Richard Ledgett Jr., 58, has worked at the National Security Agency since 1988. He and his wife live in Maryland and have three children.
Everyone has an idea of what the NSA does, but what, for you, is its core reason for being?
So we’re code makers and code breakers. That’s what we were formed to do, and everything we do grows from that. So it’s making codes to protect U.S. communications. The archetypal example is the nuclear command control codes. If you’ve ever seen in the movies when the guy takes out the little plastic square and breaks it and reads off the five or six numbers and letters to authorize a strike, we actually make those codes. We actually make the little plastic thingies. So that’s a 100 percent get-it-right-every-time, no-fail mission. And on the code-breaking part, our mission is to break foreign codes.
How did you decide this was a field you wanted to go into?
When I joined the Army I ended up doing this job, and I sort of fell in love with the business and have been doing it ever since. Thirty-nine years now.
Do you ever feel like you know too many things?
You sort of get used to it after a while. And like a lot of people I have a three-second tape delay in my head so I know, Can I say that in this venue or not?
What would a bad day at work for you involve?
If there were a large, successful attack on the United States, that’s a bad day at work. 9/11 was a really bad day at work. That’s at the high end of bad. The next level of bad is if something bad happens to some of our people somewhere in the world. Because we put people in danger every day. And then third on the list are things like the [Edward] Snowden disclosure. That’s a bad day as well.
If Snowden were sitting across from you, what would you say?
I’d ask him, Why did you do what you did? The narrative that he’s told publicly about this actually doesn’t track if you parse the timelines. He says he was motivated by Jim Clapper’s remarks to Senator Wyden and the revelation that those remarks weren’t accurate. If you look at the timeline, Snowden was actually stealing material and in contact with reporters eight months before that, so that doesn’t track.
So even if the timeline doesn’t scan, do you question his motivation?
I do. I know a lot about this. I probably spent more time than anybody but our chief investigator on the actual investigation on this. I know a lot that I still can’t talk about because it’s sensitive investigational stuff. And if he does ever come back to the United States it will be part of the government’s case against him. The things that I can say, I think a lot of what was in the House Intelligence Committee’s report where they talk about him actually being mad about being disciplined — I think that actually tracks more with motivation.
Do you think history will ultimately decide what Snowden did helped the country?
That’s a really hard one. I think if you weigh the benefit and the harm, the balance comes out pretty far on the harm side. That doesn’t mean that there was absolutely no good to what he did. And I think that’s an important nuance. It’s heavily weighted towards harm. The little bit of good is forcing a conversation that we probably should have had earlier. And for me that was a lesson learned. That we should have talked about the particular authority, the Patriot Act authority, earlier in the process.
Should he go to jail?
On balance I think he should go to jail. Assuming that he gets a trial and is convicted, which I think the case is very strong. I would vote for conviction. I think I would be disqualified from the jury.
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