There are few government institutions as polarizing as the National Security Agency. Operating largely in secrecy, the National Security Agency evokes feelings of curiosity, fear, appreciation, and complacency in many Americans—though rarely simultaneously. The NSA is equally controversial among lawmakers: some call the agency's actions entirely illegal, while others defend it in the name of national security.

But how do members of Congress themselves talk about the NSA?

To answer this question, I searched the entirety of the Congressional Record between January 2000 and August 2017 for mentions of the Agency. Out of over six million statements made in Congress, 1,201 were made about the National Security Agency.

Broad Overview

First, let's explore the general timeline of events. The following figure compares the relative chronology and popularity of common terms in the statements. (Note that the Snowden revelations were made in June 2013.)

lexical_dispersion
Lexical dispersion of Snowden, privacy, and NSA in statements referring to the NSA in the congressional record between January 2000 and August 2017.

Notice how discussions of privacy increased suddenly before the Snowden revelations.

With this general chronology in mind, we'll now look at how Edward Snowden is commonly referenced in the congressional record (lexically):

  • ...Edward Snowden spilling...
  • ...the Snowden under...
  • ...Edward Snowden lit...
  • ...Edward Snowden exposed...
  • ...Edward Snowden leaked...
  • ...Edward Snowden years...
  • ...agency Snowden provided...
  • ...how Snowden got...

The most frequent words in the text are not surprising. Indeed, analyzing the most common words used in statements about the National Security Agency yields the following (mundane) figure:

freqdist
Non-cumulative chart of the most common words used in congressional statements about the National Security Agency between January 2000 and August 2017.

More interesting are the most common multi-word constructions (n-grams) in the text. These more complex groupings often reveal patterns in the data that commonly go unnoticed. Here are the most common n-grams in the NSA-related statements:

  • National Security [Agency]
  • United States
  • 50 U.S.C.
  • national security
  • Central Intelligence [Agency]
  • Federal Bureau [of Investigation]
  • National Reconnaissance [Office]
  • Inspector General
  • Select Committee
  • intelligence community
  • Foreign Intelligence
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence
  • fiscal year
  • Defense Intelligence [Agency]
  • law enforcement

(Notice how 50 U.S.C.—a section of federal law—is commonly referenced.)

To understand the sentiment of legislators, I used NLTK's Vader sentiment analyzer. While Vader's sentiment analysis cannot be conflated with sentiment towards a particular topic, it is effective at extracting emotion from text.

It turns out that when talking about the NSA, legislators' statements are 77.8% neutral, 16.0% positive, and only 6.2% negative, as the following figure illustrates:

sentiment
Sentiment breakdown of statements made in Congress on the National Security Agency between January 2000 and August 2017.

It's also important to understand who is talking about the National Security Agency. The following figure illustrates the relatively even partisan breakdown:

partisan_breakdown
Partisan breakdown of statements made in Congress on the National Security Agency between January 2000 and August 2017.

(Note that Congress was Republican-dominated for much of the studied period, making this partisan breakdown of statements proportional to the greater partisan distribution in the houses themselves.)

Is the sentiment different between statements about the NSA made by Democrats and Republicans? As the following figures show, not really:

democrat_sentiment
Sentiment breakdown of statements made in Congress by Democrats on the National Security Agency between January 2000 and August 2017.

republican_sentiment
Sentiment breakdown of statements made in Congress by Republicans on the National Security Agency between January 2000 and August 2017.

Specifics

Now armed with a broad understanding of the nature of this dataset, let's explore some specific examples of statements. In what contexts to terms such as NSA and Snowden appear?

NSA

...ion. Gonzales said top lawyers at the NSA and Justice had green-lighted the pro...
...nt, they should not provide it to the NSA or any other military agency or depar...
...ndment would still have permitted the NSA to share its own expertise on cyber t...
... to put it in writing. The lawyers of NSA have to agree. They have to provide p...
...inistration, that is exactly what the NSA has become. If the phone companies si...
...o taken the opportunity to visit with NSA to see firsthand the work they are do...
...rity Agency. The men and women of the NSA work tirelessly to keep our soldiers...
...oud that this conference report gives NSA the infrastructure and tools they nee...
...round the warrant requirement. If the NSA wanted to get my communications but d...
... at the National Security Agency with NSA Director, General Alexander. Had I be...
...gence Committee could not oversee the NSA program because most of us were not b...
...Government. Opposition to the current NSA policy is coming from across the poli...
.... For example, due to its role in the NSA spying on Americans, Booz Allen Hamil...
...ooz Allen Hamilton is ineligible. The NSA is the National Security Agency. Its...
..., in fact, the agency involved in the NSA has not denied that this is a valid, ...
...-hour intercepts require sign-offs by NSA lawyers and preapproval by the attorn...
...on renewal of the Patriot Act and the NSA terrorist surveillance program. A min...
...told the shocking story of how, ``The NSA had the actual phone number in the Un...
...ken the Patriot Act or jeopardize the NSA terrorist surveillance program becaus...
...l-Intelligence Agency for their help. NSA figured out, somehow, that there was ...
...ng to address their concerns that the NSA program was illegal and may have been...
...Boston College in 1964 and joined the NSA following graduation, where he remain...
...munications, and it is the job of the NSA to intercept them. The NSA does this ...
...job of the NSA to intercept them. The NSA does this vital work under legislatio...
... that was passed by the Congress. The NSA actions are subject to oversight by m...

Snowden

... of Moscow's granting asylum to Mr. Snowden and its backing of President Bashar
...ommunity. With WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden spilling our beans every day, what ...
...grim. Following the leaks by Edward Snowden beginning in June last year of high...
...ths ago a man by the name of Edward Snowden lit up the airwaves with his illega...
...ational Security Agency played. Mr. Snowden provided a titillating, mesmerizing...
...ormation. With WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden spilling our beans every day, what ...
...Sebelius. With WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden spilling our beans every day, what'...
...l Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that exposed the N...
...ral Eric Holder. I want to know how Snowden got his hands on so much of the nat...
...eir phone calls. This is called the Snowden revelation. Under the banner of nat...
... was unlawfully disclosed by Edward Snowden 2 years ago, which is why we are ab...
... of U.S. phone records since Edward Snowden exposed the program nearly two year...

Raw Data

Are you interested in hacking on this data yourself? Go ahead! The raw dataset is available for download here. (License is GPLv3; uncommon for datasets, but inherited from source repository.)

Cover image: President George W. Bush delivers a statement to the press following a meeting at the National Security Agency. Via the Bush White House Archive.