Authors: Edward Snowden
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 CIA’s 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 weren’t too difficult to solve. The moment something went wrong, I had to log in to try to fix it remotely. If I couldn’t, I had to physically descend into the data center hidden a floor below my own in the New Headquarters Building—or walk the eerie half mile through the connecting tunnel over to the data center in the Old Headquarters Building—and tinker around with the machinery itself.
My partner in this task—the only other person responsible for the nocturnal functioning of the CIA’s entire server architecture—was a guy I’m going to call Frank. He was our team’s 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 who’d managed to graduate from the call center’s 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 didn’t really know anything about computing and didn’t understand why they’d 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 he’d advised his boss that he’d 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 he’d done at work for the better part of the last decade was sit around and read books, though sometimes he’d also play games of solitaire—with a real deck of cards, not on the computer, of course—and reminisce about former wives (“she was a keeper”) and girlfriends (“she took my car but it was worth it”). Sometimes he’d just pace all night and reload the Drudge Report.
When the phone rang to signal that something was broken, and bouncing a server didn’t fix it, he’d 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 Frank’s feet up in front of the digital equivalent of a dumpster fire, and so I’d 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 he’d 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 men—they’d all been officers, which explained so much about the agency’s 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 itself—the humming, freezing night-black chamber that we sat directly on top of.
Going down into a server vault—especially the CIA’s—can 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 dizzying—even 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 father’s Coast Guard lab—a computer so ancient that it shouldn’t even have been called a computer. It was more properly a
, running a miniature tape format that I didn’t 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 keyboard—down, down, down, tab, tab, tab. He couldn’t actually see the effect of those keystrokes, because the machine’s monitor no longer worked, but he struck the Enter key with confidence.
I couldn’t 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 doesn’t trust this digital technology crap. They don’t trust their own servers. You know they’re always breaking. But when the servers break down they risk losing what they’re storing, so in order not to lose anything that comes in during the day, they back everything up on tape at night.”
“So you’re doing a storage backup here?”
“A storage backup to tape. The old way. Reliable as a heart attack. Tape hardly ever crashes.”
“But what’s 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 didn’t want to have to tell you. But it’s field reports from your girlfriend, and we’ve got a lot of agents filing. It’s 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 around—and it wasn’t 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 who’d 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 work—writing scripts to automatically update servers and restore lost network connections, mostly—I 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. He’d either put his head into a whodunit novel and not lift it until morning, or he’d 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 you’re working at the agency, because they pop up constantly and you’re 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 don’t 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, it’s not like there’s a lot to be found out there on the public Internet that’s 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 Google—actually provided by Google—which 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 CIA’s internal networks are aliens and 9/11, and that’s why, also
according to Frank, you’ll never get any meaningful search results for them. I looked them up anyway. The CIA-flavored Google didn’t return anything interesting for either, but hey—maybe 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 haven’t 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 didn’t 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 employer’s 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 CIA’s 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 CIA’s 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 sourcing—say, “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 was—and I don’t mean its operations, I mean its workforce. The number of languages I heard in the cafeteria was astounding. I couldn’t 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 I’d 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 he’d held commands, and my few weeks in the army at Fort Benning, I’d 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 future’s 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: I’d 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. I’d 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 cafeteria’s 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 loyalty—not 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.