Working for the National Security Agency

This article should have been posted in February 2019 when I was writing about my experiences in the period 1954-57 after college and military service.  Better late than never.

I worked for the National Security Agency from May 1957 to February 1994.

Over the years some members of my family have expressed a very natural curiosity as to what I did at NSA, but I still cannot tell very much.  I signed all sorts of agreements about keeping my lips sealed forever.  “Neither confirm nor deny” was the catch phrase, and those words were drummed into all of us.  Nevertheless, in recent years there have been a few official press releases about the Agency’s work, so I believe that I can safely reveal some details about my career at the “Puzzle Palace” without fear of compromising anyone or anything.

In 1957, most Americans knew absolutely nothing about the National Security Agency (NSA), and the agency was very happy to have it that way.  Secrecy was the watchword, and the common joke around Washington was to refer to NSA as “No Such Agency”.  Actually, NSA was a comparatively new organization that had been formed in late 1952.  Its predecessor was the Armed Forces Security Agency and before that the cryptologic branches of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Although NSA was new, many of the agency’s key personnel had performed invaluable service in World War II by breaking German and Japanese military and diplomatic codes and ciphers.  Their most notable contribution to our ultimate victory may have been their analysis of Japanese naval messages that meant so much to our success at the critical Battle of Midway in June 1942.  Later, along with the British, they exploited German communications to help us win the Battle of the Atlantic and pave the way for D-Day.  These men and women also created the codes and ciphers to make our own communications safe.

When I went to work for NSA in May 1957, the Cold War was at its height, and the Agency was an exciting place to be.  We had a great number of bright and interesting people working for us.  Many of them were academics.  My first division chief was a niece of the President of South Korea.  Later I worked with a man who was a Sanskrit scholar, and my office chief at that time had played an important role in breaking the Japanese diplomatic and naval codes and ciphers in 1941-42.

In my first agency assignment, I became very familiar with the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union.  I came to know the names and backgrounds of these men much better than I knew our own government leaders, and I used the research skills that I had learned at the University of North Carolina to good advantage.  Later I moved to other assignments and learned new things – almost always concentrating on the Soviet Union.  Contrary to the misinformation spread by Hollywood films and often implied by irresponsible press types, NSA did not target United States citizens or organizations.   

The Cuban missile crisis was an especially memorable event during my early years at NSA.  I remember watching our naval charts as we tracked the missile carrying Soviet ships sail toward Cuba and a possible confrontation with our fleet.  There was a collective sigh of relief as the Soviet vessels reversed course.  I worked many long hours during that week and the following months as we continued to keep a very close watch on Soviet activities in Cuba and elsewhere. 

As time passed I was introduced to the world of computers.  NSA was a pioneer in computer technology, and during the mid to late 20th century  we probably had the biggest and best computers in the world.  I needed computers to process the information I was working on, so I learned computer programming myself.  Using this new technology, I developed an information system that became widely used throughout the Intelligence Community.  Later I became even more involved with computers and was one of the early users of what eventually became the internet.  The technology used to build the internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), and I worked in an NSA office that adapted this technology to build a system for sharing intelligence information between the several intelligence agencies (NSA, CIA, DIA, NPIC, etc.).  This development took place in the time frame 1973-77, long before the internet became so wildly popular.  Some years later, as I was ending my NSA career, I and others were working on a system for the high-speed transmission of huge amounts of data between large computer complexes.  Despite all this high-tech experience, since leaving work I have not kept up with recent advances in computers and communications, and I feel more and more like a technological dinosaur.

I liked my work at NSA – especially in the early days when I was more intimately involved with using and organizing intelligence rather than working on high-end computer technology.  Developing systematic approaches to information storage and retrieval and writing the accompanying computer programs was also engrossing and often very challenging.  I felt a real sense of accomplishment as I did this work, and I was rewarded with a series of promotions – to unit chief, section chief, branch chief, division chief, and deputy office chief.

Government service and government workers are often disparaged these days, but my own experience convinced me that there are many dedicated and hard-working people employed by Uncle Sam.  Of course, we also had our fair share of slackers and incompetents.  The difficulty for government managers is that it is much too difficult to get rid of poorly performing employees.  Rather than fire them (which takes a mountain of paper work), the usual tactic was to shift them off into a job where they could do the least harm. 

Another problem in government is what I refer to as “group think”.  This always present tendency began to manifest itself more openly in the 1980s when there was a vast infusion of money into the Defense Department as part of President Reagan’s strategy to outspend the Soviet Union in an attempt to bankrupt them.  It was a brilliant strategy, and it eventually worked.  The problem was that it also led to a tremendous waste of money.  During this time NSA managers were rated on how well they managed to spend their money — not on whether it was spent on some worthwhile project.  In a sort or Orwellian doublethink, “If you were rewarded for wasting a lot of money doing something of little value, get even more rewards and less value by wasting more.”  Keeping track of how much money a manager could spend became more and more like the “body count” craze in Vietnam (How many Vietcong did your unit kill?).  Frankly, this approach bothered me very much, and I didn’t hesitate to express concerns to my own manager and to others.  Very soon I discovered that I was out of step — no longer in the proper “group think” mode.  Saving money or spending money wisely was no longer rewarded or even appreciated.  After that, my rapid ascent in NSA’s hierarchy came to a halt, and I shifted from management to concentrate on very high-end computer technology, an area where I had much less expertise.           

I will leave you with one more rather interesting story from my early days with NSA.  A certain Sergeant X, a US Army courier, often picked up documents from one of the areas under my charge. It later turned out that he was selling secrets to his Soviet contacts.  He was accumulating a small fortune by betraying his country.  The man who supervised the section where Sergeant X usually picked up the secret and top secret material told me that the sergeant always said the same thing when he picked up the documents.  “Well,” he would say, “What do we have for the Kremlin today?”

It seems a bit humorous when I tell this tale some sixty years later, but it was a deadly serious business at the time.  I am certain that Sergeant X’s traitorous acts led to the death of some of our informants in the Soviet Union, and when he realized that he was about to be discovered he committed suicide.

All in all, I had a very interesting and rewarding career at the National Security Agency.

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