Politics & Policy

John Schindler, the NSA ‘Spook’ Who Speaks His Mind

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

It takes a quick eye to keep up with John Schindler’s Twitter feed. Schindler, a former analyst at the National Security Agency, a former professor at the Naval War College, and a self-proclaimed “sometime provocateur,” fires off an average of more than 100 tweets a day.

Lately, his commentary has been directed toward the seemingly never-ending scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state. “Clinton, Inc. thinks they can win a liar’s match and leakfest with the [intelligence community],” he wrote on Twitter last week. While Clinton’s camp may try to dissuade the public from concluding that its actions were criminal, Schindler says those with intelligence experience aren’t fooled. “Spooks know just what they’ve been up to . . . for years.”

Schindler has amassed a loyal following, particularly among conservatives, for his blunt missives on cyber-security, foreign policy, and intelligence. His experience as an NSA analyst has made him a unique player in debates over the NSA metadata program laid bare by Edward Snowden, the Chinese hacking of the Office of Personnel Management’s database, and the Clinton scandal known in the Twittersphere as “#EmailGate.” His contribution comes in translating intelligence- and security-speak — often an impenetrable argot — for the uninitiated.

Conservative pundits and scholars alike have made Schindler their go-to authority on national-security matters. He’s featured regularly on conservative talker Hugh Hewitt’s popular radio show, and his blog posts are often cited in top Republican consultant Rick Wilson’s commentary. Claude Barfield, a resident scholar at AEI, points to Schindler in his writings on international trade and technology policy.

RELATED: CIA Confirms Clinton’s ‘Top Secret’ E-mails Were Classified from Day One

Though admittedly “right-minded,” Schindler says he does not intend to toe a party line. If more conservatives than liberals are drawn to him, he believes it’s because national security is “naturally a conservative enterprise.” What he means by that, he says, is that “the facts of life are conservative.” He also thinks that conservatives appreciate the fierceness of his opinions. “Most former insiders are careful about what they say because they want to be a political appointee,” Schindler says. “That’s not my life ambition.”

Which brings us to “#EmailGate,” and why, according to Schindler, it’s “not going away anytime soon.” On his blog, XX Committee — named for the British committee that created the Double-Cross System, one of the most successful counter-espionage operations of World War II — Schindler gives an excruciatingly detailed account of the ways in which Clinton’s private server compromised international security. It is crucial for the public to connect the dots, he says, between the widespread Chinese hacking of State Department data and the fact that Clinton’s server was unencrypted for months.

RELATED: There’s a Whole Arsenal of Smoking Guns in the Clinton E-mail Scandal

“I don’t believe in coincidences like that,” he says.

According to Schindler, much of the U.S. intelligence community already operates behind a harmful wall of secrecy. “It’s easier to maintain the secrets that must be kept when you make clear to the public why certain things need to be protected,” he says. Clinton’s “evasions, untruths, and half-truths” have only succeeded in sowing further public mistrust, he says.

#share#It’s Schindler’s ability to distill the complexity of information classification into sharp blog posts that gives his commentary an edge, says conservative author Kurt Schlichter.

“The real skill he has is making it clear to laypeople that these things matter for national security,” he says. “There are few people I can think of who have their feet so firmly planted in both worlds.”

There’s something else that gives Schindler’s commentary an edge: It’s often laced with profanity. He makes it a point to respond directly to criticism, including Twitter comments that other writers might choose to ignore. When Jason Fritz, senior editor of War on the Rocks — a foreign-policy and national-security website — recently accused intelligence analysts such as Schindler of being “political beasts with their own agendas,” Schindler’s response was withering. He slammed Fritz as a “loser, [a] poseur, [and a] fake,” who should, “Call me when you finally get that PhD, fuckwad.”

RELATED: Want to Read Hillary’s E-mails? Ask China.

Schindler gained a public following in 2013 after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked a cache of data on the agency’s surveillance programs. After Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, Schindler was one of the first commentators to argue that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, acting as a front for Russian intelligence, played a crucial role in shuttling Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow under the protection of the FSB, Russia’s state-security agency.

At the time, Schindler’s opinions were largely scoffed at by a media establishment with significant sympathy for Snowden. But two years later, Snowden remains in Russia indefinitely, and Assange admits he advised Snowden to go to Moscow. Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, where he hired Schindler, says Schindler “has been vindicated.”

“It’s going to be hard to look back at the Snowden scandal in the future and not come across John’s name,” says Nichols. “He was ruthless, and that’s what made him prominent.”

RELATED: Hackers Hit the Federal Government Hard

Since then, however, Schindler’s career has hit some bumps in the road. In June 2014, an anonymous Twitter user posted screenshots of lurid text messages and a nude photo that he had sent to a female Twitter follower. Gawker, among other outlets, covered the scandal relentlessly. In its wake, facing “non-stop online harassment and stalking,” Schindler and his wife both took a hiatus from social media. He was also removed from his post at the Naval War College.

Today, Schindler says he doesn’t feel that his credibility has taken a hit. “I’m still the former insider who can help the outsider understand,” he says. “People are still coming to me to understand the intelligence community of their government.”

The OPM server hack this summer — in which Chinese hackers stole the personnel data of every federal employee — and the Clinton e-mail scandal have, in many ways, helped restore Schindler’s name. Outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast have turned once more to Schindler’s assessments. He has relaunched his blog. And he’s back on Twitter, as fiercely opinionated as ever.

Schindler is a “subject-matter expert,” and “that’s more than you can say about a lot of people opining on these things,” says Steven Bucci, director of the Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation. As the FBI investigation of Clinton’s e-mail server continues, he adds, “Schindler could very well be getting more airtime.”

Nichols says that the only thing barring Schindler from even greater acclaim is a short fuse. “His Achilles heel is that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” he says. “He’s had a lot of moments . . . where he’s lost his patience, and it hasn’t reflected well on him.”

It’s likely, though, that in a climate where Donald Trump’s crassness has proven popular, Schindler’s tone may have broadened his appeal. If his goal continues to be, as he puts it, to “energize and educate the media and public” on the U.S. intelligence apparatus, he may be playing his hand just right.

“John’s a truth teller. He’s going to say what he thinks,” Schlichter says. “If you don’t like it, that’s too bad.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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