Inside the NSA: ‘Working on the Dark Side of the Moon’

Longtime INFORMS member’s new book offers a first-hand look at life inside the National Security Agency.

NSA HQ

By Thomas R. Willemain

Editor’s note: Following are excerpts from Thomas Reed Willemain’s recently published book, “Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency.” The co-founder and senior vice president-research of Smart Software, Inc., Willemain is a longtime member of INFORMS and several other professional and honorary societies, including the Military Operations Research Society and the American Statistical Association.

Professor Willemain previously held faculty appointments in the schools of Management and Engineering at Rensselaer, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also served as a senior research associate at the Heller School of Social Welfare at Brandeis University.

“Working on the Dark Side of the Moon” is based on Willemain’s 2007-2008 academic year as a sabbatical visitor with the Mathematics Research group at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Md. He subsequently spent several summers as an expert statistical consultant to NSA and as a member of the adjunct research staff at an affiliated think tank, the Institute for Defense Analyses Center for Computing Sciences (IDA/CCS).

The DARKROOM

Thomas R. Willemain

Thomas R. Willemain

My very first day on the job was generally exciting but ended with moments of angst and dread. I was assigned to an overcrowded office in a cold, dingy basement of the [redacted] building. The sign on the door proclaimed it to be the DARKROOM. The original DARKROOM was a proto-NSA set up in the World War I era. …

There were three desks in our room. The first desk sat in the doorway and was visible from the entrance to the DARKROOM suite. This space was called the “Ejection Seat” because the occupant was usually quickly shuttled somewhere else. To me, the Ejection Seat was a bonus resource. Because the most recent occupant had already been ejected, the workstation sat idle. Therefore, I got to run “embarrassingly parallel” computing jobs on the Ejection Seat workstation while simultaneously running other instances on my own workstation.

Each desk had a computer that had been named after someone famous. I embarrassed myself early by asking why everybody else’s computer was named after a famous mathematician but mine was named after a notoriously sexy actress. Maybe my basic instinct was to act to type as an engineer plunked down in a nest of mathematicians.

The other great physical resource in our room was a very long and very ancient slate blackboard, perhaps the only one remaining in Math Research (and later lovingly transported to Laurel, Md., when all of the Research Directorate was bumped off campus to a suburban office park) and some colored chalk. One of my first acts of secret public service to the United States, on Day 2, was to wash the blackboard, clean the erasers, replenish the chalk supply, and use an antique vacuum cleaner to tidy up afterwards. (For a long time, I had a fear that my janitorial contribution would be my most significant. Looking back, it was probably somewhere in the middle of the top 10.)

Outside the DARKROOM: Walls and Halls

The physical environment outside the DARKROOM was no more luxurious than within it. Located in the basement of the building where computers (which love cold) were more important than people (who usually do not), the corridors were quite chilly (cold air settles downward).

The corridors were also quite dingy, painted “government gray” and poorly lit. One happy day I wandered down, anxious as usual about whether I could really crack the problem I was working, when something struck me as odd, even alien. It took a while, but I finally realized that somebody had actually painted the walls with lighter colors. Later, there was another strange day when something again seemed very different. Somebody had installed actual lights in the ceiling, and it was easy to see where I was going. Not quite sunshine, but a definite mood enhancer. Less dungeon, more drab government office building.

To me, the corridors around the DARKROOM were quite frustrating, because along each one were many mysterious and tantalizing doors marked by mysterious and tantalizing signs. As an inveterate academic, I itched to go through each one and ask everybody, “What are you working on?” … Of course, curiosity is not the same as need-to-know, so the doors never opened for me. …

NSA enforces work/life balance by not permitting staff to work more than a normal work week (except during emergencies, like 9/11). I presume this keeps psychological meltdowns to a tolerable few. …

Not surprisingly, the stuff in the NSA gift shop is overpriced, but at least some of the money goes to the employee welfare fund, so that’s OK. What is most strange, to me, is that every single thing in there is made in China. That sounds like a scandal waiting to happen: Can’t we find any American vendors? You can be sure that I checked my Chinese-made NSA laser pointer very carefully before using it in secret spaces. If there are any bugs in that device, they eluded me.

But then, I never took the course on bugs. Instead, I took the short version of the very interesting course on “Denial and Deception.” That was a wicked pleasure for a professor who is supposed to be in the Truth Business. I love to brag that I’m a graduate of that course. And I kinda like to say, “I can neither confirm nor deny” whenever it’s even slightly appropriate. It never hurts to practice. Do I actually practice? Hey, I can neither confirm nor deny.

More Academic than Academics

As a professor, I am steeped in the tradition of frequent seminars and the imperative to create new knowledge. I viewed it as a bargain with society: We would be free to play, and society would ultimately benefit. In principle, this means that university departments must be open to new ideas, must constantly upgrade their knowledge, and must work hard to ensure that the knowledge gets passed on to new minds.

In practice, I have seen the crush of business in the university impede the development and exchange of new ideas. I have seen departmental seminars devolve to become recruiting and propaganda vehicles. I have seen supposedly eager doctoral students sit mute and never question a guest speaker. I have rarely seen seminars in which unproven, experimental ideas are discussed energetically.

Surprisingly, what I found in my corner of the NSA was a much closer approximation to the academic ideal. I was amazed at the level of intellectual activity in the Math Research organization. Not only the interns but also senior staff would enroll in specialized short courses. There is a standing weekly statistics seminar. …

All this stimulating intellectual activity does come with some restrictions generated by the need for secrecy. As an academic, one of my standard modes of greeting to a colleague would be to ask, “What are you thinking about?” (A legacy from Professor Aaron Fleischer, one of my senior colleagues when I was on the MIT faculty, who would always greet me with, “Tom, tell me everything!”)

One of my problems with transitioning from outside to inside was that I had a bad habit of wanting to ask that same forbidden question on the inside. Especially at the beginning of the sabbatical year, this habit created a problem. It was especially bad if I really forgot myself and asked the question out loud in a public space like a corridor. Indeed, it is generally not a good idea to ask such a question even behind locked doors. Not everybody has the necessary clearances and, even if they do, they may still not have the need-to-know.

Everyone I worked with had at least a top-secret security clearance. But since the Snowden affair, newspapers have reported that over one million Americans have top-secret clearances. There exist “higher” clearances, and we all had those too. Nevertheless, it is still not OK to talk to just anyone about just anything, because there are further restrictions.

Despite the secrecy restrictions, NSA’s Math Research group was in many ways a dream environment for a professor on sabbatical. Apparently, it was also a hospitable environment for ex-professors. I was struck by how many of my colleagues had been academics in an earlier life. I was also struck by how many of them were bitter about their years in academia.

Air Gap

There is another advantage to plying one’s trade inside the NSA that appeals to many otherwise other-worldly academic types: mission relevance. Working at NSA, there is an immediacy to the sense of mission that is difficult to reproduce in academia. If nothing else, NSA works on problems of high national importance. There is a secret daily news summary published electronically within NSA called “NSA Daily.” All one has to do is to skim these stories to understand the full urgency of the NSA mission.

I found that I could not make it through the day without reading “NSA Daily.” It was my secret addiction. If I were feeling mentally sluggish in the morning, I could start the day with “NSA Daily” and get motivated. If I needed a break at lunch, I could read a few stories and get re-motivated. At the same time, I would often come away depressed and discouraged by the unrelenting flow of stories about attacks, threats, weaknesses and dire possibilities.

Friends and family would be surprised when I said that the work in the secret world could be depressing; that’s what I meant. It is so easy to go merrily through the day on the outside and, even watching the nightly news, never understand the full dimensions of the threat matrix. Since I grew up during the height (depth?) of the Cold War and lived near a Strategic Air Command base that was a prime Soviet nuclear target, I have the notion of “threat” baked in. But nothing says “threat” like the “NSA Daily.” No hype, just a catalog of grim facts.

The Real People of NSA

Rosie was the secretary in the office that handled the sabbatical program. She also worked on NSA’s program of unclassified summer research grants to mathematics faculty. She always took excellent care of her two lost boys, myself and “ANDREW.” …

Rosie herself is an interesting story. She spent a full career at NSA, and during that time she burrowed in very deeply. Some people know that the comedian Wanda Sykes had at one point worked in a clerical capacity at NSA, and she may be the most visible black alumna of the Agency. But Rosie stayed in a long time, and I noticed that she was a key member of a large circle of black women who probably ran the Agency behind the scenes. Rosie was the one who, on Day 1, retrieved me from the Visitors’ Center and guided me through the intake process (escort through the maze, photograph, security briefing, swearing in, assignment to office, payroll paperwork, etc.). Literally every place she went, with me in tow, she would see “sisters” from her circle. If the sergeants really run the Army, and the chiefs really run the Navy, then the Sisters may really run the NSA. …

In general, my impression is that the troops fell on both extremes of the spectrum of passion for the work. Some were there just because they were assigned; they knew they’d be moving on and did their jobs, period. …

At the opposite end on the passion scale, other troops felt a deep personal connection to what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, either because they had been there, they were going to deploy there, their buddies were already there, or all of the above. Earlier, I mentioned the multitude of seminars in Math Research. There were also agency-wide seminars, which I tried to attend whenever there was a hope of expanding my sense of the big picture. One I will never forget was given by a Marine major on the subject of defeating the IEDs that were the major source of our casualties in the two wars. Never have I seen such controlled but intense passion in any seminar on any subject in any venue.

Kill Chain

Few sabbatical opportunities involve death. This one did, in a way.

NSA is part of the Department of Defense. The DoD deals in death on a large scale. But NSA is also part of the Intelligence Community (“IC”), which does not normally deal in death (except for parts of the CIA). So spending time in a Mathematics Research group inside NSA can seem fairly far removed from dealing in death. Day to day, what one sees are equations, graphs of equations, computer code, data, data and more data. One also sees technical courses, technical seminars and technical papers.

Only twice did I hear anything in any way related to death. The first is classified. The other instance was a general announcement about the Memorial Wall that holds the growing list of NSA personnel killed in the line of duty. The CIA has a much better-known wall of this type; I travelled … to the “Big 4” operations buildings to see a name added in a very sad ceremony.

While there is almost no whiff of death in the daily business of the NSA, it is obvious to the casual observer, or at least to anyone with a minimum of moral awareness, that the work we did was part of a kill chain. Knowing this required that I force myself, before starting the sabbatical tour of duty, to acknowledge this fact and affirm my acceptance.

I thought of my father in combat in Germany and his discomfort with that memory, which involved, among other fraught moments, a recon mission that turned into an ambush that turned into a counterattack on a machine gun nest that turned into a Silver Star. I thought of the people I saw on TV who were forced to jump out of the burning World Trade Center towers. I thought of my wife, daughter and son and the people who considered them targets. I said yes.

The work done in Math Research is at the very distant end of the kill chain, but it is still in the chain. Some parts of the work are farther removed from a trigger pull than others, some closer. The first project I undertook was an attempt to develop an improved method of [redacted]. At the time, the Iraq war was raging. … I do not know whether my work was ever implemented and resulted in enemy killed in action, and I will surely never know. Not knowing is not the same as not wondering. ORMS

Thomas R. Willemain, Ph.D., is co-founder and senior vice president of Smart Software, Inc.; a former faculty member with the School of Management at Rensselaer, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; as well as a longtime member of INFORMS. For more information about his book, “Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency,” visit: http://www.tomwillemain.com.