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Permanent Record / . (by Edward Snowden, 2019) -

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Permanent Record /  .   (by Edward Snowden, 2019) -

Permanent Record / . (by Edward Snowden, 2019) -

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Permanent Record / . (by Edward Snowden, 2019) -
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2019
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Edward Snowden
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Holter Graham
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upper-intermediate
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11:31:19
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54 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Permanent Record / . :

.doc (Word) edward_snowden_-_permanent_record.doc [1.13 Mb] (c: 6) .
.pdf edward_snowden_-_permanent_record.pdf [1.91 Mb] (c: 11) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Permanent Record

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Preface My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public. It took me nearly three decades to recognize that there was a distinction, and when I did, it got me into a bit of trouble at the office. As a result, I now spend my time trying to protect the public from the person I used to bea spy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA), just another young technologist out to build what I was sure would be a better world. My career in the American Intelligence Community (IC) only lasted a short seven years, which Im surprised to realize is just one year longer than the time Ive spent since in exile in a country that wasnt my choice. During that seven-year stint, however, I participated in the most significant change in the history of American espionagethe change from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations. I helped make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the worlds digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will. After 9/11, the IC was racked with guilt for failing to protect America, for letting the most devastating and destructive attack on the country since Pearl Harbor occur on its watch. In response, its leaders sought to build a system that would prevent them from being caught off guard ever again. At its foundation was to be technology, a foreign thing to their army of political science majors and masters of business administration. The doors to the most secretive intelligence agencies were flung wide open to young technologists like myself. And so the geek inherited the earth. If I knew anything back then, I knew computers, so I rose quickly. At twenty-two, I got my first top secret clearance from the NSA, for a position at the very bottom of the org chart. Less than a year later, I was at the CIA, as a systems engineer with sprawling access to some of the most sensitive networks on the planet. The only adult supervision was a guy who spent his shifts reading paperbacks by Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. The agencies were breaking all of their own rules in their quest to hire technical talent. Theyd normally never hire anybody without a bachelors degree, or later at least an associates, neither of which I had. By all rights, I should never have even been let into the building. From 2007 to 2009, I was stationed at the US Embassy in Geneva as one of the rare technologists deployed under diplomatic cover, tasked with bringing the CIA into the future by bringing its European stations online, digitizing and automating the network by which the US government spied. My generation did more than reengineer the work of intelligence; we entirely redefined what intelligence was. For us, it was not about clandestine meetings or dead drops, but about data. By age twenty-six, I was a nominal employee of Dell, but once again working for the NSA. Contracting had become my cover, as it was for nearly all the tech-inclined spies of my cohort. I was sent to Japan, where I helped to design what amounted to the agencys global backupa massive covert network that ensured that even if the NSAs headquarters was reduced to ash in a nuclear blast, no data would ever be lost. At the time, I didnt realize that engineering a system that would keep a permanent record of everyones life was a tragic mistake. I came back to the States at age twenty-eight, and received a stratospheric promotion to the technical liaison team handling Dells relationship with the CIA. My job was to sit down with the heads of the technical divisions of the CIA in order to design and sell the solution to any problem that they could imagine. My team helped the agency build a new type of computing architecturea cloud, the first technology that enabled every agent, no matter where they were physically located, to access and search any data they needed, no matter the distance. In sum, a job managing and connecting the flow of intelligence gave way to a job figuring out how to store it forever, which in turn gave way to a job making sure it was universally available and searchable. These projects came into focus for me in Hawaii, where I moved to take a new contract with the NSA at the age of twenty-nine. Up until then, Id been laboring under the doctrine of Need to Know, unable to understand the cumulative purpose behind my specialized, compartmentalized tasks. It was only in paradise that I was finally in a position to see how all my work fit together, meshing like the gears of a giant machine to form a system of global mass surveillance. Deep in a tunnel under a pineapple fielda subterranean Pearl Harborera former airplane factoryI sat at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman, and child on earth whod ever dialed a phone or touched a computer. Among those people were about 320 million of my fellow American citizens, who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just the Constitution of the United States, but the basic values of any free society. The reason youre reading this book is that I did a dangerous thing for a man in my position: I decided to tell the truth. I collected internal IC documents that gave evidence of the US governments lawbreaking and turned them over to journalists, who vetted and published them to a scandalized world. This book is about what led up to that decision, the moral and ethical principles that informed it, and how they came to bewhich means that its also about my life. What makes a life? More than what we say; more, even, than what we do. A life is also what we love, and what we believe in. For me, what I love and believe in the most is connection, human connection, and the technologies by which that is achieved. Those technologies include books, of course. But for my generation, connection has largely meant the Internet. Before you recoil, knowing well the toxic madness that infests that hive in our time, understand that for me, when I came to know it, the Internet was a very different thing. It was a friend, and a parent. It was a community without border or limit, one voice and millions, a common frontier that had been settled but not exploited by diverse tribes living amicably enough side by side, each member of which was free to choose their own name and history and customs. Everyone wore masks, and yet this culture of anonymity-through-polyonymy produced more truth than falsehood, because it was creative and cooperative rather than commercial and competitive. Certainly, there was conflict, but it was outweighed by goodwill and good feelingsthe true pioneering spirit. You will understand, then, when I say that the Internet of today is unrecognizable. Its worth noting that this change has been a conscious choice, the result of a systematic effort on the part of a privileged few. The early rush to turn commerce into e-commerce quickly led to a bubble, and then, just after the turn of the millennium, to a collapse. After that, companies realized that people who went online were far less interested in spending than in sharing, and that the human connection the Internet made possible could be monetized. If most of what people wanted to do online was to be able to tell their family, friends, and strangers what they were up to, and to be told what their family, friends, and strangers were up to in return, then all companies had to do was figure out how to put themselves in the middle of those social exchanges and turn them into profit. This was the beginning of surveillance capitalism, and the end of the Internet as I knew it. Now, it was the creative Web that collapsed, as countless beautiful, difficult, individualistic websites were shuttered. The promise of convenience led people to exchange their personal siteswhich demanded constant and laborious upkeepfor a Facebook page and a Gmail account. The appearance of ownership was easy to mistake for the reality of it. Few of us understood it at the time, but none of the things that wed go on to share would belong to us anymore. The successors to the e-commerce companies that had failed because they couldnt find anything we were interested in buying now had a new product to sell. That new product was Us. Our attention, our activities, our locations, our desireseverything about us that we revealed, knowingly or not, was being surveilled and sold in secret, so as to delay the inevitable feeling of violation that is, for most of us, coming only now. And this surveillance would go on to be actively encouraged, and even funded by an army of governments greedy for the vast volume of intelligence they would gain. Aside from log-ins and financial transactions, hardly any online communications were encrypted in the early twenty-aughts, which meant that in many cases governments didnt even need to bother approaching the companies in order to know what their customers were doing. They could just spy on the world without telling a soul. The American government, in total disregard of its founding charter, fell victim to precisely this temptation, and once it had tasted the fruit of this poisonous tree it became gripped by an unrelenting fever. In secret, it assumed the power of mass surveillance, an authority that by definition afflicts the innocent far more than the guilty. It was only when I came to a fuller understanding of this surveillance and its harms that I became haunted by the awareness that we the publicthe public of not just one country but of all the worldhad never been granted a vote or even a chance to voice our opinion in this process. The system of near-universal surveillance had been set up not just without our consent, but in a way that deliberately hid every aspect of its programs from our knowledge. At every step, the changing procedures and their consequences were kept from everyone, including most lawmakers. To whom could I turn? Who could I talk to? Even to whisper the truth, even to a lawyer or a judge or to Congress, had been made so severe a felony that just a basic outlining of the broadest facts would invite a lifetime sentence in a federal cell. I was lost, and fell into a dark mood while I struggled with my conscience. I love my country, and I believe in public servicemy whole family, my whole family line for centuries, is filled with men and women who have spent their lives serving this country and its citizens. I myself had sworn an oath of service not to an agency, nor even a government, but to the public, in support and defense of the Constitution, whose guarantee of civil liberties had been so flagrantly violated. Now I was more than part of that violation: I was party to it. All of that work, all of those yearswho was I working for? How was I to balance my contract of secrecy with the agencies that employed me and the oath Id sworn to my countrys founding principles? To whom, or what, did I owe the greater allegiance? At what point was I morally obliged to break the law? Reflecting on those principles brought me my answers. I realized that coming forward and disclosing to journalists the extent of my countrys abuses wouldnt be advocating for anything radical, like the destruction of the government, or even of the IC. It would be a return to the pursuit of the governments, and the ICs, own stated ideals. The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and its my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called liberty and during the Internet Revolution is called privacy. Its been six years since I came forward because I witnessed a decline in the commitment of so-called advanced governments throughout the world to protecting this privacy, which I regardand the United Nations regardsas a fundamental human right. In the span of those years, however, this decline has only continued as democracies regress into authoritarian populism. Nowhere has this regression been more apparent than in the relationship of governments to the press. The attempts by elected officials to delegitimize journalism have been aided and abetted by a full-on assault on the principle of truth. What is real is being purposefully conflated with what is fake, through technologies that are capable of scaling that conflation into unprecedented global confusion. I know this process intimately enough, because the creation of irreality has always been the Intelligence Communitys darkest art. The same agencies that, over the span of my career alone, had manipulated intelligence to create a pretext for warand used illegal policies and a shadow judiciary to permit kidnapping as extraordinary rendition, torture as enhanced interrogation, and mass surveillance as bulk collectiondidnt hesitate for a moment to call me a Chinese double agent, a Russian triple agent, and worse: a millennial. They were able to say so much, and so freely, in large part because I refused to defend myself. From the moment I came forward to the present, I was resolute about never revealing any details of my personal life that might cause further distress to my family and friends, who were already suffering enough for my principles. It was out of a concern for increasing that suffering that I hesitated to write this book. Ultimately, the decision to come forward with evidence of government wrongdoing was easier for me to make than the decision, here, to give an account of my life. The abuses I witnessed demanded action, but no one writes a memoir because theyre unable to resist the dictates of their conscience. This is why I have tried to seek the permission of every family member, friend, and colleague who is named, or otherwise publicly identifiable, in these pages. Just as I refuse to presume to be the sole arbiter of anothers privacy, I never thought that I alone should be able to choose which of my countrys secrets should be made known to the public and which should not. That is why I disclosed the governments documents only to journalists. In fact, the number of documents that I disclosed directly to the public is zero. I believe, just as those journalists believe, that a government may keep some information concealed. Even the most transparent democracy in the world may be allowed to classify, for example, the identity of its undercover agents and the movements of its troops in the field. This book includes no such secrets. To give an account of my life while protecting the privacy of my loved ones and not exposing legitimate government secrets is no simple task, but it is my task. Between those two responsibilitiesthat is where to find me. PART ONE 1 Looking Through the Window The first thing I ever hacked was bedtime. It felt unfair, being forced by my parents to go to sleepbefore they went to sleep, before my sister went to sleep, when I wasnt even tired. Lifes first little injustice. Many of the first 2,000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience: crying, begging, bargaining, untilon night 2,193, the night I turned six years oldI discovered direct action. The authorities werent interested in calls for reform, and I wasnt born yesterday. I had just had one of the best days of my young life, complete with friends, a party, and even gifts, and I wasnt about to let it end just because everyone else had to go home. So I went about covertly resetting all the clocks in the house by several hours. The microwaves clock was easier than the stoves to roll back, if only because it was easier to reach. When the authoritiesin their unlimited ignorancefailed to notice, I was mad with power, galloping laps around the living room. I, the master of time, would never again be sent to bed. I was free. And so it was that I fell asleep on the floor, having finally seen the sunset on June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. When I awoke, the clocks in the house once again matched my fathers watch. IF ANYBODY BOTHERED to set a watch today, how would they know what to set it to? If youre like most people these days, youd set it to the time on your smartphone. But if you look at your phone, and I mean really look at it, burrowing deep through its menus into its settings, youll eventually see that the phones time is automatically set. Every so often, your phone quietlysilentlyasks your service providers network, Hey, do you have the time? That network, in turn, asks a bigger network, which asks an even bigger network, and so on through a great succession of towers and wires until the request reaches one of the true masters of time, a Network Time Server run by or referenced against the atomic clocks kept at places like the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, the Federal Institute of Meteorology and Climatology in Switzerland, and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Japan. That long invisible journey, accomplished in a fraction of a second, is why you dont see a blinking 12:00 on your phones screen every time you power it up again after its battery runs out. I was born in 1983, at the end of the world in which people set the time for themselves. That was the year that the US Department of Defense split its internal system of interconnected computers in half, creating one network for the use of the defense establishment, called MILNET, and another network for the public, called the Internet. Before the year was out, new rules defined the boundaries of this virtual space, giving rise to the Domain Name System that we still use todaythe.govs, .mils,.edus, and, of course,.comsand the country codes assigned to the rest of the world:.uk, .de, .fr, .cn, .ru, and so on. Already, my country (and so I) had an advantage, an edge. And yet it would be another six years before the World Wide Web was invented, and about nine years before my family got a computer with a modem that could connect to it. Of course, the Internet is not a single entity, although we tend to refer to it as if it were. The technical reality is that there are new networks born every day on the global cluster of interconnected communications networks that youand about three billion other people, or roughly 42 percent of the worlds populationuse regularly. Still, Im going to use the term in its broadest sense, to mean the universal network of networks connecting the majority of the worlds computers to one another via a set of shared protocols. Some of you may worry that you dont know a protocol from a hole in the wall, but all of us have made use of many. Think of protocols as languages for machines, the common rules they follow to be understood by one another. If youre around my age, you might remember having to type the http at the beginning of a websites address into the address bar of your Web browser. This refers to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, the language you use to access the World Wide Web, that massive collection of mostly text-based but also audio- and video-capable sites like Google and YouTube and Facebook. Every time you check your email, you use a language like IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), or POP3 (Post Office Protocol). File transfers pass through the Internet using FTP (File Transfer Protocol). And as for the time-setting procedure on your phone that I mentioned, those updates get fetched through NTP (Network Time Protocol). All these protocols are known as application protocols, and comprise just one family of protocols among the myriad online. For example, in order for the data in any of these application protocols to cross the Internet and be delivered to your desktop, or laptop, or phone, it first has to be packaged up inside a dedicated transport protocolthink of how the regular snail-mail postal service prefers you to send your letters and parcels in their standard-size envelopes and boxes. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) is used to route, among other applications, Web pages and email. UDP (User Datagram Protocol) is used to route more time-sensitive, real-time applications, such as Internet telephony and live broadcasts. Any recounting of the multilayered workings of what in my childhood was called cyberspace, the Net, the Infobahn, and the Information Superhighway is bound to be incomplete, but the takeaway is this: these protocols have given us the means to digitize and put online damn near everything in the world that we dont eat, drink, wear, or dwell in. The Internet has become almost as integral to our lives as the air through which so many of its communications travel. And, as weve all been remindedevery time our social media feeds alert us to a post that tags us in a compromising lightto digitize something is to record it, in a format that will last forever. Heres what strikes me when I think back to my childhood, particularly those first nine Internet-less years: I cant account for everything that happened back then, because I have only my memory to rely on. The data just doesnt exist. When I was a child, the unforgettable experience was not yet a threateningly literal technological description, but a passionate metaphorical prescription of significance: my first words, my first steps, my first lost tooth, my first time riding a bicycle. My generation was the last in American and perhaps even in world history for which this is truethe last undigitized generation, whose childhoods arent up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably. My schoolwork was done on paper with pencils and erasers, not on networked tablets that logged my keystrokes. My growth spurts werent tracked by smart-home technologies, but notched with a knife into the wood of the door frame of the house in which I grew up. WE LIVED IN a grand old redbrick house on a little patch of lawn shaded by dogwood trees and strewn in summer with white magnolia flowers that served as cover for the plastic army men I used to crawl around with. The house had an atypical layout: its main entrance was on the second floor, accessed by a massive brick staircase. This floor was the primary living space, with the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms. Above this main floor was a dusty, cobwebbed, and forbidden attic given over to storage, haunted by what my mother promised me were squirrels, but what my father insisted were vampire werewolves that would devour any child foolish enough to venture up there. Below the main floor was a more or less finished basementa rarity in North Carolina, especially so close to the coast. Basements tend to flood, and ours, certainly, was perennially damp, despite the constant workings of the dehumidifier and sump pump. At the time my family moved in, the back of the main floor was extended and divided up into a laundry room, a bathroom, my bedroom, and a den outfitted with a TV and a couch. From my bedroom, I had a view of the den through the window set into what had originally been the exterior wall of the house. This window, which once looked outside, now looked inside. For nearly all the years that my family spent in that house in Elizabeth City, this bedroom was mine, and its window was, too. Though the window had a curtain, it didnt provide much, if any, privacy. From as far back as I can remember, my favorite activity was to tug the curtain aside and peek through the window into the den. Which is to say, from as far back as I can remember, my favorite activity was spying. I spied on my older sister, Jessica, who was allowed to stay up later than I was and watch the cartoons that I was still too young for. I spied on my mother, Wendy, whod sit on the couch to fold the laundry while watching the nightly news. But the person I spied on the most was my father, Lonor, as he was called in the Southern style, Lonniewhod commandeer the den into the wee hours. My father was in the Coast Guard, though at the time I didnt have the slightest clue what that meant. I knew that sometimes he wore a uniform and sometimes he didnt. He left home early and came home late, often with new gadgetsa Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator, a Casio stopwatch on a lanyard, a single speaker for a home stereo systemsome of which hed show me, and some of which hed hide. You can imagine which I was more interested in. The gadget I was most interested in arrived one night, just after bedtime. I was in bed and about to drift off, when I heard my fathers footsteps coming down the hall. I stood up on my bed, tugged aside the curtain, and watched. He was holding a mysterious box, close in size to a shoe box, and he removed from it a beige object that looked like a cinder block, from which long black cables snaked like the tentacles of some deep-sea monster out of one of my nightmares. Working slowly and methodicallywhich was partially his disciplined, engineers way of doing everything, and partially an attempt to stay quietmy father untangled the cables and stretched one across the shag carpet from the back of the box to the back of the TV. Then he plugged the other cable into a wall outlet behind the couch. Suddenly the TV lit up, and with it my fathers face lit up, too. Normally he would just spend his evenings sitting on the couch, cracking Sun Drop sodas and watching the people on TV run around a field, but this was different. It took me only a moment to come to the most amazing realization of my whole entire, though admittedly short, life: my father was controlling what was happening on TV. I had come face-to-face with a Commodore 64one of the first home computer systems on the market. I had no idea what a computer was, of course, let alone whether what my father was doing on it was playing a game or working. Although he was smiling and seemed to be having fun, he was also applying himself to what was happening on-screen with the same intensity with which he applied himself to every mechanical task around the house. I knew only one thing: whatever he was doing, I wanted to do it, too. After that, whenever my father came into the den to break out the beige brick, Id stand up on my bed, tug away the curtain, and spy on his adventures. One night the screen showed a falling ball and a bar at the bottom; my father had to move the bar horizontally to hit the ball, bounce it up, and knock down a wall of multicolored bricks (Arkanoid). On another night, he sat before a screen of multicolored bricks in different shapes; they were always falling, and as they fell he moved and rotated them to assemble them into perfect rows, which immediately vanished (Tetris). I was truly confused, however, about what my father was doingrecreation or part of his jobwhen I peeked through the window one night and saw him flying. My fatherwhod always delighted me by pointing out the real helicopters from the Coast Guard Air Base when they flew by the housewas piloting his own helicopter right here, right in front of me, in our den. He took off from a little base, complete with a tiny waving American flag, into a black night sky full of twinkling stars, and then immediately crashed to the ground. He gave a little cry that masked my own, but just when I thought the fun was over, he was right back at the little base again with the tiny flag, taking off one more time. The game was called Choplifter! and that exclamation point wasnt just part of its name, it was also part of the experience of playing it. Choplifter! was thrilling. Again and again I watched these sorties fly out of our den and over a flat desert moon, shooting at, and being shot at by, enemy jets and enemy tanks. The helicopter kept landing and lifting off, as my father tried to rescue a flashing crowd of people and ferry them to safety. That was my earliest sense of my father: he was a hero. The cheer that came from the couch the first time that the diminutive helicopter touched down intact with a full load of miniature people was just a little too loud. My fathers head snapped to the window to check whether hed disturbed me, and he caught me dead in the eyes. I leaped into bed, pulled up the blanket, and lay perfectly still as my fathers heavy steps approached my room. He tapped on the window. Its past your bedtime, buddy. Are you still up? I held my breath. Suddenly, he opened the window, reached into my bedroom, picked me upblanket and alland pulled me through into the den. It all happened so quickly, my feet never even touched the carpet. Before I knew it, I was sitting on my fathers lap as his copilot. I was too young and too excited to realize that the joystick hed given me wasnt plugged in. All that mattered was that I was flying alongside my father. 2 The Invisible Wall Elizabeth City is a quaint, midsize port town with a relatively intact historic core. Like most other early American settlements, it grew around the water, in this case around the banks of the Pasquotank River, whose name is an English corruption of an Algonquin word meaning where the current forks. The river flows down from Chesapeake Bay, through the swamps of the VirginiaNorth Carolina border, and empties into Albemarle Sound alongside the Chowan, the Perquimans, and other rivers. Whenever I consider what other directions my life might have taken, I think of that watershed: no matter the particular course the water travels from its source, it still ultimately arrives at the same destination. My family has always been connected to the sea, my mothers side in particular. Her heritage is straight Pilgrimher first ancestor on these shores was John Alden, the Mayflowers cooper, or barrelmaker. He became the husband of a fellow passenger named Priscilla Mullins, who had the dubious distinction of being the only single woman of marriageable age onboard, and so the only single woman of marriageable age in the whole first generation of the Plymouth Colony. John and Priscillas Thanksgiving-time coupling almost never happened, however, due to the meddling of the commander of the Plymouth Colony, Myles Standish. His love for Priscilla, and Priscillas rejection of him and eventual marriage to John, became the basis of a literary work that was referenced throughout my youth, The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (himself an Alden-Mullins descendant): Nothing was heard in the room but the hurrying pen of the stripling, Busily writing epistles important, to go by the Mayflower, Ready to sail on the morrow, or next day at latest, God willing! Homeward bound with the tidings of all that terrible winter, Letters written by Alden, and full of the name of Priscilla, Full of the name and the fame of the Puritan maiden Priscilla! John and Priscillas daughter, Elizabeth, was the first Pilgrim child born in New England. My mother, whose name is also Elizabeth, is her direct descendant. Because the lineage is almost exclusively through the women, though, the surnames changed with nearly every generationwith an Alden marrying a Pabodie marrying a Grinnell marrying a Stephens marrying a Jocelin. These seafaring ancestors of mine sailed down the coast from whats now Massachusetts to Connecticut and New Jerseyplying trade routes and dodging pirates between the Colonies and the Caribbeanuntil, with the Revolutionary War, the Jocelin line settled in North Carolina. Amaziah Jocelin, also spelled Amasiah Josselyn, among other variants, was a privateer and war hero. As captain of the ten-gun barque The Firebrand, he was credited with the defense of Cape Fear. Following American independence, he became the US Navy Agent, or supply officer, of the Port of Wilmington, where he also established the citys first chamber of commerce, which he called, funnily enough, the Intelligence-Office. The Jocelins and their descendantsthe Moores and Halls and Meylands and Howells and Stevens and Restons and Stokleyswho comprise the rest of my mothers side fought in every war in my countrys history, from the Revolution and the Civil War (in which the Carolinian relatives fought for the Confederacy against their New England/Union cousins), to both world wars. Mine is a family that has always answered the call of duty. My maternal grandfather, whom I call Pop, is better known as Rear Admiral Edward J. Barrett. At the time of my birth he was deputy chief, aeronautical engineering division, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, DC. Hed go on to hold various engineering and operational commands, from Governors Island, New York City, to Key West, Florida, where he was director of the Joint Interagency Task Force East (a multiagency, multinational US Coast Guardled force dedicated to the interdiction of narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean). I wasnt aware of how high up the ranks Pop was rising, but I knew that the welcome-to-command ceremonies became more elaborate as time went on, with longer speeches and larger cakes. I remember the souvenir I was given by the artillery guard at one of them: the shell casing of a 40mm round, still warm and smelling like powdered hell, which had just been fired in a salute in Pops honor. Then theres my father, Lon, who at the time of my birth was a chief petty officer at the Coast Guards Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, working as a curriculum designer and electronics instructor. He was often away, leaving my mother at home to raise my sister and me. To give us a sense of responsibility, she gave us chores; to teach us how to read, she labeled all our dresser drawers with their contentsSOCKS, UNDERWEAR. She would load us into our Red Flyer wagon and tow us to the local library, where I immediately made for my favorite section, the one that I called Big Masheens. Whenever my mother asked me if I was interested in any specific Big Masheen, I was unstoppable: Dump trucks and steamrollers and forklifts and cranes and Is that all, buddy? Oh, Id say, and also cement mixers and bulldozers and My mother loved giving me math challenges. At Kmart or Winn-Dixie, shed have me pick out books and model cars and trucks and buy them for me if I was able to mentally add together their prices. Over the course of my childhood, she kept escalating the difficulty, first having me estimate and round to the nearest dollar, then having me figure out the precise dollar-and-cents amount, and then having me calculate 3 percent of that amount and add it on to the total. I was confused by that last challengenot by the arithmetic so much as by the reasoning. Why? Its called tax, my mother explained. Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government. What do they do with it? You like roads, buddy? You like bridges? she said. The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money to fill the library with books. Some time later, I was afraid that my budding math skills had failed me, when my mental totals didnt match those on the cash registers display. But once again, my mother explained. They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add four percent. So now the library will get even more books? I asked. Lets hope, my mother said. My grandmother lived a few streets over from us, across from the Carolina Feed and Seed Mill and a towering pecan tree. After stretching out my shirt to make a basket to fill with fallen pecans, Id go up to her house and lie on the carpet beside the long low bookshelves. My usual company was an edition of Aesops Fables and, perhaps my favorite, Bulfinchs Mythology. I would leaf through the pages, pausing only to crack a few nuts while I absorbed accounts of flying horses, intricate labyrinths, and serpent-haired Gorgons who turned mortals to stone. I was in awe of Odysseus, and liked Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Athena well enough, but the deity I admired most had to be Hephaestus: the ugly god of fire, volcanoes, blacksmiths, and carpenters, the god of tinkerers. I was proud of being able to spell his Greek name, and of knowing that his Roman name, Vulcan, was used for the home planet of Spock from Star Trek. The fundamental premise of the Greco-Roman pantheon always stuck with me. Up at the summit of some mountain there was this gang of gods and goddesses who spent most of their infinite existence fighting with each other and spying on the business of humanity. Occasionally, when they noticed something that intrigued or disturbed them, they disguised themselves, as lambs and swans and lions, and descended the slopes of Olympus to investigate and meddle. It was often a disastersomeone always drowned, or was struck by lightning, or was turned into a treewhenever the immortals sought to impose their will and interfere in mortal affairs. Once, I picked up an illustrated version of the legends of King Arthur and his knights, and found myself reading about another legendary mountain, this one in Wales. It served as the fortress of a tyrannical giant named Rhitta Gawr, who refused to accept that the age of his reign had passed and that in the future the world would be ruled by human kings, whom he considered tiny and weak. Determined to keep himself in power, he descended from his peak, attacking kingdom after kingdom and vanquishing their armies. Eventually he managed to defeat and kill every single king of Wales and Scotland. Upon killing them he shaved off their beards and wove them together into a cloak, which he wore as a gory trophy. Then he decided to challenge the strongest king of Britain, King Arthur, giving him a choice: Arthur could either shave off his own beard and surrender, or Rhitta Gawr would decapitate the king and remove the beard himself. Enraged at this hubris, Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawrs mountain fortress. The king and the giant met on the highest peak and battled each other for days, until Arthur was gravely wounded. Just as Rhitta Gawr grabbed the king by the hair and prepared to cut off his head, Arthur summoned a last measure of strength and sank his fabled sword through the eye of the giant, who toppled over dead. Arthur and his knights then went about piling up a funeral cairn atop Rhitta Gawrs corpse, but before they could complete the work, snow began to fall. As they departed, the giants bloodstained beard-cloak was returned to perfect whiteness. The mountain was called Snaw Dun, which, a note explained, was Old English for snow mound. Today, Snaw Dun is called Mount Snowdon. A long-extinct volcano, it is, at approximately 3,560 feet, the highest peak in Wales. I remember the feeling of encountering my name in this contextit was thrillingand the archaic spelling gave me my first palpable sense that the world was older than I was, even older than my parents were. The names association with the heroic exploits of Arthur and Lancelot and Gawain and Percival and Tristan and the other Knights of the Round Table gave me prideuntil I learned that these exploits werent historical, but legendary. Years later, with my mothers help, I would scour the library in the hopes of separating the mythical from the factual. I found out that Stirling Castle in Scotland had been renamed Snowdon Castle, in honor of this Arthurian victory, as part of an attempt by the Scots to shore up their claim to the throne of England. Reality, I learned, is nearly always messier and less flattering than we might want it to be, but also in some strange way often richer than the myths. By the time I uncovered the truth about Arthur, I had long been obsessed with a new and different type of story, or a new and different type of storytelling. On Christmas 1989, a Nintendo appeared in the house. I took to that two-tone-gray console so completely that my alarmed mother imposed a rule: I could only rent a new game when I finished reading a book. Games were expensive, and, having already mastered the ones that had come with the consolea single cartridge combining Super Mario Bros. and Duck HuntI was eager for other challenges. The only snag was that, at six years old, I couldnt read as fast as I could complete a game. It was time for another of my neophyte hacks. I started coming home from the library with shorter books, and books with lots of pictures. There were visual encyclopedias of inventions, with crazy drawings of velocipedes and blimps, and comic books that I realized only later were abridged, for-kids versions of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. It was the NESthe janky but genius 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment Systemthat was my real education. From The Legend of Zelda, I learned that the world exists to be explored; from Mega Man, I learned that my enemies have much to teach; and from Duck Hunt, well, Duck Hunt taught me that even if someone laughs at your failures, it doesnt mean you get to shoot them in the face. Ultimately, though, it was Super Mario Bros. that taught me what remains perhaps the most important lesson of my life. I am being perfectly sincere. I am asking you to consider this seriously. Super Mario Bros., the 1.0 edition, is perhaps the all-time masterpiece of side-scrolling games. When the game begins, Mario is standing all the way to the left of the legendary opening screen, and he can only go in one direction: He can only move to the right, as new scenery and enemies scroll in from that side. He progresses through eight worlds of four levels each, all of them governed by time constraints, until he reaches the evil Bowser and frees the captive Princess Toadstool. Throughout all thirty-two levels, Mario exists in front of what in gaming parlance is called an invisible wall, which doesnt allow him to go backward. There is no turning back, only going forwardfor Mario and Luigi, for me, and for you. Life only scrolls in one direction, which is the direction of time, and no matter how far we might manage to go, that invisible wall will always be just behind us, cutting us off from the past, compelling us on into the unknown. A small kid growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1980s has to get a sense of mortality from somewhere, so why not from two Italian-immigrant plumber brothers with an appetite for sewer mushrooms? One day my much-used Super Mario Bros. cartridge wasnt loading, no matter how much I blew into it. Thats what you had to do back then, or what we thought you had to do: you had to blow into the open mouth of the cartridge to clear it of the dust, debris, and pet hair that tended to accumulate there. But no matter how much I blew, both into the cartridge and into the cartridge slot of the console itself, the TV screen was full of blotches and waves, which were not reassuring in the least. In retrospect, the Nintendo was probably just suffering from a faulty pin connection, but given that my seven-year-old self didnt even know what a pin connection was, I was frustrated and desperate. Worst of all, my father had only just left on a Coast Guard trip and wouldnt be back to help me fix it for two weeks. I knew of no Mario-style time-warping tricks or pipes to dive into that would make those weeks pass quicker, so I resolved to fix the thing myself. If I succeeded, I knew my father would be impressed. I went out to the garage to find his gray metal toolbox. I decided that to figure out what was wrong with the thing, first I had to take it apart. Basically, I was just copying, or trying to copy, the same motions that my father went through whenever he sat at the kitchen table repairing the houses VCR or cassette deckthe two household machines that, to my eye, the Nintendo console most closely resembled. It took me about an hour to dismantle the console, with my uncoordinated and very small hands trying to twist a flat screwdriver into Philips-head screws, but eventually I succeeded. The consoles exterior was a dull, monochrome gray, but the interior was a welter of colors. It seemed like there was an entire rainbow of wires and glints of silver and gold jutting out of the green-as-grass circuitboard. I tightened a few things here, loosened a few things theremore or less at randomand blew on every part. After that, I wiped them all down with a paper towel. Then I had to blow on the circuitboard again to remove the bits of paper towel that had gotten stuck to what I now know were the pins. Once Id finished my cleaning and repairs, it was time for reassembly. Our golden Lab, Treasure, might have swallowed one of the tiny screws, or maybe it just got lost in the carpet or under the couch. And I must not have put all the components back in the same way Id found them, because they barely fit into the consoles shell. The shells lid kept popping off, so I found myself squeezing the components down, the way you try to shut an overstuffed suitcase. Finally the lid snapped into place, but only on one side. The other side bulged up, and snapping that side into place only caused the first side to bulge. I went back and forth like that for a while, until I finally gave up and plugged the unit in again. I pressed the Power buttonand nothing. I pressed the Reset buttonand nothing. Those were the only two buttons on the console. Before my repairs, the light next to the buttons had always glowed molten red, but now even that was dead. The console just sat there lopsided and useless, and I felt a surge of guilt and dread. My father, when he came home from his Coast Guard trip, wasnt going to be proud of me: he was going to jump on my head like a Goomba. But it wasnt his anger I feared so much as his disappointment. To his peers, my father was a master electronics systems engineer who specialized in avionics. To me, he was a household mad scientist whod try to fix everything himselfelectrical outlets, dishwashers, hot-water heaters, and AC units. Id work as his helper whenever hed let me, and in the process Id come to know both the physical pleasures of manual work and the intellectual pleasures of basic mechanics, along with the fundamental principles of electronicsthe differences between voltage and current, between power and resistance. Every job we undertook together would end either in a successful act of repair or a curse, as my father would fling the unsalvageable piece of equipment across the room and into the cardboard box of things-that-cant-be-unbroken. I never judged him for these failuresI was always too impressed by the fact that he had dared to hazard an attempt. When he returned home and found out what Id done to the NES, he wasnt angry, much to my surprise. He wasnt exactly pleased, either, but he was patient. He explained that understanding why and how things had gone wrong was every bit as important as understanding what component had failed: figuring out the why and how would let you prevent the same malfunction from happening again in the future. He pointed to each of the consoles parts in turn, explaining not just what it was, but what it did, and how it interacted with all the other parts to contribute to the correct working of the mechanism. Only by analyzing a mechanism in its individual parts were you able to determine whether its design was the most efficient to achieve its task. If it was the most efficient, just malfunctioning, then you fixed it. But if not, then you made modifications to improve the mechanism. This was the only proper protocol for repair jobs, according to my father, and nothing about it was optionalin fact, this was the fundamental responsibility you had to technology. Like all my fathers lessons, this one had broad applications beyond our immediate task. Ultimately, it was a lesson in the principle of self-reliance, which my father insisted that America had forgotten sometime between his own childhood and mine. Ours was now a country in which the cost of replacing a broken machine with a newer model was typically lower than the cost of having it fixed by an expert, which itself was typically lower than the cost of sourcing the parts and figuring out how to fix it yourself. This fact alone virtually guaranteed technological tyranny, which was perpetuated not by the technology itself but by the ignorance of everyone who used it daily and yet failed to understand it. To refuse to inform yourself about the basic operation and maintenance of the equipment you depended on was to passively accept that tyranny and agree to its terms: when your equipment works, youll work, but when your equipment breaks down youll break down, too. Your possessions would possess you. It turned out that I had probably just broken a solder joint, but to find out exactly which one, my father wanted to use special test equipment that he had access to at his laboratory at the Coast Guard base. I suppose he could have brought the test equipment home with him, but for some reason he brought me to work instead. I think he just wanted to show me his lab. Hed decided I was ready. I wasnt. Id never been anywhere so impressive. Not even the library. Not even the Radio Shack at the Lynnhaven Mall. What I remember most are the screens. The lab itself was dim and empty, the standard-issue beige and white of government construction, but even before my father hit the lights I couldnt help but be transfixed by the pulsating glow of electric green. Why does this place have so many TVs? was my first thought, quickly followed up by, And why are they all tuned to the same channel? My father explained that these werent TVs but computers, and though Id heard the word before, I didnt know what it meant. I think I initially assumed that the screensthe monitorswere the computers themselves. He went on to show them to me, one by one, and tried to explain what they did: this one processed radar signals, and that one relayed radio transmissions, and yet another one simulated the electronic systems on aircraft. I wont pretend that I understood even half of it. These computers were more advanced than nearly everything in use at that time in the private sector, far ahead of almost anything I had ever imagined. Sure, their processing units took a full five minutes to boot, their displays only showed one color, and they had no speakers for sound effects or music. But those limitations only marked them as serious. My father plopped me down in a chair, raising it until I could just about reach the desk, and the rectangular hunk of plastic that was on it. For the first time in my life, I found myself in front of a keyboard. My father had never let me type on his Commodore 64, and my screen time had been restricted to video game consoles with their purpose-built controllers. But these computers were professional, general-purpose machines, not gaming devices, and I didnt understand how to make them work. There was no controller, no joystick, no gunthe only interface was that flat hunk of plastic set with rows of keys printed with letters and numbers. The letters were even arranged in a different order than the one that Id been taught at school. The first letter was not A but Q, followed by W, E, R, T, and Y. At least the numbers were in the same order in which Id learned them. My father told me that every key on the keyboard had a purposeevery letter, every numberand that their combinations had purposes, too. And just like with the buttons on a controller or joystick, if you could figure out the right combinations, you could work miracles. To demonstrate, he reached over me, typed a command, and pressed the Enter key. Something popped up on-screen that I now know is called a text editor. Then he grabbed a Post-it note and a pen and scribbled out some letters and numbers, and told me to type them up exactly while he went off to repair the broken Nintendo. The moment he was gone, I began reproducing his scribbles on-screen by pecking away at the keys. A left-handed kid raised to be a rightie, I immediately found this to be the most natural method of writing Id ever encountered. 10 INPUT WHAT IS YOUR NAME?; NAME$ 20 PRINT HELLO, NAME$ ! It may sound easy to you, but youre not a young child. I was. I was a young child with chubby, stubby fingers who didnt even know what quotation marks were, let alone that I had to hold down the Shift key in order to type them. After a whole lot of trial, and a whole lot of error, I finally succeeded in finishing the file. I pressed Enter and, in a flash, the computer was asking me a question: WHAT IS YOUR NAME? I was fascinated. The note didnt say what I was supposed do next, so I decided to answer, and pressed my new friend Enter once more. Suddenly, out of nowhere, HELLO, EDDIE! wrote itself on-screen in a radioactive green that floated atop the blackness. This was my introduction to programming and to computing in general: a lesson in the fact that these machines do what they do because somebody tells them to, in a very special, very careful way. And that somebody can even be seven years old. Almost immediately, I grasped the limitations of gaming systems. They were stifling in comparison to computer systems. Nintendo, Atari, Segathey all confined you to levels and worlds that you could advance through, even defeat, but never change. The repaired Nintendo console went back to the den, where my father and I competed in two-player Mario Kart, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter. By that point, I was significantly better than him at all those gamesthe first pursuit at which I proved more adept than my fatherbut every so often Id let him beat me. I didnt want him to think that I wasnt grateful. Im not a natural programmer, and Ive never considered myself any good at it. But I did, over the next decade or so, become good enough to be dangerous. To this day, I still find the process magical: typing in the commands in all these strange languages that the processor then translates into an experience thats available not just to me but to everyone. I was fascinated by the thought that one individual programmer could code something universal, something bound by no laws or rules or regulations except those essentially reducible to cause and effect. There was an utterly logical relationship between my input and the output. If my input was flawed, the output was flawed; if my input was flawless, the computers output was, too. Id never before experienced anything so consistent and fair, so unequivocally unbiased. A computer would wait forever to receive my command but would process it the very moment I hit Enter, no questions asked. No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive. Nowhere elsecertainly not at school, and not even at homehad I ever felt so in control. That a perfectly written set of commands would perfectly execute the same operations time and again would come to seem to meas it did to so many smart, tech-inclined children of the millenniumthe one stable saving truth of our generation. 3 Beltway Boy I was just shy of my ninth birthday when my family moved from North Carolina to Maryland. To my surprise, I found that my name had preceded me. Snowden was everywhere throughout Anne Arundel, the county we settled in, though it was a while before I learned why. Richard Snowden was a British major who arrived in the province of Maryland in 1658 with the understanding that Lord Baltimores guarantee of religious freedom for both Catholics and Protestants would also be extended to Quakers. In 1674, Richard was joined by his brother John, whod agreed to leave Yorkshire in order to shorten his prison sentence for preaching the Quaker faith. When William Penns ship, the Welcome, sailed up the Delaware in 1682, John was one of the few Europeans to greet it. Three of Johns grandsons went on to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolution. As the Quakers are pacifists, they came in for community censure for deciding to join the fight for independence, but their conscience demanded a reconsideration of their pacifism. William Snowden, my direct paternal ancestor, served as a captain, was taken prisoner by the British in the Battle of Fort Washington in New York, and died in custody at one of the notorious sugar house prisons in Manhattan. (Legend has it that the British killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.) His wife, Elizabeth n?e Moor, was a valued adviser to General Washington, and the mother to another John Snowdena politician, historian, and newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania whose descendants dispersed southward to settle amid the Maryland holdings of their Snowden cousins. Anne Arundel County encompasses nearly all of the 1,976 acres of woodland that King Charles II granted to the family of Richard Snowden in 1686. The enterprises the Snowdens established there include the Patuxent Iron Works, one of colonial Americas most important forges and a major manufacturer of cannonballs and bullets, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy run by Richard Snowdens grandsons. After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the Continental Army, they returned to the plantation andmost fully living the principles of independenceabolished their familys practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War. Today, the former Snowden fields are bisected by Snowden River Parkway, a busy four-lane commercial stretch of upmarket chain restaurants and car dealerships. Nearby, Route 32/Patuxent Freeway leads directly to Fort George G. Meade, the second-largest army base in the country and the home of the NSA. Fort Meade, in fact, is built atop land that was once owned by my Snowden cousins, and that was either bought from them (in one account) or expropriated from them (according to others) by the US government. I knew nothing of this history at the time: my parents joked that the state of Maryland changed the name on the signs every time somebody new moved in. They thought that was funny but I just found it spooky. Anne Arundel County is only a bit more than 250 miles away from Elizabeth City via I-95, yet it felt like a different planet. Wed exchanged the leafy riverside for a concrete sidewalk, and a school where Id been popular and academically successful for one where I was constantly mocked for my glasses, my disinterest in sports, and, especially, for my accenta strong Southern drawl that led my new classmates to call me retarded. I was so sensitive about my accent that I stopped speaking in class and started practicing alone at home until I managed to sound normalor, at least, until I managed not to pronounce the site of my humiliation as Anglish clay-iss or say that Id gotten a paper cut on my fanger. Meanwhile, all that time Id been afraid to speak freely had caused my grades to plummet, and some of my teachers decided to have me IQ-tested as a way of diagnosing what they thought was a learning disability. When my score came back, I dont remember getting any apologies, just a bunch of extra enrichment assignments. Indeed, the same teachers whod doubted my ability to learn now began to take issue with my newfound interest in speaking up. My new home was on the Beltway, which traditionally referred to Interstate 495, the highway that encircles Washington, DC, but now describes the vast and ever-expanding blast radius of bedroom communities around the nations capital, stretching north to Baltimore, Maryland, and south to Quantico, Virginia. The inhabitants of these suburbs almost invariably either serve in the US government or work for one of the companies that do business with the US government. There is, to put it plainly, no other reason to be there. We lived in Crofton, Maryland, halfway between Annapolis and Washington, DC, at the western edge of Anne Arundel County, where the residential developments are all in the vinyl-sided Federalist style and have quaint ye-olde names like Crofton Towne, Crofton Mews, The Preserve, The Ridings. Crofton itself is a planned community fitted around the curves of the Crofton Country Club. On a map, it resembles nothing so much as the human brain, with the streets coiling and kinking and folding around one another like the ridges and furrows of the cerebral cortex. Our street was Knights Bridge Turn, a broad, lazy loop of split-level housing, wide driveways, and two-car garages. The house we lived in was seven down from one end of the loop, seven down from the otherthe house in the middle. I got a Huffy ten-speed bike and with it, a paper route, delivering the Capital, a venerable newspaper published in Annapolis, whose daily distribution became distressingly erratic, especially in the winter, especially between Crofton Parkway and Route 450, which, as it passed by our neighborhood, acquired a different name: Defense Highway. For my parents this was an exciting time. Crofton was a step up for them, both economically and socially. The streets were tree-lined and pretty much crime-free, and the multicultural, multiracial, multilingual population, which reflected the diversity of the Beltways diplomatic corps and intelligence community, was well-to-do and well educated. Our backyard was basically a golf course, with tennis courts just around the corner, and beyond those an Olympic-size pool. Commuting-wise, too, Crofton was ideal. It took my father just forty minutes to get to his new posting as a chief warrant officer in the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, which at the time was located at Buzzard Point in southern Washington, DC, adjacent to Fort Lesley J. McNair. And it took my mother just twenty or so minutes to get to her new job at the NSA, whose boxy futuristic headquarters, topped with radomes and sheathed in copper to seal in the communications signals, forms the heart of Fort Meade. I cant stress this enough, for outsiders: this type of employment was normal. Neighbors to our left worked for the Defense Department; neighbors to the right worked in the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. For a while, nearly every girl at school on whom I had a crush had a father in the FBI. Fort Meade was just the place where my mother worked, along with about 125,000 other employees, approximately 40,000 of whom resided on-site, many with their families. The base was home to over 115 government agencies, in addition to forces from all five branches of the military. To put it in perspective, in Anne Arundel County, population just over half a million, every eight hundredth person works for the post office, every thirtieth person works for the public school system, and every fourth person works for, or serves in, a business, agency, or branch connected to Fort Meade. The base has its own post offices, schools, police, and fire departments. Area children, military brats and civilians alike, would flock to the base daily to take golf, tennis, and swimming lessons. Though we lived off base, my mother still used its commissary as our grocery store, to stock up on items in bulk. She also took advantage of the bases PX, or Post Exchange, as a one-stop shop for the sensible and, most important, tax-free clothing that my sister and I were constantly outgrowing. Perhaps its best, then, for readers not raised in this milieu to imagine Fort Meade and its environs, if not the entire Beltway, as one enormous boom-or-bust company town. It is a place whose monoculture has much in common with, say, Silicon Valleys, except that the Beltways product isnt technology but government itself. I should add that both my parents had top secret clearances, but my mother also had a full-scope polygrapha higher-level security check that members of the military arent subject to. The funny thing is, my mother was the farthest thing from a spy. She was a clerk at an independent insurance and benefits association that serviced employees of the NSAessentially, providing spies with retirement plans. But still, to process pension forms she had to be vetted as if she were about to parachute into a jungle to stage a coup. My fathers career remains fairly opaque to me to this day, and the fact is that my ignorance here isnt anomalous. In the world I grew up in, nobody really talked about their jobsnot just to children, but to each other. It is true that many of the adults around me were legally prohibited from discussing their work, even with their families, but to my mind a more accurate explanation lies in the technical nature of their labor and the governments insistence on compartmentalization. Tech people rarely, if ever, have a sense of the broader applications and policy implications of the projects to which theyre assigned. And the work that consumes them tends to require such specialized knowledge that to bring it up at a barbecue would get them disinvited from the next one, because nobody cared. In retrospect, maybe thats what got us here. 4 American Online It was soon after we moved to Crofton that my father brought home our first desktop computer, a Compaq Presario 425, list price $1,399 but purchased at his military discount, and initially set upmuch to my mothers chagrinsmack in the middle of the dining-room table. From the moment it appeared, the computer and I were inseparable. If previously Id been loath to go outside and kick around a ball, now the very idea seemed ludicrous. There was no outside greater than what I could find inside this drab clunky PC clone, with what felt at the time like an impossibly fast 25-megahertz Intel 486 CPU and an inexhaustible 200-megabyte hard disk. Also, get this, it had a color monitoran 8-bit color monitor, to be precise, which means that it could display up to 256 different colors. (Your current device can probably display in the millions.) This Compaq became my constant companionmy second sibling, and first love. It came into my life just at the age when I was first discovering an independent self and the multiple worlds that can simultaneously exist within this world. That process of exploration was so exciting that it made me take for granted and even neglect, for a while at least, the family and life that I already had. Another way of saying this is, I was just experiencing the early throes of puberty. But this was a technologized puberty, and the tremendous changes that it wrought in me were, in a way, being wrought everywhere, in everyone. My parents would call my name to tell me to get ready for school, but I wouldnt hear them. Theyd call my name to tell me to wash up for dinner, but Id pretend not to hear them. And whenever I was reminded that the computer was a shared computer and not my personal machine, Id relinquish my seat with such reluctance that as my father, or mother, or sister took their turn, theyd have to order me out of the room entirely lest I hover moodily over their shoulders and offer adviceshowing my sister word-processing macros and shortcuts when she was writing a research paper, or giving my parents spreadsheet tips when they tried to do their taxes. Id try to rush them through their tasks, so I could get back to mine, which were so much more importantlike playing Loom. As technology had advanced, games involving Pong paddles and helicoptersthe kind my father had played on that by now superannuated Commodorehad lost ground to ones that realized that at the heart of every computer user was a book reader, a being with the desire not just for sensation but for story. The crude Nintendo, Atari, and Sega games of my childhood, with plots along the lines of (and this is a real example) rescuing the president of the United States from ninjas, now gave way to detailed reimaginings of the ancient tales that Id paged through while lying on the carpet of my grandmothers house. Loom was about a society of Weavers whose elders (named after the Greek Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) create a secret loom that controls the world, or, according to the script of the game, that weaves subtle patterns of influence into the very fabric of reality. When a young boy discovers the looms power, hes forced into exile, and everything spirals into chaos until the world decides that a secret fate machine might not be such a great idea, after all. Unbelievable, sure. But then again, its just a game. Still, it wasnt lost on me, even at that young age, that the titular machine of the game was a symbol of sorts for the computer on which I was playing it. The looms rainbow-colored threads were like the computers rainbow-colored internal wires, and the lone gray thread that foretold an uncertain future was like the long gray phone cord that came out of the back of the computer and connected it to the great wide world beyond. There, for me, was the true magic: with just this cord, the Compaqs expansion card and modem, and a working phone, I could dial up and connect to something new called the Internet. Readers who were born postmillennium might not understand the fuss, but trust me, this was a goddamned miracle. Nowadays, connectivity is just presumed. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, everythings connected, always. Connected to what exactly? How? It doesnt matter. You just tap the icon your older relatives call the Internet button and boom, youve got it: the news, pizza delivery, streaming music, and streaming video that we used to call TV and movies. Back then, however, we walked uphill both ways, to and from school, and plugged our modems directly into the wall, with manly twelve-year-old hands. Im not saying that I knew much about what the Internet was, or how exactly I was connecting to it, but I did understand the miraculousness of it all. Because in those days, when you told the computer to connect, you were setting off an entire process wherein the computer would beep and hiss like a traffic jam of snakes, after whichand it could take lifetimes, or at least whole minutesyou could pick up any other phone in the house on an extension line and actually hear the computers talking. You couldnt actually understand what they were saying to each other, of course, since they were speaking in a machine language that transmitted up to fourteen thousand symbols per second. Still, even that incomprehension was an astonishingly clear indication that phone calls were no longer just for older teenage sisters. Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generations big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life, as it did the lives of everyone. From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online. Whenever I couldnt, I was busy planning my next session. The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls. If it were possible, I became more sedentary. If it were possible, I became more pale. Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went back into free fall. I wasnt worried by this academic setback, however, and Im not sure that my parents were, either. After all, the education that I was getting online seemed better and even more practical for my future career prospects than anything provided by school. That, at least, was what I kept telling my mother and father. My curiosity felt as vast as the Internet itself: a limitless space that was growing exponentially, adding webpages by the day, by the hour, by the minute, on subjects I knew nothing about, on subjects Id never heard of beforeyet the moment that I did hear about them, Id develop an insatiable desire to understand them in their every detail, with few rests or snacks or even toilet breaks allowed. My appetite wasnt limited to serious tech subjects like how to fix a CD-ROM drive, of course. I also spent plenty of time on gaming sites searching for god-mode cheat codes for Doom and Quake. But I was generally just so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information immediately available that Im not sure I was able to say where one subject ended and another began. A crash course on how to build my own computer led to a crash course in processor architecture, with side excursions into information about martial arts, guns, sports cars, andfull disclosuresoftcore-ish goth-y porn. I sometimes had the feeling that I had to know everything and wasnt going to sign off until I did. It was like I was in a race with the technology, in the same way that some of the teenage boys around me were in a race with one another to see whod grow the tallest, or whod get facial hair first. At school I was surrounded by kids, some from foreign countries, who were just trying to fit in and would expend enormous effort to seem cool, to keep up with the trends. But owning the latest No Fear hat and knowing how to bend its brim was childs playliterally, childs playcompared to what I was doing. I found it so thoroughly demanding to keep pace with all of the sites and how-to tutorials I followed that I started to resent my parents whenever theyin response to a particularly substandard report card or a detention I receivedwould force me off the computer on a school night. I couldnt bear to have those privileges revoked, disturbed by the thought that every moment that I wasnt online more and more material was appearing that Id be missing. After repeated parental warnings and threats of grounding, Id finally relent and print out whatever file I was reading and bring the dot-matrix pages up to bed. Id continue studying in hard copy until my parents had gone to bed themselves, and then Id tiptoe out into the dark, wary of the squeaky door and the creaky floorboards by the stairs. Id keep the lights off and, guiding myself by the glow of the screen saver, Id wake the computer up and go online, holding my pillows against the machine to stifle the dial tone of the modem and the ever-intensifying hiss of its connection. How can I explain it, to someone who wasnt there? My younger readers, with their younger standards, might think of the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and un-entertaining. But that would be wrong. Back then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life. The virtual and the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began. It was precisely this that was so inspiring: the freedom to imagine something entirely new, the freedom to start over. Whatever Web 1.0 mightve lacked in user-friendliness and design sensibility, it more than made up for by its fostering of experimentation and originality of expression, and by its emphasis on the creative primacy of the individual. A typical GeoCities site, for example, might have a flashing background that alternated between green and blue, with white text scrolling like an exclamatory chyron across the middleRead This First!!!below the .gif of a dancing hamster. But to me, all these kludgy quirks and tics of amateur production merely indicated that the guiding intelligence behind the site was human, and unique. Computer science professors and systems engineers, moonlighting English majors and mouth-breathing, basement-dwelling armchair political economists were all only too happy to share their research and convictionsnot for any financial reward, but merely to win converts to their cause. And whether that cause was PC or Mac, macrobiotic diets or the abolition of the death penalty, I was interested. I was interested because they were enthused. Many of these strange and brilliant people could even be contacted and were quite pleased to answer my questions via the forms (click this hyperlink or copy and paste it into your browser) and email addresses (@usenix.org, @frontier.net) provided on their sites. As the millennium approached, the online world would become increasingly centralized and consolidated, with both governments and businesses accelerating their attempts to intervene in what had always been a fundamentally peer-to-peer relationship. But for one brief and beautiful stretch of timea stretch that, fortunately for me, coincided almost exactly with my adolescencethe Internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms of service agreements. To this day, I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy Ive ever experienced. I was especially involved with the Web-based bulletin-board systems or BBSes. On these, you could pick a username and type out whatever message you wanted to post, either adding to a preexisting group discussion or starting a new one. Any and all messages that replied to your post would be organized by thread. Imagine the longest email chain youve ever been on, but in public. These were also chat applications, like Internet Relay Chat, which provided an immediate-gratification instant-message version of the same experience. There you could discuss any topic in real time, or at least as close to real time as a telephone conversation, live radio, or TV news. Most of the messaging and chatting I did was in search of answers to questions I had about how to build my own computer, and the responses I received were so considered and thorough, so generous and kind, theyd be unthinkable today. My panicked query about why a certain chipset for which Id saved up my allowance didnt seem to be compatible with the motherboard Id already gotten for Christmas would elicit a two-thousand-word explanation and note of advice from a professional tenured computer scientist on the other side of the country. Not cribbed from any manual, this response was composed expressly for me, to troubleshoot my problems step-by-step until Id solved them. I was twelve years old, and my correspondent was an adult stranger far away, yet he treated me like an equal because Id shown respect for the technology. I attribute this civility, so far removed from our current social-media sniping, to the high bar for entry at the time. After all, the only people on these boards were the people who could be therewho wanted to be there badly enoughwho had the proficiency and passion, because the Internet of the 1990s wasnt just one click away. It took significant effort just to log on. Once, a certain BBS that I was on tried to coordinate casual in-the-flesh meetings of its regular members throughout the country: in DC, in New York, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After being pressured rather hard to attendand promised extravagant evenings of eating and drinkingI finally just told everyone how old I was. I was afraid that some of my correspondents might stop interacting with me, but instead they became, if anything, even more encouraging. I was sent updates from the electronics show and images of its catalog; one guy offered to ship me secondhand computer parts through the mail, free of charge. I MIGHT HAVE told the BBSers my age, but I never told them my name, because one of the greatest joys of these platforms was that on them I didnt have to be who I was. I could be anybody. The anonymizing or pseudonymizing features brought equilibrium to all relationships, correcting their imbalances. I could take cover under virtually any handle, or nym, as they were called, and suddenly become an older, taller, manlier version of myself. I could even be multiple selves. I took advantage of this feature by asking what I sensed were my more amateur questions on what seemed to me the more amateur boards, under different personas each time. My computer skills were improving so swiftly that instead of being proud of all the progress Id made, I was embarrassed by my previous ignorance and wanted to distance myself from it. I wanted to disassociate my selves. Id tell myself that squ33ker had been so dumb when he had asked that question about chipset compatibility way back, long ago, last Wednesday. For all of this cooperative, collectivist free-culture ethos, Im not going to pretend that the competition wasnt merciless, or that the populationalmost uniformly male, heterosexual, and hormonally chargeddidnt occasionally erupt into cruel and petty squabbles. But in the absence of real names, the people who claimed to hate you werent real people. They didnt know anything about you beyond what you argued, and how you argued it. If, or rather when, one of your arguments incurred some online wrath, you could simply drop that screen name and assume another mask, under the cover of which you could even join in the mimetic pile-on, beating up on your disowned avatar as if it were a stranger. I cant tell you what sweet relief that sometimes was. In the 1990s, the Internet had yet to fall victim to the greatest iniquity in digital history: the move by both government and businesses to link, as intimately as possible, users online personas to their offline legal identity. Kids used to be able to go online and say the dumbest things one day without having to be held accountable for them the next. This might not strike you as the healthiest environment in which to grow up, and yet it is precisely the only environment in which you can grow upby which I mean that the early Internets dissociative opportunities actually encouraged me and those of my generation to change our most deeply held opinions, instead of just digging in and defending them when challenged. This ability to reinvent ourselves meant that we never had to close our minds by picking sides, or close ranks out of fear of doing irreparable harm to our reputations. Mistakes that were swiftly punished but swiftly rectified allowed both the community and the offender to move on. To me, and to many, this felt like freedom. Imagine, if you will, that you could wake up every morning and pick a new name and a new face by which to be known to the world. Imagine that you could choose a new voice and new words to speak in it, as if the Internet button were actually a reset button for your life. In the new millennium, Internet technology would be turned to very different ends: enforcing fidelity to memory, identarian consistency, and so ideological conformity. But back then, for a while at least, it protected us by forgetting our transgressions and forgiving our sins. My most significant early encounters with online self-presentation happened not on BBSes, however, but in a more fantastical realm: the pseudo-feudal lands and dungeons of role-playing games, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) in particular. In order to play Ultima Online, which was my favorite MMORPG, I had to create and assume an alternative identity, or alt. I could choose, for example, to be a wizard or warrior, a tinkerer or thief, and I could toggle between these alts with a freedom that was unavailable to me in off-line life, whose institutions tend to regard all mutability as suspicious. Id roam the Ultima gamescape as one of my alts, interacting with the alts of others. As I got to know these other alts, by collaborating with them on certain quests, Id sometimes come to realize that Id met their users before, just under different identities, while they, in turn, might realize the same about me. Theyd read my messages and figure out, through a characteristic phrase Id used, or a particular quest that Id suggest, that Iwho was currently, say, a knight who called herself Shrikewas also, or had also been, a bard who called himself Corwin, and a smith who called himself Belgarion. Sometimes I just enjoyed these interactions as opportunities for banter, but more often than not I treated them competitively, measuring my success by whether I was able to identify more of another users alts than they were able to identify of mine. These contests to determine whether I could unmask others without being unmasked myself required me to be careful not to fall into any messaging patterns that might expose me, while simultaneously engaging others and remaining alert to the ways in which they might inadvertently reveal their true identities. While the alts of Ultima were multifarious in name, they were essentially stabilized by the nature of their roles, which were well defined, even archetypal, and so enmeshed within the games established social order as to make playing them sometimes feel like discharging a civic duty. After a day at school or at a job that might seem purposeless and unrewarding, it could feel as if you were performing a useful service by spending the evening as a healer or shepherd, a helpful alchemist or mage. The relative stability of the Ultima universeits continued development according to defined laws and codes of conductensured that each alt had their role-specific tasks, and would be judged according to their ability, or willingness, to complete them and fulfill the societal expectations of their function. I loved these games and the alternative lives they let me live, though love wasnt quite as liberating for the other members of my family. Games, especially of the massively multiplayer variety, are notoriously time-consuming, and I was spending so many hours playing Ultima that our phone bills were becoming exorbitant and no calls were getting through. The line was always busy. My sister, now deep into her teen years, became furious when she found out that my online life had caused her to miss some crucial high-school gossip. However, it didnt take her long to figure out that all she had to do to get her revenge was pick up the phone, which would break the Internet connection. The modems hiss would stop, and before shed even received a normal dial tone, Id be screaming my head off downstairs. If youre interrupted in the middle of, say, reading the news online, you can always go back and pick up wherever you left off. But if youre interrupted while playing a game that you cant pause or savebecause a hundred thousand others are playing it at the same timeyoure ruined. You could be on top of the world, some legendary dragon-slayer with your own castle and an army, but after just thirty seconds of CONNECTION LOST youd find yourself reconnecting to a bone-gray screen that bore a cruel epitaph: YOU ARE DEAD. Im a bit embarrassed nowadays at how seriously I took all of this, but I cant avoid the fact that I felt, at the time, as if my sister was intent on destroying my lifeparticularly on those occasions when shed make sure to catch my eye from across the room and smile before picking up the downstairs receiver, not because she wanted to make a phone call but purely because she wanted to remind me who was boss. Our parents got so fed up with our shouting matches that they did something uncharacteristically indulgent. They switched our Internet billing plan from pay-by-the-minute to flat-fee unlimited access, and installed a second phone line. Peace smiled upon our abode. 5 Hacking All teenagers are hackers. They have to be, if only because their life circumstances are untenable. They think theyre adults, but the adults think theyre kids. Remember, if you can, your own teen years. You were a hacker, too, willing to do anything to evade parental supervision. Basically, you were fed up with being treated like a child. Recall how it felt when anyone older and bigger than you sought to control you, as if age and size were identical with authority. At one time or another, your parents, teachers, coaches, scoutmasters, and clergy would all take advantage of their position to invade your private life, impose their expectations on your future, and enforce your conformity to past standards. Whenever these adults substituted their hopes, dreams, and desires for your own, they were doing so, by their account, for your own good or with your best interests at heart. And while sometimes this was true, we all remember those other times when it wasntwhen because I said so wasnt enough and youll thank me one day rang hollow. If youve ever been an adolescent, youve surely been on the receiving end of one of these clich?s, and so on the losing end of an imbalance of power. To grow up is to realize the extent to which your existence has been governed by systems of rules, vague guidelines, and increasingly unsupportable norms that have been imposed on you without your consent and are subject to change at a moments notice. There were even some rules that youd only find out about after youd violated them. If you were anything like me, you were scandalized. If you were anything like me, you were nearsighted, scrawny, and, age-wise, barely entering the double digits when you first started to wonder about politics. In school, you were told that in the system of American politics, citizens give consent through the franchise to be governed by their equals. This is democracy. But democracy certainly wasnt in place in my US history class, where, if my classmates and I had the vote, Mr. Martin would have been out of a job. Instead, Mr. Martin made the rules for US history, Ms. Evans made the rules for English, Mr. Sweeney made the rules for science, Mr. Stockton made the rules for math, and all of those teachers constantly changed those rules to benefit themselves and maximize their power. If a teacher didnt want you to go to the bathroom, youd better hold it in. If a teacher promised a field trip to the Smithsonian Institution but then canceled it for an imaginary infraction, theyd offer no explanation beyond citing their broad authority and the maintenance of proper order. Even back then, I realized that any opposition to this system would be difficult, not least because getting its rules changed to serve the interests of the majority would involve persuading the rule makers to put themselves at a purposeful disadvantage. That, ultimately, is the critical flaw or design defect intentionally integrated into every system, in both politics and computing: the people who create the rules have no incentive to act against themselves. What convinced me that school, at least, was an illegitimate system was that it wouldnt recognize any legitimate dissent. I could plead my case until I lost my voice, or I could just accept the fact that Id never had a voice to begin with. However, the benevolent tyranny of school, like all tyrannies, has a limited shelf life. At a certain point, the denial of agency becomes a license to resist, though its characteristic of adolescence to confuse resistance with escapism or even violence. The most common outlets for a rebellious teen were useless to me, because I was too cool for vandalism and not cool enough for drugs. (To this day, Ive never even gotten drunk on liquor or smoked a cigarette.) Instead, I started hackingwhich remains the sanest, healthiest, and most educational way I know for kids to assert autonomy and address adults on equal terms. Like most of my classmates, I didnt like the rules but was afraid of breaking them. I knew how the system worked: you corrected a teachers mistake, you got a warning; you confronted the teacher when they didnt admit the mistake, you got detention; someone cheated off your exam, and though you didnt expressly let them cheat, you got detention and the cheater got suspended. This is the origin of all hacking: the awareness of a systemic linkage between input and output, between cause and effect. Because hacking isnt just native to computingit exists wherever rules do. To hack a system requires getting to know its rules better than the people who created it or are running it, and exploiting all the vulnerable distance between how those people had intended the system to work and how it actually works, or could be made to work. In capitalizing on these unintentional uses, hackers arent breaking the rules as much as debunking them. Humans are hardwired to recognize patterns. All the choices we make are informed by a cache of assumptions, both empirical and logical, unconsciously derived and consciously developed. We use these assumptions to assess the potential consequences of each choice, and we describe the ability to do all of this, quickly and accurately, as intelligence. But even the smartest among us rely on assumptions that weve never put to the testand because we do, the choices we make are often flawed. Anyone who knows better, or thinks more quickly and more accurately than we do, can take advantage of those flaws to create consequences that we never expected. Its this egalitarian nature of hackingwhich doesnt care who you are, just how you reasonthat makes it such a reliable method of dealing with the type of authority figures so convinced of their systems righteousness that it never occurred to them to test it. I didnt learn any of this at school, of course. I learned it online. The Internet gave me the chance to pursue all the topics I was interested in, and all the links between them, unconstrained by the pace of my classmates and my teachers. The more time I spent online, however, the more my schoolwork felt extracurricular. The summer I turned thirteen, I resolved never to return, or at least to seriously reduce my classroom commitments. I wasnt quite sure how Id swing that, though. All the plans I came up with were likely to backfire. If I was caught skipping class, my parents would revoke my computer privileges; if I decided to drop out, theyd bury my body deep in the woods and tell the neighbors Id run away. I had to come up with a hackand then, on the first day of the new school year, I found one. Indeed, it was basically handed to me. At the start of each class, the teachers passed out their syllabi, detailing the material to be covered, the required reading, and the schedule of tests and quizzes and assignments. Along with these, they gave us their grading policies, which were essentially explanations of how As, Bs, Cs, and Ds were calculated. Id never encountered information like this. Their numbers and letters were like a strange equation that suggested a solution to my problem. After school that day, I sat down with the syllabi and did the math to figure out which aspects of each class I could simply ignore and still expect to receive a passing grade. Take my US history class, for example. According to the syllabus, quizzes were worth 25 percent, tests were worth 35 percent, term papers were worth 15 percent, homework was worth 15 percent, and class participationthat most subjective of categories, in every subjectwas worth 10 percent. Because I usually did well on my quizzes and tests without having to do too much studying, I could count on them for a reliable pool of time-efficient points. Term papers and homework, however, were the major time-sucks: low-value, high-cost impositions on Me Time. What all of those numbers told me was that if I didnt do any homework but aced everything else, Id wind up with a cumulative grade of 85, a B. If I didnt do any homework or write any term papers but aced everything else, Id wind up with a cumulative grade of 70, a C-minus. The 10 percent that was class participation would be my buffer. Even if the teacher gave me a zero in thatif they interpreted my participation as disruptionI could still manage a 65, a D-minus. Id still pass. My teachers systems were terminally flawed. Their instructions for how to achieve the highest grade could be used as instructions for how to achieve the highest freedoma key to how to avoid doing what I didnt like to do and still slide by. The moment I figured that out, I stopped doing homework completely. Every day was bliss, the kind of bliss forbidden to anybody old enough to work and pay taxes, until Mr. Stockton asked me in front of the entire class why I hadnt handed in the past half-dozen or so homework assignments. Untouched as I was by the guile of ageand forgetting for a moment that by giving away my hack, I was depriving myself of an advantageI cheerfully offered my equation to the math teacher. My classmates laughter lasted just a moment before they set about scribbling, calculating whether they, too, could afford to adopt a post-homework life. Pretty clever, Eddie, Mr. Stockton said, moving on to the next lesson with a smile. I was the smartest kid in schooluntil about twenty-four hours later, when Mr. Stockton passed out the new syllabus. This stated that any student who failed to turn in more than six homeworks by the end of the semester would get an automatic F. Pretty clever, Mr. Stockton. Then, he took me aside after class and said, You should be using that brain of yours not to figure out how to avoid work, but how to do the best work you can. You have so much potential, Ed. But I dont think you realize that the grades you get here will follow you for the rest of your life. You have to start thinking about your permanent record. UNSHACKLED FROM HOMEWORK, at least for a while, and so with more time to spare, I also did some more conventionalcomputer-basedhacking. As I did, my abilities improved. At the bookstore, Id page through tiny, blurrily photocopied, stapled-together hacker zines with names like 2600 and Phrack, absorbing their techniques, and in the process absorbing their antiauthoritarian politics. I was at the bottom of the technical totem pole, a script kiddie n00b working with tools I didnt understand that functioned according to principles that were beyond me. People still ask me why, when I finally did gain some proficiency, I didnt race out to empty bank accounts or steal credit card numbers. The honest answer is that I was too young and dumb to even know that this was an option, let alone to know what Id do with the stolen loot. All I wanted, all I needed, I already had for free. Instead, I figured out simple ways to hack some games, giving myself extra lives and letting me do things like see through walls. Also, there wasnt a lot of money on the Internet back then, at least not by todays standards. The closest that anyone I knew or anything I read ever came to theft was phreaking, or making free phone calls. If you asked some of the big-shot hackers of the day why, for example, theyd hacked into a major news site only to do nothing more meaningful than replace the headlines with a trippy GIF proclaiming the skills of Baron von Hackerface that would be taken down in less than half an hour, the reply wouldve been a version of the answer given by the mountaineer who was asked his reason for climbing Mount Everest: Because its there. Most hackers, particularly young ones, set out to search not for lucre or power, but for the limits of their talent and any opportunity to prove the impossible possible. I was young, and while my curiosity was pure, it was also, in retrospect, pretty psychologically revealing, in that some of my earliest hacking attempts were directed toward allaying my neuroses. The more I came to know about the fragility of computer security, the more I worried over the consequences of trusting the wrong machine. As a teenager, my first hack that ever courted trouble dealt with a fear that suddenly became all I could think bout: the threat of a full-on, scorched-earth nuclear holocaust. Id been reading some article about the history of the American nuclear program, and before I knew it, with just a couple of clicks, I was at the website of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the countrys nuclear research facility. Thats just the way the Internet works: you get curious, and your fingers do the thinking for you. But suddenly I was legitimately freaked out: the website of Americas largest and most significant scientific research and weapons development institution, I noticed, had a glaring security hole. Its vulnerability was basically the virtual version of an unlocked door: an open directory structure. Ill explain. Imagine I sent you a link to download a .pdf file thats kept on its own page of a multipage website. The URL for this file would typically be something like website.com/files/pdfs/filename.pdf. Now, as the structure of a URL derives directly from directory structure, each part of this URL represents a distinct branch of the directory tree. In this instance, within the directory of website.com is a folder of files, within which is a subfolder of pdfs, within which is the specific filename.pdf that youre seeking to download. Today, most websites will confine your visit to that specific file, keeping their directory structures closed and private. But back in those dinosaur days, even major websites were created and run by folks who were new to the technology, and they often left their directory structures wide open, which meant that if you truncated your files URLif you simply changed it to something like website.com/filesyoud be able to access every file on the site, pdf or otherwise, including those that werent necessarily meant for visitors. This was the case with the Los Alamos site. In the hacking community, this is basically Babys First Hacka totally rudimentary traversal procedure known as dirwalking, or directory walking. And thats just what I did: I walked as fast as I could from file to subfolder to upper-level folder and back again, a teen let loose through the parent directories. Within a half hour of reading an article about the threat of nuclear weapons, Id stumbled upon a trove of files meant only for the labs security-cleared workers. To be sure, the documents I accessed werent exactly the classified plans for building a nuclear device in my garage. (And, anyway, its not as if those plans werent already available on about a dozen DIY websites.) Instead, what I got was more along the lines of confidential interoffice memoranda and other personal employee information. Still, as someone suddenly acutely worried about mushroom clouds on the horizon, and alsoespeciallyas the child of military parents, I did what I figured I was supposed to: I told an adult. I sent an explanatory email to the laboratorys webmaster about the vulnerability, and waited for a response that never came. Every day after school I visited the site to check if the directory structure had changed, and it hadntnothing had changed, except my capacity for shock and indignation. I finally got on the phone, my houses second line, and called the general information phone number listed at the bottom of the laboratorys site. An operator picked up, and the moment she did I started stammering. I dont even think I got to the end of the phrase directory structure before my voice broke. The operator interrupted with a curt please hold for IT, and before I could thank her shed transferred me to a voice mail. By the time the beep came, Id regained some modicum of confidence and, with a steadier larynx, I left a message. All I recall now of that message was how I ended itwith relief, and by repeating my name and phone number. I think I even spelled out my name, like my father sometimes did, using the military phonetic alphabet: Sierra November Oscar Whiskey Delta Echo November. Then I hung up and went on with my life, which for a week consisted pretty much exclusively of checking the Los Alamos website. Nowadays, given the governments cyberintelligence capabilities, anyone who was pinging the Los Alamos servers a few dozen times a day would almost certainly become a person of interest. Back then, however, I was merely an interested person. I couldnt understanddidnt anybody care? Weeks passedand weeks can feel like months to a teenageruntil one evening, just before dinner, the phone rang. My mother, who was in the kitchen making dinner, picked up. I was at the computer in the dining room when I heard it was for me: Yes, uh-huh, hes here. Then, May I ask whos calling? I turned around in my seat and she was standing over me, holding the phone against her chest. All the color had left her face. She was trembling. Her whisper had a mournful urgency Id never heard before, and it terrified me: What did you do? Had I known, I would have told her. Instead, I asked, Who is it? Los Alamos, the nuclear laboratory. Oh, thank God. I gently pried the phone away from her and sat her down. Hello? On the line was a friendly representative from Los Alamos IT, who kept calling me Mr. Snowden. He thanked me for reporting the problem and informed me that theyd just fixed it. I restrained myself from asking what had taken so longI restrained myself from reaching over to the computer and immediately checking the site. My mother hadnt taken her eyes off me. She was trying to piece together the conversation, but could only hear one side. I gave her a thumbs-up, and then, to further reassure her, I affected an older, serious, and unconvincingly deep voice and stiffly explained to the IT rep what he already knew: how Id found the directory traversal problem, how Id reported it, how I hadnt received any response until now. I finished up with, I really appreciate you telling me. I hope I didnt cause any problems. Not at all, the IT rep said, and then asked what I did for a living. Nothing really, I said. He asked whether I was looking for a job and I said, During the school year, Im pretty busy, but Ive got a lot of vacation and the summers are free. Thats when the lightbulb went off, and he realized that he was dealing with a teenager. Well, kid, he said, youve got my contact. Be sure and get in touch when you turn eighteen. Now pass me along to that nice lady I spoke to. I handed the phone to my anxious mother and she took it back with her into the kitchen, which was filling up with smoke. Dinner was burnt, but Im guessing the IT rep said enough complimentary things about me that any punishment I was imagining went out the window. 6 Incomplete I dont remember high school very well, because I spent so much of it asleep, compensating for all my insomniac nights on the computer. At Arundel High most of my teachers didnt mind my little napping habit, and left me alone so long as I wasnt snoring, though there were still a cruel, joyless few who considered it their duty to always wake mewith the screech of chalk or the clap of erasersand ambush me with a question: And what do you think, Mr. Snowden? Id lift my head off my desk, sit up in my chair, yawn, andas my classmates tried to stifle their laughterId have to answer. The truth is, I loved these moments, which were among the greatest challenges high school had to offer. I loved being put on the spot, groggy and dazed, with thirty pairs of eyes and ears trained on me and expecting my failure, while I searched for a clue on the half-empty blackboard. If I could think quickly enough to come up with a good answer, Id be a legend. But if I was too slow, I could always crack a jokeits never too late for a joke. In the absolute worst case, Id sputter, and my classmates would think I was stupid. Let them. You should always let people underestimate you. Because when people misappraise your intelligence and abilities, theyre merely pointing out their own vulnerabilitiesthe gaping holes in their judgment that need to stay open if you want to cartwheel through later on a flaming horse, correcting the record with your sword of justice. When I was a teen, I think I was a touch too enamored of the idea that lifes most important questions are binary, meaning that one answer is always Right, and all the rest of the answers are Wrong. I think I was enchanted by the model of computer programming, whose questions can only be answered in one of two ways: 1 or 0, the machine-code version of Yes or No, True or False. Even the multiple-choice questions of my quizzes and tests could be approached through the oppositional logic of the binary. If I didnt immediately recognize one of the possible answers as correct, I could always try to reduce my choices by a process of elimination, looking for terms such as always or never and seeking out invalidating exceptions. Toward the end of my freshman year, however, I was faced with a very different kind of assignmenta question that couldnt be answered by filling in bubbles with a 2 pencil, but only by rhetoric: full sentences in full paragraphs. In plain terms, it was an English class assignment, a writing prompt: Please produce an autobiographical statement of no fewer than 1,000 words. I was being ordered by strangers to divulge my thoughts on perhaps the only subject on which I didnt have any thoughts: the subject of me, whoever he was. I just couldnt do it. I was blocked. I didnt turn anything in and received an Incomplete. My problem, like the prompt itself, was personal. I couldnt produce an autobiographical statement because my life at the time was too confusing. This was because my family was falling apart. My parents were getting a divorce. It all happened so fast. My father moved out and my mother put the house in Crofton on the market, and then moved with my sister and me into an apartment, and then into a condominium in a development in nearby Ellicott City. Ive had friends tell me that you arent really an adult until you bury a parent or become one yourself. But what no one ever mentions is that for kids of a certain age, divorce is like both of those happening simultaneously. Suddenly, the invulnerable icons of your childhood are gone. In their stead, if theres anyone at all, is a person even more lost than you are, full of tears and rage, who craves your reassurance that everything will turn out okay. It wont, though, at least not for a while. As the custody and visitation rights were being sorted by the courts, my sister threw herself into college applications, was accepted, and started counting down the days until shed leave for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Losing her meant losing my closest tie to what our family had been. I reacted by turning inward. I buckled down and willed myself into becoming another person, a shape-shifter putting on the mask of whoever the people I cared about needed at the time. Among family, I was dependable and sincere. Among friends, mirthful and unconcerned. But when I was alone, I was subdued, even morose, and constantly worried about being a burden. I was haunted by all the road trips to North Carolina Id complained through, all the Christmases Id ruined by bringing home bad report cards, all the times Id refused to get off-line and do my chores. Every childhood fuss Id ever made flickered in my mind like crime-scene footage, evidence that I was responsible for what had happened. I tried to throw off the guilt by ignoring my emotions and feigning self-sufficiency, until I projected a sort of premature adulthood. I stopped saying that I was playing with the computer, and started saying that I was working on it. Just changing those words, without remotely changing what I was doing, made a difference in how I was perceived, by others and even by myself. I stopped calling myself Eddie. From now on, I was Ed. I got my first cell phone, which I wore clipped to my belt like a grown-ass man. The unexpected blessing of traumathe opportunity for reinventiontaught me to appreciate the world beyond the four walls of home. I was surprised to find that as I put more and more distance between myself and the two adults who loved me the most, I came closer to others, who treated me like a peer. Mentors who taught me to sail, trained me to fight, coached me in public speaking, and gave me the confidence to stand onstageall of them helped to raise me. At the beginning of my sophomore year, though, I started getting tired a lot and falling asleep more than usualnot just at school anymore, but now even at the computer. Id wake up in the middle of the night in a more or less upright position, the screen in front of me full of gibberish because Id passed out atop the keys. Soon enough my joints were aching, my nodes were swollen, the whites of my eyes turned yellow, and I was too exhausted to get out of bed, even after sleeping for twelve hours or more at a stretch. After having had more blood taken from me than Id ever imagined was in my body, I was eventually diagnosed with infectious mononucleosis. It was both a seriously debilitating and seriously humiliating illness for me to have, not least because its usually contracted through what my classmates called hooking up, and at age fifteen the only hooking up Id ever done involved a modem. School was totally forgotten, my absences piled up, and not even that made me happy. Not even an all-ice-cream diet made me happy. I barely had the energy to do anything but play the games my parents gave meeach of them trying to bring the cooler game, the newer game, as if they were in a competition to perk me up or mitigate their guilt about the divorce. When I no longer had it in me to even work a joystick, I wondered why I was alive. Sometimes Id wake up unable to recognize my surroundings. It would take me a while to figure out whether the dimness meant that I was at my mothers condo or my fathers one-bedroom, and Id have no recollection of having been driven between them. Every day became the same. It was a haze. I remember reading The Conscience of a Hacker (aka The Hackers Manifesto), Neal Stephensons Snow Crash, and reams of J. R. R. Tolkien, falling asleep midchapter and getting the characters and action confused, until I was dreaming that Gollum was by my bedside and whining, Master, Master, information wants to be free. While I was resigned to all the fever dreams sleep brought me, the thought of having to catch up on my schoolwork was the true nightmare. After Id missed approximately four months of class, I got a letter in the mail from Arundel High informing me that Id have to repeat my sophomore year. Id say I was shocked, but the moment I read the letter, I realized that Id known this was inevitable and had been dreading it for weeks. The prospect of returning to school, let alone of repeating two semesters, was unimaginable to me, and I was ready to do whatever it took to avoid it. Just at the point when my glandular disease had developed into a full-on depression, receiving the school news shook me out of my slump. Suddenly I was upright and getting dressed in something other than pajamas. Suddenly I was online and on the phone, searching for the systems edges, searching for a hack. After a bit of research, and a lot of form-filling, my solution landed in the mailbox: Id gotten myself accepted to college. Apparently, you dont need a high school diploma to apply. Anne Arundel Community College was a local institution, certainly not as venerable as my sisters school, but it would do the trick. All that mattered was that it was accredited. I took the offer of admission to my high school administrators, who, with a curious and barely concealed mixture of resignation and glee, agreed to let me enroll. Id attend college classes two days a week, which was just about the most that I could manage to stay upright and functional. By taking classes above my grade level, I wouldnt have to suffer through the year Id missed. Id just skip it. AACC was about twenty-five minutes away, and the first few times I drove myself were perilousI was a newly licensed driver who could barely stay awake at the wheel. Id go to class and then come directly home to sleep. I was the youngest person in all my classes, and might even have been the youngest person at the school, alternately a mascot-like object of novelty and a discomfiting presence. This, along with the fact that I was still recovering, meant that I didnt hang out much. Also, because AACC was a commuter school, it had no active campus life. The anonymity of the school suited me fine, though, as did my classes, most of which were distinctly more interesting than anything Id napped through at Arundel High. BEFORE I GO any further and leave high school forever, I should note that I still owe that English class assignment, the one marked Incomplete. My autobiographical statement. The older I get, the heavier it weighs on me, and yet writing it hasnt gotten any easier. The fact is, no one with a biography like mine ever comes comfortably to autobiography. Its hard to have spent so much of my life trying to avoid identification, only to turn around completely and share personal disclosures in a book. The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture. You train yourself to be inconspicuous, to look and sound like others. You live in the most ordinary house, you drive the most ordinary car, you wear the same ordinary clothes as everyone else. The difference is, you do it on purpose: normalcy, the ordinary, is your cover. This is the perverse reward of a self-denying career that brings no public glory: the private glory comes not during work, but after, when you can go back out among other people again and successfully convince them that youre one of them. Though there are a score of more popular and surely more accurate psychological terms for this type of identity split, I tend to think of it as human encryption. As in any process of encryption, the original materialyour core identitystill exists, but only in a locked and scrambled form. The equation that enables this ciphering is a simple proportion: the more you know about others, the less you know about yourself. After a time, you might forget your likes and even your dislikes. You can lose your politics, along with any and all respect for the political process that you might have had. Everything gets subsumed by the job, which begins with a denial of character and ends with a denial of conscience. Mission First. Some version of the above served me for years as an explanation of my dedication to privacy, and my inability or unwillingness to get personal. Its only now, when Ive been out of the IC almost as long as I was in it, that I realize: it isnt nearly enough. After all, I was hardly a spyI wasnt even shavingwhen I failed to turn in my English class assignment. Instead, I was a kid whod been practicing spycraft for a while alreadypartly through my online experiments with game-playing identities, but more than anything through dealing with the silence and lies that followed my parents divorce. With that rupture, we became a family of secret-keepers, experts at subterfuge and hiding. My parents kept secrets from each other, and from me and my sister. My sister and I would eventually keep our own secrets, too, when one of us was staying with our father for the weekend and the other was staying with our mother. One of the most difficult trials that a child of divorce has to face is being interrogated by one parent about the new life of the other. My mother would be gone for stretches, back on the dating scene. My father tried his best to fill the void, but, at times, he would become enraged by the protracted and expensive divorce process. Whenever that happened, it would seem to me as if our roles had reversed. I had to be assertive and stand up to him, to reason with him. Its painful to write this, though not so much because the events of this period are painful to recall as because theyre in no way indicative of my parents fundamental decencyor of how, out of love for their children, they were eventually able to bury their differences, reconcile with respect, and flourish separately in peace. This kind of change is constant, common, and human. But an autobiographical statement is static, the fixed document of a person in flux. This is why the best account that someone can ever give of themselves is not a statement but a pledgea pledge to the principles they value, and to the vision of the person they hope to become. Id enrolled in community college to save myself time after a setback, not because I intended to continue with my higher education. But I made a pledge to myself that Id at least complete my high school degree. It was a weekend when I finally kept that promise, driving out to a public school near Baltimore to take the last test Id ever take for the state of Maryland: the exam for the General Education Development (GED) degree, which the US government recognizes as the standard equivalent to a high school diploma. I remember leaving the exam feeling lighter than ever, having satisfied the two years of schooling that I still owed to the state just by taking a two-day exam. It felt like a hack, but it was more than that. It was me staying true to my word. 7 9/11 From the age of sixteen, I was pretty much living on my own. With my mother throwing herself into her work, I often had her condo to myself. I set my own schedule, cooked my own meals, and did my own laundry. I was responsible for everything but paying the bills. I had a 1992 white Honda Civic and drove it all over the state, listening to the indie alternative 99.1 WHFSNow Hear This was one of its catchphrasesbecause thats what everybody else did. I wasnt very good at being normal, but I was trying. My life became a circuit, tracing a route between my home, my college, and my friends, particularly a new group that I met in Japanese class. Im not quite sure how long it took us to realize that wed become a clique, but by the second semester we attended class as much to see each other as to learn the language. This, by the way, is the best way to seem normal: surround yourself with people just as weird, if not weirder, than you are. Most of these friends were aspiring artists and graphic designers obsessed with then controversial anime, or Japanese animation. As our friendships deepened, so, too, did my familiarity with anime genres, until I could rattle off relatively informed opinions about a new library of shared experiences with titles like Grave of the Fireflies, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, The Vision of Escaflowne, Rurouni Kenshin, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Trigun, The Slayers, and my personal favorite, Ghost in the Shell. One of these new friendsIll call her Maewas an older woman, much older, at a comfortably adult twenty-five. She was something of an idol to the rest of us, as a published artist and avid cosplayer. She was my Japanese conversation partner and, I was impressed to find out, also ran a successful Web-design business that Ill call Squirrelling Industries, after the pet sugar gliders she occasionally carried around in a purple felt Crown Royal bag. Thats the story of how I became a freelancer: I started working as a Web designer for the girl I met in class. She, or I guess her business, hired me under the table at the then lavish rate of $30/hour in cash. The trick was how many hours Id actually get paid for. Of course, Mae couldve paid me in smilesbecause I was smitten, just totally in love with her. And though I didnt do a particularly good job of concealing that, Im not sure that Mae minded, because I never missed a deadline or even the slightest opportunity to do a favor for her. Also, I was a quick learner. In a company of two, youve got to be able to do everything. Though I could, and did, conduct my Squirrelling Industries business anywherethat, after all, is the point of working onlineshe preferred that I come into the office, by which I mean her house, a two-story town house that she shared with her husband, a neat and clever man whom Ill call Norm. Yes, Mae was married. Whats more, the town house that she and Norm lived in was located on base at the southwestern edge of Fort Meade, where Norm worked as an air force linguist assigned to the NSA. I cant tell you if its legal to run a business out of your home if your home is federal property on a military installation, but as a teenager infatuated with a married woman who was also my boss, I wasnt exactly going to be a stickler for propriety. Its nearly inconceivable now, but at the time Fort Meade was almost entirely accessible to anyone. It wasnt all bollards and barricades and checkpoints trapped in barbed wire. I could just drive onto the army base housing the worlds most secretive intelligence agency in my 92 Civic, windows down, radio up, without having to stop at a gate and show ID. It seemed like every other weekend or so a quarter of my Japanese class would congregate in Maes little house behind NSA headquarters to watch anime and create comics. Thats just the way it was, in those bygone days when Its a free country, isnt it? was a phrase you heard in every schoolyard and sitcom. On workdays Id show up at Maes in the morning, pulling into her cul-de-sac after Norm left for the NSA, and Id stay through the day, until just before he returned. On the occasions that Norm and I happened to overlap during the two years or so I spent working for his wife, he was, all things considered, kind and generous to me. At first, I assumed that he was oblivious to my infatuation, or had such a low opinion of my chances as a seducer that he didnt mind leaving me alone with his wife. But one day, when we happened to pass each otherhim going, me cominghe politely mentioned that he kept a gun on the nightstand. Squirrelling Industries, which was really just Mae and me, was pretty typical of basement start-ups circa the dot-com boom, small enterprises competing for scraps before everything went bust. How it worked was that a large companya carmaker, for instancewould hire a major ad agency or PR firm to build their website and just generally spiff up their Internet presence. The large company would know nothing about building websites, and the ad agency or PR firm would know only slightly morejust enough to post a job description seeking a Web designer at one of the then proliferating freelance work portals. Mom-and-pop operationsor, in this case, older-married-woman/young-single-man operationswould then bid for the jobs, and the competition was so intense that the quotes would be driven ridiculously low. Factor in the cut that the winning contractor would have to pay to the work portal, and the money was barely enough for an adult to survive on, let alone a family. On top of the lack of financial reward, there was also a humiliating lack of credit: the freelancers could rarely mention what projects theyd done, because the ad agency or PR firm would claim to have developed it all in-house. I got to know a lot about the world, particularly the business world, with Mae as my boss. She was strikingly canny, working twice as hard as her peers to make it in what was then a fairly macho industry, where every other client was out to screw you for free labor. This culture of casual exploitation incentivized freelancers to find ways to hack around the system, and Mae had a talent for managing her relationships in such a way as to bypass the work portals. She tried to cut out the middlemen and third parties and deal directly with the largest clients possible. She was wonderful at this, particularly after my help on the technical side allowed her to focus exclusively on the business and art. She parlayed her illustration skills into logo design and offered basic branding services. As for my work, the methods and coding were simple enough for me to pick up on the fly, and although they could be brutally repetitive, I wasnt complaining. I took to even the most menial Notepad job with pleasure. Its amazing what you do for love, especially when its unrequited. I cant help but wonder whether Mae was fully aware of my feelings for her all along, and simply leveraged them to her best advantage. But if I was a victim, I was a willing one, and my time under her left me better off. Still, about a year into my tenure with Squirrelling Industries, I realized I had to plan for my future. Professional industry certifications for the IT sector were becoming hard to ignore. Most job listings and contracts for advanced work were beginning to require that applicants be officially accredited by major tech companies like IBM and Cisco in the use and service of their products. At least, that was the gist of a radio commercial that I kept hearing. One day, coming home from my commute after hearing the commercial for what must have been the hundredth time, I found myself dialing the 1-800 number and signing up for the Microsoft certification course that was being offered by the Computer Career Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The entire operation, from its embarrassingly high cost to its location at a satellite campus instead of at the main university, had the faint whiff of a scam, but I didnt care. It was a nakedly transactional affairone that would allow Microsoft to impose a tax on the massively rising demand for IT folks, HR managers to pretend that an expensive piece of paper could distinguish bona fide pros from filthy charlatans, and nobodies like me to put the magic words Johns Hopkins on their r?sum? and jump to the front of the hiring line. The certification credentials were being adopted as industry standard almost as quickly as the industry could invent them. An A Certification meant that you were able to service and repair computers. A Net Certification meant that you were able to handle some basic networking. But these were just ways to become the guy who worked the Help Desk. The best pieces of paper were grouped under the rubric of the Microsoft Certified Professional series. There was the entry-level MCP, the Microsoft Certified Professional; the more accomplished MCSA, the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator; and the top piece of printed-out technical credibility, the MCSE, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. This was the brass ring, the guaranteed meal ticket. At the lowest of the low end, an MCSEs starting salary was $40,000 per year, a sum thatat the turn of the millennium and the age of seventeenI found astonishing. But why not? Microsoft was trading above $100 per share, and Bill Gates had just been named the richest man in the world. In terms of technical know-how, the MCSE wasnt the easiest to get, but it also didnt require what most self-respecting hackers would consider unicorn genius either. In terms of time and money, the commitment was considerable. I had to take seven separate tests, which cost $150 each, and pay something like $18,000 in tuition to Hopkins for the full battery of prep classes, whichtrue to formI didnt finish, opting to go straight to the testing after I felt Id had enough. Unfortunately, Hopkins didnt give refunds. With payments looming on my tuition loan, I now had a more practical reason to spend time with Mae: money. I asked her to give me more hours. She agreed, and asked me to start coming in at 9:00 a.m. It was an egregiously early hour, especially for a freelancer, which was why I was running late one Tuesday morning. I was speeding down Route 32 under a beautiful Microsoft-blue sky, trying not to get caught by any speed traps. With a little luck, Id roll into Maes sometime before 9:30, andwith my window down and my hand riding the windit felt like a lucky day. I had the talk radio cranked and was waiting for the news to switch to the traffic. Just as I was about to take the Canine Road shortcut into Fort Meade, an update broke through about a plane crash in New York City. Mae came to the door and I followed her up the stairs from the dim entryway to the cramped office next to her bedroom. There wasnt much to it: just our two desks side by side, a drawing table for her art, and a cage for her squirrels. Though I was slightly distracted by the news, we had work to do. I forced myself to focus on the task at hand. I was just opening the projects files in a simple text editorwe wrote the code for websites by handwhen the phone rang. Mae picked up. What? Really? Because we were sitting so close together, I could hear her husbands voice. And he was yelling. Maes expression turned to alarm, and she loaded a news site on her computer. The only TV was downstairs. I was reading the sites report about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, when Mae said, Okay. Wow. Okay, and hung up. She turned to me. A second plane just hit the other tower. Until that moment, Id thought it had been an accident. Mae said, Norm thinks theyre going to close the base. Like, the gates? I said. Seriously? The scale of what had happened had yet to hit me. I was thinking about my commute. Norm said you should go home. He doesnt want you to get stuck. I sighed, and saved the work Id barely started. Just when I got up to leave, the phone rang again, and this time the conversation was even shorter. Mae was pale. Youre not going to believe this. Pandemonium, chaos: our most ancient forms of terror. They both refer to a collapse of order and the panic that rushes in to fill the void. For as long as I live, Ill remember retracing my way up Canine Roadthe road past the NSAs headquartersafter the Pentagon was attacked. Madness poured out of the agencys black glass towers, a tide of yelling, ringing cell phones, and cars revving up in the parking lots and fighting their way onto the street. At the moment of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the staff of the NSAthe major signals intelligence agency of the American ICwas abandoning its work by the thousands, and I was swept up in the flood. NSA director Michael Hayden issued the order to evacuate before most of the country even knew what had happened. Subsequently, the NSA and the CIAwhich also evacuated all but a skeleton crew from its own headquarters on 9/11would explain their behavior by citing a concern that one of the agencies might potentially, possibly, perhaps be the target of the fourth and last hijacked airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, rather than, say, the White House or Capitol. I sure as hell wasnt thinking about the next likeliest targets as I crawled through the gridlock, with everyone trying to get their cars out of the same parking lot simultaneously. I wasnt thinking about anything at all. What I was doing was obediently following along, in what today I recall as one totalizing momenta clamor of horns (I dont think Id ever heard a car horn at an American military installation before) and out-of-phase radios shrieking the news of the South Towers collapse while the drivers steered with their knees and feverishly pressed redial on their phones. I can still feel itthe present-tense emptiness every time my call was dropped by an overloaded cell network, and the gradual realization that, cut off from the world and stalled bumper to bumper, even though I was in the drivers seat, I was just a passenger. The stoplights on Canine Road gave way to humans, as the NSAs special police went to work directing traffic. In the ensuing hours, days, and weeks theyd be joined by convoys of Humvees topped with machine guns, guarding new roadblocks and checkpoints. Many of these new security measures became permanent, supplemented by endless rolls of wire and massive installations of surveillance cameras. With all this security, it became difficult for me to get back on base and drive past the NSAuntil the day I was employed there. These trappings of what would be called the War on Terror werent the only reason I gave up on Mae after 9/11, but they certainly played a part. The events of that day had left her shaken. In time, we stopped working together and grew distant. Id chat her up occasionally, only to find that my feelings had changed and Id changed, too. By the time Mae left Norm and moved to California, she felt like a stranger to me. She was too opposed to the war. 8 9/12 Try to remember the biggest family event youve ever been tomaybe a family reunion. How many people were there? Maybe 30, 50? Though all of them together comprise your family, you might not really have gotten the chance to know each and every individual member. Dunbars number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150. Now think back to school. How many people were in your class in grade school, and in high school? How many of them were friends, and how many others did you just know as acquaintances, and how many still others did you simply recognize? If you went to school in the United States, lets say its a thousand. It certainly stretches the boundaries of what you could say are all your people, but you may still have felt a bond with them. Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11. Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a familiar name or just a familiar faceand imagine theyre gone. Imagine the empty houses. Imagine the empty school, the empty classrooms. All those people you lived among, and who together formed the fabric of your days, just not there anymore. The events of 9/11 left holes. Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground. Now, consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of Americas response. The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatizing impactwhose very existencethe US government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted. After having spent roughly half that period as an employee of the American Intelligence Community and roughly the other half in exile, I know better than most how often the agencies get things wrong. I know, too, how the collection and analysis of intelligence can inform the production of disinformation and propaganda, for use as frequently against Americas allies as its enemiesand sometimes against its own citizens. Yet even given that knowledge, I still struggle to accept the sheer magnitude and speed of the change, from an America that sought to define itself by a calculated and performative respect for dissent to a security state whose militarized police demand obedience, drawing their guns and issuing the order for total submission now heard in every city: Stop resisting. This is why whenever I try to understand how the last two decades happened, I return to that Septemberto that ground-zero day and its immediate aftermath. To return to that fall means coming up against a truth darker than the lies that tied the Taliban to al-Qaeda and conjured up Saddam Husseins illusory stockpile of WMDs. It means, ultimately, confronting the fact that the carnage and abuses that marked my young adulthood were born not only in the executive branch and the intelligence agencies, but also in the hearts and minds of all Americans, myself included. I remember escaping the panicked crush of the spies fleeing Fort Meade just as the North Tower came down. Once on the highway, I tried to steer with one hand while pressing buttons with the other, calling family indiscriminately and never getting through. Finally I managed to get in touch with my mother, who at this point in her career had left the NSA and was working as a clerk for the federal courts in Baltimore. They, at least, werent evacuating. Her voice scared me, and suddenly the only thing in the world that mattered to me was reassuring her. Its okay. Im headed off base, I said. Nobodys in New York, right? I dontI dont know. I cant get in touch with Gran. Is Pop in Washington? He could be in the Pentagon for all I know. The breath went out of me. By 2001, Pop had retired from the Coast Guard and was now a senior official in the FBI, serving as one of the heads of its aviation section. This meant that he spent plenty of time in plenty of federal buildings throughout DC and its environs. Before I could summon any words of comfort, my mother spoke again. Theres someone on the other line. It might be Gran. Ive got to go. When she didnt call me back, I tried her number endlessly but couldnt get through, so I went home to wait, sitting in front of the blaring TV while I kept reloading news sites. The new cable modem we had was quickly proving more resilient than all of the telecom satellites and cell towers, which were failing across the country. My mothers drive back from Baltimore was a slog through crisis traffic. She arrived in tears, but we were among the lucky ones. Pop was safe. The next time we saw Gran and Pop, there was a lot of talkabout Christmas plans, about New Years plansbut the Pentagon and the towers were never mentioned. My father, by contrast, vividly recounted his 9/11 to me. He was at Coast Guard Headquarters when the towers were hit, and he and three of his fellow officers left their offices in the Operations Directorate to find a conference room with a screen so they could watch the news coverage. A young officer rushed past them down the hall and said, They just bombed the Pentagon. Met with expressions of disbelief, the young officer repeated, Im seriousthey just bombed the Pentagon. My father hustled over to a wall-length window that gave him a view across the Potomac of about two-fifths of the Pentagon and swirling clouds of thick black smoke. The more that my father related this memory, the more intrigued I became by the line: They just bombed the Pentagon. Every time he said it, I recall thinking, They? Who were They? America immediately divided the world into Us and Them, and everyone was either with Us or against Us, as President Bush so memorably remarked even while the rubble was still smoldering. People in my neighborhood put up new American flags, as if to show which side theyd chosen. People hoarded red, white, and blue Dixie cups and stuffed them through every chain-link fence on every overpass of every highway between my mothers home and my fathers, to spell out phrases like UNITED WE STAND and STAND TOGETHER NEVER FORGET. I sometimes used to go to a shooting range and now alongside the old targets, the bulls-eyes and flat silhouettes, were effigies of men in Arab headdress. Guns that had languished for years behind the dusty glass of the display cases were now marked SOLD. Americans also lined up to buy cell phones, hoping for advance warning of the next attack, or at least the ability to say good-bye from a hijacked flight. Nearly a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that theyd failed at their primary job, which was protecting America. Think of the guilt they were feeling. They had the same anger as everybody else, but they also felt the guilt. An assessment of their mistakes could wait. What mattered most at that moment was that they redeem themselves. Meanwhile, their bosses got busy campaigning for extraordinary budgets and extraordinary powers, leveraging the threat of terror to expand their capabilities and mandates beyond the imagination not just of the public but even of those who stamped the approvals. September 12 was the first day of a new era, which America faced with a unified resolve, strengthened by a revived sense of patriotism and the goodwill and sympathy of the world. In retrospect, my country could have done so much with this opportunity. It could have treated terror not as the theological phenomenon it purported to be, but as the crime it was. It could have used this rare moment of solidarity to reinforce democratic values and cultivate resilience in the now-connected global public. Instead, it went to war. The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision. I was outraged, yes, but that was only the beginning of a process in which my heart completely defeated my rational judgment. I accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts, and I repeated them as if I were being paid for it. I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed. I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my passion I confused with the good of the country. It was as if whatever individual politics Id developed had crashedthe anti-institutional hacker ethos instilled in me online, and the apolitical patriotism Id inherited from my parents, both wiped from my systemand Id been rebooted as a willing vehicle of vengeance. The sharpest part of the humiliation comes from acknowledging how easy this transformation was, and how readily I welcomed it. I wanted, I think, to be part of something. Prior to 9/11, Id been ambivalent about serving because it had seemed pointless, or just boring. Everyone I knew whod served had done so in the postCold War world order, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of 2001. In that span, which coincided with my youth, America lacked for enemies. The country I grew up in was the sole global superpower, and everything seemedat least to me, or to people like meprosperous and settled. There were no new frontiers to conquer or great civic problems to solve, except online. The attacks of 9/11 changed all that. Now, finally, there was a fight. My options dismayed me, however. I thought I could best serve my country behind a terminal, but a normal IT job seemed too comfortable and safe for this new world of asymmetrical conflict. I hoped I could do something like in the movies or on TVthose hacker-versus-hacker scenes with walls of virus-warning blinkenlights, tracking enemies and thwarting their schemes. Unfortunately for me, the primary agencies that did thatthe NSA, the CIAhad their hiring requirements written a half century ago and often rigidly required a traditional college degree, meaning that though the tech industry considered my AACC credits and MCSE certification acceptable, the government wouldnt. The more I read around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that theyd sometimes waive the degree requirement for military veterans. Its then that I decided to join up. You might be thinking that my decision made sense, or was inevitable, given my familys record of service. But it didnt and it wasnt. By enlisting, I was as much rebelling against that well-established legacy as I was conforming to itbecause after talking to recruiters from every branch, I decided to join the army, whose leadership some in my Coast Guard family had always considered the crazy uncles of the US military. When I told my mother, she cried for days. I knew better than to tell my father, whod already made it very clear during hypothetical discussions that Id be wasting my technical talents there. I was twenty years old; I knew what I was doing. The day I left, I wrote my father a letterhandwritten, not typedthat explained my decision, and slipped it under the front door of his apartment. It closed with a statement that still makes me wince. Im sorry, Dad, I wrote, but this is vital for my personal growth. 9 X-Rays I joined the army, as its slogan went, to be all I could be, and also because it wasnt the Coast Guard. It didnt hurt that Id scored high enough on its entrance exams to qualify for a chance to come out of training as a Special Forces sergeant, on a track the recruiters called 18 X-Ray, which was designed to augment the ranks of the small flexible units that were doing the hardest fighting in Americas increasingly shadowy and disparate wars. The 18 X-Ray program was a considerable incentive, because traditionally, before 9/11, I wouldve had to already be in the army before being given a shot at attending the Special Forces exceedingly demanding qualification courses. The new system worked by screening prospective soldiers up front, identifying those with the highest levels of fitness, intelligence, and language-learning abilitythe ones who might make the cutand using the inducements of special training and a rapid advance in rank to enlist promising candidates who might otherwise go elsewhere. Id put in a couple of months of grueling runs to prepareI was in great shape, but I always hated runningbefore my recruiter called to say that my paperwork was approved: I was in, Id made it. I was the first candidate hed ever signed up for the program, and I could hear the pride and cheer in his voice when he told me that after training, Id probably be made a Special Forces Communications, Engineering, or Intelligence sergeant. Probably. But first, I had to get through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. I sat next to the same guy the whole way down there, from bus to plane to bus, Maryland to Georgia. He was enormous, a puffy bodybuilder somewhere between two and three hundred pounds. He talked nonstop, his conversation alternating between describing how hed slap the drill sergeant in the face if he gave him any lip and recommending the steroid cycles I should take to most effectively bulk up. I dont think he took a breath until we arrived at Fort Bennings Sand Hill training areawhich in hindsight, I have to say, didnt actually seem to have that much sand. The drill sergeants greeted us with withering fury and gave us nicknames based on our initial infractions and grave mistakes, like getting off the bus wearing a brightly colored floral-patterned shirt, or having a name that could be modified slightly into something funnier. Soon I was Snowflake and my seatmate was Daisy and all he could do was clench his jawnobody dared to clench a fistand fume. Once the drill sergeants noticed that Daisy and I were already acquainted, and that I was the lightest in the platoon, at five foot nine and 124 pounds, and he the heaviest, they decided to entertain themselves by pairing us together as often as possible. I still remember the buddy carry, an exercise where you had to carry your supposedly wounded partner the length of a football field using a number of different methods like the neck drag, the fireman, and the especially comedic bridal carry. When I had to carry Daisy, you couldnt see me beneath his bulk. It would look like Daisy was floating, though Id be under him sweating and cursing, straining to get his gigantic ass to the other side of the goal line before collapsing myself. Daisy would then get up with a laugh, drape me around his neck like a damp towel, and go skipping along like a child in the woods. We were always dirty and always hurting, but within weeks I was in the best shape of my life. My slight build, which had seemed like a curse, soon became an advantage, because so much of what we did were body-weight exercises. Daisy couldnt climb a rope, which I scampered up like a chipmunk. He struggled to lift his incredible bulk above the bar for the bare minimum of pull-ups, while I could do twice the number with one arm. He could barely manage a handful of push-ups before breaking a sweat, whereas I could do them with claps, or with just a single thumb. When we did the two-minute push-up tests, they stopped me early for maxing the score. Everywhere we went, we marchedor ran. We ran constantly. Miles before mess, miles after mess, down roads and fields and around the track, while the drill sergeant called cadence: I went to the desert where the terrorists run pulled out my machete pulled out my gun. Left, right, left, rightkill kill kill! Mess with us and you know we will! I went to the caves where the terrorists hide pulled out a grenade and threw it inside. Left, right, left, rightkill kill kill! Mess with us and you know we will! RUNNING IN UNIT formation, calling cadenceit lulls you, it puts you outside yourself, filling your ears with the din of dozens of men echoing your own shouting voice and forcing your eyes to fix on the footfalls of the runner in front of you. After a while you dont think anymore, you merely count, and your mind dissolves into the rank and file as you pace out mile after mile. I would say it was serene if it wasnt so deadening. I would say I was at peace if I werent so tired. This was precisely as the army intended. The drill sergeant goes unslapped not so much because of fear but because of exhaustion: hes never worth the effort. The army makes its fighters by first training the fight out of them until theyre too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey. It was only at night in the barracks that we could get some respite, which we had to earn by toeing the line in front of our bunks, reciting the Soldiers Creed, and then singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Daisy would always forget the words. Also, he was tone-deaf. Some guys would stay up late talking about what they were going to do to bin Laden once they found him, and they were all sure they were going to find him. Most of their fantasies had to do with decapitation, castration, or horny camels. Meanwhile, Id have dreams about running, not through the lush and loamy Georgia landscape but through the desert. Sometime during the third or fourth week we were out on a land navigation movement, which is when your platoon goes into the woods and treks over variegated terrain to predetermined coordinates, clambering over boulders and wading across streams, with just a map and a compassno GPS, no digital technology. Wed done versions of this movement before, but never in full kit, with each of us lugging a rucksack stuffed with around fifty pounds of gear. Worse still, the raw boots the army had issued me were so wide that I floated in them. I felt my toes blister even as I set out, loping across the range. Toward the middle of the movement, I was on point and scrambled atop a storm-felled tree that arched over the path at about chest height so that I could shoot an azimuth to check our bearings. After confirming that we were on track, I went to hop down, but with one foot extended I noticed the coil of a snake directly below me. Im not exactly a naturalist, so I dont know what species of snake it was, but then again, I didnt really care. Kids in North Carolina grow up being told that all snakes are deadly and I wasnt about to start doubting it now. Instead, I started trying to walk on air. I widened the stride of my outstretched foot, once, twice, twisting for the extra distance, when suddenly I realized I was falling. When my feet hit the ground, some distance beyond the snake, a fire shot up my legs that was more painful than any viper bite I could imagine. A few stumbling steps, which I had to take in order to regain my balance, told me that something was wrong. Grievously wrong. I was in excruciating pain, but I couldnt stop, because I was in the army and the army was in the middle of the woods. I gathered my resolve, pushed the pain away, and just focused on maintaining a steady paceleft, right, left, rightrelying on the rhythm to distract me. It got harder to walk as I went on, and although I managed to tough it out and finish, the only reason was that I didnt have a choice. By the time I got back to the barracks, my legs were numb. My rack, or bunk, was up top, and I could barely get myself into it. I had to grab its post, hoist up my torso like I was getting out of a pool, and drag my lower half in after. The next morning I was torn from a fitful sleep by the clanking of a metal trash can being thrown down the squad bay, a wake-up call that meant someone hadnt done their job to the drill sergeants satisfaction. I shot up automatically, swinging myself over the edge and springing to the floor. When I landed, my legs gave way. They crumpled and I fell. It was like I had no legs at all. I tried to get up, grabbing for the lower bunk to try my hoist-by-the-arms maneuver again, but as soon as I moved my legs every muscle in my body seized and I sank down immediately. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered around me, with laughter that turned to concern and then to silence as the drill sergeant approached. Whats the matter with you, broke-dick? he said. Get up off my floor before I make you a part of it, permanently. When he saw the agony flash across my face as I immediately and unwisely struggled to respond to his commands, he put his hand to my chest to stop me. Daisy! Get Snowflake here down to the bench. Then he crouched down over me, as if he didnt want the others to hear him being gentle, and said in a quiet rasp, As soon as it opens, Private, youre going to crutch your broken ass to Sick Call, which is where the army sends its injured to be abused by professionals. Theres a major stigma about getting injured in the army, mostly because the army is dedicated to making its soldiers feel invincible but also because it likes to protect itself from accusations of mis-training. This is why almost all training-injury victims are treated like whiners or, worse, malingerers. After he carried me down to the bench, Daisy had to go. He wasnt hurt, and those of us who were had to be kept separated. We were the untouchables, the lepers, the soldiers who couldnt train because of anything from sprains, lacerations, and burns to broken ankles and deep necrotized spider bites. My new battle buddies would now come from this bench of shame. A battle buddy is the person who, by policy, goes everywhere you go, just as you go everywhere they go, if theres even the remotest chance that either of you might be alone. Being alone might lead to thinking, and thinking can cause the army problems. The battle buddy assigned to me was a smart, handsome, former catalog model Captain America type whod injured his hip about a week earlier but hadnt attended to it until the pain had become unbearable and left him just as gimpy as me. Neither of us felt up to talking, so we crutched along in grim silenceleft, right, left, right, but slowly. At the hospital I was X-rayed and told that I had bilateral tibial fractures. These are stress fractures, fissures on the surface of the bones that can deepen with time and pressure until they crack the bones down to the marrow. The only thing I could do to help my legs heal was to get off my feet and stay off them. It was with those orders that I was dismissed from the examination room to get a ride back to the battalion. Except I couldnt go yet, because I couldnt leave without my battle buddy. Hed gone in to be X-rayed after me and hadnt returned. I assumed he was still being examined, so I waited. And waited. Hours passed. I spent the time reading newspapers and magazines, an unthinkable luxury for someone in basic training. A nurse came over and said my drill sergeant was on the phone at the desk. By the time I hobbled over to take the call, he was livid. Snowflake, you enjoying your reading? Maybe you could get some pudding while youre at it, and some copies of Cosmo for the girls? Why in the hell havent you two dirtbags left yet? Drill Sarnthats how everybody said it in Georgia, where my Southern accent had resurfaced for the momentIm still waiting on my battle buddy, Drill Sarn. And where the fuck is he, Snowflake? Drill Sarn, I dont know. He went into the examination room and hasnt come out, Drill Sarn. He wasnt happy with the answer, and barked even louder. Get off your crippled ass and go fucking find him, goddamnit. I got up and crutched over to the intake counter to make inquiries. My battle buddy, they told me, was in surgery. It was only toward evening, after a barrage of calls from the drill sergeant, that I found out what had happened. My battle buddy had been walking around on a broken hip for the past week, apparently, and if he hadnt been taken into surgery immediately and had it screwed back together, he might have been incapacitated for life. Major nerves could have been severed, because the break was as sharp as a knife. I was sent back to Fort Benning alone, back to the bench. Anybody on the bench for more than three or four days was at serious risk of being recycledforced to start basic training over from scratchor, worse, of being transferred to the Medical Unit and sent home. These were guys whod dreamed of being in the army their entire lives, guys for whom the army had been their only way out of cruel families and dead-end careers, who now had to face the prospect of failure and a return to civilian life irreparably damaged. We were the cast-offs, the walking wounded hellguard who had no other duty than to sit on a bench in front of a brick wall twelve hours a day. We had been judged by our injuries as unfit for the army and now had to pay for this fact by being separated and shunned, as if the drill sergeants feared wed contaminate others with our weakness or with the ideas that had occurred to us while benched. We were punished beyond the pain of our injuries themselves, excluded from petty joys like watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Instead, we pulled fire guard that night for the empty barracks, a task that involved watching to make sure that the empty building didnt burn down. We pulled fire guard two to a shift, and I stood in the dark on my crutches, pretending to be useful, alongside my partner. He was a sweet, simple, beefy eighteen-year-old with a dubious, perhaps self-inflicted injury. By his own account, he should never have enlisted to begin with. The fireworks were bursting in the distance while he told me how much of a mistake hed made, and how agonizingly lonely he washow much he missed his parents and his home, their family farm somewhere way out in Appalachia. I sympathized, though there wasnt much I could do but send him to speak to the chaplain. I tried to offer advice, suck it up, it might be better once youre used to it. But then he put his bulk in front of me and, in an endearingly childlike way, told me point-blank that he was going AWOLa crime in the militaryand asked me whether I would tell anybody. It was only then that I noticed hed brought his laundry bag. He meant that he was going AWOL that very moment. I wasnt sure how to deal with the situation, beyond trying to talk some sense into him. I warned him that going AWOL was a bad idea, that hed end up with a warrant out for his arrest and any cop in the country could pick him up for the rest of his life. But the guy only shook his head. Where he lived, he said, deep in the mountains, they didnt even have cops. This, he said, was his last chance to be free. I understood, then, that his mind was made up. He was much more mobile than I was, and he was big. If he ran, I couldnt chase him; if I tried to stop him, he might snap me in half. All I could do was report him, but if I did, Id be penalized for having let the conversation get this far without calling for reinforcements and beating him with a crutch. I was angry. I realized I was yelling at him. Why didnt he wait until I was in the latrine to make a break for it? Why was he putting me in this position? He spoke softly. Youre the only one who listens, he said, and began to cry. The saddest part of that night is that I believed him. In the company of a quarter thousand, he was alone. We stood in silence as the fireworks popped and snapped in the distance. I sighed and said, Ive got to go to the latrine. Im going to be a while. Then I limped away and didnt look back. That was the last I ever saw of him. I think I realized, then and there, that I wasnt long for the army, either. My next doctors appointment was merely confirmation. The doctor was a tall, lanky Southerner with a wry demeanor. After examining me and a new set of X-rays, he said that I was in no condition to continue with my company. The next phase of training was airborne, and he told me, Son, if you jump on those legs, theyre going to turn into powder. I was despondent. If I didnt finish the basic training cycle on time, Id lose my slot in 18X, which meant that Id be reassigned according to the needs of the army. They could make me into whatever they wanted: regular infantry, a mechanic, a desk jockey, a potato peeler, orin my greatest nightmaredoing IT at the armys help desk. The doctor must have seen how dejected I was, because he cleared his throat and gave me a choice: I could get recycled and try my luck with reassignment, or he could write me a note putting me out on what was called administrative separation. This, he explained, was a special type of severance, not characterized as either honorable or dishonorable, only available to enlistees whod been in the services fewer than six months. It was a clean break, more like an annulment than a divorce, and could be taken care of rather quickly. Ill admit, the idea appealed to me. In the back of my mind, I even thought it might be some kind of karmic reward for the mercy Id shown to the Appalachian whod gone AWOL. The doctor left me to think, and when he came back in an hour I accepted his offer. Shortly thereafter I was transferred to the Medical Unit, where I was told that in order for the administrative separation to go through I had to sign a statement attesting that I was all better, that my bones were all healed. My signature was a requirement, but it was presented as a mere formality. Just a few scribbles and I could go. As I held the statement in one hand and the pen in the other, a knowing smile crossed my face. I recognized the hack: what Id thought was a kind and generous offer made by a caring army doctor to an ailing enlistee was the governments way of avoiding liability and a disability claim. Under the militarys rules, if Id received a medical discharge, the government would have had to pay the bills for any issues stemming from my injury, any treatments and therapies it required. An administrative discharge put the burden on me, and my freedom hinged on my willingness to accept that burden. I signed, and left that same day, on crutches that the army let me keep. 10 Cleared and in Love I cant remember exactly when, in the midst of my convalescence, I started thinking clearly again. First the pain had to ebb away, then gradually the depression ebbed, too, and after weeks of waking to no purpose beyond watching the clock change I slowly began paying attention to what everyone around me was telling me: I was still young and I still had a future. I only felt that way myself, however, once I was finally able to stand upright and walk on my own. It was one of the myriad things that, like the love of my family, Id simply taken for granted before. As I made my first forays into the yard outside my mothers condo, I came to realize that there was another thing Id taken for granted: my talent for understanding technology. Forgive me if I come off like a dick, but theres no other way to say this: Id always been so comfortable with computers that I almost didnt take my abilities seriously, and didnt want to be praised for them or to succeed because of them. Id wanted, instead, to be praised for and to succeed at something elsesomething that was harder for me. I wanted to show that I wasnt just a brain in a jar; I was also heart and muscle. That explained my stint in the army. And over the course of my convalescence, I came to realize that although the experience had wounded my pride, it had improved my confidence. I was stronger now, not afraid of the pain as much as grateful to be improved by it. Life beyond the barbed wire was getting easier. In the final reckoning, all the army had cost me was my hair, which had grown back, and a limp, which was healing. I was ready to face the facts: if I still had the urge to serve my country, and I most certainly did, then Id have to serve it through my head and handsthrough computing. That, and only that, would be giving my country my best. Though I wasnt much of a veteran, having passed through the militarys vetting could only help my chances of working at an intelligence agency, which was where my talents would be most in demand and, perhaps, most challenged. Thus I became reconciled to what in retrospect was inevitable: the need for a security clearance. There are, generally speaking, three levels of security clearance: from low to high, confidential, secret, and top secret. The last of these can be further extended with a Sensitive Compartmented Information qualifier, creating the coveted TS/SCI access required by positions with the top-tier agenciesCIA and NSA. The TS/SCI was by far the hardest access to get, but also opened the most doors, and so I went back to Anne Arundel Community College while I searched for jobs that would sponsor my application for the grueling Single Scope Background Investigation the clearance required. As the approval process for a TS/SCI can take a year or more, I heartily recommend it to anyone recovering from an injury. All it involves is filling out some paperwork, then sitting around with your feet up and trying not to commit too many crimes while the federal government renders its verdict. The rest, after all, is out of your hands. On paper, I was a perfect candidate. I was a kid from a service family, nearly every adult member of which had some level of clearance; Id tried to enlist and fight for my country until an unfortunate accident had laid me low. I had no criminal record, no drug habit. My only financial debt was the student loan for my Microsoft certification, and I hadnt yet missed a payment. None of this stopped me, of course, from being nervous. I drove to and from classes at AACC as the National Background Investigations Bureau rummaged through nearly every aspect of my life and interviewed almost everyone I knew: my parents, my extended family, my classmates and friends. They went through my spotty school transcripts and, Im sure, spoke to a few of my teachers. I got the impression that they even spoke to Mae and Norm, and to a guy Id worked with one summer at a snow cone stand at Six Flags America. The goal of all this background checking was not only to find out what Id done wrong, but also to find out how I might be compromised or blackmailed. The most important thing to the IC is not that youre 100 percent perfectly clean, because if that were the case they wouldnt hire anybody. Instead, its that youre robotically honestthat theres no dirty secret out there that youre hiding that could be used against you, and thus against the agency, by an enemy power. This, of course, set me thinkingsitting stuck in traffic as all the moments of my life that I regretted went spinning around in a loop inside my head. Nothing I could come up with would have raised even an iota of eyebrow from investigators who are used to finding out that the middle-aged analyst at a think tank likes to wear diapers and get spanked by grandmothers in leather. Still, there was a paranoia that the process created, because you dont have to be a closet fetishist to have done things that embarrass you and to fear that strangers might misunderstand you if those things were exposed. I mean, I grew up on the Internet, for Christs sake. If you havent entered something shameful or gross into that search box, then you havent been online very longthough I wasnt worried about the pornography. Everybody looks at porn, and for those of you who are shaking your heads, dont worry: your secret is safe with me. My worries were more personal, or felt more personal: the endless conveyor belt of stupid jingoistic things Id said, and the even stupider misanthropic opinions Id abandoned, in the process of growing up online. Specifically, I was worried about my chat logs and forum posts, all the supremely moronic commentary that Id sprayed across a score of gaming and hacker sites. Writing pseudonymously had meant writing freely, but often thoughtlessly. And since a major aspect of early Internet culture was competing with others to say the most inflammatory thing, Id never hesitate to advocate, say, bombing a country that taxed video games, or corralling people who didnt like anime into reeducation camps. Nobody on those sites took any of it seriously, least of all myself. When I went back and reread the posts, I cringed. Half the things Id said I hadnt even meant at the timeId just wanted attentionbut I didnt fancy my odds of explaining that to a gray-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses peering over a giant folder labeled PERMANENT RECORD. The other half, the things I think I had meant at the time, were even worse, because I wasnt that kid anymore. Id grown up. It wasnt simply that I didnt recognize the voice as my ownit was that I now actively opposed its overheated, hormonal opinions. I found that I wanted to argue with a ghost. I wanted to fight with that dumb, puerile, and casually cruel self of mine who no longer existed. I couldnt stand the idea of being haunted by him forever, but I didnt know the best way to express my remorse and put some distance between him and me, or whether I should even try to do that. It was heinous to be so inextricably, technologically bound to a past that I fully regretted but barely remembered. This might be the most familiar problem of my generation, the first to grow up online. We were able to discover and explore our identities almost totally unsupervised, with hardly a thought spared for the fact that our rash remarks and profane banter were being preserved for perpetuity, and that one day we might be expected to account for them. Im sure everyone who had an Internet connection before they had a job can sympathize with thissurely everyone has that one post that embarrasses them, or that text or email that could get them fired. My situation was somewhat different, however, in that most of the message boards of my day would let you delete your old posts. I could put together one tiny little scriptnot even a real programand all of my posts would be gone in under an hour. It wouldve been the easiest thing in the world to do. Trust me, I considered it. But ultimately, I couldnt. Something kept preventing me. It just felt wrong. To blank my posts from the face of the earth wasnt illegal, and it wouldnt even have made me ineligible for a security clearance had anyone found out. But the prospect of doing so bothered me nonetheless. It wouldve only served to reinforce some of the most corrosive precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must answer for it forever. What mattered to me wasnt so much the integrity of the written record but that of my soul. I didnt want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend that they were perfect, because that was a world that had no place for me or my friends. To erase those comments would have been to erase who I was, where I was from, and how far Id come. To deny my younger self would have been to deny my present selfs validity. I decided to leave the comments up and figure out how to live with them. I even decided that true fidelity to this stance would require me to continue posting. In time, Id outgrow these new opinions, too, but my initial impulse remains unshakable, if only because it was an important step in my own maturity. We cant erase the things that shame us, or the ways weve shamed ourselves, online. All we can do is control our reactionswhether we let the past oppress us, or accept its lessons, grow, and move on. This was the first thing that you might call a principle that occurred to me during this idle but formative time, and though it would prove difficult, Ive tried to live by it. Believe it or not, the only online traces of my existence whose past iterations have never given me worse than a mild sense of embarrassment were my dating profiles. I suspect this is because Id had to write them with the expectation that their words truly matteredsince the entire purpose of the enterprise was for somebody in Real Life to actually care about them, and, by extension, about me. Id joined a website called HotOrNot.com, which was the most popular of the rating sites of the early 2000s, like RateMyFace and AmIHot. (Their most effective features were combined by a young Mark Zuckerberg into a site called FaceMash, which later became Facebook.) HotOrNot was the most popular of these pre-Facebook rating sites for a simple reason: it was the best of the few that had a dating component. Basically, how it worked was that users voted on each others photos: Hot or Not. An extra function for registered users such as myself was the ability to contact other registered users, if each had rated the others photos Hot and clicked Meet Me. This banal and crass process is how I met Lindsay Mills, my partner and the love of my life. Looking at the photos now, Im amused to find that nineteen-year-old Lindsay was gawky, awkward, and endearingly shy. To me at the time, though, she was a smoldering blonde, absolutely volcanic. Whats more, the photos themselves were beautiful: they had a serious artistic quality, self-portraits more than selfies. They caught the eye and held it. They played coyly with light and shade. They even had a hint of meta fun: there was one taken inside the photo lab where she worked, and another where she wasnt even facing the camera. I rated her Hot, a perfect ten. To my surprise, we matched (she rated me an eight, the angel), and in no time we were chatting. Lindsay was studying fine art photography. She had her own website, where she kept a journal and posted more shots: forests, flowers, abandoned factories, andmy favoritemore of her. I scoured the Web and used each new fact I found about her to create a fuller picture: the town she was born in (Laurel, Maryland), her schools name (MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art). Eventually, I admitted to cyberstalking her. I felt like a creep, but Lindsay cut me off. Ive been searching about you, too, mister, she said, and rattled off a list of facts about me. These were among the sweetest words Id ever heard, yet I was reluctant to see her in person. We scheduled a date, and as the days ticked down my nervousness grew. Its a scary proposition, to take an online relationship off-line. It would be scary even in a world without ax murderers and scammers. In my experience, the more youve communicated with someone online, the more disappointed youll be by meeting them in person. Things that are the easiest to say on-screen become the most difficult to say face-to-face. Distance favors intimacy: no one talks more openly than when theyre alone in a room, chatting with an unseen someone alone in a different room. Meet that person, however, and you lose your latitude. Your talk becomes safer and tamer, a common conversation on neutral ground. Online, Lindsay and I had become total confidants, and I was afraid of losing our connection in person. In other words, I was afraid of being rejected. I shouldnt have been. Lindsaywhod insisted on drivingtold me that shed pick me up at my mothers condo. The appointed hour found me standing outside in the twilight cold, guiding her by phone through the similarly named, identical-looking streets of my mothers development. I was keeping an eye out for a gold 98 Chevy Cavalier, when suddenly I was blinded, struck in the face by a beam of light from the curb. Lindsay was flashing her brights at me across the snow. Buckle up. Those were the first words that Lindsay said to me in person, as I got into her car. Then she said, Whats the plan? Its then that I realized that despite all the thinking I had been doing about her, Id done no thinking whatsoever about our destination. If Id been in this situation with any other woman, Id have improvised, covering for myself. But with Lindsay it was different. With Lindsay, it didnt matter. She drove us down her favorite roadshe had a favorite roadand we talked until we ran out of miles on Guilford and ended up in the parking lot of the Laurel Mall. We just sat in her car and talked. It was perfection. Talking face-to-face turned out to be just an extension of all our phone calls, emails, and chats. Our first date was a continuation of our first contact online and the start of a conversation that will last as long as we will. We talked about our families, or what was left of them. Lindsays parents were also divorced: her mother and father lived twenty minutes apart, and as a kid Lindsay had been shuttled back and forth between them. Shed lived out of a bag. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she slept in her room at her mothers house. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays she slept in her room at her fathers house. Sundays were the dramatic day, because she had to choose. She told me how bad my taste was, and criticized my date apparel: a button-down shirt decorated with metallic flames over a wifebeater and jeans (Im sorry). She told me about the two other guys she was dating, whom shed already mentioned online, and Machiavelli wouldve blushed at the ways in which I set about undermining them (Im not sorry). I told her everything, too, including the fact that I wouldnt be able to talk to her about my workthe work I hadnt even started. This was ludicrously pretentious, which she made obvious to me by nodding gravely. I told her I was worried about the upcoming polygraph required for my clearance and she offered to practice with mea goofy kind of foreplay. The philosophy she lived by was the perfect training: say what you want, say who you are, never be ashamed. If they reject you, its their problem. Id never been so comfortable around someone, and Id never been so willing to be called out for my faults. I even let her take my photo. I had her voice in my head on my drive to the NSAs oddly named Friendship Annex complex for the final interview for my security clearance. I found myself in a windowless room, bound like a hostage to a cheap office chair. Around my chest and stomach were pneumographic tubes that measured my breathing. Finger cuffs on my fingertips measured my electrodermal activity, a blood pressure cuff around my arm measured my heart rate, and a sensor pad on the chair detected my every fidget and shift. All of these deviceswrapped, clamped, cuffed, and belted tightly around mewere connected to the large black polygraph machine placed on the table in front of me. Behind the table, in a nicer chair, sat the polygrapher. She reminded me of a teacher I once hadand I spent much of the test trying to remember the teachers name, or trying not to. She, the polygrapher, began asking questions. The first ones were no-brainers: Was my name Edward Snowden? Was 6/21/83 my date of birth? Then: Had I ever committed a serious crime? Had I ever had a problem with gambling? Had I ever had a problem with alcohol or taken illegal drugs? Had I ever been an agent of a foreign power? Had I ever advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government? The only admissible answers were binary: Yes and No. I answered No a lot, and kept waiting for the questions Id been dreading. Have you ever impugned the competence and character of the medical staff at Fort Benning online? What were you searching for on the network of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory? But those questions never came and, before I knew it, the test was over. Id passed with flying colors. As required, I had to answer the series of questions three times in total, and all three times I passed, which meant that not only had I qualified for the TS/SCI, Id also cleared the full scope polygraphthe highest clearance in the land. I had a girlfriend I loved and I was on top of the world. I was twenty-two years old. PART TWO 11 The System Im going to press Pause here, for a moment, to explain something about my politics at age twenty-two: I didnt have any. Instead, like most young people, I had solid convictions that I refused to accept werent truly mine but rather a contradictory cluster of inherited principles. My mind was a mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online. It took me until my late twenties to finally understand that so much of what I believed, or of what I thought I believed, was just youthful imprinting. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults around us, and in the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions, until weve deluded ourselves into thinking that the words were using are our own. My parents were, if not dismissive of politics in general, then certainly dismissive of politicians. To be sure, this dismissal had little in common with the disaffection of nonvoters or partisan disdain. Rather, it was a certain bemused detachment particular to their class, which nobler ages have called the federal civil service or the public sector, but which our own time tends to refer to as the deep state or the shadow government. None of those epithets, however, really captures what it is: a class of career officials (incidentally, perhaps one of the last functional middle classes in American life) whononelected and non-appointedserve or work in government, either at one of the independent agencies (from the CIA and NSA to the IRS, the FCC, and so on) or at one of the executive departments (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the like). These were my parents, these were my people: a nearly three-million-strong professional government workforce dedicated to assisting the amateurs chosen by the electorate, and appointed by the elected, in fulfilling their political dutiesor, in the words of the oath, in faithfully executing their offices. These civil servants, who stay in their positions even as administrations come and go, work as diligently under Republicans as under Democrats because they ultimately work for the government itself, providing core continuity and stability of rule. These were also the people who, when their country went to war, answered the call. Thats what I had done after 9/11, and I found that the patriotism my parents had taught me was easily converted into nationalist fervor. For a time, especially in my run-up to joining the army, my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the least sophisticated video games, where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable. However, once I returned from the Army and rededicated myself to computing, I gradually came to regret my martial fantasies. The more I developed my abilities, the more I matured and realized that the technology of communications had a chance of succeeding where the technology of violence had failed. Democracy could never be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber. In the early 2000s the Internet was still just barely out of its formative period, and, to my mind at least, it offered a more authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals than even America itself. A place where everyone was equal? Check. A place dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Check, check, check. It helped that nearly all the major founding documents of Internet culture framed it in terms reminiscent of American history: here was this wild, open new frontier that belonged to anyone bold enough to settle it, swiftly becoming colonized by governments and corporate interests that were seeking to regulate it for power and profit. The large companies that were charging large feesfor hardware, for software, for the long-distance phone calls that you needed back then to get online, and for knowledge itself, which was humanitys common inheritance and so, by all rights, should have been freely availablewere irresistible contemporary avatars of the British, whose harsh taxation ignited the fervor for independence. This revolution wasnt happening in history textbooks, but now, in my generation, and any of us could be part of it solely by dint of our abilities. This was thrillingto participate in the founding of a new society, one based not on where we were born or how we grew up or our popularity at school but on our knowledge and technological ability. In school, Id had to memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: now its words were lodged in my memory alongside John Perry Barlows A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which employed the same self-evident, self-elect plural pronoun: We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. This technological meritocracy was certainly empowering, but it could also be humbling, as I came to understand when I first went to work in the Intelligence Community. The decentralization of the Internet merely emphasized the decentralization of computing expertise. I might have been the top computer person in my family, or in my neighborhood, but to work for the IC meant testing my skills against everyone in the country and the world. The Internet showed me the sheer quantity and variety of talent that existed, and made clear that in order to flourish I had to specialize. There were a few different careers available to me as a technologist. I could have become a software developer, or, as the job is more commonly called, a programmer, writing the code that makes computers work. Alternatively, I could have become a hardware or network specialist, setting up the servers in their racks and running the wires, weaving the massive fabric that connects every computer, every device, and every file. Computers and computer programs were interesting to me, and so were the networks that linked them together. But I was most intrigued by their total functioning at a deeper level of abstraction, not as individual components but as an overarching system. I thought about this a lot while I was driving, to and from Lindsays house and to and from AACC. Car time has always been thinking time for me, and commutes are long on the crowded Beltway. To be a software developer was to run the rest stops off the exits and to make sure that all the fast-food and gas station franchises accorded with each other and with user expectations; to be a hardware specialist was to lay the infrastructure, to grade and pave the roads themselves; while to be a network specialist was to be responsible for traffic control, manipulating signs and lights to safely route the time-crunched hordes to their proper destinations. To get into systems, however, was to be an urban planner, to take all of the components available and ensure their interaction to maximum effect. It was, pure and simple, like getting paid to play God, or at least a tinpot dictator. There are two main ways to be a systems guy. One is that you take possession of the whole of an existing system and maintain it, gradually making it more efficient and fixing it when it breaks. That position is called a systems administrator, or sysadmin. The second is that you analyze a problem, such as how to store data or how to search across databases, and solve it by engineering a solution from a combination of existing components or by inventing entirely new ones. This position is called a systems engineer. I eventually would do both of these jobs, working my way into administration and from there into engineering, oblivious throughout about how this intense engagement with the deepest levels of integration of computing technology was exerting an influence on my political convictions. Ill try not to be too abstract here, but I want you to imagine a system. It doesnt matter what system: it can be a computer system, an ecosystem, a legal system, or even a system of government. Remember, a system is just a bunch of parts that function together as a whole, which most people are only reminded of when something breaks. Its one of the great chastening facts of working with systems that the part of a system that malfunctions is almost never the part in which you notice the malfunction. In order to find what caused the system to collapse, you have to start from the point where you spotted the problem, and trace the problems effects logically through all of the systems components. Because a sysadmin or engineer is responsible for such repairs, they have to be equally fluent in software, hardware, and networking. If the malfunction turns out to be a software issue, the repair might involve scrolling through line after line of code in a UN General Assemblys worth of programming languages. If its a hardware issue, it might require going over a circuit board with a flashlight in the mouth and a soldering gun in hand, checking each connection. If networking is implicated, it might mean tracing every twist and turn of the cables that run above the ceiling and under the floor, connecting the distant data centers full of servers with an office full of laptops. Because systems work according to instructions, or rules, such an analysis is ultimately a search for which rules failed, how, and whyan attempt to identify the specific points where the intention of a rule was not adequately expressed by its formulation or application. Did the system fail because something was not communicated, or because someone abused the system by accessing a resource they werent allowed to, or by accessing a resource they were allowed to but using it exploitatively? Was the job of one component stopped, or impeded, by another? Did one program, or computer, or group of people take over more than their fair share of the system? Over the course of my career, it became increasingly difficult for me to ask these questions about the technologies I was responsible for and not about my country. And it became increasingly frustrating to me that I was able to repair the former but not the latter. I ended my time in Intelligence convinced that my countrys operating systemits governmenthad decided that it functioned best when broken. 12 Homo contractus I had hoped to serve my country, but instead I went to work for it. This is not a trivial distinction. The sort of honorable stability offered to my father and Pop wasnt quite as available to me, or to anyone of my generation. Both my father and Pop entered the service of their country on the first day of their working lives and retired from that service on the last. That was the American government that was familiar to me, from earliest childhoodwhen it had helped to feed, clothe, and house meto the moment when it had cleared me to go into the Intelligence Community. That government had treated a citizens service like a compact: it would provide for you and your family, in return for your integrity and the prime years of your life. But I came into the IC during a different age. By the time I arrived, the sincerity of public service had given way to the greed of the private sector, and the sacred compact of the soldier, officer, and career civil servant was being replaced by the unholy bargain of Homo contractus, the primary species of US Government 2.0. This creature was not a sworn servant but a transient worker, whose patriotism was incentivized by a better paycheck and for whom the federal government was less the ultimate authority than the ultimate client. During the American Revolution, it had made sense for the Continental Congress to hire privateers and mercenaries to protect the independence of what was then barely a functioning republic. But for third-millennium hyperpower America to rely on privatized forces for the national defense struck me as strange and vaguely sinister. Indeed, today contracting is most often associated with its major failures, such as the fighting-for-hire work of Blackwater (which changed its name to Xe Services after its employees were convicted of killing fourteen Iraqi civilians, and then changed its name again to Academi after it was acquired by a group of private investors), or the torture-for-hire work of CACI and Titan (both of which supplied personnel who terrorized prisoners at Abu Ghraib). These sensationalist cases can lead the public to believe that the government employs contractors in order to maintain cover and deniability, off-loading the illegal or quasi-legal dirty work to keep its hands clean and conscience clear. But thats not entirely true, or at least not entirely true in the IC, which tends to focus less on deniability and more on never getting caught in the first place. Instead, the primary purpose served by IC contracting is much more mundane: its a workaround, a loophole, a hack that lets agencies circumvent federal caps on hiring. Every agency has a head count, a legislative limit that dictates the number of people it can hire to do a certain type of work. But contractors, because theyre not directly employed by the federal government, arent included in that number. The agencies can hire as many of them as they can pay for, and they can pay for as many of them as they wantall they have to do is testify to a few select congressional subcommittees that the terrorists are coming for our children, or the Russians are in our emails, or the Chinese are in our power grid. Congress never says no to this type of begging, which is actually a kind of threat, and reliably capitulates to the ICs demands. Among the documents that I provided to journalists was the 2013 Black Budget. This is a classified budget in which over 68 percent of its money, $52.6 billion, was dedicated to the IC, including funding for 107,035 IC employeesmore than a fifth of whom, some 21,800 people, were full-time contractors. And that number doesnt even include the tens of thousands more employed by companies that have signed contracts (or subcontracts, or sub-subcontracts) with the agencies for a specific service or project. Those contractors are never counted by the government, not even in the Black Budget, because to add their ranks to the contracting total would make one disturbing fact extraordinarily clear: the work of American Intelligence is done as frequently by private employees as it is by government servants. To be sure, there are many, even in government, who maintain that this trickle-down scheme is advantageous. With contractors, they say, the government can encourage competitive bidding to keep costs down, and isnt on the hook to pay pensions and benefits. But the real advantage for government officials is the conflict of interest inherent in the budgeting process itself. IC directors ask Congress for money to rent contract workers from private companies, congresspeople approve that money, and then those IC directors and congresspeople are rewarded, after they retire from office, by being given high-paying positions and consultancies with the very companies theyve just enriched. From the vantage of the corporate boardroom, contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption. Its Americas most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse. But however much the work of Intelligence is privatized, the federal government remains the only authority that can grant an individual clearance to access classified information. And because clearance candidates must be sponsored in order to apply for clearancemeaning they must already have a job offer for a position that requires clearancemost contractors begin their careers in a government position. After all, its rarely worth the expense for a private company to sponsor your clearance application and then pay you to wait around for a year for the governments approval. It makes more financial sense for a company to just hire an already-cleared government employee. The situation created by this economy is one in which government bears all the burdens of background checks but reaps few of the benefits. It must do all of the work and assume all of the expense of clearing a candidate, who, the moment they have their clearance, more often than not bolts for the door, exchanging the blue badge of the government employee for the green badge of the contractor. The joke was that the green symbolized money. The government job that had sponsored me for my TS/SCI clearance wasnt the one I wanted, but the one I could find: I was officially an employee of the state of Maryland, working for the University of Maryland at College Park. The university was helping the NSA open a new institution called CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language. CASLs ostensible mission was to study how people learned languages and to develop computer-assisted methods to help them do so more quickly and better. The hidden corollary of this mission was that the NSA also wanted to develop ways to improve computer comprehension of language. If the other agencies were having difficulties finding competent Arabic (and Farsi and Dari and Pashto and Kurdish) speakers who passed their often ridiculous security checks to translate and interpret on the groundI know too many Americans rejected merely because they had an inconvenient distant cousin theyd never even metthe NSA was having its own tough time ensuring that its computers could comprehend and analyze the massive amount of foreign-language communications that they were intercepting. I dont have a more granular idea of the kinds of things that CASL was supposed to do, for the simple reason that when I showed up for work with my bright, shiny clearance, the place wasnt even open yet. In fact, its building was still under construction. Until it was finished and the tech was installed, my job was essentially that of a night-shift security guard. My responsibilities were limited to showing up every day to patrol the empty halls after the construction workersthose other contractorswere finished, making sure that nobody burned down the building or broke in and bugged it. I spent hour after hour making rounds through the half-completed shell, inspecting the days progress: trying out the chairs that had just been installed in the state-of-the-art auditorium, casting stones back and forth across the suddenly graveled roof, admiring the new drywall, and literally watching the paint dry. This is the life of after-hours security at a top secret facility, and truthfully I didnt mind it. I was getting paid to do basically nothing but wander in the dark with my thoughts, and I had all the time in the world to use the one functioning computer that I had access to on the premises to search for a new position. During the daytime, I caught up on my sleep and went out on photography expeditions with Lindsay, whothanks to my wooing and scheminghad finally dumped her other boyfriends. At the time I was still naive enough to think that my position with CASL would be a bridge to a full-time federal career. But the more I looked around, the more I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a subcontractor for a private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit. The realization was dizzying. It was particularly bizarre to me that most of the systems engineering and systems administration jobs that were out there were private, because these positions came with almost universal access to the employers digital existence. Its unimaginable that a major bank or even a social media outfit would hire outsiders for systems-level work. In the context of the US government, however, restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems were being run by somebody who didnt really work for you was what passed for innovation. THE AGENCIES WERE hiring tech companies to hire kids, and then they were giving them the keys to the kingdom, becauseas Congress and the press were toldthe agencies didnt have a choice. No one else knew how the keys, or the kingdom, worked. I tried to rationalize all this into a pretext for optimism. I swallowed my incredulity, put together a r?sum?, and went to the job fairs, which, at least in the early aughts, were the primary venues where contractors found new work and government employees were poached. These fairs went by the dubious name of Clearance JobsI think I was the only one who found that double meaning funny. At the time, these events were held every month at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just down the road from the CIAs headquarters, or at one of the grubbier Marriott-type hotels near the NSAs headquarters at Fort Meade. They were pretty much like any other job fair, Im told, with one crucial exception: here, it always felt like there were more recruiters than there were recruits. That should give you an indication of the industrys appetite. The recruiters paid a lot of money to be at these fairs, because these were the only places in the country where everyone who walked through the door wearing their stickum name tag badge had supposedly already been prescreened online and cross-checked with the agenciesand so was presumed to already have a clearance, and probably also the requisite skills. Once you left the well-appointed hotel lobby for the all-business ballroom, you entered Planet Contractor. Everybody would be there: this wasnt the University of Maryland anymorethis was Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, DynCorp, Titan, CACI, SAIC, COMSO, as well as a hundred other different acronyms Id never heard of. Some contractors had tables, but the larger ones had booths that were fully furnished and equipped with refreshments. After you handed a prospective employer a copy of your r?sum? and small-talked a bit, in a sort of informal interview, theyd break out their binders, which contained lists of all the government billets they were trying to fill. But because this work touched on the clandestine, the billets were accompanied not by standardized job titles and traditional job descriptions but with intentionally obscure, coded verbiage that was often particular to each contractor. One companys Senior Developer 3 might or might not be equivalent to another companys Principal Analyst 2, for example. Frequently the only way to differentiate among these positions was to note that each specified its own requirements of years of experience, level of certifications, and type of security clearance. After the 2013 revelations, the US government would try to disparage me by referring to me as only a contractor or a former Dell employee, with the implication that I didnt enjoy the same kinds of clearance and access as a blue-badged agency staffer. Once that discrediting characterization was established, the government proceeded to accuse me of job-hopping, hinting that I was some sort of disgruntled worker who didnt get along with superiors or an exceptionally ambitious employee dead-set on getting ahead at all costs. The truth is that these were both lies of convenience. The IC knows better than anyone that changing jobs is part of the career track of every contractor: its a mobility situation that the agencies themselves created, and profit from. In national security contracting, especially in tech contracting, you often find yourself physically working at an agency facility, but nominallyon paperworking for Dell, or Lockheed Martin, or one of the umpteen smaller firms that frequently get bought by a Dell or a Lockheed Martin. In such an acquisition, of course, the smaller firms contracts get bought, too, and suddenly theres a different employer and job title on your business card. Your day-to-day work, though, remains the same: youre still sitting at the agency facility, doing your tasks. Nothing has changed at all. Meanwhile, the dozen coworkers sitting to your left and rightthe same coworkers you work with on the same projects dailymight technically be employed by a dozen different companies, and those companies might still be a few degrees removed from the corporate entities that hold the primary contracts with the agency. I wish I remembered the exact chronology of my contracting, but I dont have a copy of my r?sum? anymorethat file, Edward_Snowden_Resume.doc, is locked up in the Documents folder of one of my old home computers, since seized by the FBI. I do recall, however, that my first major contracting gig was actually a subcontracting gig: the CIA had hired BAE Systems, which had hired COMSO, which hired me. BAE Systems is a midsize American subdivision of British Aerospace, set up expressly to win contracts from the American IC. COMSO was basically its recruiter, a few folks who spent all their time driving around the Beltway trying to find the actual contractors (the asses) and sign them up (put the asses in chairs). Of all the companies I talked to at the job fairs, COMSO was the hungriest, perhaps because it was among the smallest. I never learned what the companys acronym stood for, or even if it stood for anything. Technically speaking, COMSO would be my employer, but I never worked a single day at a COMSO office, or at a BAE Systems office, and few contractors ever would. Id only work at CIA headquarters. In fact, I only ever visited the COMSO office, which was in Greenbelt, Maryland, maybe two or three times in my life. One of these was when I went down there to negotiate my salary and sign some paperwork. At CASL Id been making around $30K/year, but that job didnt have anything to do with technology, so I felt comfortable asking COMSO for $50K. When I named that figure to the guy behind the desk, he said, What about $60K? At the time I was so inexperienced, I didnt understand why he was trying to overpay me. I knew, I guess, that this wasnt ultimately COMSOs money, but I only later understood that some of the contracts that COMSO and BAE and others handled were of the type thats called cost-plus. This meant that the middlemen contractors billed the agencies for whatever an employee got paid, plus a fee of 3 to 5 percent of that every year. Bumping up salaries was in everyones interesteveryones, that is, except the taxpayers. The COMSO guy eventually talked me, or himself, up to $62K, as a result of my once again agreeing to work the night shift. He held out his hand and, as I shook it, he introduced himself to me as my manager. He went on to explain that the title was just a formality, and that Id be taking my orders directly from the CIA. If all goes well, he said, well never meet again. In the spy movies and TV shows, when someone tells you something like that, it usually means that youre about to go on a dangerous mission and might die. But in real spy life it just means, Congratulations on the job. By the time I was out the door, Im sure hed already forgotten my face. I left that meeting in a buoyant mood, but on the drive back, reality set in: this, I realized, was going to be my daily commute. If I was going to still live in Ellicott City, Maryland, in proximity to Lindsay, but work at the CIA in Virginia, my commute could be up to an hour and a half each way in Beltway gridlock, and that would be the end of me. I knew it wouldnt take long before Id start to lose my mind. There werent enough books on tape in the universe. I couldnt ask Lindsay to move down to Virginia with me because she was still just in her sophomore year at MICA, and had class three days a week. We discussed this, and for cover referred to my job down there as COMSOas in, Why does COMSO have to be so far away? Finally, we decided that Id find a small place down there, near COMSOjust a small place to crash at during the days while I worked at night, at COMSOand then Id come up to Maryland again every weekend, or shed come down to me. I set off to find that place, something smack in the middle of that Venn diagram overlap of cheap enough that I could afford it and nice enough that Lindsay could survive it. It turned out to be a difficult search: Given the number of people who work at the CIA, and the CIAs location in Virginiawhere the housing density is, lets say, semiruralthe prices were through the roof. The 22100s are some of the most expensive zip codes in America. Eventually, browsing on Craigslist, I found a room that was surprisingly within my budget, in a house surprisingly nearless than fifteen minutes fromCIA headquarters. I went to check it out, expecting a cruddy bachelor pad pigsty. Instead, I pulled up in front of a large glass-fronted McMansion, immaculately maintained with a topiary lawn that was seasonally decorated. Im being completely serious when I say that as I approached the place, the smell of pumpkin spice got stronger. A guy named Gary answered the door. He was older, which I expected from the Dear Edward tone of his email, but I hadnt expected him to be so well dressed. He was very tall, with buzz-cut gray hair, and was wearing a suit, and over the suit, an apron. He asked me very politely if I didnt mind waiting a moment. He was just then busy in the kitchen, where he was preparing a tray of apples, sticking cloves in them and dousing them with nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Once those apples were baking in the oven, Gary showed me the room, which was in the basement, and told me I could move in immediately. I accepted the offer and put down my security deposit and one months rent. Then he told me the house rules, which helpfully rhymed: No mess. No pets. No overnight guests. I confess that I almost immediately violated the first rule, and that I never had any interest in violating the second. As for the third, Gary made an exception for Lindsay. 13 Indoc You know that one establishing shot thats in pretty much every spy movie and TV show thats subtitled CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia? And then the camera moves through the marble lobby with the wall of stars and the floor with the agencys seal? Well, Langley is the sites historical name, which the agency prefers Hollywood to use; CIA HQ is officially in McLean, Virginia; and nobody really comes through that lobby except VIPs or outsiders on a tour. That building is the OHB, the Old Headquarters Building. The building where almost everybody who works at the CIA enters is far less ready for its close-up: the NHB, the New Headquarters Building. My first day was one of the very few I spent there in daylight. That said, I spent most of the day undergroundin a grimy, cinder-block-walled room with all the charm of a nuclear fallout shelter and the acrid smell of government bleach. So this is the Deep State, one guy said, and almost everybody laughed. I think hed been expecting a circle of Ivy League WASPs chanting in hoods, whereas Id been expecting a group of normie civil service types who resembled younger versions of my parents. Instead, we were all computer dudesand yes, almost uniformly dudeswho were clearly wearing business casual for the first time in our lives. Some were tattooed and pierced, or bore evidence of having removed their piercings for the big day. One still had punky streaks of dye in his hair. Almost all wore contractor badges, as green and crisp as new hundred-dollar bills. We certainly didnt look like a hermetic power-mad cabal that controlled the actions of Americas elected officials from shadowy subterranean cubicles. This session was the first stage in our transformation. It was called the Indoc, or Indoctrination, and its entire point was to convince us that we were the elite, that we were special, that we had been chosen to be privy to the mysteries of state and to the truths that the rest of the countryand, at times, even its Congress and courtscouldnt handle. I couldnt help but think while I sat through this Indoc that the presenters were preaching to the choir. You dont need to tell a bunch of computer whizzes that they possess superior knowledge and skills that uniquely qualify them to act independently and make decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens without any oversight or review. Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism. This, to my thinking, actually represented the great nexus of the Intelligence Community and the tech industry: both are entrenched and unelected powers that pride themselves on maintaining absolute secrecy about their developments. Both believe that they have the solutions for everything, which they never hesitate to unilaterally impose. Above all, they both believe that these solutions are inherently apolitical, because theyre based on data, whose prerogatives are regarded as preferable to the chaotic whims of the common citizen. Being indoctrinated into the IC, like becoming expert at technology, has powerful psychological effects. All of a sudden you have access to the story behind the story, the hidden histories of well-known, or supposedly well-known, events. That can be intoxicating, at least for a teetotaler like me. Also, all of a sudden you have not just the license but the obligation to lie, conceal, dissemble, and dissimulate. This creates a sense of tribalism, which can lead many to believe that their primary allegiance is to the institution and not to the rule of law. I wasnt thinking any of these thoughts at my Indoc session, of course. Instead, I was just trying to keep myself awake as the presenters proceeded to instruct us on basic operational security practices, part of the wider body of spy techniques the IC collectively describes as tradecraft. These are often so obvious as to be mind-numbing: Dont tell anyone who you work for. Dont leave sensitive materials unattended. Dont bring your highly insecure cell phone into the highly secure officeor talk on it about work, ever. Dont wear your Hi, I work for the CIA badge to the mall. Finally, the litany ended, the lights came down, the PowerPoint was fired up, and faces appeared on the screen that was bolted to the wall. Everyone in the room sat upright. These were the faces, we were told, of former agents and contractors who, whether through greed, malice, incompetence, or negligence failed to follow the rules. They thought they were above all this mundane stuff and their hubris resulted in their imprisonment and ruin. The people on the screen, it was implied, were now in basements even worse than this one, and some would be there until they died. All in all, this was an effective presentation. Im told that in the years since my career ended, this parade of horriblesof incompetents, moles, defectors, and traitorshas been expanded to include an additional category: people of principle, whistleblowers in the public interest. I can only hope that the twenty-somethings sitting there today are struck by the governments conflation of selling secrets to the enemy and disclosing them to journalists when the new faceswhen my facepop up on the screen. I came to work for the CIA when it was at the nadir of its morale. Following the intelligence failures of 9/11, Congress and the executive had set out on an aggressive reorganization campaign. It included stripping the position of director of Central Intelligence of its dual role as both head of the CIA and head of the entire American ICa dual role that the position had held since the founding of the agency in the aftermath of World War II. When George Tenet was forced out in 2004, the CIAs half-century supremacy over all of the other agencies went with him. The CIAs rank and file considered Tenets departure and the directorships demotion as merely the most public symbols of the agencys betrayal by the political class it had been created to serve. The general sense of having been manipulated by the Bush administration and then blamed for its worst excesses gave rise to a culture of victimization and retrenchment. This was only exacerbated by the appointment of Porter Goss, an undistinguished former CIA officer turned Republican congressman from Florida, as the agencys new directorthe first to serve in the reduced position. The installation of a politician was taken as a chastisement and as an attempt to weaponize the CIA by putting it under partisan supervision. Director Goss immediately began a sweeping campaign of firings, layoffs, and forced retirements that left the agency understaffed and more reliant than ever on contractors. Meanwhile, the public at large had never had such a low opinion of the agency, or such insight into its inner workings, thanks to all the leaks and disclosures about its extraordinary renditions and black site prisons. At the time, the CIA was broken into five directorates. There was the DO, the Directorate of Operations, which was responsible for the actual spying; the DI, the Directorate of Intelligence, which was responsible for synthesizing and analyzing the results of that spying; the DST, the Directorate of Science and Technology, which built and supplied computers, communications devices, and weapons to the spies and showed them how to use them; the DA, the Directorate of Administration, which basically meant lawyers, human resources, and all those who coordinated the daily business of the agency and served as a liaison to the government; and, finally, the DS, the Directorate of Support, which was a strange directorate and, back then, the largest. The DS included everyone who worked for the agency in a support capacity, from the majority of the agencys technologists and medical doctors to the personnel in the cafeteria and the gym and the guards at the gate. The primary function of the DS was to manage the CIAs global communications infrastructure, the platform ensuring that the spies reports got to the analysts and that the analysts reports got to the administrators. The DS housed the employees who provided technical support throughout the agency, maintained the servers, and kept them securethe people who built, serviced, and protected the entire network of the CIA and connected it with the networks of the other agencies and controlled their access. These were, in short, the people who used technology to link everything together. It should be no surprise, then, that the bulk of them were young. It should also be no surprise that most of them were contractors. My team was attached to the Directorate of Support and our task was to manage the CIAs Washington-Metropolitan server architecture, which is to say the vast majority of the CIA servers in the continental United Statesthe enormous halls of expensive big iron computers that comprised the agencys internal networks and databases, all of its systems that transmitted, received, and stored intelligence. Though the CIA had dotted the country with relay servers, many of the agencys most important servers were situated on-site. Half of them were in the NHB, where my team was located; the other half were in the nearby OHB. They were set up on opposite sides of their respective buildings, so that if one side was blown up we wouldnt lose too many machines. My TS/SCI security clearance reflected my having been read into a few different compartments of information. Some of these compartments were SIGINT (signals intelligence, or intercepted communications), and another was HUMINT (human intelligence, or the work done and reports filed by agents and analysts)the CIAs work routinely involves both. On top of those, I was read into a COMSEC (communications security) compartment that allowed me to work with cryptographic key material, the codes that have traditionally been considered the most important agency secrets because theyre used to protect all the other agency secrets. This cryptographic material was processed and stored on and around the servers I was responsible for managing. My team was one of the few at the agency permitted to actually lay hands on these servers, and likely the only team with access to log in to nearly all othem. In the CIA, secure offices are called vaults, and my teams vault was located a bit past the CIAs help desk section. During the daytime, the help desk was staffed by a busy contingent of older people, closer to my parents age. They wore blazers and slacks and even blouses and skirts; this was one of the few places in the CIA tech world at the time where I recall seeing a sizable number of women. Some of them had the blue badges that identified them as government employees, or, as contractors called them, govvies. They spent their shifts picking up banks of ringing phones and talking people in the building or out in the field through their tech issues. It was a sort of IC version of call-center work: resetting passwords, unlocking accounts, and going by rote through the troubleshooting checklists. Can you log out and back in? Is the network cable plugged in? If the govvies, with their minimal tech experience, couldnt deal with a particular issue themselves, theyd escalate it to more specialized teams, especially if the problem was happening in the Foreign Field, meaning CIA stations overseas in places like Kabul or Baghdad or Bogot? or Paris. Im a bit ashamed to admit how proud I felt when I first walked through this gloomy array. I was decades younger than the help desk folks and heading past them into a vault to which they didnt have access and never would. At the time it hadnt yet occurred to me that the extent of my access meant that the process itself might be broken, that the government had simply given up on meaningfully managing and promoting its talent from within because the new contracting culture meant they no longer had to care. More than any other memory I have of my career, this route of mine past the CIA help desk has come to symbolize for me the generational and cultural change in the IC of which I was a partthe moment when the old-school prepster clique that traditionally staffed the agencies, desperate to keep pace with technologies they could not be bothered to understand, welcomed a new wave of young hackers into the institutional fold and let them develop, have complete access to, and wield complete power over unparalleled technological systems of state control. In time I came to love the help desk govvies, who were kind and generous to me, and always appreciated my willingness to help even when it wasnt my job. I, in turn, learned much from them, in bits and pieces, about how the larger organization functioned beyond the Beltway. Some of them had actually worked out in the foreign field themselves once upon a time, like the agents they now assisted over the phone. After a while, theyd come back home to the States, not always with their families intact, and theyd been relegated to the help desk for the remaining years of their careers because they lacked the computer skills required to compete in an agency increasingly focused on expanding its technological capabilities. I was proud to have won the govvies respect, and I was never quite comfortable with how many of my team members condescendingly pitied and even made fun of these bright and committed folksmen and women who for low pay and little glory had given the agency years of their lives, often in inhospitable and even outright dangerous places abroad, at the end of which their ultimate reward was a job picking up phones in a lonely hallway. AFTER A FEW weeks familiarizing myself with the systems on the day shift, I moved to nights6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.when the help desk was staffed by a discreetly snoozing skeleton crew and the rest of the agency was pretty much dead. At night, especially between, say, 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., the CIA was empty and lifeless, a vast and haunted complex with a postapocalyptic feel. All the escalators were stopped and you had to walk them like stairs. Only half of the elevators were working, and the pinging sounds they made, only barely audible during the bustle of daytime, now sounded alarmingly loud. Former CIA directors glared down from their portraits and the bald eagles seemed less like statues than like living predators waiting patiently to swoop in for the kill. American flags billowed like ghostsspooks in red, white, and blue. The agency had recently committed to a new eco-friendly energy-saving policy and installed motion-sensitive overhead lights: the corridor ahead of you would be swathed in darkness and the lights would switch on when you approached, so that you felt followed, and your footsteps would echo endlessly. For twelve hours each night, three days on and two days off, I sat in the secure office beyond the help desk, among the twenty desks each bearing two or three computer terminals reserved for the sysadmins who kept the CIAs global network online. Regardless of how fancy that might sound, the job itself was relatively banal, and can basically be described as waiting for catastrophe to happen. The problems generally werent too difficult to solve. The moment something went wrong, I had to log in to try to fix it remotely. If I couldnt, I had to physically descend into the data center hidden a floor below my own in the New Headquarters Buildingor walk the eerie half mile through the connecting tunnel over to the data center in the Old Headquarters Buildingand tinker around with the machinery itself. My partner in this taskthe only other person responsible for the nocturnal functioning of the CIAs entire server architecturewas a guy Im going to call Frank. He was our teams great outlier and an exceptional personality in every sense. Besides having a political consciousness (libertarian to the point of stockpiling Krugerrands) and an abiding interest in subjects outside of tech (he read vintage mysteries and thrillers in paperback), he was a fifty-something been-there-done-that ex-navy radio operator whod managed to graduate from the call centers ranks thanks to being a contractor. I have to say, when I first met Frank, I thought: Imagine if my entire life were like the nights I spent at CASL. Because, to put it frankly, Frank did hardly any work at all. At least, that was the impression he liked to project. He enjoyed telling me, and everyone else, that he didnt really know anything about computing and didnt understand why theyd put him on such an important team. He used to say that contracting was the third biggest scam in Washington, after the income tax and Congress. He claimed hed advised his boss that hed be next to useless when they suggested moving him to the server team, but they moved him just the same. By his own account, all hed done at work for the better part of the last decade was sit around and read books, though sometimes hed also play games of solitairewith a real deck of cards, not on the computer, of courseand reminisce about former wives (she was a keeper) and girlfriends (she took my car but it was worth it). Sometimes hed just pace all night and reload the Drudge Report. When the phone rang to signal that something was broken, and bouncing a server didnt fix it, hed just report it to the day shift. Essentially, his philosophy (if you could call it that) was that the night shift had to end sometime and the day shift had a deeper bench. Apparently, however, the day shift had gotten tired of coming in to work every morning to find Franks feet up in front of the digital equivalent of a dumpster fire, and so Id been hired. For some reason, the agency had decided that it was preferable to bring me in than to let this old guy go. After a couple of weeks of working together, I was convinced that his continued employment had to be the result of some personal connection or favor. To test this hypothesis I tried to draw Frank out, and asked him which CIA directors or other agency brass hed been with in the navy. But my question only provoked a tirade about how basically none of the navy vets high up at the agency had been enlisted mentheyd all been officers, which explained so much about the agencys dismal record. This lecture went on and on, until suddenly a panicked expression came over his face and he jumped up and said, I gotta change the tape! I had no idea what he was talking about. But Frank was already heading to the gray door at the back of our vault, which opened onto a dingy stairwell that gave direct access to the data center itselfthe humming, freezing night-black chamber that we sat directly on top of. Going down into a server vaultespecially the CIAscan be a disorienting experience. You descend into darkness blinking with green and red LEDs like an evil Christmas, vibrating with the whir of the industrial fans cooling the precious rack-mounted machinery to prevent it from melting down. Being there was always a bit dizzyingeven without a manic older guy cursing like the sailor he was as he dashed down the server hall. Frank stopped by a shabby corner that housed a makeshift cubicle of reclaimed equipment, marked as belonging to the Directorate of Operations. Taking up almost the entirety of the sad, rickety desk was an old computer. On closer inspection, it was something from the early 90s, or even the late 80s, older than anything I remembered from my fathers Coast Guard laba computer so ancient that it shouldnt even have been called a computer. It was more properly a machine, running a miniature tape format that I didnt recognize but was pretty sure would have been welcomed by the Smithsonian. Next to this machine was a massive safe, which Frank unlocked. He fussed with the tape that was in the machine, pried it free, and put it in the safe. Then he took another antique tape out of the safe and inserted it into the machine as a replacement, threading it through by touch alone. He carefully tapped a few times on the old keyboarddown, down, down, tab, tab, tab. He couldnt actually see the effect of those keystrokes, because the machines monitor no longer worked, but he struck the Enter key with confidence. I couldnt figure out what was going on. But the itty-bitty tape began to tick-tick-tick and then spin, and Frank grinned with satisfaction. This is the most important machine in the building, he said. The agency doesnt trust this digital technology crap. They dont trust their own servers. You know theyre always breaking. But when the servers break down they risk losing what theyre storing, so in order not to lose anything that comes in during the day, they back everything up on tape at night. So youre doing a storage backup here? A storage backup to tape. The old way. Reliable as a heart attack. Tape hardly ever crashes. But whats on the tape? Like personnel stuff, or like the actual incoming intelligence? Frank put a hand to his chin in a thinking pose and pretended to take the question seriously. Then he said, Man, Ed, I didnt want to have to tell you. But its field reports from your girlfriend, and weve got a lot of agents filing. Its raw intelligence. Very raw. He laughed his way upstairs, leaving me speechless and blushing in the darkness of the vault. It was only when Frank repeated this same tape-changing ritual the next night, and the night after that, and on every night we worked together thereafter, that I began to understand why the agency kept him aroundand it wasnt just for his sense of humor. Frank was the only guy willing to stick around between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. who was also old enough to know how to handle that proprietary tape system. All the other techs whod come up in the dark ages when tape was the medium now had families and preferred to be home with them at night. But Frank was a bachelor and remembered the world before the Enlightenment. After I found a way to automate most of my own workwriting scripts to automatically update servers and restore lost network connections, mostlyI started having what I came to call a Frank amount of time. Meaning, I had all night to do pretty much whatever I wanted. I passed a fair number of hours in long talks with Frank, especially about the more political stuff he was reading: books about how the country should return to the gold standard, or about the intricacies of the flat tax. But there were always periods of every shift when Frank would disappear. Hed either put his head into a whodunit novel and not lift it until morning, or hed go strolling the halls of the agency, hitting the cafeteria for a lukewarm slice of pizza or the gym to lift weights. I had my own way of keeping to myself, of course. I went online. When you go online at the CIA, you have to check a box for a Consent to Monitoring Agreement, which basically says that everything you do is being recorded and that you agree that you have no expectation of any privacy whatsoever. You end up checking this box so often that it becomes second nature. These agreements become invisible to you when youre working at the agency, because they pop up constantly and youre always trying to just click them down and get back to what you were doing. This, to my mind, is a major reason why most IC workers dont share civilian concerns about being tracked online: not because they have any insider information about how digital surveillance helps to protect America, but because to those in the IC, being tracked by the boss just comes with the job. Anyway, its not like theres a lot to be found out there on the public Internet thats more interesting than what the agency already has internally. Few realize this, but the CIA has its own Internet and Web. It has its own kind of Facebook, which allows agents to interact socially; its own type of Wikipedia, which provides agents with information about agency teams, projects, and missions; and its own internal version of Googleactually provided by Googlewhich allows agents to search this sprawling classified network. Every CIA component has its own website on this network that discusses what it does and posts meeting minutes and presentations. For hours and hours every night, this was my education. According to Frank, the first things everyone looks up on the CIAs internal networks are aliens and 9/11, and thats why, also according to Frank, youll never get any meaningful search results for them. I looked them up anyway. The CIA-flavored Google didnt return anything interesting for either, but heymaybe the truth was out there on another network drive. For the record, as far as I could tell, aliens have never contacted Earth, or at least they havent contacted US intelligence. But al-Qaeda did maintain unusually close ties with our allies the Saudis, a fact that the Bush White House worked suspiciously hard to suppress as we went to war with two other countries. Here is one thing that the disorganized CIA didnt quite understand at the time, and that no major American employer outside of Silicon Valley understood, either: the computer guy knows everything, or rather can know everything. The higher up this employee is, and the more systems-level privileges he has, the more access he has to virtually every byte of his employers digital existence. Of course, not everyone is curious enough to take advantage of this education, and not everyone is possessed of a sincere curiosity. My forays through the CIAs systems were natural extensions of my childhood desire to understand how everything works, how the various components of a mechanism fit together into the whole. And with the official title and privileges of a systems administrator, and technical prowess that enabled my clearance to be used to its maximum potential, I was able to satisfy my every informational deficiency and then some. In case you were wondering: Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing. On the CIAs internal news sites I read top secret dispatches regarding trade talks and coups as they were still unfolding. These agency accounts of events were often very similar to the accounts that would eventually show up on network news, CNN, or Fox days later. The primary differences were merely in the sourcing and the level of detail. Whereas a newspaper or magazine account of an upheaval abroad might be attributed to a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity, the CIA version would have explicit sourcingsay, ZBSMACKTALK/1, an employee of the interior ministry who regularly responds to specific tasking, claims secondhand knowledge, and has proven reliable in the past. And the true name and complete personal history of ZBSMACKTALK/1, called a case file, would be only a few clicks away. Sometimes an internal news item would never show up in the media at all, and the excitement and significance of what I was reading both increased my appreciation of the importance of our work and made me feel like I was missing out by just sitting at a workstation. This may come off as naive, but I was surprised to learn how truly international the CIA wasand I dont mean its operations, I mean its workforce. The number of languages I heard in the cafeteria was astounding. I couldnt help feeling a sense of my own provincialism. Working at CIA Headquarters was a thrill, but it was still only a few hours away from where Id grown up, which in many ways was a similar environment. I was in my early twenties and, apart from stints in North Carolina, childhood trips to visit my grandfather at Coast Guard bases where hed held commands, and my few weeks in the army at Fort Benning, Id never really left the Beltway. As I read about events happening in Ouagadougou, Kinshasa, and other exotic cities I could never have found on a noncomputerized map, I realized that as long as I was still young I had to serve my country by doing something truly meaningful abroad. The alternative, I thought, was just becoming a more successful Frank: sitting at progressively bigger desks, making progressively more money, until eventually I, too, would be obsolesced and kept around only to handle the futures equivalent of a janky tape machine. It was then that I did the unthinkable. I set about going govvy. I think some of my supervisors were puzzled by this, but they were also flattered, because the typical route is the reverse: a public servant at the end of their tenure goes private and cashes in. No tech contractor just starting out goes public and takes a pay cut. To my mind, however, becoming a govvy was logical: Id be getting paid to travel. I got lucky, and a position opened up. After nine months as a systems administrator, I applied for a CIA tech job abroad, and in short order I was accepted. My last day at CIA Headquarters was just a formality. Id already done all my paperwork and traded in my green badge for a blue. All that was left to do was to sit through another indoctrination, which now that I was a govvy was held in an elegant conference room next to the cafeterias Dunkin Donuts. It was here that I performed the sacred rite in which contractors never participate. I raised my hand to swear an oath of loyaltynot to the government or agency that now employed me directly, but to the US Constitution. I solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The next day, I drove my trusty old Honda Civic out into the Virginia countryside. In order to get to the foreign station of my dreams, I first had to go back to schoolto the first sit-in-a-classroom schooling Id ever really finish. 14 The Count of the Hill My first orders as a freshly minted officer of the government were to head for the Comfort Inn in Warrenton, Virginia, a sad, dilapidated motel whose primary client was the State Department, by which I mean the CIA. It was the worst motel in a town of bad motels, which was probably why the CIA chose it. The fewer other guests, the lower the chances that anybody would notice that this particular Comfort Inn served as a makeshift dormitory for the Warrenton Training Centeror, as folks who work there call it, the Hill. When I checked in, the desk clerk warned me not to use the stairs, which were blocked off by police tape. I was given a room on the second floor of the main building, with a view of the inns auxiliary buildings and parking lot. The room was barely lit, there was mold in the bathroom, the carpets were filthy with cigarette burns under the No Smoking sign, and the flimsy mattress was stained dark purple with what I hoped was booze. Nevertheless, I liked itI was still at the age when I could find this seediness romanticand I spent my first night lying awake in bed, watching the bugs swarm the single domed overhead light fixture and counting down the hours to the free continental breakfast Id been promised. The next morning, I discovered that on the continent of Warrenton, breakfast meant individual-size boxes of Froot Loops and sour milk. Welcome to the government. The Comfort Inn was to be my home for the next six months. My fellow Innmates and I, as we called ourselves, were discouraged from telling our loved ones where we were staying and what we were doing. I leaned hard into those protocols, rarely heading back to Maryland or even talking to Lindsay on the phone. Anyway, we werent allowed to take our phones to school, since class was classified, and we had classes all the time. Warrenton kept most of us too busy to be lonely. If the Farm, down by Camp Peary, is the CIAs most famous training institution, chiefly because its the only one that the agencys PR staff is allowed to talk to Hollywood about, the Hill is without a doubt the most mysterious. Connected via microwave and fiber optics to the satellite relay facility at Brandy Stationpart of the Warrenton Training Centers constellation of sister sitesthe Hill serves as the heart of the CIAs field communications network, carefully located just out of nuke range from DC. The salty old techs who worked there liked to say that the CIA could survive losing its headquarters to a catastrophic attack, but it would die if it ever lost Warrenton, and now that the top of the Hill holds two enormous top secret data centersone of which I later helped to constructIm inclined to agree. The Hill earned its name because of its location, which is atop, yes, a massive steepness. When I arrived, there was just one road that led in, past a purposely under-marked perimeter fence, and then up a grade so severe that whenever the temperature dropped and the road iced over, vehicles would lose traction and slide backward downhill. Just beyond the guarded checkpoint lies the State Departments decaying diplomatic communications training facility, whose prominent location was meant to reinforce its role as cover: making the Hill appear as if its merely a place where the American foreign service trains technologists. Beyond it, amid the back territory, were the various low, unlabeled buildings I studied in, and even farther on was the shooting range that the ICs trigger pullers used for special training. Shots would ring out, in a style of firing I wasnt familiar with: pop-pop, pop; pop-pop, pop. A double-tap meant to incapacitate, followed by an aimed shot meant to execute. I was there as a member of class 6-06 of the BTTP, the Basic Telecommunications Training Program, whose intentionally beige name disguises one of the most classified and unusual curricula in existence. The purpose of the program is to train TISOs (Technical Information Security Officers)the CIAs cadre of elite communicators, or, less formally, commo guys. A TISO is trained to be a jack-of-all-trades, a one-person replacement for previous generations specialized roles of code clerk, radioman, electrician, mechanic, physical and digital security adviser, and computer technician. The main job of this undercover officer is to manage the technical infrastructure for CIA operations, most commonly overseas at stations hidden inside American missions, consulates, and embassieshence the State Department connection. The idea is, if youre in an American embassy, which is to say if youre far from home and surrounded by untrustworthy foreignerswhether hostiles or allies, theyre still untrustworthy foreigners to the CIAyoure going to have to handle all of your technical needs internally. If you ask a local repairman to fix your secret spy base, hell definitely do it, even for cheap, but hes also going to install hard-to-find bugs on behalf of a foreign power. As a result, TISOs are responsible for knowing how to fix basically every machine in the building, from individual computers and computer networks to CCTV and HVAC systems, solar panels, heaters and coolers, emergency generators, satellite hookups, military encryption devices, alarms, locks, and so on. The rule is that if it plugs in or gets plugged into, its the TISOs problem. TISOs also have to know how to build some of these systems themselves, just as they have to know how to destroy themwhen an embassy is under siege, say, after all the diplomats and most of their fellow CIA officers have been evacuated. The TISOs are always the last guys out. Its their job to send the final off the air message to headquarters after theyve shredded, burned, wiped, degaussed, and disintegrated anything that has the CIAs fingerprints on it, from operational documents in safes to disks with cipher material, to ensure that nothing of value remains for an enemy to capture. Why this was a job for the CIA and not for the State Departmentthe entity that actually owns the embassy buildingis more than the sheer difference in competence and trust: the real reason is plausible deniability. The worst-kept secret in modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform for espionage. The old explanations for why a country might try to maintain a notionally sovereign physical presence on another countrys soil faded into obsolescence with the rise of electronic communications and jet-powered aircraft. Today, the most meaningful diplomacy happens directly between ministries and ministers. Sure, embassies do still send the occasional d?marche and help support their citizens abroad, and then there are the consular sections that issue visas and renew passports. But those are often in a completely different building, and anyway, none of those activities can even remotely justify the expense of maintaining all that infrastructure. Instead, what justifies the expense is the ability for a country to use the cover of its foreign service to conduct and legitimize its spying. TISOs work under diplomatic cover with credentials that hide them among these foreign service officers, usually under the identity of attach?s. The largest embassies would have maybe five of these people, the larger embassies would have maybe three, but most just have one. Theyre called singletons, and I remember being told that of all the posts the CIA offers, these have the highest rates of divorce. To be a singleton is to be the lone technical officer, far from home, in a world where everything is always broken. My class in Warrenton began with around eight members and lost only one before graduationwhich I was told was fairly uncommon. And this motley crew was uncommon, too, though pretty well representative of the kind of malcontents who voluntarily sign up for a career track that all but guarantees theyll spend the majority of their service undercover in a foreign country. For the first time in my IC career, I wasnt the youngest in the room. At age twenty-four, Id say I was around the mean, though my experience doing systems work at headquarters certainly gave me a boost in terms of familiarity with the agencys operations. Most of the others were just tech-inclined kids straight out of college, or straight off the street, whod applied online. In a nod to the paramilitary aspirations of the CIAs foreign field branches, we called each other by nicknamesquickly assigned based on eccentricitiesmore often than by our true names. Taco Bell was a suburb: wide, likable, and blank. At twenty years old, the only job hed had prior to the CIA was as the night-shift manager at a branch of the eponymous restaurant in Pennsylvania. Rainman was in his late twenties and spent the term bouncing around the autism spectrum between catatonic detachment and shivering fury. He wore the name we gave him proudly and claimed it was a Native American honorific. Flute earned his name because his career in the Marines was far less interesting to us than his degree in panpipes from a music conservatory. Spo was one of the older guys, at thirty-five or so. He was called what he was called because hed been an SPOa Special Police Officerat the CIAs headquarters, where he got so bored out of his mind guarding the gate at McLean that he was determined to escape overseas even if it meant cramming his entire family into a single motel room (a situation that lasted until the management found his kids pet snake living in a dresser drawer). Our elder was the Colonel, a midforties former Special Forces commo sergeant who, after numerous tours in the sandbox, was trying out for his second act. We called him the Colonel, even though he was just an enlisted guy, not an officer, mostly out of his resemblance to that friendly Kentuckian whose fried chicken we preferred to the regular fare of the Warrenton cafeteria. My nicknameI guess I cant avoid itwas the Count. Not because of my aristocratic bearing or dandyish fashion sense, but because, like the felt vampire puppet of Sesame Street, I had a tendency to signal my intention to interrupt class by raising my forefinger, as if to say: One, two, three, ah, ha, ha, three things you forgot! These were the folks with whom Id cycle through some twenty different classes, each in its own specialty, but most having to do with how to make the technology available in any given environment serve the government of the United States, whether in an embassy or on the run. One drill involved lugging the off-site package, which was an eighty-pound suitcase of communications equipment that was older than I was, up onto a buildings roof. With just a compass and a laminated sheet of coordinates, Id have to find in all that vast sky of twinkling stars one of the CIAs stealth satellites, which would connect me to the agencys mothership, its Crisis Communications Center in McLeancall sign Centraland then Id use the Cold Warera kit inside the package to establish an encrypted radio channel. This drill was a practical reminder of why the commo officer is always the first in and last out: the chief of station can steal the deepest secret in the world, but it doesnt mean squat until somebody gets it home. That night I stayed on base after dark, and drove my car up to the very top of the Hill, parking outside the converted barn where we studied electrical concepts meant to prevent adversaries from monitoring our activities. The methods we learned about at times seemed close to voodoosuch as the ability to reproduce whats being displayed on any computer monitor by using only the tiny electromagnetic emissions caused by the oscillating currents in its internal components, which can be captured using a special antenna, a method called Van Eck phreaking. If this sounds hard to understand, I promise we all felt the same way. The instructor himself readily admitted he never fully comprehended the details and couldnt demonstrate it for us, but he knew the threat was real: the CIA was doing it to others, which meant others could do it to us. I sat on the roof of my car, that same old white Civic, and, as I gazed out over what felt like all of Virginia, I called Lindsay for the first time in weeks, or even a month. We talked until my phones battery died, my breath becoming visible as the night got colder. There was nothing I wanted more than to share the scene with herthe dark fields, the undulating hills, the high astral shimmerbut describing it to her was the best I could do. I was already breaking the rules by using my phone; I wouldve been breaking the law by taking a picture. One of Warrentons major subjects of study involved how to service the terminals and cables, the basicin many ways, the primitivecomponents of any CIA stations communications infrastructure. A terminal, in this context, is just a computer used to send and receive messages over a single secure network. In the CIA, the word cables tends to refer to the messages themselves, but technical officers know that cables are also far more tangible: theyre the cords or wires that for the last half century or so have linked the agencys terminalsspecifically its ancient Post Communications Terminalsall over the world, tunneling underground across national borders, buried at the bottom of the ocean. Ours was the last year that TISOs had to be fluent in all of this: the terminal hardware, the multiple software packages, and the cables, too, of course. For some of my classmates, it felt a bit crazy to have to deal with issues of insulation and sheathing in what was supposed to be the age of wireless. But if any of them voiced doubts about the relevance of any of the seemingly antiquated tech that we were being taught, our instructors would remind us that ours was also the first year in the history of the Hill that TISOs werent required to learn Morse code. Closing in on graduation, we had to fill out what were called dream sheets. We were given a list of the CIA stations worldwide that needed personnel, and were told to rank them in the order of our preferences. These dream sheets then went to the Requirements Division, which promptly crumpled them up and tossed them in the trashat least according to rumor. My dream sheet started with what was called the SRD, the Special Requirements Division. This was technically a posting not at any embassy but here in Virginia, from which I would be sent out on periodic tours of all the uglier spots in the sandbox, places where the agency judged a permanent posting too harsh or too dangeroustiny, isolated forward operating bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the border regions of Pakistan, for example. By choosing SRD, I was opting for challenge and variety over being stuck in just one city for the entire duration of what was supposed to be an up-to-three-years stint. My instructors were all pretty confident that SRD would jump at the chance to bring me on, and I was pretty confident in my newly honed abilities. But things didnt quite go as expected. As was evident from the condition of the Comfort Inn, the school had been cutting some corners. Some of my classmates had begun to suspect that the administration was actually, believe it or not, violating federal labor laws. As a work-obsessed recluse, I initially wasnt bothered by this, nor was anyone around my age. For us, this was the sort of low-level exploitation wed experienced so often that we already mistook it for normal. But unpaid overtime, denied leave, and refusals to honor family benefits made a difference to the older classmates. The Colonel had alimony payments, and Spo had a family: every dollar counted, every minute mattered. These grievances came to a head when the decrepit stairs at the Comfort Inn finally collapsed. Luckily no one was injured, but everyone was spooked, and my classmates started grumbling that if the building had been bankrolled by any entity other than the CIA, it wouldve been condemned for fire-code violations years ago. The discontent spread, and soon enough what was basically a school for saboteurs was close to unionizing. Management, in response, dug in its heels and decided to wait us out, since everybody involved eventually had to either graduate or be fired. A few of my classmates approached me. They knew that I was well liked by the instructors, since my skills put me near the top of my class. They were also aware, because Id worked at headquarters, that I knew my way around the bureaucracy. Plus I could write pretty wellat least by tech standards. They wanted me to act as a sort of class representative, or class martyr, by formally bringing their complaints to the head of the school. Id like to say that I was motivated to take on this cause solely by my aggrieved sense of justice. But while that certainly did factor into the decision, I cant deny that for a young man who was suddenly excelling at nearly everything he attempted, challenging the schools crooked administration just sounded like fun. Within an hour I was compiling policies to cite from the internal network, and before the day was done my email was sent. The next morning the head of the school had me come into his office. He admitted the school had gone off the rails, but said the problems werent anything he could solve. Youre only here for twelve more weeksdo me a favor and just tell your classmates to suck it up. Assignments are coming up soon, and then youll have better things to worry about. All youll remember from your time here is who had the best performance review. What he said had been worded in such a way that it mightve been a threat, and it mightve been a bribe. Either way, it bothered me. By the time I left his office the fun was over, and it was justice I was after. I walked back into a class that had expected to lose. I remember Spo noticing my frown and saying, Dont feel bad, man. At least you tried. Hed been at the agency longer than any of my other classmates; he knew how it worked, and how ludicrous it was to trust management to fix something that management itself had broken. I was a bureaucratic innocent by comparison, disturbed by the loss and by the ease with which Spo and the others accepted it. I hated the feeling that the mere fiction of process was enough to dispel a genuine demand for results. It wasnt that my classmates didnt care enough to fight, it was that they couldnt afford to: the system was designed so that the perceived cost of escalation exceeded the expected benefit of resolution. At age twenty-four, though, I thought as little of the costs as I did of the benefits; I just cared about the system. I wasnt finished. I rewrote and re-sent the emailnot to the head of the school now, but to his boss, the director of Field Service Group. Though he was higher up the totem pole than the head of the school, the D/FSG was pretty much equivalent in rank and seniority to a few of the personnel Id dealt with at headquarters. Then I copied the email to his boss, who definitely was not. A few days later, we were in a class on something like false subtraction as a form of field-expedient encryption, when a front-office secretary came in and declared that the old regime had fallen. Unpaid overtime would no longer be required, and, effective in two weeks, we were all being moved to a much nicer hotel. I remember the giddy pride with which she announced, A Hampton Inn! I had only a day or so to revel in my glory before class was interrupted again. This time, the head of the school was at the door, summoning me back to his office. Spo immediately leaped from his seat, enveloped me in a hug, mimed wiping away a tear, and declared that hed never forget me. The head of the school rolled his eyes. There, waiting in the school heads office was the director of the Field Service Groupthe school heads boss, the boss of nearly everyone on the TISO career track, the boss whose boss Id emailed. He was exceptionally cordial, and didnt project any of the school heads clenched-jaw irritation. This unnerved me. I tried to keep a calm exterior, but inside I was sweating. The head of the school began our chat by reiterating how the issues the class had brought to light were in the process of being resolved. His superior cut him off. But why were here is not to talk about that. Why were here is to talk about insubordination and the chain of command. If hed slapped me, I wouldve been less shocked. I had no idea what the director meant by insubordination, but before I had the opportunity to ask, he continued. The CIA was quite different from the other civilian agencies, he said, even if, on paper, the regulations insisted it wasnt. And in an agency that did such important work, there was nothing more important than the chain of command. Raising a forefinger, automatically but politely, I pointed out that before I emailed above my station, Id tried the chain of command and been failed by it. Which was precisely the last thing I should have been explaining to the chain of command itself, personified just across a desk from me. The head of the school just stared at his shoes and occasionally glanced out the window. Listen, his boss said. Ed, Im not here to file a hurt feelings report. Relax. I recognize that youre a talented guy, and weve gone around and talked to all of your instructors and they say youre talented and sharp. Even volunteered for the war zone. Thats something we appreciate. We want you here, but we need to know that we can count on you. Youve got to understand that theres a system here. Sometimes weve all got to put up with things we dont like, because the mission comes first, and we cant complete that mission if every guy on the team is second-guessing. He took a pause, swallowed, and said, Nowhere is this more true than in the desert. A lot of things happen out in the desert, and Im not sure that were at a stage yet where Im comfortable youll know how to handle them. This was their gotcha, their retaliation. And though it was entirely self-defeating, the head of the school was now smiling at the parking lot. No one besides meand I mean no onehad put down SRD, or any other active combat situation for that matter, as their first or second or even third choice on their dream sheets. Everyone else had prioritized all the stops on the European champagne circuit, all the neat sweet vacation-station burgs with windmills and bicycles, where you rarely hear explosions. Almost perversely, they now gave me one of these assignments. They gave me Geneva. They punished me by giving me what Id never asked for, but what everybody else had wanted. As if he were reading my mind, the director said, This isnt a punishment, Ed. Its an opportunityreally. Someone with your level of expertise would be wasted in the war zone. You need a bigger station, that pilots the newest projects, to really keep you busy and stretch your skills. Everybody in class whod been congratulating me would later turn jealous and think that Id been bought off with a luxury position to avoid further complaints. My reaction, in the moment, was the opposite: I thought that the head of the school must have had an informant in the class, whod told him exactly the type of station Id hoped to avoid. The director got up with a smile, which signaled that the meeting was over. All right, I think weve got a plan. Before I leave, I just want to make sure were clear here: Im not going to have another Ed Snowden moment, am I?

  • Mans Search for Meaning /     (by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946) -   Mans Search for Meaning /
  • A Bug's Life /   (Disney, 2012)    A Bug's Life /
  • The Jungle Book /   (Disney, 2012) -   The Jungle Book /
  • The Summer Children /   (by Dot Hutchison, 2018) -   The Summer Children /

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