Authors: Edward Snowden
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 I’d been making around $30K/year, but that job didn’t 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 didn’t understand why he was trying to overpay me. I knew, I guess, that this wasn’t ultimately COMSO’s money, but I only later understood that some of the contracts that COMSO and BAE and others handled were of the type that’s 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 everyone’s interest—everyone’s, that is, except the taxpayer’s.
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 I’d be taking my orders directly from the CIA. “If all goes well,” he said, “we’ll never meet again.”
In the spy movies and TV shows, when someone tells you something like that, it usually means that you’re 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, I’m sure he’d 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 wouldn’t take long before I’d start to lose my mind. There weren’t enough books on tape in the universe.
I couldn’t 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 COMSO—as in, “Why does COMSO have to be so far away?” Finally, we decided that I’d find a small place down there,
just a small place to crash at during the days while I worked at night,
—and then I’d come up to Maryland again every weekend, or she’d 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 CIA’s location in Virginia—where the housing density is,
let’s say, semirural—the 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 near—less than fifteen minutes from—CIA 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. I’m 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 month’s rent.
Then he told me the house rules, which helpfully rhymed:
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.
You know that one establishing shot that’s in pretty much every spy movie and TV show that’s subtitled “CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia”? And then the camera moves through the marble lobby with the wall of stars and the floor with the agency’s seal? Well, Langley is the site’s 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 underground—in 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 he’d been expecting a circle of Ivy League WASPs chanting in hoods, whereas I’d been expecting a group of normie civil service types who resembled younger versions of my parents.
Instead, we were all computer dudes—and yes, almost uniformly dudes—who 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 didn’t look like a hermetic power-mad cabal that controlled the actions of America’s 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 country—and, at times, even its Congress and courts—couldn’t handle.
I couldn’t help but think while I sat through this Indoc that the presenters were preaching to the choir. You don’t 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 they’re 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 in
toxicating, 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 wasn’t 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: Don’t tell anyone who you work for. Don’t leave sensitive materials unattended. Don’t bring your highly insecure cell phone into the highly secure office—or talk on it about work, ever. Don’t 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.
I’m told that in the years since my career ended, this parade of horribles—of incompetents, moles, defectors, and traitors—has 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 government’s conflation of selling secrets to the enemy and disclosing them to journalists when the new faces—when my face—pop 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 cam
paign. 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 IC—a 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 CIA’s half-century supremacy over all of the other agencies went with him.
The CIA’s rank and file considered Tenet’s departure and the directorship’s demotion as merely the most public symbols of the agency’s 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 agency’s new director—the 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 agency’s 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 CIA’s 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 secure—the 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 CIA’s Washington-Metropolitan server architecture, which is to say the vast majority of the CIA servers in the continental United States—the enormous halls of expensive “big iron” computers that comprised the agency’s 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 agency’s 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 wouldn’t 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 CIA’s work routinely involves both. On top of those, I was read into a COMSEC (communications security) compart
ment that allowed me to work with cryptographic key material, the codes that have traditionally been considered the most important agency secrets because they’re 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 team’s vault was located a bit past the CIA’s 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, couldn’t deal with a particular issue themselves, they’d 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 Bogotá or Paris.
I’m 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 didn’t have access and never would. At the time it hadn’t 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 part—the 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 wasn’t 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, they’d come back home to the States, not always with their families intact, and they’d 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 folks—men 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.
FTER A FEW
weeks familiarizing myself with the systems on the day shift, I moved to nights—6:00 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 ghosts—spooks 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.