Thursday, July 13, 2017

Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency

A new book on the NSA has been published recently. The book in question is ‘Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency’ by Thomas Reed Willemain.

Maitland, FL (May 19, 2017) –Working on the Dark Side of the Moon provides the first, ground-level look inside the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) and a shadowy think tank affiliated with it. The author, a software entrepreneur and statistics professor, volunteered for a year-long sabbatical tour of duty in the NSA. He ended up spending several years moving between the business and academic worlds and the secret world. This book records his impressions of people and places never before described in such intimate detail.

A deeply personal account of the years spent within the most secretive organization in the world, Working on the Dark Side of the Moon explores the range of emotions an outsider experiences while crossing over to the “inside.” It also shows the positive side of an Agency whose secrecy hides dedicated men and women devoted to protecting the country while honoring the Constitution.

Willemain writes, "The very secrecy that enables NSA to be effective also cripples its ability to explain its positive contributions. Into this void are projected grossly distorted views of what NSA does and what NSA people are like. This book puts a human face on the people who work in this secret world: their character, motivations, frustrations, sense of humor. Readers can develop a more balanced and nuanced view of NSA and its people."

About the Author

Dr. Thomas Reed Willemain served as an Expert Statistical Consultant to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Ft. Meade, MD 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). He is Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, having previously held faculty positions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also co-founder and Senior Vice President/Research at Smart Software, Inc. He is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, the Military Operations Research Society, the American Statistical Association, and several other professional organizations. Willemain received the BSE degree (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Princeton University and the MS and PhD degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His other books include: Statistical Methods for Planners, Emergency Medical Systems Analysis (with R. C. Larson), and 80 articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics in statistics, operations research, health care and other topics.

Q&A with Thomas Reed Willemain

The author was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

1). Can you give an overview of your career prior to working for the NSA?

I’ve had overlapping careers:  About 40 years as an academic, and about 30 years as a software entrepreneur. I have been a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I am now Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering at RPI. I am also co-founder and Senior Vice President/Research at Smart Software, Inc. in Boston. A common thread has been the study of statistics, forecasting -- anything involving randomness.

2). How/why did you consider working for the NSA?

I was looking for a challenging and useful sabbatical leave. I’d previously spent a sabbatical leave at the Federal Aviation Administration and made some contributions there, even though I’d not had any formal background in aviation. I was wary of applying to NSA, since I was not in synch with the Bush administration. But I wanted another period of public service. I also knew that there would be no more intriguing place for a statistician to work. And I suspected, correctly, that when I came back to RPI I would have more to contribute to my students. That turned out to be correct, in that my courses were richer (and more computational) afterwards.

3). What did you expect working at the NSA would be like and were your expectations accurate or not?

I was very wrong about some things. One was politics, or the lack thereof. I mentioned my misgivings about President Bush. The woman who handled the sabbatical program was very diplomatic and not put off by my questions. When I finally met her in person, it turned out that she was a lesbian with an “Anybody but Bush” bumper sticker on her car – not at all fitting my stereotype of an NSA person. During the McCain-Obama election campaign, the bumper stickers in the vast parking lots were about 50:50, and there was no whiff of politics inside the wire. The only person who talked (incessantly) about the election was somebody from another country embedded with us. I did expect a high level of expertise, and that was definitely true.

Something I should have expected but did not was how radically different the culture was from my university life. I was going back and forth between “inside” and “outside”. The academic culture encourages the question “Hey, what are you working on?” I had to learn to not ask that question on the inside unless it was behind a locked door, and not always then.

Now, the NSA is a big place. And one of the people described in my book pointed out that I was in the Research Directorate, which is more like a playground for uber-geeks than most of the rest of the Agency, where a mix of civilians and service members grind out massive amounts of work every day. So my book must present a partial picture of “Life inside the National Security Agency”. I may have been the proverbial blind man feeling the best part of the proverbial elephant.

4). Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences working for the NSA and was it difficult to gain approval from the agency?

I’ll be 70 years old soon, and I found myself slowing down on the math side of things, so I looked for another way to contribute. I had a plan to begin substituting my words for my equations, and writing the book would be a good way to test the feasibility of that plan. But I was also motivated by a desire to continue serving as best I could. Most every depiction of NSA in the media has been negative, and distorted stereotypes about the people and the Agency are rampant. I wanted to offset that with an insider’s look at the reality. The Snowden affair in particular prompted me to try to offset that. It turned out that, without knowing what I was contributing to, some of my technical work helped the Agency offset some of the damage Snowden did. The book let me do more on that front.

Getting the book cleared through NSA’s pre-publication review was a slow-motion crucifixion. It delayed the book by five months and blacked out about 15% of the book. There was some lying and bullying involved. Call it a character-building moment. I wrote about the process in the LawFare blog and discussed it with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who were already reviewing the pre-pub process. The basic problem is that the process knows only one word: “No”. I tried to get the strategic communications people involved so there would be someone to say “Yes” to the idea of permitting a pro-Agency book to be published, but so far no luck. The Agency claimed, with perhaps dubious legality, that anybody described in my book, though anonymously, could require me to remove them from the book. If they had all done so, there would have been no book. But only one insisted that she be removed. She is now a large black rectangle.

5). What new information is available from your book compared to previous studies of the NSA?

I’m fairly certain that this is the only grunt-level memoir of service in the NSA. There are a few faux-memoirs that are works of fiction. Folks at the top levels have written books (e.g., Michael Hayden), but daily life below the top has been, well, rather like the dark side of the moon. There have been policy-oriented and history-oriented books about NSA, but not people-oriented books. So what it feels like to work there has been mysterious. Much of my book is centered on descriptions of about 40 people that I worked with, and the book is about their stories as much as mine. I also paid a lot of attention to comparing life inside against life outside, especially regarding the intellectual and administrative climates (including personnel evaluation systems). There are not many “insider/outsider” stories to tell, and mine is the only one in print.

Actually, part way through my time inside, several of us academics were “traded” to NSA-affiliated think tanks. So my book is also the first to expose the inner workings of the Institute for Defense Analyses Center for Computing Sciences. That must be the world’s most comfortable SCIF, and it’s full of sharp, colorful characters. I think the director of IDA/CCS was even more opposed to publication of my book than the NSA itself, even though my book might be very helpful to recruiting people to take my place there.

6). What is your opinion on the recent Snowden revelations regarding the NSA interception of US civilian communications?

I have mixed feeling about Snowden, mostly negative. Perhaps some of his motivation was idealistic. But what he did was very damaging to the tracking of foreign targets, so he definitely belongs in jail. He also appears to be a narcissistic liar. He permitted a persona to be presented in the movie “Snowden” that was just not true. As I watched the movie, I kept thinking “That’s not true. And that’s not true. And that doesn’t really happen.” For instance, I write about my struggles to pass the repeated exams I had to take to certify that I knew about the practical implementation of the Fourth Amendment prohibitions as applied to foreign intelligence. The public should know how seriously the Agency regards those things. It is certain that something as powerful as the NSA bears constant watching, but facts ought to be the basis for judgment.

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