell their story to win the PR war.[2]

The NSA has begun to tell its story and shape public opinion.

The NSA has done several things to shape public opinion. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence created a Tumblr page to promote and publish declassified documents and other information.[3] NSA and other intelligence agencies are on social media.[4] What is different, though, is that the NSA has taken the media campaign to the next stage. They have begun to change the context and terms of the debate away from the Snowden leaks. Snowden’s influence diminishes with each passing day. Snowden’s salience has begun to diminish for four main reasons.

Profit taking reduces market volatility: save some secrets for the book tour

First, Glenn Greenwald has published his book based on the leaks and the story about the leaks. The book draws attention away from Snowden’s revelations. What the book says and how it says it becomes a story. [5]

Freedom of Information undermines Snowden’s claim to be a whistleblower.

Second, the NSA published a Freedom of Information (FOIA) response that rebutted Snowden’s claim that he had emailed his NSA superiors about his concerns.[6] The FOIA response undermines his claim to be a whistle blower. That claim was important for shaping public opinion.

The first transparency report shifts the public debate.

Third, the NSA published their first transparency report.[7] The report showed that fewer people were targeted than critics had claimed.

The published information shifted the debate onto the NSA’s terms. They control the information and set the debate’s context. Even if one disagrees with the report, it diminishes claims that every web user is a target. Snowden’s revelations cannot influence the numbers debate. The debate moves onto terms where Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, or any other critic cannot immediately challenge.

Privacy Board report shapes public opinion.

The fourth event is the privacy board report. It affirmed the value and validity of the 702 programme.[8] The report provides a clear message that the NSA complies with the law its surveillance is valuable. Even if critics disagree with the report’s conclusions, it shifts the debate. The report now shapes public opinion.

A change at the top removes a lightning rod quote.

A relate change in senior NSA leadership has shaped the debate. General Keith Alexander and John C Inglis departure has shifted the NSA’s tone and stature.[9] The misquoted statement “collect everything” is removed from the debate. The incumbent is likely to be less controversial and less quotable.

The PR War continues.

The NSA has improved. They now tell their story better to the public. Even the recent Washington Post Snowden story does not undermine the central story.[10] A careful reading suggests Snowden violated civil liberties.[11] The PR war can shift if a new leaker emerges.

The NSA has to remain prepared for another leak like Snowden. They have learned from the Snowden breach. What remains is public opinion. Slowly but surely, the Snowden effect disappears as the NSA has started to make its case.




[2] See for example (accessed 6 July 2014)

[3] (accessed 6 July 2014)

[4] The Central Intelligence Agency recently joined Twitter. (accessed 6 July 2014)

[5] (accessed 6 July 2014)








About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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