K Street lobbyists tight-lipped about efforts to influence the NSA

There’s a K Street connection to the secretive spy agency involved in sweeping surveillance programs.

A select group of defense contractors, telecommunications companies and super-computer markers have reported lobbying the National Security Agency (NSA) this year, according to a review by The Hill of lobbying disclosure records. 

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Lobbyists who have reported representing clients at the NSA were tight-lipped about their activities. Most either declined to return messages to The Hill or simply referred back to the disclosure records that they filed.

Defense giants General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. listed the NSA as being among the government agencies they contacted last quarter. Representatives for the firms declined to elaborate beyond the records. 

“Northrop Grumman rigorously adheres to all reporting requirements and its lobbying reports speak for themselves,” said Randy Belote, Northrop’s vice president of strategic communications.

One expert said the companies are simply following the money.

“If you are the lobbyists, you go where the money is, and they have plenty of it,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “It is a large organization with a big budget. They have some unique capabilities, but there are plenty of contracting opportunities over there, from janitorial services to cutting-edge information technology programs.”

Just how much money is in play at the NSA is a closely guarded secret. Experts estimate the agency’s budget could be as large to $10 billion this year, making it a lucrative target for contractors and K Street firms.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NSA saw a huge increase in lobbying. Sixty-seven companies, trade groups and other organizations disclosed that they contacted the spy agency in 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

That has fallen off in recent years; only 12 groups or companies have disclosed lobbying the NSA so far this year. 

But that could change now that lawmakers and the press are clamoring for more information about the surveillance programs revealed last week in leaked documents.

Disclosure records indicate lobbyists are often employed to help clients with classified programs at the NSA. General Dynamics, for example, reported lobbying on “funding and issues related to Intelligence Classified Annex for Fiscal Year 2013” in the first quarter of 2013.

“We don’t know what it is they are trying to sell because it’s classified. It could be a drone. It could be a computer. There is a complete lack of transparency here,” said Matthew Aid, an NSA expert who has written The Secret Sentry, a history of the spy agency.

Telecom giant Oracle also reported contacting the NSA last quarter, along with Cray Inc. — the supercomputer-maker whose products are on display in the National Cryptologic Museum. 

“We have nothing further to add,” said Nick Davis, a spokesman for Cray, when asked about the company’s lobbying report.

Northeastern University also reported lobbying the spy agency this year. 

Lobbyists for Northeastern have traveled to the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., to talk up cybersecurity research and training. The university runs a cybersecurity center designated by the NSA to help train new online warriors.

“We have met with the NSA and members of Congress because we want to keep up our ongoing dialogue about our center as well as how our research from the center could be helpful to the NSA,” said Tim Leshan, Northeastern’s vice president for government relations. “With the center, we are actually training our students to work in the field of cybersecurity.” 

One lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous said representing clients with NSA interests brings unique challenges. The lobbyist recalled working for an intelligence contractor on a program where the details were classified.

“It was black. It was top-secret,” the lobbyist said.

The lobbyist would help arrange meetings with congressional staff to discuss the NSA program but couldn’t join them, due to not having the proper security clearance. 

“The client’s cleared people would meet with the committee’s cleared people,” said the lobbyist. “I wasn’t cleared, so I wasn’t in those meetings.”

Lobbyists can aim their pitches to members of the congressional intelligence committees in order to reach the secretive agency.

“You [the intelligence contractor] find someone on Capitol Hill to make an introduction for you to the agency. It’s more a subtle process. It’s not ‘Gucci Gulch’ or strong-arming people. You get people to come up to Fort Meade for a free demonstration of your product,” Aid said. 

The NSA is expected to play a big part in America’s escalating cyber-war activities, and several advocates said that is why they have contacted the intelligence agency. 

Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she met with NSA officials last year when attending multi-agency meetings. Richardson was there to lobby for privacy protections as the federal government ramps up on cybersecurity. 

A spokesman said the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said the trade group has had lobbyists in meetings on cybersecurity with administration officials where the NSA has been present, but has not had direct lobbying contact with the agency alone. 

Booz Allen Hamilton — the consulting firm that employed Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who has admitted to leaking NSA materials to the press — has had little lobbying presence in Washington. 

The firm has not had lobbyists working on its behalf since 2008, according to records. Further, the consulting group never contacted the NSA. 

Asked if there would be a backlash against outside contractors after the disclosure of the intelligence efforts, Aid said “not within the Beltway,” noting lawmakers have rushed to defend the spying programs. 

“The permanent select committees are filled with partisans for the intelligence community, with one or two exceptions. The NSA is the darling — that along with unmanned drones,” Aid said. “These are the people who pass the budget.”