WASHINGTON — The anonymous employee wrote to complain that a high-ranking official “is frequently MIA,” or missing in action.
“We never know if he is coming or not,” the underling wrote. “He frequently leaves work in the middle of the day to run routine errands. I overheard him tell a co-worker, ‘This place is last on my list of priorities.’ ”
“This place” is none other than the super-secret National Security Agency. The writer, “Headless in Headquarters,” was airing one of scores of grievances to “Zelda,” the often cheeky and opinionated advice columnist in the agency’s employee newsletter — a popular fixture inside the spy agency whose role is revealed in documents obtained by The Boston Globe. The website The Intercept revealed the existence of Zelda, and the column’s role in the NSA workplace, in March.
“Ask Zelda,” in its quirky, sarcastic, and at times blunt and sobering style, reveals a host of workplace ills at the agency that has been under fire for monitoring huge amounts of private communications since a former contractor, Edward Snowden, last year leaked thousands of documents about its domestic intelligence-gathering practices.
The gripes to Zelda range from potentially serious lapses — adrift supervisors, snoozing employees, and the lackadaisical handling of some of the nation’s most sensitive files — to the more mundane, such as foul-smelling, nosy, rude, or overbearing co-workers.
In one richly ironic column, from early 2011, a group of employees in the highly sensitive “signals intelligence division” told Zelda they found it hard to swallow what agency critics would, almost certainly without pity, consider a taste of their own medicine. They wrote that they had learned their private messages poking fun at their NSA superiors “weren’t private after all” and were posted on an internal computer network for all their co-workers to see.
In another instance, an employee sought guidance on how to handle a boss who had enlisted “snitches” to eavesdrop on private office conversations.
The Globe obtained the columns under a Freedom of Information Act request. Although the government determined that the columns could be released, the agency has kept Zelda’s real name a secret.
But the column carrying her nom de plume, depicted alongside a cartoon-like rendition of a wide-eyed blonde in red lipstick sitting before a glowing computer monitor, has clearly provided a welcome means for NSA employees to clear the air since the feature first appeared in 2010.
“She acts as a wise friend or senior co-worker — which isn’t the same thing as asking for a policy interpretation,” Zelda explained, writing about herself in a Q&A published to mark the first anniversary of the column.
“Besides, I think people would rather read something with a bit of personality as opposed to bland, whitewashed party line that reads like a policy manual and has been approved by a chain of managers to scrub it of anything that might offend,’’ she wrote. “Zelda is not afraid to offend — although that’s not her intent.”
There is “a certain mystique about Zelda. . . . She’s bigger than life,” wrote the not-so-modest columnist, likening herself to Dear Abby and Miss Manners. Among the key differences, however: “I don’t give technical or romantic advice.”
Not everyone at the NSA was enthralled with the idea of “Ask Zelda,” including the agency’s human resources division, according to the documents. But the column’s popularity, and Zelda’s insistence that she is not doling out official policy in her answers, has overcome the naysayers.
Still, Zelda hasn’t shied away from wading into controversial topics. One such instance came, as it happened, two months after Snowden, then a 30-year-old computer specialist, began sharing internal NSA documents with the media in June 2013. An NSA employee complained that older, more experienced managers were discriminating against younger employees, including ignoring their expertise on technical matters.
Zelda’s advice for “Younger Skills” ran the gamut of techniques for managing office politics, including recommending several how-to books on the subject. But in a column she called “The Young and the Restless,” she also sternly reminded the writer that the let-it-all-hang-out zeal of the younger generation might not wash well with NSA higher-ups — especially frequent use of social media.
“At a time when media leaks are causing our leadership a lot of extra work to clean up,” she advised, “a lack of discretion can be seen as a very dangerous thing. Before you hit ‘Send,’ think: will this e-mail/post come back to haunt me when I’m up for a senior-level position in a few years?”
Many of her fans seek advice that any pent-up office worker could relate to: How does one handle a colleague whose personal hygiene leaves something to be desired? “Tact and compassion” are in order, she advised “Gasping for Air” in 2010. Or just place “a large container of potpourri” outside the offender’s cubicle.
Other commonly fielded complaints are about employees who wear skimpy outfits, are being passed over for promotion, are overly gossipy and chit-chatty, and who clutter up offices because they can’t seem to throw anything away.
Snowden wasn’t the only thief. In the winter of 2012, a soda snatcher was on the loose.
Zelda recommended in a column titled “Peeved by Purloined Pop” that a more noticeable mark be placed on the cans, such as “Don’t Touch” or “Terry’s Soda.”
But if that doesn’t work, she advised mischievously, one could “declare war” by shaking up the cans to teach the thief a lesson. Or, in NSA fashion, “recon” the kitchen at various times throughout the day on the lookout for the culprit (while taking each opportunity to shake up the can anew, of course).
“Then sit back and wait for someone to yell when they open it.”
One troubling theme exposed in the columns is a lack of basic civility at the agency based in Fort Meade, Md. Indeed, a number of the columns suggest a profane and sometimes bullying culture.
The NSA is a military organization, headed by a four-star officer, so it should come as little surprise that some of its workers swear like sailors. But one recent scourge was what Zelda termed “lane hijacking,” in which employees, usually female, got shoved into walls and doorways by oblivious co-workers blowing by on their way to urgent meetings.
Things got so bad in the spring of 2012 that the NSA launched an agency-wide campaign termed “Civility Matters.”
Later that summer, Zelda responded to another employee who called herself “The Invisible Woman” and reported her “200-pound” frame was nearly knocked over by what she called a “pack” of co-workers stretched five across.
Zelda was not sanguine about the prospects for much improvement. “A required class on common courtesy would be a timely addition to NSA’s ‘Civility Matters’ campaign,” she responded. “But with the amount of mandatory training already levied on the workforce, I doubt it will come to pass.”
Other columns discuss employees who take naps at their desks and new employees who do not secure sensitive documents.
“Talking to management hasn’t helped, as they avoid confrontation at ALL COSTS,” “Locked Out” wrote. Zelda advised Locked Out to contact a security officer.
“Frustrated and Lost” wrote to complain about a supervisor with a “controlling personality” who “continually puts me down and criticizes my work.”
Zelda’s advice? Find a mentor, “a more senior person who is not in your chain of command who can serve as a sounding board” and help “navigate the shark-infested waters of your current office.”
At times, she can be severe. She admonished one supervisor who didn’t want to hurt the feelings of an under-performing employee: “In the future when [you] get the urge to coddle one of your employees, please go boil an egg instead.”
She also had little mercy for the “MIA” supervisor who was not putting in the hours required, telling the underling he or she could report the official to the agency’s office of the inspector general, which investigates waste, fraud, and abuse. The NSA did not respond to a request for comment on whether any such action was taken.
But the question on many minds at the NSA is whether Zelda’s identity will ever be decoded.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story left the impression that the Globe was the first to report the story. The website The Intercept revealed the existence of Zelda, and the column’s role in the NSA workplace, in March.