2013 10 25 FRB Ex-NSA Chief Is Not The First To Have His ‘Private’ Acela Conversation Tapped (But Is Definitely The Most Ironic) – Forbes


Ex-NSA Chief Is Not The First To Have His ‘Private’ Acela Conversation Tapped (But Is Definitely The Most Ironic)

‘Lose’ for Hayden

Former NSA chief Michael Hayden is about as skilled in personal opsec as former CIA chief David Petraeus. Hayden decided to hold private conversation with a journalist while on the Acela train from D.C. to Newark. He told the journalist that he only wanted to be identified as a “former senior administration official,” but soon he was quickly outed — not by the journalist, but by a fellow passenger two seats away who recognized Hayden and began tweeting about his phone calls.

“He was talking very loudly and using words like ‘rendition’ and ‘black sites,’” entrepreneur and former MoveOn director Tom Mattzie told New York Magazine. “My ears perked up.”

Hayden has done a surprising amount of press (starring openly as himself) since the NSA scandals broke. But for this conversation, he wanted — according to Mattzie’s tweets — to criticize the White House for its willful blindness to the NSA monitoring the cell phones of world leaders, so he apparently wished to keep his identity under wraps. Hayden has since told Talking Points Memo that Mattzie got his comments “terribly wrong.”

“Wow, it sucks when people draw the wrong conclusions from surveillance!,” tweets Ben Wizner of the ACLU. “How could that ever happen?”

The obvious hilarity of an ex-NSA chief being “eavesdropped” on without his consent has resulted in a predictable press frenzy. Hayden though is far from the first victim of the Acela overshare.

“I once sat behind Facebook’s FB -1.66% public policy guy giving ~2hrs of ‘off the record’ interviews to the press,” tweets security researcher and sometimes Facebook critic Ashkan Soltani. “I introduced myself at the end of the train ride…. the look on his face was priceless.”

Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for Forbes about the many “private” Acela conversations that have been leaked to the press. Some of the worst:

  • Robert Robbins, a D.C.-based corporate securities partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop: In February 2009, on a morning train to New York, he used his BlackBerry bluetooth to talk to a colleague about plans to lay off up to 20 lawyers at his firm; he was not shy about naming names. A law student sitting in the seat ahead of him overheard and reported the news to legal blog Above the Law.
  • Law firm partner Jim Kirk of Kelley Drye & Warren: While in the first-class car on the Acela heading to New York, he called up a young partner at another firm to try to convince him to join Kelley Drye. He laid out the partner compensation package–a closely guarded secret within law firm circles–of a $300,000 salary plus a $50,000 bonus for bringing in 1 million worth of client billables, and a percentage of anything over that. A fellow first-class passenger again reported the news to Above the Law. Starting partner compensation at the firm soon became a matter of public record.
  • In 2008 MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was overheard telling a fellow passenger on the train from Philadelphia to D.C. that he thought Hillary Clinton was a “soap opera,” disparaging her as a secretary of state candidate. A Clinton fan listening in hard-balled him, leaking the gossip to Page Six of the New York Post.
  • In February 2010 political advisor Bill Lynch had a “private” discussion with New York Gov. David Paterson while on the 9 a.m. Acela train to D.C. A reporter was seated near Lynch as he talked to Paterson via speakerphone. Their strategy for dealing with a few local politicians wound up on Page Six the next day.

If you’re in public, the conversation you’re having isn’t a private one. Mattzie’s tweets about Hayden soon got back to Hayden and he halted his phone calls. The Washington Post reports that Hayden walked over to Mattzie and asked him if he wanted a real interview.

“I’m not a reporter,” Matzzie replied.

“Everybody’s a reporter,” said Hayden. That’s a bit of wisdom to keep in mind any time you’re in an enclosed space with other people and you’re tempted to make a phone call.