The National Security Agency (NSA) this week defended itself against explosive charges that it has spied for years on top world leaders, including US allies. The accusations, which have infuriated Europe, come courtesy of Edward Snowden, the US citizen holed up in Russia who continues to dole out incriminating and deeply embarrassing tidbits about what the US has been up to since the Cold War ended.
Appearing before the US House Intelligence Committee, the NSA’s top brass responded to the charges in a way befitting a spy shop, both denying and acknowledging the accusations. To paraphrase: No, they did not spy on France and Spain; France and Spain did that themselves, and sent the information over to the US. However, they do think spying on one’s allies is perfectly fine.
It is? Yes, according to the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who said snooping on other countries’ leaders has gone on for decades. “It is one of the first things I learned in intelligence school in 1963. It’s a fundamental given.”
It may be a given in spy school, but it comes as a bit of a shock to everyone else, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is livid over claims the US has been tapping her mobile phone for years. President Obama has left his intelligence chiefs to fend for themselves, intimating he was unaware of their overzealous eavesdropping.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (“PR Problematic”) for the NSA. The revelations, and embarrassment, just keep on coming.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Sometimes stating the obvious isn’t, well, so obvious. Industries besides espionage – think medicine or technology – operate in ways that aren’t easily understood or accessible by those outside. That makes PR tricky when matters spill over into the outside world. Good PRs invest time in educating journalists about their clients. Those regular lunches or “meet-and-greets” with senior personnel don’t always yield stories, but they do give reporters a basic knowledge of how companies or industries work. It works well with technical industries; perhaps “PR 101” should be added to the intelligence school’s curriculum too.