BLUE SCREEN

NSA Silent on Spies’ Child Porn Problem

The government’s cyber spying outfit has an ‘unbelievable’ child porn problem. But the NSA can’t—or won’t—say how often it finds such criminal images on its workers’ computers.

05.06.16 5:15 AM ET

Two senior U.S. intelligence officials said recently that defense and intelligence employees have an “unbelievable” amount of child pornography on their work computers and devices, and that child porn has been found on the systems of the National Security Agency, the country’s biggest intelligence organization.

But the NSA, which is responsible for keeping tabs on its own computers as well as military and intelligence agency networks, cannot say just how many times employees have been found to posesses or share child pornography, or how many times such cases have been referred to law enforcement for investigation and potential criminal prosecution.

An agency spokesperson was unable to provide The Daily Beast with statistics to elaborate on comments by Kemp Ensor, the NSA’s director of security, who said at a public conference in Virginia on April 28 that he had seen child porn on agency systems. Despite the fact that NSA employees know they work inside the most powerful surveillance organization on the planet, it doesn’t stop some from engaging in criminal behavior. “What people do [at work] is amazing,” Ensor said.

His comments were first reported by Nextgov.

NSA is a professional foreign-intelligence and information-assurance organization with a highly disciplined workforce, serving around the clock in some of the world’s most dangerous areas,” an NSA spokesperson said in a written statement. “We set high professional standards for our personnel and any violations of the law are appropriately reported.”

But how many? How often? These are questions one might imagine the world’s premiere computer-monitoring agency could answer.

Privately, current and former intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that the NSA does know when employees are downloading, storing, or sharing graphic and illegal images. Downloading, purchasing, and disseminating child pornography is a crime. But NSA is probably not keeping track of the number of times child porn has been found, the current and former officials said—at least not in any form that it’s willing to release publicly.

If that’s the case, it’s not because defense and security officials have failed to raise red flags. Six years ago, the Pentagon released more than 90 pages from an investigation called Operation Flicker, which revealed that members of the military and defense contractors had allegedly purchased child porn on their government computers. One contractor with a top-secret security clearance was charged with possession. The contractor worked for the NSA.

So the agency clearly understands, even if anecdotally or based on the results of outside investigations, that there’s a problem. And the NSA isn’t alone.

“The amount of child porn I see is just unbelievable,” Daniel Payne, the director of the Defense Security Service, said at the same conference where Ensor spoke. The DSS, which is a separate agency from the NSA, conducts background checks on prospective and current government employees. Payne has worked in intelligence and counterintelligence for 34 years, including jobs in the military and at the CIA.

Ensor and Payne’s candid remarks clearly made their employers uncomfortable. Not only did the NSA decline repeated requests to quantify the nature of the problem that Ensor described. The Defense Security Service, when asked the same question, initially provided a boilerplate statement that softened Payne’s alarming comments.

Payne’s “remarks were not Agency specific; rather, he was speaking in terms of the government as a whole,” the statement said. Asked again to provide information that would quantify the nature of that problem, the agency offered a count of its own employees who were found with porn on their work computers: zero.

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“The Defense Security Service has found no instances of child pornography on agency computers,” the statement read. “Should a DSS employee be found to have child pornography, the case would be referred to law enforcement for further investigation.”     

Asked for the number of times it had found child porn on the computers of other agencies, such as those where DSS investigators are conducting background checks for security clearance renewals, the agency didn’t provide a number.

“As a part of our mission, DSS conducts security vulnerability assessments of cleared facilities, which includes reviewing the audit records of classified systems,” the agency said in another statement. “Should the review uncover any illegal activity, DSS would inform the facility security staff, and if necessary, ensure the appropriate law enforcement authorities are notified.”

Payne and Ensor weren’t trying to raise awareness about child porn and abuse in government. Rather, they were speaking on a panel about so-called insider threats at intelligence agencies. Since Edward Snowden disclosed highly-classified information about surveillance by the NSA, American intelligence agencies have made detecting the next leaker or spy a top priority.

To do that, the agencies need to keep tabs not just on what government employees are doing at work, but also at home, Payne and Ensor argued. NSA employees, particularly young ones, leave the agency and then hop online from the privacy of their own home. “That is where were we need to be, that’s where we need to mine,” Ensor said.

The child porn problem came up, spokespersons for both agencies said, in the context of a discussion about the kinds of activities that signal someone could be engaging in criminal behavior, which would immediately make them a potential security threat. 

That raised the question of whether the officials were using one form of criminal behavior—the downloading of child pornography—which they couldn’t precisely quantify, to justify the expansion of surveillance of government employees. 

But in trying to emphasize one problem—leakers and spies—Payne and Ensor underscored another: the ongoing and persistent downloading of child porn in the workplace. And, perhaps, officials’ willful ignorance of the matter.

Government investigations have found instances in which intelligence officials effectively ignored evidence of employees viewing child porn and potential child abuse. In 2014, McClatchy reported that an inspector general found the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs U.S. spy satellites, had failed to notify authorities when some of its employees and contractors confessed to child molestation and other crimes during lie detector tests, which are administered for security clearance purposes. 

“In one instance, one of the agency’s top lawyers told colleagues not to bother reporting confessions by a government contractor of child molestation, viewing child pornography and sexting with a minor, the inquiry by the inspector general for the intelligence community revealed,” according to McClatchy. Two years earlier, the news organization had reported that law enforcement officials weren’t being told about criminal confessions that surfaced in lie detector tests. 

In 2011, the Boston Globe reported that the Defense Department had investigated just 3,500 out of 5,200 people who were suspected of downloading child porn. The Pentagon’s inspector general promised an “all-out pursuit” to catch perpetrators, and said his office would review 1,700 potential cases of child pornography possession that had been referred to military investigators four years earlier, but that were never screened, the Globe reported.

Though they apparently didn’t mean to, Payne and Ensor made a valuable point. The problem of child porn in the government workplace, which has been documented time and again, obviously remains unsolved if two senior officials whose job it is to know are still talking about it.