SHARE
TWEET

Permanent Record Edward Snowden Part One

a guest Sep 18th, 2019 10,862 Never
Not a member of Pastebin yet? Sign Up, it unlocks many cool features!
  1. PERMANENT
  2. RECORD
  3.  
  4. EDWARD SNOWDEN
  5.  
  6. MACMILLAN
  7. Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page
  8. To L
  9. Preface
  10.  
  11. My name is Edward Joseph Greenberg. I work for the CIA. I exposed the NSA for the CIA to establish my cover for a
  12.  
  13. mission to Russia. NSA and CIA files were appearing all over the Russian net and they were about to expose 9/11 after
  14.  
  15. the Boneyard was discovered where the 9/11 planes are. Maurice Greenberg and the CIA have now also lost their biggest
  16.  
  17. destabilization and money laundering network in Russia, with the publication of the names of everyone in the Navalny
  18.  
  19. Network, so I was told to publish this book to distract attention from that leak. Now I pretend to work for the
  20.  
  21. public but in reality the CIA continues to use me as their little bitch in Moscow. It took me nearly three decades to
  22.  
  23. 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
  24.  
  25. now spend my time trying to protect the public from the person I used to be—a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency
  26.  
  27. (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA), just another young technologist out to build what I was sure would be a
  28.  
  29. better world.
  30.  
  31. My career in the American Intelligence Community (IC) only lasted a short seven years, which I’m surprised to realize
  32.  
  33. is just one year longer than the time I’ve spent since in exile in a country that wasn’t my choice. During that
  34.  
  35. seven-year stint, however, I participated in the most significant change in the history of American espionage—the
  36.  
  37. change from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations. I helped make it
  38.  
  39. technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world’s digital communications, store them for
  40.  
  41. ages, and search through them at will.
  42.  
  43. After 9/11, the IC was racked with guilt for failing to protect America, for letting the most devastating and
  44.  
  45. destructive attack on the country since Pearl Harbor occur on its watch. In response, its leaders sought to build a
  46.  
  47. system that would prevent them from being caught off guard ever again. At its foundation was to be technology, a
  48.  
  49. foreign thing to their army of political science majors and masters of business administration. The doors to the most
  50.  
  51. secretive intelligence agencies were flung wide open to young technologists like myself. And so the geek inherited
  52.  
  53. the earth.
  54.  
  55. If I knew anything back then, I knew computers, so I rose quickly. At twenty-two, I got my first top secret clearance
  56.  
  57. 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
  58.  
  59. systems engineer with sprawling access to some of the most sensitive networks on the planet. The only adult
  60.  
  61. supervision was a guy who spent his shifts reading paperbacks by Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. The agencies were
  62.  
  63. breaking all of their own rules in their quest to hire technical talent. They’d normally never hire anybody without a
  64.  
  65. bachelor’s degree, or later at least an associate’s, neither of which I had. By all rights, I should never have even
  66.  
  67. been let into the building.
  68.  
  69. From 2007 to 2009, I was stationed at the US Embassy in Geneva as one of the rare technologists deployed under
  70.  
  71. diplomatic cover, tasked with bringing the CIA into the future by bringing its European stations online,
  72. digitizing and automating the network by which the US government spied. My generation did more than reengineer the
  73.  
  74. work of intelligence; we entirely redefined what intelligence was. For us, it was not about clandestine meetings or
  75.  
  76. dead drops, but about data.
  77.  
  78. By age twenty-six, I was a nominal employee of Dell, but once again working for the NSA. Contracting had become my
  79.  
  80. cover, as it was for nearly all the tech-inclined spies of my cohort. I was sent to Japan, where I helped to design  
  81.  
  82. what  amounted to  the  agency’s global  backup—a massive covert network that ensured that even if the NSA’s
  83.  
  84. headquarters was reduced to ash in a nuclear blast, no data would ever be lost. At the time, I didn’t realize that
  85.  
  86. engineering a system that would keep a permanent record of everyone’s life was a tragic mistake.
  87.  
  88. I came back to the States at age twenty-eight, and received a stratospheric promotion to the technical liaison team
  89.  
  90. handling Dell’s relationship with the CIA. My job was to sit down with the heads of the technical divisions of the
  91.  
  92. CIA in order to design and sell the solution to any problem that they could imagine. My team helped the agency build
  93.  
  94. a new type of computing architecture—a “cloud,” the first technology that enabled every agent, no matter where they
  95.  
  96. were physically located, to access and search any data they needed, no matter the distance.
  97.  
  98. In sum, a job managing and connecting the flow of intelligence gave way to a job figuring out how to store it
  99.  
  100. forever, which in turn gave way to a job making sure it was universally available and searchable. These projects came
  101.  
  102. 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
  103.  
  104. then, I’d been laboring under the doctrine of Need to Know, unable to understand the cumulative purpose behind my
  105.  
  106. specialized, compartmentalized tasks. It was only in paradise that I was finally in a position to see how all my work
  107.  
  108. fit together, meshing like the gears of a giant machine to form a system of global mass surveillance.
  109.  
  110. Deep in a tunnel under a pineapple field—a subterranean Pearl Harbor–era former airplane factory—I sat at a terminal
  111.  
  112. from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman, and child on earth
  113.  
  114. who’d ever dialed a phone or touched a computer. Among those people were about 320 million of my fellow American
  115.  
  116. citizens, who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just
  117.  
  118. the Constitution of the United States, but the basic values of any free society.
  119.  
  120. The reason you’re reading this book is that I did a dangerous thing for a
  121. man in my position: I decided to tell the truth. I collected internal IC documents that  gave  evidence  of  the  US  
  122.  
  123. government’s lawbreaking and turned them over to journalists, who vetted and published them to a scandalized world.
  124.  
  125. This book is about what led up to that decision, the moral and ethical principles that informed it, and how they came
  126.  
  127. to be—which means that it’s also about my life.
  128.  
  129. 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
  130.  
  131. believe in. For me, what I love and believe in the most is connection, human connection, and the technologies by
  132.  
  133. which that is achieved. Those technologies include books, of course. But for my generation, connection has largely
  134.  
  135. meant the Internet.
  136.  
  137. Before you recoil, knowing well the toxic madness that infests that hive in our time, understand that for me, when I
  138.  
  139. came to know it, the Internet was a very different thing. It was a friend, and a parent. It was a community without
  140.  
  141. border or limit, one voice and millions, a common frontier that had been settled but not exploited by diverse tribes
  142.  
  143. living amicably enough side by side, each member of which was free to choose their own name and history and customs.
  144.  
  145. Everyone wore masks, and yet this culture of anonymity- through-polyonymy produced  more  truth  than  falsehood,  
  146.  
  147. because  it  was creative and cooperative rather than commercial and competitive. Certainly, there was conflict, but
  148.  
  149. it was outweighed by goodwill and good feelings—the true pioneering spirit.
  150.  
  151. You will understand, then, when I say that the Internet of today is unrecognizable. It’s  worth  noting  that  this  
  152.  
  153. change  has  been  a  conscious choice, the result of a systematic effort on the part of a privileged few. The early
  154.  
  155. rush to turn commerce into e-commerce quickly led to a bubble, and then, just after the turn of the millennium, to a
  156.  
  157. collapse. After that, companies realized that people who went online were far less interested in spending than in
  158.  
  159. sharing, and that the human connection the Internet made possible could be monetized. If most of what people wanted
  160.  
  161. to do online was to be able to tell their family, friends, and strangers what they were up to, and to be told what
  162.  
  163. their family, friends, and strangers were up to in return, then all companies had to do was figure out how to put
  164.  
  165. themselves in the middle of those social exchanges and turn them into profit.
  166.  
  167. This was the beginning of surveillance capitalism, and the end of the
  168. Internet as I knew it.
  169. Now, it was the creative Web that collapsed, as countless beautiful, difficult, individualistic websites were
  170.  
  171. shuttered. The promise of convenience led people to exchange their personal sites—which demanded constant and
  172.  
  173. laborious upkeep—for a Facebook page and a Gmail account. The appearance of ownership was easy to mistake for the
  174.  
  175. reality of it. Few of us understood it at the time, but none of the things that we’d go on to share would belong to
  176.  
  177. us anymore. The successors to the e-commerce companies that had failed because they couldn’t find anything we were
  178.  
  179. interested in buying now had a new product to sell.
  180.  
  181. That new product was Us.
  182.  
  183. Our attention, our activities, our locations, our desires—everything about us that we revealed, knowingly or not, was
  184.  
  185. being surveilled and sold in secret, so as to delay the inevitable feeling of violation that is, for most of us,
  186.  
  187. coming only now. And this surveillance would go on to be actively encouraged, and even funded by an army of
  188.  
  189. governments greedy for the vast volume of intelligence they would gain. Aside from log-ins and financial
  190.  
  191. transactions, hardly any online communications were encrypted in the early twenty-aughts, which meant that in many
  192.  
  193. cases governments didn’t even need to bother approaching the  companies in  order  to  know what  their  customers
  194.  
  195. were doing. They could just spy on the world without telling a soul.
  196.  
  197. The American government, in total disregard of its founding charter, fell victim to precisely this temptation, and
  198.  
  199. once it had tasted the fruit of this poisonous  tree  it  became  gripped  by  an  unrelenting  fever.  In  secret,  
  200.  
  201. it assumed the  power  of  mass  surveillance, an  authority that  by  definition afflicts the innocent far more than
  202.  
  203. the guilty.
  204.  
  205. It was only when I came to a fuller understanding of this surveillance and its harms that I became haunted by the
  206.  
  207. awareness that we the public—the public of not just one country but of all the world—had never been granted a vote or
  208.  
  209. even a chance to voice our opinion in this process. The system of near-universal surveillance had been set up not
  210.  
  211. just without our consent, but in a way that deliberately hid every aspect of its programs from our knowledge. At
  212.  
  213. every step, the changing procedures and their consequences were kept from everyone, including most lawmakers. To whom
  214.  
  215. 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
  216.  
  217. made so severe a felony that just a basic outlining of the broadest facts would invite a lifetime sentence in a
  218.  
  219. federal cell.
  220.  
  221. I was lost, and fell into a dark mood while I struggled with my conscience. I love my country, and I believe in
  222.  
  223. public service—my whole family, my
  224. whole family line for centuries, is filled with men and women who have spent their lives serving this country and its
  225.  
  226. citizens. I myself had sworn an oath of service not to an agency, nor even a government, but to the public, in
  227.  
  228. support and defense of the Constitution, whose guarantee of civil liberties had been so flagrantly violated. Now I
  229.  
  230. was more than part of that violation: I was party to it. All of that work, all of those years—who was I working for?
  231.  
  232. How was I to balance my contract of secrecy with the agencies that employed me and the oath I’d sworn to my country’s
  233.  
  234. founding principles? To whom, or what, did I owe the greater allegiance? At what point was I morally obliged to break
  235.  
  236. the law?
  237.  
  238. Reflecting on those principles brought me my answers. I realized that coming forward and  disclosing to  journalists
  239.  
  240. the  extent of  my  country’s abuses wouldn’t be advocating for anything radical, like the destruction of the
  241.  
  242. government, or even of the IC. It would be a return to the pursuit of the government’s, and the IC’s, own stated
  243.  
  244. ideals.
  245.  
  246. The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction
  247.  
  248. that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not
  249.  
  250. infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called “liberty”
  251.  
  252. and during the Internet Revolution is called “privacy.”
  253.  
  254. It’s been six years since I came forward because I witnessed a decline in the commitment of so-called advanced
  255.  
  256. governments throughout the world to protecting this privacy, which I regard—and the United Nations regards—as a
  257.  
  258. fundamental human right. In the span of those years, however, this decline has only continued as democracies regress
  259.  
  260. into authoritarian populism. Nowhere has this regression been more apparent than in the relationship of governments
  261.  
  262. to the press.
  263.  
  264. The attempts by elected officials to delegitimize journalism have been aided and abetted by a full-on assault on the
  265.  
  266. principle of truth. What is real is being purposefully conflated with what is fake, through technologies that are
  267.  
  268. capable of scaling that conflation into unprecedented global confusion.
  269.  
  270. I know this process intimately enough, because the creation of irreality has always been the Intelligence Community’s
  271.  
  272. darkest art. The same agencies that, over the span of my career alone, had manipulated intelligence to create a
  273.  
  274. pretext for war—and used illegal policies and a shadow judiciary to permit kidnapping as “extraordinary rendition,”
  275.  
  276. torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and mass surveillance as “bulk collection”—didn’t hesitate for a moment to
  277. call  me  a  Chinese  double  agent,  a  Russian  triple  agent,  and  worse:  “a millennial.”
  278.  
  279. They were able to say so much, and so freely, in large part because I refused to defend myself. From the moment I
  280.  
  281. came forward to the present, I was resolute about never revealing any details of my personal life that might cause
  282.  
  283. further distress to my family and friends, who were already suffering enough for my principles.
  284.  
  285. It was out of a concern for increasing that suffering that I hesitated to write this book. Ultimately, the decision
  286.  
  287. to come forward with evidence of government wrongdoing was easier for me to make than the decision, here, to give an
  288.  
  289. account of my life. The abuses I witnessed demanded action, but no one writes a memoir because they’re unable to
  290.  
  291. resist the dictates of their conscience. This is why I have tried to seek the permission of every family member,
  292.  
  293. friend, and colleague who is named, or otherwise publicly identifiable, in these pages.
  294.  
  295. Just as I refuse to presume to be the sole arbiter of another’s privacy, I never thought that I alone should be able
  296.  
  297. to choose which of my country’s secrets should be made known to the public and which should not. That is why I
  298.  
  299. disclosed the government’s documents only to journalists. In fact, the number of documents that I disclosed directly
  300.  
  301. to the public is zero.
  302.  
  303. I believe, just as those journalists believe, that a government may keep some information concealed. Even the most
  304.  
  305. transparent democracy in the world may be allowed to classify, for example, the identity of its undercover agents and
  306.  
  307. the movements of its troops in the field. This book includes no such secrets.
  308.  
  309. To give an account of my life while protecting the privacy of my loved ones and not exposing legitimate government
  310.  
  311. secrets is no simple task, but it is my task. Between those two responsibilities—that is where to find me.
  312. PART ONE
  313. 1
  314.  
  315. Looking Through the Window
  316.  
  317. The first thing I ever hacked was bedtime.
  318.  
  319. It felt unfair, being forced by my parents to go to sleep—before they went to sleep, before my sister went to sleep,
  320.  
  321. when I wasn’t even tired. Life’s first little injustice.
  322.  
  323. Many of the first 2,000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience: crying, begging, bargaining, until—on
  324.  
  325. night 2,193, the night I turned six years old—I discovered direct action. The authorities weren’t interested in calls
  326.  
  327. for reform, and I wasn’t born yesterday. I had just had one of the best days of my young life, complete with friends,
  328.  
  329. a party, and even gifts, and I wasn’t about to let it end just because everyone else had to go home. So I went about
  330.  
  331. covertly resetting all the clocks in the house by several hours. The microwave’s clock was easier than the stove’s to
  332.  
  333. roll back, if only because it was easier to reach.
  334.  
  335. When the authorities—in their unlimited ignorance—failed to notice, I was mad with power, galloping laps around the
  336.  
  337. 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
  338.  
  339. the floor, having finally seen the sunset on June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. When I awoke,
  340.  
  341. the clocks in the house once again matched my father’s watch.
  342.  
  343.  
  344.  
  345. IF ANYBODY BOTHERED to set a watch today, how would they know what to set it to? If you’re like most people these
  346.  
  347. days, you’d set it to the time on your smartphone. But if you look at your phone, and I mean really look at it,
  348.  
  349. burrowing deep through its menus into its settings, you’ll eventually see that the phone’s time is “automatically
  350.  
  351. set.” Every so often, your phone quietly—
  352. silently—asks your service provider’s network, “Hey, do you have the time?”
  353. That network, in turn, asks a bigger network, which asks an even bigger network, and so on through a great succession
  354.  
  355. of towers and wires until the request reaches one of the true masters of time, a Network Time Server run by or  
  356.  
  357. referenced against  the  atomic  clocks  kept  at  places  like  the  National Institute of Standards and Technology
  358.  
  359. in the United States, the Federal Institute of Meteorology and Climatology in Switzerland, and the National Institute
  360.  
  361. of Information and Communications Technology in Japan. That long invisible journey, accomplished in a fraction of a
  362.  
  363. second, is why you don’t see
  364. a blinking 12:00 on your phone’s screen every time you power it up again after its battery runs out.
  365.  
  366. 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
  367.  
  368. US Department of Defense split its internal system of interconnected computers in half, creating one network for the
  369.  
  370. use of the defense establishment, called MILNET, and another network for the public, called the Internet. Before the
  371.  
  372. year was out, new rules defined the boundaries of this virtual space, giving rise to the Domain Name System that we
  373.  
  374. still use today—the.govs, .mils,.edus, and, of course,.coms—and the country codes assigned to the rest of the
  375.  
  376. world:.uk, .de, .fr, .cn, .ru, and so on. Already, my country (and so I) had an advantage, an edge. And yet it would
  377.  
  378. be another six years before the World Wide Web was invented, and about nine years before my family got a computer
  379.  
  380. with a modem that could connect to it.
  381.  
  382. Of course, the Internet is not a single entity, although we tend to refer to it as if it were. The technical reality
  383.  
  384. is that there are new networks born every day on the global cluster of interconnected communications networks that
  385.  
  386. you
  387. —and about three billion other people, or roughly 42 percent of the world’s population—use regularly. Still, I’m
  388.  
  389. going to use the term in its broadest sense, to mean the universal network of networks connecting the majority of the
  390.  
  391. world’s computers to one another via a set of shared protocols.
  392.  
  393. Some of you may worry that you don’t know a protocol from a hole in the wall, but all of us have made use of many.
  394.  
  395. Think of protocols as languages for machines, the common rules they follow to be understood by one another. If you’re
  396.  
  397. around my age, you might remember having to type the “http” at the beginning of a website’s address into the address
  398.  
  399. bar of your Web browser. This refers to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, the language you use to access the World
  400.  
  401. Wide Web, that massive collection of mostly text-based but also audio-  and  video-capable sites  like  Google  and  
  402.  
  403. YouTube and  Facebook. Every time you check your email, you use a language like IMAP (Internet Message Access
  404.  
  405. Protocol), SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), or POP3 (Post Office Protocol). File transfers pass through the
  406.  
  407. Internet using FTP (File Transfer Protocol). And as for the time-setting procedure on your phone that I mentioned,
  408.  
  409. those updates get fetched through NTP (Network Time Protocol).
  410.  
  411. All these protocols are known as application protocols, and comprise just one family of protocols among the myriad
  412.  
  413. online. For example, in order for the data in any of these application protocols to cross the Internet and be
  414.  
  415. delivered to your desktop, or laptop, or phone, it first has to be packaged up inside a dedicated transport protocol
  416.  
  417. —think of how the regular snail-mail
  418. postal service prefers you to send your letters and parcels in their standard- size envelopes and boxes. TCP
  419.  
  420. (Transmission Control Protocol) is used to route, among other applications, Web pages and email. UDP (User Datagram
  421.  
  422. Protocol) is used to route more time-sensitive, real-time applications, such as Internet telephony and live
  423.  
  424. broadcasts.
  425.  
  426. Any recounting of the multilayered workings of what in my childhood was called cyberspace, the Net, the Infobahn, and
  427.  
  428. the Information Superhighway is bound to be incomplete, but the takeaway is this: these protocols have given us the
  429.  
  430. means to digitize and put online damn near everything in the world that we don’t eat, drink, wear, or dwell in. The
  431.  
  432. Internet has become almost as  integral to  our  lives as  the air  through which so  many of  its communications
  433.  
  434. travel. And, as we’ve all been reminded—every time our social media feeds alert us to a post that tags us in a
  435.  
  436. compromising light—to digitize something is to record it, in a format that will last forever.
  437.  
  438. Here’s what strikes me when I think back to my childhood, particularly those first nine Internet-less years: I can’t
  439.  
  440. account for everything that happened back then, because I have only my memory to rely on. The data just doesn’t
  441.  
  442. exist. When I was a child, “the unforgettable experience” was not yet a threateningly literal technological
  443.  
  444. description, but a passionate metaphorical prescription of significance: my first words, my first steps, my first
  445.  
  446. lost tooth, my first time riding a bicycle.
  447.  
  448. My generation was the last in American and perhaps even in world history for which this is true—the last undigitized
  449.  
  450. generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries
  451.  
  452. and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost
  453.  
  454. irretrievably. My schoolwork was done on paper with pencils and erasers, not on networked tablets that logged my
  455.  
  456. keystrokes. My growth spurts weren’t tracked by smart-home technologies, but notched with a knife into the wood of
  457.  
  458. the door frame of the house in which I grew up.
  459.  
  460.  
  461.  
  462. WE LIVED IN a grand old redbrick house on a little patch of lawn shaded by dogwood trees and strewn in summer with
  463.  
  464. white magnolia flowers that served as cover for the plastic army men I used to crawl around with. The house had an
  465.  
  466. atypical layout: its main entrance was on the second floor, accessed by a massive brick staircase. This floor was the
  467.  
  468. primary living space, with the
  469. kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms.
  470. Above this main floor was a dusty, cobwebbed, and forbidden attic given over to storage, haunted by what my mother
  471.  
  472. promised me were squirrels, but what my father insisted were vampire werewolves that would devour any child foolish
  473.  
  474. enough to venture up there. Below the main floor was a more or less finished basement—a rarity in North Carolina,
  475.  
  476. especially so close to the coast. Basements tend to flood, and ours, certainly, was perennially damp, despite the
  477.  
  478. constant workings of the dehumidifier and sump pump.
  479.  
  480. At the time my family moved in, the back of the main floor was extended and divided up into a laundry room, a
  481.  
  482. 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
  483.  
  484. window set into what had originally been the exterior wall of the house. This window, which once looked outside, now
  485.  
  486. looked inside.
  487.  
  488. For nearly all the years that my family spent in that house in Elizabeth City, this bedroom was mine, and its window
  489.  
  490. was, too. Though the window had a curtain, it didn’t provide much, if any, privacy. From as far back as I can
  491.  
  492. remember, my favorite activity was to tug the curtain aside and peek through the window into the den. Which is to
  493.  
  494. say, from as far back as I can remember, my favorite activity was spying.
  495.  
  496. I spied on my older sister, Jessica, who was allowed to stay up later than I was and watch the cartoons that I was
  497.  
  498. still too young for. I spied on my mother, Wendy, who’d sit on the couch to fold the laundry while watching the
  499.  
  500. nightly news. But the person I spied on the most was my father, Lon—or, as he was called in the Southern style,
  501.  
  502. Lonnie—who’d commandeer the den into the wee hours.
  503.  
  504. My father was in the Coast Guard, though at the time I didn’t have the slightest clue what that meant. I knew that
  505.  
  506. sometimes he wore a uniform and sometimes he didn’t. He left home early and came home late, often with new gadgets—a
  507.  
  508. Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator, a Casio stopwatch on a lanyard, a single speaker for a home stereo
  509.  
  510. system—some of which he’d show me, and some of which he’d hide. You can imagine which I was more interested in.
  511.  
  512. The gadget I was most interested in arrived one night, just after bedtime. I was in bed and about to drift off, when
  513.  
  514. I heard my father’s footsteps coming down the hall. I stood up on my bed, tugged aside the curtain, and watched. He
  515.  
  516. was holding a mysterious box, close in size to a shoe box, and he removed from it a beige object that looked like a
  517.  
  518. cinder block, from which long black cables snaked like the tentacles of some deep-sea monster out of one of my
  519.  
  520. nightmares.
  521. Working slowly and methodically—which was partially his disciplined, engineer’s way of doing everything, and
  522.  
  523. partially an attempt to stay quiet— my father untangled the cables and stretched one across the shag carpet from the
  524.  
  525. back of the box to the back of the TV. Then he plugged the other cable into a wall outlet behind the couch.
  526.  
  527. Suddenly the TV lit up, and with it my father’s face lit up, too. Normally he would just spend his evenings sitting
  528.  
  529. on the couch, cracking Sun Drop sodas  and  watching the  people on  TV  run  around a  field,  but  this  was
  530.  
  531. different. It took me only a moment to come to the most amazing realization of my whole entire, though admittedly
  532.  
  533. short, life: my father was controlling what was happening on TV.
  534.  
  535. I had come face-to-face with a Commodore 64—one of the first home computer systems on the market.
  536.  
  537. 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
  538.  
  539. working. Although he was smiling and seemed to be having fun, he was also applying himself to what was happening on-
  540.  
  541. screen with the same intensity with which he applied himself to every mechanical task around the house. I knew only
  542.  
  543. one thing: whatever he was doing, I wanted to do it, too.
  544.  
  545. After that, whenever my father came into the den to break out the beige brick,  I’d  stand  up  on  my  bed,  tug  
  546.  
  547. away  the  curtain,  and  spy  on  his adventures. One night the screen showed a falling ball and a bar at the
  548.  
  549. bottom; my father had to move the bar horizontally to hit the ball, bounce it up, and knock down a wall of
  550.  
  551. multicolored bricks (Arkanoid). On another night, he sat before a screen of multicolored bricks in different shapes;
  552.  
  553. they were always falling, and as they fell he moved and rotated them to assemble them into perfect rows, which
  554.  
  555. immediately vanished (Tetris). I was truly confused, however, about what my father was doing—recreation or part of
  556.  
  557. his job—when I peeked through the window one night and saw him flying.
  558.  
  559. My  father—who’d  always  delighted  me  by  pointing  out  the  real helicopters from the Coast Guard Air Base when
  560.  
  561. they flew by the house— was piloting his own helicopter right here, right in front of me, in our den. He took off
  562.  
  563. from a little base, complete with a tiny waving American flag, into a black night sky full of twinkling stars, and
  564.  
  565. then immediately crashed to the ground. He gave a little cry that masked my own, but just when I thought the fun was
  566.  
  567. over, he was right back at the little base again with the tiny flag, taking off one more time.
  568. The game was called Choplifter! and that exclamation point wasn’t just part of its name, it was also part of the
  569.  
  570. experience of playing it. Choplifter! was thrilling. Again and again I watched these sorties fly out of our den and
  571.  
  572. over a flat desert moon, shooting at, and being shot at by, enemy jets and enemy tanks. The helicopter kept landing
  573.  
  574. and lifting off, as my father tried to rescue a flashing crowd of people and ferry them to safety. That was my
  575.  
  576. earliest sense of my father: he was a hero.
  577.  
  578. The cheer that came from the couch the first time that the diminutive helicopter touched down intact with a full load
  579.  
  580. of miniature people was just a little too loud. My father’s head snapped to the window to check whether he’d
  581.  
  582. disturbed me, and he caught me dead in the eyes.
  583.  
  584. I leaped into bed, pulled up the blanket, and lay perfectly still as my father’s heavy steps approached my room.
  585.  
  586. He tapped on the window. “It’s past your bedtime, buddy. Are you still up?”
  587.  
  588. I held my breath. Suddenly, he opened the window, reached into my bedroom, picked me up—blanket and all—and pulled me
  589.  
  590. through into the den. It all happened so quickly, my feet never even touched the carpet.
  591.  
  592. Before I knew it, I was sitting on my father’s lap as his copilot. I was too young and too excited to realize that
  593.  
  594. the joystick he’d given me wasn’t plugged in. All that mattered was that I was flying alongside my father.
  595. 2
  596.  
  597. The Invisible Wall
  598.  
  599. Elizabeth City is a quaint, midsize port town with a relatively intact historic core. Like most other early American
  600.  
  601. settlements, it grew around the water, in this case around the banks of the Pasquotank River, whose name is an
  602.  
  603. English corruption of an Algonquin word meaning “where the current forks.” The river flows down from Chesapeake Bay,
  604.  
  605. through the swamps of the Virginia– North  Carolina border, and  empties into  Albemarle Sound  alongside the Chowan,
  606.  
  607. the Perquimans, and other rivers. Whenever I consider what other directions my life might have taken, I think of that
  608.  
  609. watershed: no matter the particular course the water travels from its source, it still ultimately arrives at the same
  610.  
  611. destination.
  612.  
  613. My family has always been connected to the sea, my mother’s side in particular. Her heritage is straight Pilgrim—her
  614.  
  615. first ancestor on these shores was John Alden, the Mayflower’s cooper, or barrelmaker. He became the husband of a
  616.  
  617. fellow passenger named Priscilla Mullins, who had the dubious distinction of being the only single woman of
  618.  
  619. marriageable age onboard, and so the only single woman of marriageable age in the whole first generation of the
  620.  
  621. Plymouth Colony.
  622.  
  623. John and Priscilla’s Thanksgiving-time coupling almost never happened, however, due to the meddling of the commander
  624.  
  625. of the Plymouth Colony, Myles Standish. His love for Priscilla, and Priscilla’s rejection of him and eventual
  626.  
  627. marriage to John, became the basis of a literary work that was referenced throughout my youth, The Courtship of Miles
  628.  
  629. Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (himself an Alden-Mullins descendant):
  630.  
  631. Nothing was heard in the room but the hurrying pen of the stripling, Busily writing epistles important, to go by the
  632.  
  633. Mayflower,
  634. Ready to sail on the morrow, or next day at latest, God willing! Homeward bound with the tidings of all that terrible
  635.  
  636. winter, Letters written by Alden, and full of the name of Priscilla,
  637. Full of the name and the fame of the Puritan maiden Priscilla!
  638.  
  639. John and Priscilla’s daughter, Elizabeth, was the first Pilgrim child born in New England. My mother, whose name is
  640.  
  641. also Elizabeth, is her direct descendant. Because the lineage is almost exclusively through the women, though, the
  642.  
  643. surnames changed with nearly every generation—with an Alden marrying a Pabodie marrying a Grinnell marrying a
  644.  
  645. Stephens marrying a Jocelin. These seafaring ancestors of mine sailed down the coast from what’s
  646. now Massachusetts to Connecticut and New Jersey—plying trade routes and dodging pirates between the Colonies and the
  647.  
  648. Caribbean—until, with the Revolutionary War, the Jocelin line settled in North Carolina.
  649.  
  650. Amaziah Jocelin, also spelled Amasiah Josselyn, among other variants, was  a  privateer  and  war  hero.  As  captain
  651.  
  652.  of  the  ten-gun  barque  The Firebrand, he was credited with the defense of Cape Fear. Following American
  653.  
  654. independence, he became the US Navy Agent, or supply officer, of the Port of Wilmington, where he also established
  655.  
  656. the city’s first chamber of commerce, which he  called, funnily enough, the  Intelligence-Office. The Jocelins and
  657.  
  658. their descendants—the Moores and Halls and Meylands and Howells and Stevens and Restons and Stokleys—who comprise the
  659.  
  660. rest of my mother’s side fought in every war in my country’s history, from the Revolution and the Civil War (in which
  661.  
  662. the Carolinian relatives fought for the Confederacy against their New England/Union cousins), to both world wars.
  663.  
  664. Mine is a family that has always answered the call of duty.
  665.  
  666. My  maternal grandfather, whom I  call  Pop,  is  better known as  Rear Admiral Edward J. Barrett. At the time of my
  667.  
  668. birth he was deputy chief, aeronautical engineering division, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, DC. He’d go on to
  669.  
  670. hold various engineering and operational commands, from Governors Island,  New  York  City,  to  Key  West,  Florida,
  671.  
  672.  where  he  was director   of   the   Joint   Interagency   Task   Force   East   (a   multiagency, multinational US  
  673.  
  674. Coast  Guard–led force  dedicated  to  the  interdiction of narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean). I wasn’t aware
  675.  
  676. of how high up the ranks Pop was rising, but I knew that the welcome-to-command ceremonies became more elaborate as
  677.  
  678. time went on, with longer speeches and larger cakes. I remember the souvenir I was given by the artillery guard at
  679.  
  680. one of them: the shell casing of a 40mm round, still warm and smelling like powdered hell, which had just been fired
  681.  
  682. in a salute in Pop’s honor.
  683.  
  684. Then there’s my father, Lon, who at the time of my birth was a chief petty officer at the Coast Guard’s Aviation
  685.  
  686. Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, working as a curriculum designer and electronics instructor. He was
  687.  
  688. often away, leaving my mother at home to raise my sister and me. To give us a sense of responsibility, she gave us
  689.  
  690. chores; to teach us how to read, she labeled all our dresser drawers with their contents—SOCKS, UNDERWEAR. She
  691. would load us into our Red Flyer wagon and tow us to the local library, where I  immediately made  for  my  favorite  
  692.  
  693. section,  the  one  that  I  called  “Big Masheens.” Whenever my mother asked me if I was interested in any specific
  694.  
  695. “Big  Masheen,”  I  was  unstoppable: “Dump  trucks  and  steamrollers  and forklifts and cranes and—”
  696. “Is that all, buddy?”
  697.  
  698. “Oh,” I’d say, “and also cement mixers and bulldozers and—”
  699.  
  700. My mother loved giving me math challenges. At Kmart or Winn-Dixie, she’d have me pick out books and model cars and
  701.  
  702. trucks and buy them for me if I was able to mentally add together their prices. Over the course of my childhood, she
  703.  
  704. kept escalating the difficulty, first having me estimate and round to the nearest dollar, then having me figure out
  705.  
  706. the precise dollar-and- cents amount, and then having me calculate 3 percent of that amount and add it on to the
  707.  
  708. total. I was confused by that last challenge—not by the arithmetic so much as by the reasoning. “Why?”
  709.  
  710. “It’s called tax,” my mother explained. “Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government.”
  711.  
  712. “What do they do with it?”
  713.  
  714. “You like roads, buddy? You like bridges?” she said. “The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money
  715.  
  716. to fill the library with books.”
  717.  
  718. Some time later, I was afraid that my budding math skills had failed me, when my mental totals didn’t match those on
  719.  
  720. the cash register’s display. But once again, my mother explained. “They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add
  721.  
  722. four percent.”
  723.  
  724. “So now the library will get even more books?” I asked. “Let’s hope,” my mother said.
  725. My grandmother lived a few streets over from us, across from the Carolina Feed and Seed Mill and a towering pecan
  726.  
  727. tree. After stretching out my shirt to make a basket to fill with fallen pecans, I’d go up to her house and lie on
  728.  
  729. the carpet beside the long low bookshelves. My usual company was an edition of Aesop’s Fables and, perhaps my
  730.  
  731. favorite, Bulfinch’s Mythology. I would leaf through the pages, pausing only to crack a few nuts while I absorbed
  732.  
  733. accounts of flying horses, intricate labyrinths, and serpent-haired Gorgons who turned mortals to stone. I was in awe
  734.  
  735. of Odysseus, and liked Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Athena well enough, but the deity I admired most had to be
  736.  
  737. Hephaestus: the  ugly  god  of  fire,  volcanoes, blacksmiths, and  carpenters, the  god  of tinkerers. I was proud
  738.  
  739. of being able to spell his Greek name, and of knowing that his Roman name, Vulcan, was used for the home planet of
  740.  
  741. Spock from Star Trek. The fundamental premise of the Greco-Roman pantheon always stuck with me. Up at the summit of
  742.  
  743. some mountain there was this gang of
  744. gods and goddesses who spent most of their infinite existence fighting with each other and spying on the business of
  745.  
  746. humanity. Occasionally, when they noticed   something   that   intrigued   or   disturbed   them,   they   disguised
  747.  
  748. themselves, as  lambs and  swans and  lions, and  descended the  slopes of Olympus to investigate and meddle. It was
  749.  
  750. often a disaster—someone always drowned, or was struck by lightning, or was turned into a tree—whenever the immortals
  751.  
  752. sought to impose their will and interfere in mortal affairs.
  753.  
  754. Once, I picked up an illustrated version of the legends of King Arthur and his knights, and found myself reading
  755.  
  756. about another legendary mountain, this one in Wales. It served as the fortress of a tyrannical giant named Rhitta
  757.  
  758. Gawr, who refused to accept that the age of his reign had passed and that in the future the world would be ruled by
  759.  
  760. human kings, whom he considered tiny and weak. Determined to keep himself in power, he descended from his peak,
  761.  
  762. attacking kingdom after kingdom and vanquishing their armies. Eventually he managed to defeat and kill every single
  763.  
  764. king of Wales and Scotland. Upon  killing  them  he  shaved  off  their  beards  and  wove  them together into a
  765.  
  766. cloak, which he wore as a gory trophy. Then he decided to challenge the strongest king of Britain, King Arthur,
  767.  
  768. giving him a choice: Arthur could either shave off his own beard and surrender, or Rhitta Gawr would decapitate the
  769.  
  770. king and remove the beard himself. Enraged at this hubris, Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr’s mountain fortress. The
  771.  
  772. king and the giant met on the highest peak and battled each other for days, until Arthur was gravely wounded. Just as
  773.  
  774. Rhitta Gawr grabbed the king by the hair and prepared to cut off his head, Arthur summoned a last measure of strength
  775.  
  776. and sank his fabled sword through the eye of the giant, who toppled over dead. Arthur and his knights then went about
  777.  
  778. piling up a funeral cairn atop Rhitta Gawr’s corpse, but before they could complete the work, snow began to fall. As
  779.  
  780. they departed, the giant’s bloodstained beard-cloak was returned to perfect whiteness.
  781.  
  782. The mountain was called Snaw Dun, which, a note explained, was Old English for “snow mound.” Today, Snaw Dun is
  783.  
  784. called Mount Snowdon. A long-extinct volcano, it is, at approximately 3,560 feet, the highest peak in Wales. I
  785.  
  786. remember the feeling of encountering my name in this context—it was thrilling—and the archaic spelling gave me my
  787.  
  788. first palpable sense that the world was older than I was, even older than my parents were. The name’s association
  789.  
  790. with the heroic exploits of Arthur and Lancelot and Gawain and Percival and Tristan and the other Knights of the
  791.  
  792. Round Table gave me pride
  793. —until I learned that these exploits weren’t historical, but legendary.
  794.  
  795. Years later, with my mother’s help, I would scour the library in the hopes
  796. of separating the mythical from the factual. I found out that Stirling Castle in Scotland had  been  renamed Snowdon
  797.  
  798. Castle, in  honor of  this  Arthurian victory, as part of an attempt by the Scots to shore up their claim to the
  799.  
  800. throne of England. Reality, I learned, is nearly always messier and less flattering than we might want it to be, but
  801.  
  802. also in some strange way often richer than the myths.
  803.  
  804. By the time I uncovered the truth about Arthur, I had long been obsessed with  a  new  and  different type  of  
  805.  
  806. story,  or  a  new  and  different type  of storytelling. On Christmas 1989, a Nintendo appeared in the house. I took
  807.  
  808. to that two-tone-gray console so completely that my alarmed mother imposed a rule: I could only rent a new game when
  809.  
  810. I finished reading a book. Games were expensive, and, having already mastered the ones that had come with the
  811.  
  812. console—a single cartridge combining Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt—I was eager for other challenges. The only snag
  813.  
  814. was that, at six years old, I couldn’t read as fast as I could complete a game. It was time for another of my
  815.  
  816. neophyte hacks. I started coming home from the library with shorter books, and books with lots of pictures. There
  817.  
  818. were visual encyclopedias of inventions, with crazy drawings of velocipedes and blimps, and comic books that I
  819.  
  820. realized only later were abridged, for-kids versions of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.
  821.  
  822. It was the NES—the janky but genius 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System—that was my real education. From The Legend
  823.  
  824. of Zelda, I learned that the world exists to be explored; from Mega Man, I learned that my enemies have much to
  825.  
  826. teach; and from Duck Hunt, well, Duck Hunt taught me that even if someone laughs at your failures, it doesn’t mean
  827.  
  828. you get to shoot them in the face. Ultimately, though, it was Super Mario Bros. that taught me what remains perhaps
  829.  
  830. the most important lesson of my life. I  am being perfectly sincere. I am asking you to consider this seriously.
  831.  
  832. Super Mario Bros., the 1.0 edition, is perhaps the all-time masterpiece of side-scrolling games. When the game
  833.  
  834. begins, Mario is standing all the way to the left of the legendary opening screen, and he can only go in one
  835.  
  836. direction: He can only move to the right, as new scenery and enemies scroll in from that side. He progresses through
  837.  
  838. eight worlds of four levels each, all of them governed by time  constraints, until  he  reaches  the  evil  Bowser  
  839.  
  840. and  frees  the  captive Princess Toadstool. Throughout all thirty-two levels, Mario exists in front of what in
  841.  
  842. gaming parlance is called “an invisible wall,” which doesn’t allow him to go backward. There is no turning back, only
  843.  
  844. going forward—for Mario and Luigi, for me, and for you. Life only scrolls in one direction, which is the direction of
  845.  
  846. time, and no matter how far we might manage to go, that invisible
  847. wall will always be just behind us, cutting us off from the past, compelling us on into the unknown. A small kid
  848.  
  849. growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1980s has to get a sense of mortality from somewhere, so why not from
  850.  
  851. two Italian-immigrant plumber brothers with an appetite for sewer mushrooms?
  852.  
  853. One day my much-used Super Mario Bros. cartridge wasn’t loading, no matter how much I blew into it. That’s what you
  854.  
  855. 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
  856.  
  857. it of the dust, debris, and pet hair that tended to accumulate there. But no matter how much I blew, both into the
  858.  
  859. cartridge and into the cartridge slot of the console itself, the TV screen was full of blotches and waves, which were
  860.  
  861. not reassuring in the least.
  862.  
  863. In retrospect, the Nintendo was probably just suffering from a faulty pin connection, but given that my seven-year-
  864.  
  865. old self didn’t even know what a pin connection was, I was frustrated and desperate. Worst of all, my father had only
  866.  
  867. just left on a Coast Guard trip and wouldn’t be back to help me fix it for two weeks. I knew of no Mario-style time-
  868.  
  869. warping tricks or pipes to dive into that would make those weeks pass quicker, so I resolved to fix the thing myself.
  870.  
  871. If I succeeded, I knew my father would be impressed. I went out to the garage to find his gray metal toolbox.
  872.  
  873. I decided that to figure out what was wrong with the thing, first I had to take it apart. Basically, I was just
  874.  
  875. copying, or trying to copy, the same motions that my father went through whenever he sat at the kitchen table
  876.  
  877. repairing the house’s VCR or cassette deck—the two household machines that, to my eye, the Nintendo console most
  878.  
  879. closely resembled. It took me about an hour to dismantle the console, with my uncoordinated and very small hands
  880.  
  881. trying to twist a flat screwdriver into Philips-head screws, but eventually I succeeded.
  882.  
  883. The console’s exterior was a dull, monochrome gray, but the interior was a welter of colors. It seemed like there was
  884.  
  885. an entire rainbow of wires and glints of silver and gold jutting out of the green-as-grass circuitboard. I tightened
  886.  
  887. a few things here, loosened a few things there—more or less at random—and blew on every part. After that, I wiped
  888.  
  889. them all down with a paper towel. Then I had to blow on the circuitboard again to remove the bits of paper towel that
  890.  
  891. had gotten stuck to what I now know were the pins.
  892.  
  893. Once I’d finished my cleaning and repairs, it was time for reassembly. Our golden Lab, Treasure, might have swallowed
  894.  
  895. 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
  896.  
  897. components back in the same way I’d found them, because they barely fit into
  898. the console’s shell.  The  shell’s  lid  kept  popping off,  so  I  found  myself squeezing the components down, the
  899.  
  900. way you try to shut an overstuffed suitcase. Finally the lid snapped into place, but only on one side. The other side
  901.  
  902. bulged up, and snapping that side into place only caused the first side to bulge. I went back and forth like that for
  903.  
  904. a while, until I finally gave up and plugged the unit in again.
  905.  
  906. I pressed the Power button—and nothing. I pressed the Reset button—and nothing. Those were the only two buttons on
  907.  
  908. the console. Before my repairs, the light next to the buttons had always glowed molten red, but now even that was
  909.  
  910. dead. The console just sat there lopsided and useless, and I felt a surge of guilt and dread.
  911.  
  912. My father, when he came home from his Coast Guard trip, wasn’t going to be proud of me: he was going to jump on my
  913.  
  914. head like a Goomba. But it wasn’t his anger I feared so much as his disappointment. To his peers, my father was a
  915.  
  916. master electronics systems engineer who specialized in avionics. To me, he was a household mad scientist who’d try to
  917.  
  918. fix everything himself
  919. —electrical outlets, dishwashers, hot-water heaters, and AC units. I’d work as his helper whenever he’d let me, and
  920.  
  921. in the process I’d come to know both the physical pleasures of manual work and the intellectual pleasures of basic
  922.  
  923. mechanics, along with the fundamental principles of electronics—the differences between voltage and current, between
  924.  
  925. power and resistance. Every job we undertook together would end either in a successful act of repair or a curse, as
  926.  
  927. my father would fling the unsalvageable piece of equipment across the room and into the cardboard box of things-
  928.  
  929. that-can’t-be-unbroken. I never judged him for these failures—I was always too impressed by the fact that he had
  930.  
  931. dared to hazard an attempt.
  932.  
  933. When he returned home and found out what I’d done to the NES, he wasn’t angry, much to my surprise. He wasn’t exactly
  934.  
  935. pleased, either, but he was patient. He explained that understanding why and how things had gone wrong was every bit
  936.  
  937. as important as understanding what component had failed: figuring out the why and how would let you prevent the same
  938.  
  939. malfunction from happening again in the future. He pointed to each of the console’s parts in turn, explaining not
  940.  
  941. just what it was, but what it did, and how it interacted with all the other parts to contribute to the correct
  942.  
  943. working of the mechanism. Only by analyzing a mechanism in its individual parts were you able to determine whether
  944.  
  945. its design was the most efficient to achieve its task. If it was the most efficient, just malfunctioning, then you
  946.  
  947. fixed it. But if not, then you made modifications to improve the mechanism. This was the only proper protocol for
  948.  
  949. repair jobs, according to my father, and
  950. nothing about it was optional—in fact, this was the fundamental responsibility you had to technology.
  951.  
  952. Like all my father’s lessons, this one had broad applications beyond our immediate task. Ultimately, it was a lesson
  953.  
  954. in the principle of self-reliance, which my father insisted that America had forgotten sometime between his own
  955.  
  956. childhood and mine. Ours was now a country in which the cost of replacing a broken machine with a newer model was
  957.  
  958. typically lower than the cost of having it fixed by an expert, which itself was typically lower than the cost of
  959.  
  960. sourcing the parts and figuring out how to fix it yourself. This fact alone virtually guaranteed technological
  961.  
  962. tyranny, which was perpetuated not by the technology itself but by the ignorance of everyone who used it daily and
  963.  
  964. yet failed to understand it. To refuse to inform yourself about the basic operation and maintenance of the equipment
  965.  
  966. you depended on was to passively accept that tyranny and agree to its terms: when your equipment works, you’ll work,
  967.  
  968. but when your equipment breaks down you’ll break down, too. Your possessions would possess you.
  969.  
  970. It turned out that I had probably just broken a solder joint, but to find out exactly which one, my father wanted to
  971.  
  972. use special test equipment that he had access to at his laboratory at the Coast Guard base. I suppose he could have
  973.  
  974. brought the test equipment home with him, but for some reason he brought me to work instead. I think he just wanted
  975.  
  976. to show me his lab. He’d decided I was ready.
  977.  
  978. I wasn’t. I’d never been anywhere so impressive. Not even the library. Not even the Radio Shack at the Lynnhaven
  979.  
  980. Mall. What I remember most are the screens. The lab itself was dim and empty, the standard-issue beige and white of
  981.  
  982. government construction, but even before my father hit the lights I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the pulsating
  983.  
  984. glow of electric green. Why does this place have so many TVs? was my first thought, quickly followed up by, And why
  985.  
  986. are they all tuned to the same channel? My father explained that these weren’t TVs but computers, and though I’d
  987.  
  988. heard the word before, I didn’t know what it meant. I think I initially assumed that the screens—the monitors
  989. —were the computers themselves.
  990.  
  991. He went on to show them to me, one by one, and tried to explain what they did: this one processed radar signals, and
  992.  
  993. that one relayed radio transmissions, and yet another one simulated the electronic systems on aircraft. I won’t
  994.  
  995. pretend that I understood even half of it. These computers were more advanced than nearly everything in use at that
  996.  
  997. time in the private sector,  far  ahead  of  almost  anything  I  had  ever  imagined.  Sure,  their
  998. processing units took a full five minutes to boot, their displays only showed one color, and they had no speakers for
  999.  
  1000. sound effects or music. But those limitations only marked them as serious.
  1001.  
  1002. My father plopped me down in a chair, raising it until I could just about reach the desk, and the rectangular hunk of
  1003.  
  1004. 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
  1005.  
  1006. me type on his Commodore 64, and my screen time had been restricted to video game consoles with their purpose-built
  1007.  
  1008. controllers. But these computers were  professional,  general-purpose machines,  not  gaming  devices,  and  I didn’t
  1009.  
  1010. understand how to make them work. There was no controller, no joystick, no gun—the only interface was that flat hunk
  1011.  
  1012. of plastic set with rows of keys printed with letters and numbers. The letters were even arranged in a different
  1013.  
  1014. order than the one that I’d been taught at school. The first letter was not A but Q, followed by W, E, R, T, and Y.
  1015.  
  1016. At least the numbers were in the same order in which I’d learned them.
  1017.  
  1018. My father told me that every key on the keyboard had a purpose—every letter, every number—and that their combinations
  1019.  
  1020. had purposes, too. And just like with the buttons on a controller or joystick, if you could figure out the right
  1021.  
  1022. combinations, you could work miracles. To demonstrate, he reached over me, typed a command, and pressed the Enter
  1023.  
  1024. 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
  1025.  
  1026. and scribbled out some letters and numbers, and told me to type them up exactly while he went off to repair the
  1027.  
  1028. broken Nintendo.
  1029.  
  1030. The moment he was gone, I began reproducing his scribbles on-screen by pecking away at the keys. A left-handed kid
  1031.  
  1032. raised to be a rightie, I immediately found this to be the most natural method of writing I’d ever encountered.
  1033.  
  1034. 10 INPUT “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”; NAME$
  1035.  
  1036. 20 PRINT “HELLO, “+ NAME$ + “!”
  1037.  
  1038. It may sound easy to you, but you’re not a young child. I was. I was a young  child  with  chubby,  stubby  fingers  
  1039.  
  1040. who  didn’t  even  know  what quotation marks were, let alone that I had to hold down the Shift key in order to type
  1041.  
  1042. them. After a whole lot of trial, and a whole lot of error, I finally succeeded in finishing the file. I pressed
  1043.  
  1044. Enter and, in a flash, the computer was asking me a question: WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
  1045.  
  1046. I was fascinated. The note didn’t say what I was supposed do next, so I
  1047. decided to answer, and pressed my new friend Enter once more. Suddenly, out
  1048. of nowhere, HELLO, EDDIE! wrote itself on-screen in a radioactive green that floated atop the blackness.
  1049.  
  1050. This was my introduction to programming and to computing in general: a lesson in the fact that these machines do what
  1051.  
  1052. they do because somebody tells them to, in a very special, very careful way. And that somebody can even be seven
  1053.  
  1054. years old.
  1055.  
  1056. Almost immediately, I grasped the limitations of gaming systems. They were stifling in comparison to computer
  1057.  
  1058. systems. Nintendo, Atari, Sega— they all confined you to levels and worlds that you could advance through, even
  1059.  
  1060. defeat, but never change. The repaired Nintendo console went back to the den, where my father and I competed in two-
  1061.  
  1062. player Mario Kart, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter. By that point, I was significantly better than him at all those
  1063.  
  1064. games—the first pursuit at which I proved more adept than my father—but every so often I’d let him beat me. I didn’t
  1065.  
  1066. want him to think that I wasn’t grateful.
  1067.  
  1068. I’m not a natural programmer, and I’ve never considered myself any good at it. But I did, over the next decade or so,
  1069.  
  1070. become good enough to be dangerous. To this day, I still find the process magical: typing in the commands in all
  1071.  
  1072. these strange languages that the processor then translates into an experience that’s available not just to me but to
  1073.  
  1074. everyone. I was fascinated by the thought that one individual programmer could code something universal, something
  1075.  
  1076. bound by no laws or rules or regulations except those essentially reducible to cause and effect. There was an utterly
  1077.  
  1078. logical relationship between my input and the output. If my input was flawed, the output was flawed; if my input was
  1079.  
  1080. flawless, the computer’s output was, too. I’d never before experienced anything so consistent and fair, so
  1081.  
  1082. unequivocally unbiased. A computer would wait forever to receive my command but would process it the very moment I
  1083.  
  1084. hit Enter, no questions asked. No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive. Nowhere else
  1085. —certainly not at school, and not even at home—had I ever felt so in control. That a perfectly written set of
  1086.  
  1087. commands would perfectly execute the same operations time and again would come to seem to me—as it did to so many
  1088.  
  1089. smart, tech-inclined children of the millennium—the one stable saving truth of our generation.
  1090. 3
  1091.  
  1092. Beltway Boy
  1093.  
  1094. I was just shy of my ninth birthday when my family moved from North Carolina to Maryland. To my surprise, I found
  1095.  
  1096. that my name had preceded me. “Snowden” was everywhere throughout Anne Arundel, the county we settled in, though it
  1097.  
  1098. was a while before I learned why.
  1099.  
  1100. Richard Snowden was a British major who arrived in the province of Maryland in 1658 with the understanding that Lord
  1101.  
  1102. Baltimore’s guarantee of religious freedom for both Catholics and Protestants would also be extended to Quakers. In
  1103.  
  1104. 1674, Richard was joined by his brother John, who’d agreed to leave Yorkshire in order to shorten his prison sentence
  1105.  
  1106. for preaching the Quaker  faith.  When  William  Penn’s  ship,  the  Welcome,  sailed  up  the Delaware in 1682, John
  1107.  
  1108. was one of the few Europeans to greet it.
  1109.  
  1110. Three of John’s grandsons went on to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolution. As the Quakers are
  1111.  
  1112. pacifists, they came in for community censure for deciding to join the fight for independence, but their conscience
  1113.  
  1114. demanded a reconsideration of their pacifism. William Snowden, my direct paternal ancestor, served as a captain, was
  1115.  
  1116. taken prisoner by the British in the Battle of Fort Washington in New York, and died in custody at one of the
  1117.  
  1118. notorious sugar house prisons in Manhattan. (Legend has it that the British killed their POWs by forcing them to eat
  1119.  
  1120. gruel laced with ground glass.) His wife, Elizabeth née Moor, was a valued adviser to General Washington, and the
  1121.  
  1122. mother to another John Snowden—a politician, historian, and newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania whose descendants
  1123.  
  1124. dispersed southward to settle amid the Maryland holdings of their Snowden cousins.
  1125.  
  1126. Anne Arundel County encompasses nearly all of the 1,976 acres of woodland that King Charles II granted to the family
  1127.  
  1128. of Richard Snowden in
  1129. 1686. The enterprises the Snowdens established there include the Patuxent Iron Works, one of colonial America’s most
  1130.  
  1131. important forges and a major manufacturer of cannonballs and bullets, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy run by
  1132.  
  1133. Richard Snowden’s grandsons. After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the Continental Army, they returned to the
  1134.  
  1135. plantation and— most fully living the principles of independence—abolished their family’s practice of slavery,
  1136.  
  1137. freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.
  1138.  
  1139. Today,  the  former  Snowden  fields  are  bisected  by  Snowden  River
  1140. Parkway, a busy four-lane commercial stretch of upmarket chain restaurants
  1141. and car dealerships. Nearby, Route 32/Patuxent Freeway leads directly to Fort George G. Meade, the second-largest
  1142.  
  1143. 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
  1144.  
  1145. Snowden cousins, and that was either bought from them (in one account) or expropriated from them (according to
  1146.  
  1147. others) by the US government.
  1148.  
  1149. I knew nothing of this history at the time: my parents joked that the state of Maryland changed the name on the signs
  1150.  
  1151. every time somebody new moved in. They thought that was funny but I just found it spooky. Anne Arundel County is only
  1152.  
  1153. a bit more than 250 miles away from Elizabeth City via I-95, yet it felt like a different planet. We’d exchanged the
  1154.  
  1155. leafy riverside for a concrete sidewalk, and a school where I’d been popular and academically successful for one
  1156.  
  1157. where I was constantly mocked for my glasses, my disinterest in sports, and, especially, for my accent—a strong
  1158.  
  1159. Southern drawl that led my new classmates to call me “retarded.”
  1160.  
  1161. I was so sensitive about my accent that I stopped speaking in class and started practicing alone at home until I
  1162.  
  1163. managed to sound “normal”—or, at least, until I managed not to pronounce the site of my humiliation as “Anglish
  1164.  
  1165. clay-iss” or say that I’d gotten a paper cut on my “fanger.” Meanwhile, all that time I’d been afraid to speak freely
  1166.  
  1167. had caused my grades to plummet, and some of my teachers decided to have me IQ-tested as a way of diagnosing what
  1168.  
  1169. they thought was a learning disability. When my score came back, I don’t remember getting any apologies, just a bunch
  1170.  
  1171. of extra “enrichment assignments.” Indeed, the same teachers who’d doubted my ability to learn now began to take
  1172.  
  1173. issue with my newfound interest in speaking up.
  1174.  
  1175. My new home was on the Beltway, which traditionally referred to Interstate 495, the highway that encircles
  1176.  
  1177. Washington, DC, but now describes the vast and ever-expanding blast radius of bedroom communities around the nation’s
  1178.  
  1179. capital, stretching north to Baltimore, Maryland, and south to Quantico, Virginia. The inhabitants of these suburbs
  1180.  
  1181. almost invariably either serve  in  the  US  government or  work  for  one  of  the  companies that  do business with
  1182.  
  1183. the US government. There is, to put it plainly, no other reason to be there.
  1184.  
  1185. We lived in Crofton, Maryland, halfway between Annapolis and Washington, DC, at the western edge of Anne Arundel
  1186.  
  1187. County, where the residential developments are all in the vinyl-sided Federalist style and have quaint ye-olde names
  1188.  
  1189. like Crofton Towne, Crofton Mews, The Preserve, The Ridings. Crofton itself is a planned community fitted around the
  1190.  
  1191. curves of the Crofton Country Club. On a map, it resembles nothing so much as the human
  1192. brain, with the streets coiling and kinking and folding around one another like the ridges and furrows of the
  1193.  
  1194. cerebral cortex. Our street was Knights Bridge Turn, a broad, lazy loop of split-level housing, wide driveways, and
  1195.  
  1196. two-car garages. The house we lived in was seven down from one end of the loop, seven down from the other—the house
  1197.  
  1198. in the middle. I got a Huffy ten-speed bike and with it, a paper route, delivering the Capital, a venerable newspaper
  1199.  
  1200. published in Annapolis, whose daily distribution became distressingly erratic, especially in the winter, especially
  1201.  
  1202. between Crofton Parkway and Route 450, which, as it passed by our neighborhood, acquired a different name: Defense
  1203.  
  1204. Highway.
  1205.  
  1206. For my parents this was an exciting time. Crofton was a step up for them, both economically and socially. The streets
  1207.  
  1208. were tree-lined and pretty much crime-free, and the multicultural, multiracial, multilingual population, which
  1209.  
  1210. reflected the diversity of the Beltway’s diplomatic corps and intelligence community, was well-to-do and well
  1211.  
  1212. educated. Our backyard was basically a golf course, with tennis courts just around the corner, and beyond those an
  1213.  
  1214. Olympic-size pool. Commuting-wise, too, Crofton was ideal. It  took my father just forty minutes to get to his new
  1215.  
  1216. posting as a chief warrant officer in the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, which at the
  1217.  
  1218. time was located at Buzzard Point in southern Washington, DC, adjacent to Fort Lesley J. McNair. And it took my
  1219.  
  1220. mother just twenty or so minutes to get to her new job at the NSA, whose boxy futuristic headquarters, topped with
  1221.  
  1222. radomes and sheathed in copper to seal in the communications signals, forms the heart of Fort Meade.
  1223.  
  1224. I can’t stress this enough, for outsiders: this type of employment was normal. Neighbors to our left worked for the
  1225.  
  1226. Defense Department; neighbors to the right worked in the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. For a
  1227.  
  1228. 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
  1229.  
  1230. my mother worked, along with about 125,000 other employees, approximately 40,000 of whom resided on-site, many with
  1231.  
  1232. their families. The base was home to over
  1233. 115 government agencies, in addition to forces from all five branches of the military. To put it in perspective, in
  1234.  
  1235. Anne Arundel County, population just over half a million, every eight hundredth person works for the post office,
  1236.  
  1237. every thirtieth person works for the public school system, and every fourth person works for, or serves in, a
  1238.  
  1239. business, agency, or branch connected to Fort Meade. The base has its own post offices, schools, police, and fire
  1240.  
  1241. departments. Area children, military brats and civilians alike, would flock to the base daily to take golf, tennis,
  1242.  
  1243. and swimming lessons. Though we lived
  1244. off base, my mother still used its commissary as our grocery store, to stock up on items in bulk. She also took
  1245.  
  1246. advantage of the base’s PX, or Post Exchange, as a one-stop shop for the sensible and, most important, tax-free
  1247.  
  1248. clothing that my sister and I were constantly outgrowing. Perhaps it’s best, then, for readers not raised in this
  1249.  
  1250. milieu to imagine Fort Meade and its environs, if not the entire Beltway, as one enormous boom-or-bust company town.
  1251.  
  1252. It is a place whose monoculture has much in common with, say, Silicon Valley’s, except that the Beltway’s product
  1253.  
  1254. isn’t technology but government itself.
  1255.  
  1256. I should add that both my parents had top secret clearances, but my mother also had a full-scope polygraph—a higher-
  1257.  
  1258. level security check that members of the military aren’t subject to. The funny thing is, my mother was the farthest
  1259.  
  1260. thing from a spy. She was a clerk at an independent insurance and benefits association that serviced employees of the
  1261.  
  1262. NSA—essentially, providing spies with retirement plans. But still, to process pension forms she had to be vetted as
  1263.  
  1264. if she were about to parachute into a jungle to stage a coup.
  1265.  
  1266. My father’s career remains fairly opaque to me to this day, and the fact is that my ignorance here isn’t anomalous.
  1267.  
  1268. In the world I grew up in, nobody really talked about their jobs—not just to children, but to each other. It is true
  1269.  
  1270. that many of the adults around me were legally prohibited from discussing their work, even with their families, but
  1271.  
  1272. to my mind a more accurate explanation lies in the technical nature of their labor and the government’s insistence on
  1273.  
  1274. compartmentalization. Tech people rarely, if ever, have a sense of the broader applications and policy implications
  1275.  
  1276. of the projects to which they’re assigned. And the work that consumes them tends to require such specialized
  1277.  
  1278. knowledge that to bring it up at a barbecue would get them disinvited from the next one, because nobody cared.
  1279.  
  1280. In retrospect, maybe that’s what got us here.
  1281. 4
  1282.  
  1283. American Online
  1284.  
  1285. It was soon after we moved to Crofton that my father brought home our first desktop computer, a Compaq Presario 425,
  1286.  
  1287. list price $1,399 but purchased at his military discount, and initially set up—much to my mother’s chagrin— smack in
  1288.  
  1289. the middle of the dining-room table. From the moment it appeared, the computer and I  were inseparable. If previously
  1290.  
  1291. I’d been loath to go outside and kick around a ball, now the very idea seemed ludicrous. There was no outside greater
  1292.  
  1293. than what I could find inside this drab clunky PC clone, with what felt at the time like an impossibly fast 25-
  1294.  
  1295. megahertz Intel
  1296. 486 CPU and an inexhaustible 200-megabyte hard disk. Also, get this, it had a color monitor—an 8-bit color monitor,
  1297.  
  1298. to be precise, which means that it could display up to 256 different colors. (Your current device can probably
  1299.  
  1300. display in the millions.)
  1301.  
  1302. This Compaq became my constant companion—my second sibling, and first love. It came into my life just at the age when
  1303.  
  1304. I was first discovering an independent self and the multiple worlds that can simultaneously exist within this world.
  1305.  
  1306. That process of exploration was so exciting that it made me take for granted and even neglect, for a while at least,
  1307.  
  1308. the family and life that I already had. Another way of saying this is, I was just experiencing the early throes of
  1309.  
  1310. puberty. But this was a technologized puberty, and the tremendous changes that it wrought in me were, in a way, being
  1311.  
  1312. wrought everywhere, in everyone.
  1313.  
  1314. My parents would call my name to tell me to get ready for school, but I wouldn’t hear them. They’d call my name to
  1315.  
  1316. tell me to wash up for dinner, but I’d pretend not to hear them. And whenever I was reminded that the computer was a
  1317.  
  1318. shared computer and not my personal machine, I’d relinquish my seat with such reluctance that as my father, or
  1319.  
  1320. mother, or sister took their turn, they’d have to order me out of the room entirely lest I hover moodily over their
  1321.  
  1322. shoulders and offer advice—showing my sister word-processing macros and shortcuts when she was writing a research
  1323.  
  1324. paper, or giving my parents spreadsheet tips when they tried to do their taxes.
  1325.  
  1326. I’d try to rush them through their tasks, so I could get back to mine, which were so much more important—like playing
  1327.  
  1328. Loom. As technology had advanced, games involving Pong paddles and helicopters—the kind my father had played on that
  1329.  
  1330. by now superannuated Commodore—had lost ground to ones that realized that at the heart of every computer user was a
  1331.  
  1332. book reader, a
  1333. being with the desire not just for sensation but for story. The crude Nintendo, Atari, and Sega games of my
  1334.  
  1335. childhood, with plots along the lines of (and this is a real example) rescuing the president of the United States
  1336.  
  1337. from ninjas, now gave way to detailed reimaginings of the ancient tales that I’d paged through while lying on the
  1338.  
  1339. carpet of my grandmother’s house.
  1340.  
  1341. Loom was about a society of Weavers whose elders (named after the Greek Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) create a
  1342.  
  1343. secret loom that controls the world, or, according to the script of the game, that weaves “subtle patterns of
  1344.  
  1345. influence into the very fabric of reality.” When a young boy discovers the loom’s power, he’s forced into exile, and
  1346.  
  1347. everything spirals into chaos until the world decides that a secret fate machine might not be such a great idea,
  1348.  
  1349. after all.
  1350.  
  1351. Unbelievable, sure. But then again, it’s just a game.
  1352.  
  1353. Still, it wasn’t lost on me, even at that young age, that the titular machine of the game was a symbol of sorts for
  1354.  
  1355. the computer on which I was playing it. The loom’s rainbow-colored threads were like the computer’s rainbow- colored
  1356.  
  1357. internal wires, and the lone gray thread that foretold an uncertain future was like the long gray phone cord that
  1358.  
  1359. came out of the back of the computer and connected it to the great wide world beyond. There, for me, was the true
  1360.  
  1361. magic: with just this cord, the Compaq’s expansion card and modem, and a working phone, I could dial up and connect
  1362.  
  1363. to something new called the Internet.
  1364.  
  1365. Readers who were born postmillennium might not understand the fuss, but trust me,  this  was a  goddamned miracle.
  1366.  
  1367. Nowadays, connectivity is  just presumed. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, everything’s connected, always. Connected
  1368.  
  1369. to what exactly? How? It doesn’t matter. You just tap the icon your older relatives call “the Internet button” and
  1370.  
  1371. boom, you’ve got it: the news, pizza delivery, streaming music, and streaming video that we used to call TV and
  1372.  
  1373. movies. Back then, however, we walked uphill both ways, to and from school, and plugged our modems directly into the
  1374.  
  1375. wall, with manly twelve- year-old hands.
  1376.  
  1377. I’m not saying that I knew much about what the Internet was, or how exactly I was connecting to it, but I did
  1378.  
  1379. understand the miraculousness of it all. Because in those days, when you told the computer to connect, you were
  1380.  
  1381. setting off an entire process wherein the computer would beep and hiss like a traffic jam of snakes, after which—and
  1382.  
  1383. it could take lifetimes, or at least whole minutes—you could pick up any other phone in the house on an extension
  1384.  
  1385. line and actually hear the computers talking. You couldn’t actually
  1386. understand what they were saying to each other, of course, since they were speaking in a machine language that
  1387.  
  1388. transmitted up to fourteen thousand symbols per second. Still, even that incomprehension was an astonishingly clear
  1389.  
  1390. indication that phone calls were no longer just for older teenage sisters.
  1391.  
  1392. Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably
  1393.  
  1394. 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
  1395.  
  1396. every waking moment online. Whenever I couldn’t, I was busy planning my next session. The Internet was my sanctuary;
  1397.  
  1398. the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls. If it were possible, I became
  1399.  
  1400. more sedentary. If it were possible, I became more pale. Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by
  1401.  
  1402. day in school. My grades went back into free fall.
  1403.  
  1404. I wasn’t worried by this academic setback, however, and I’m not sure that my parents were, either. After all, the
  1405.  
  1406. education that I was getting online seemed better and even more practical for my future career prospects than
  1407.  
  1408. anything provided by school. That, at least, was what I kept telling my mother and father.
  1409.  
  1410. My curiosity felt as vast as the Internet itself: a limitless space that was growing exponentially, adding webpages
  1411.  
  1412. by the day, by the hour, by the minute, on subjects I knew nothing about, on subjects I’d never heard of before—yet
  1413.  
  1414. the moment that I did hear about them, I’d develop an insatiable desire to understand them in their every detail,
  1415.  
  1416. with few rests or snacks or even toilet breaks allowed. My appetite wasn’t limited to serious tech subjects like how
  1417.  
  1418. to fix a CD-ROM drive, of course. I also spent plenty of time on gaming sites searching for god-mode cheat codes for
  1419.  
  1420. Doom and Quake. But I was  generally just  so  overwhelmed by  the  sheer  amount  of  information immediately
  1421.  
  1422. available that I’m not sure I was able to say where one subject ended and another began. A crash course on how to
  1423.  
  1424. build my own computer led to a crash course in processor architecture, with side excursions into information about
  1425.  
  1426. martial arts, guns, sports cars, and—full disclosure— softcore-ish goth-y porn.
  1427.  
  1428. I sometimes had the feeling that I had to know everything and wasn’t going to sign off until I did. It was like I was
  1429.  
  1430. in a race with the technology, in the same way that some of the teenage boys around me were in a race with one
  1431.  
  1432. another to see who’d grow the tallest, or who’d get facial hair first. At school I was surrounded by kids, some from
  1433.  
  1434. foreign countries, who were just trying to fit in and would expend enormous effort to seem cool, to keep up
  1435. with the trends. But owning the latest No Fear hat and knowing how to bend its brim was child’s play—literally,
  1436.  
  1437. child’s play—compared to what I was doing. I found it so thoroughly demanding to keep pace with all of the sites and
  1438.  
  1439. how-to tutorials I followed that I started to resent my parents whenever they—in response to a particularly
  1440.  
  1441. substandard report card or a detention I received—would force me off the computer on a school night. I couldn’t bear
  1442.  
  1443. to have those privileges revoked, disturbed by the thought that every moment that  I  wasn’t  online  more  and  more
  1444.  
  1445.  material was  appearing that  I’d  be missing. After repeated parental warnings and threats of grounding, I’d
  1446.  
  1447. finally relent and print out whatever file I was reading and bring the dot-matrix pages up to bed. I’d continue
  1448.  
  1449. studying in hard copy until my parents had gone to bed themselves, and then I’d tiptoe out into the dark, wary of the
  1450.  
  1451. squeaky door and the creaky floorboards by the stairs. I’d keep the lights off and, guiding myself by the glow of the
  1452.  
  1453. screen saver, I’d wake the computer up and go online, holding my pillows against the machine to stifle the dial tone
  1454.  
  1455. of the modem and the ever-intensifying hiss of its connection.
  1456.  
  1457. How can I explain it, to someone who wasn’t there? My younger readers, with their younger standards, might think of
  1458.  
  1459. the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and un-entertaining. But that would be wrong. Back
  1460.  
  1461. then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life. The virtual and
  1462.  
  1463. the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and
  1464.  
  1465. the other began.
  1466.  
  1467. It was precisely this that was so inspiring: the freedom to imagine something  entirely  new,  the  freedom  to  
  1468.  
  1469. start  over.  Whatever  Web  1.0 might’ve lacked in user-friendliness and design sensibility, it more than made up
  1470.  
  1471. for by its fostering of experimentation and originality of expression, and by its emphasis on the creative primacy of
  1472.  
  1473. the individual. A typical GeoCities site, for example, might have a flashing background that alternated between green
  1474.  
  1475. and blue, with white text scrolling like an exclamatory chyron across the middle—Read This First!!!—below the .gif of
  1476.  
  1477. a dancing hamster. But to me, all these kludgy quirks and tics of amateur production merely indicated that  the  
  1478.  
  1479. guiding  intelligence  behind  the  site  was  human,  and  unique. Computer science professors and systems
  1480.  
  1481. engineers, moonlighting English majors  and  mouth-breathing,  basement-dwelling  armchair  political economists were
  1482.  
  1483. all only too happy to share their research and convictions— not for any financial reward, but merely to win converts
  1484.  
  1485. to their cause. And whether that cause was PC or Mac, macrobiotic diets or the abolition of the death penalty, I was
  1486.  
  1487. interested. I was interested because they were enthused.
  1488. Many of these strange and brilliant people could even be contacted and were quite pleased to answer my questions via
  1489.  
  1490. the forms (“click this hyperlink or copy and paste it into your browser”) and email addresses (@usenix.org,
  1491. @frontier.net) provided on their sites.
  1492.  
  1493. As the millennium approached, the online world would become increasingly centralized and consolidated, with both
  1494.  
  1495. governments and businesses accelerating their attempts to intervene in what had always been a fundamentally  peer-
  1496.  
  1497. to-peer  relationship.  But  for  one  brief  and  beautiful stretch of time—a stretch that, fortunately for me,
  1498.  
  1499. coincided almost exactly with my adolescence—the Internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was
  1500.  
  1501. to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting
  1502.  
  1503. collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms of service agreements. To this day, I consider the
  1504.  
  1505. 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.
  1506.  
  1507. I was especially involved with the Web-based bulletin-board systems or BBSes. On these, you could pick a username and
  1508.  
  1509. type out whatever message you wanted to post, either adding to a preexisting group discussion or starting a new one.
  1510.  
  1511. Any and all messages that replied to your post would be organized by thread. Imagine the longest email chain you’ve
  1512.  
  1513. ever been on, but in public. These were also chat applications, like Internet Relay Chat, which provided an
  1514.  
  1515. immediate-gratification instant-message version of the same experience. There you could discuss any topic in real
  1516.  
  1517. time, or at least as close to real time as a telephone conversation, live radio, or TV news.
  1518.  
  1519. Most of the messaging and chatting I did was in search of answers to questions I had about how to build my own
  1520.  
  1521. computer, and the responses I received were so considered and thorough, so generous and kind, they’d be unthinkable
  1522.  
  1523. today. My panicked query about why a certain chipset for which I’d  saved  up  my  allowance  didn’t  seem  to  be  
  1524.  
  1525. compatible  with  the motherboard I’d already gotten for Christmas would elicit a two-thousand- word explanation and
  1526.  
  1527. note of advice from a professional tenured computer scientist on the other side of the country. Not cribbed from any
  1528.  
  1529. manual, this response was composed expressly for me, to troubleshoot my problems step- by-step until I’d solved them.
  1530.  
  1531. I was twelve years old, and my correspondent was an adult stranger far away, yet he treated me like an equal because
  1532.  
  1533. I’d shown respect for the technology. I attribute this civility, so far removed from our current social-media
  1534.  
  1535. sniping, to the high bar for entry at the time. After all, the only people on these boards were the people who could
  1536.  
  1537. be there—who wanted to be there badly enough—who had the proficiency and passion,
  1538. because the Internet of the 1990s wasn’t just one click away. It took significant effort just to log on.
  1539.  
  1540. Once, a certain BBS that I was on tried to coordinate casual in-the-flesh meetings of its regular members throughout
  1541.  
  1542. the country: in DC, in New York, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After being pressured rather hard to
  1543.  
  1544. attend—and promised extravagant evenings of eating and drinking—I finally just told everyone how old I was. I was
  1545.  
  1546. afraid that some of my correspondents might stop interacting with me, but instead they became, if anything, even more
  1547.  
  1548. encouraging. I was sent updates from the electronics show and images of its catalog; one guy offered to ship me
  1549.  
  1550. secondhand computer parts through the mail, free of charge.
  1551.  
  1552.  
  1553.  
  1554. I MIGHT  HAVE  told the BBSers my age, but I never told them my name, because one of the greatest joys of these
  1555.  
  1556. platforms was that on them I didn’t have to be who I was. I could be anybody. The anonymizing or pseudonymizing
  1557.  
  1558. features brought equilibrium to all relationships, correcting their imbalances. I could take cover under virtually
  1559.  
  1560. any handle, or “nym,” as
  1561. they were called, and suddenly become an older, taller, manlier version of
  1562. myself. I could even be multiple selves. I took advantage of this feature by asking what I sensed were my more
  1563.  
  1564. amateur questions on what seemed to me the more amateur boards, under different personas each time. My computer
  1565.  
  1566. skills were improving so swiftly that instead of being proud of all the progress I’d  made,  I  was  embarrassed by  
  1567.  
  1568. my  previous  ignorance  and  wanted  to distance myself from it. I wanted to disassociate my selves. I’d tell myself
  1569.  
  1570. that squ33ker had been so dumb when “he” had asked that question about chipset compatibility way back, long ago, last
  1571.  
  1572. Wednesday.
  1573.  
  1574. For all of this cooperative, collectivist free-culture ethos, I’m not going to pretend that the competition wasn’t
  1575.  
  1576. merciless, or that the population—almost uniformly male, heterosexual, and hormonally charged—didn’t occasionally
  1577.  
  1578. erupt into cruel and petty squabbles. But in the absence of real names, the people who  claimed to  hate  you  
  1579.  
  1580. weren’t real  people. They didn’t know anything about you beyond what you argued, and how you argued it. If, or
  1581.  
  1582. rather when, one of your arguments incurred some online wrath, you could simply drop that screen name and assume
  1583.  
  1584. another mask, under the cover of which you could even join in the mimetic pile-on, beating up on your disowned avatar
  1585.  
  1586. as if it were a stranger. I can’t tell you what sweet relief that sometimes was.
  1587.  
  1588. In the 1990s, the Internet had yet to fall victim to the greatest iniquity in
  1589. digital history: the move by  both government and businesses to  link, as intimately as possible, users’ online
  1590.  
  1591. personas to their offline legal identity. Kids used to be able to go online and say the dumbest things one day
  1592.  
  1593. without having to be held accountable for them the next. This might not strike you as the healthiest environment in
  1594.  
  1595. which to grow up, and yet it is precisely the only environment in which you can grow up—by which I mean that the
  1596.  
  1597. early Internet’s dissociative opportunities actually encouraged me and those of my generation to change our most
  1598.  
  1599. deeply held opinions, instead of just digging in and defending them when challenged. This ability to reinvent
  1600.  
  1601. ourselves meant that we never had to close our minds by picking sides, or close ranks out of fear of doing
  1602.  
  1603. irreparable harm to our reputations. Mistakes that were swiftly punished but swiftly rectified allowed both the
  1604.  
  1605. community and the “offender” to move on. To me, and to many, this felt like freedom.
  1606.  
  1607. 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
  1608.  
  1609. the world. Imagine that you could choose a new voice and new words to speak in it, as if the “Internet button” were
  1610.  
  1611. actually a reset button for your life. In the new millennium, Internet technology would be turned to very different
  1612.  
  1613. ends: enforcing fidelity to memory, identarian consistency, and so ideological conformity. But back then, for a while
  1614.  
  1615. at least, it protected us by forgetting our transgressions and forgiving our sins.
  1616.  
  1617. My most significant early encounters with online self-presentation happened not on BBSes, however, but in a more
  1618.  
  1619. fantastical realm: the pseudo- feudal lands and dungeons of role-playing games, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online
  1620.  
  1621. role-playing games) in particular. In order to play Ultima Online, which was my favorite MMORPG, I had to create and
  1622.  
  1623. assume an alternative identity, or “alt.” I could choose, for example, to be a wizard or warrior, a tinkerer or
  1624.  
  1625. thief, and I could toggle between these alts with a freedom that was unavailable to me in off-line life, whose
  1626.  
  1627. institutions tend to regard all mutability as suspicious.
  1628.  
  1629. I’d roam the Ultima gamescape as one of my alts, interacting with the alts of others. As I got to know these other
  1630.  
  1631. alts, by collaborating with them on certain quests, I’d sometimes come to realize that I’d met their users before,
  1632.  
  1633. just under different identities, while they, in turn, might realize the same about me. They’d read my messages and
  1634.  
  1635. figure out, through a characteristic phrase I’d used, or a particular quest that I’d suggest, that I—who was
  1636.  
  1637. currently, say, a knight who called herself Shrike—was also, or had also been, a bard who called himself Corwin, and
  1638.  
  1639. a smith who called himself Belgarion. Sometimes I just enjoyed these interactions as opportunities for banter, but
  1640.  
  1641. more often
  1642. than not I treated them competitively, measuring my success by whether I was able to identify more of another user’s
  1643.  
  1644. alts than they were able to identify of mine. These contests to determine whether I could unmask others without being
  1645.  
  1646. unmasked myself required me to be careful not to fall into any messaging patterns that might expose me, while
  1647.  
  1648. simultaneously engaging others and remaining alert to the ways in which they might inadvertently reveal their true
  1649.  
  1650. identities.
  1651.  
  1652. While the alts of Ultima were multifarious in name, they were essentially stabilized by the nature of their roles,
  1653.  
  1654. which were well defined, even archetypal, and so enmeshed within the game’s established social order as to make
  1655.  
  1656. playing them sometimes feel like discharging a civic duty. After a day at school or at a job that might seem
  1657.  
  1658. purposeless and unrewarding, it could feel as if you were performing a useful service by spending the evening as a
  1659.  
  1660. healer or shepherd, a helpful alchemist or mage. The relative stability of the Ultima universe—its continued
  1661.  
  1662. development according to defined laws and codes of conduct—ensured that each alt had their role-specific tasks, and
  1663.  
  1664. would be judged according to their ability, or willingness, to complete them and fulfill the societal expectations of
  1665.  
  1666. their function.
  1667.  
  1668. I loved these games and the alternative lives they let me live, though love wasn’t quite as liberating for the other
  1669.  
  1670. members of my family. Games, especially of the massively multiplayer variety, are notoriously time- consuming, and I
  1671.  
  1672. was spending so many hours playing Ultima that our phone bills were becoming exorbitant and no calls were getting
  1673.  
  1674. through. The line was always busy. My sister, now deep into her teen years, became furious when she found out that my
  1675.  
  1676. online life had caused her to miss some crucial high-school gossip. However, it didn’t take her long to figure out
  1677.  
  1678. that all she had to do to get her revenge was pick up the phone, which would break the Internet connection. The
  1679.  
  1680. modem’s hiss would stop, and before she’d even received a normal dial tone, I’d be screaming my head off downstairs.
  1681.  
  1682. If you’re interrupted in the middle of, say, reading the news online, you can always go back and pick up wherever you
  1683.  
  1684. left off. But if you’re interrupted while playing a game that you can’t pause or save—because a hundred thousand
  1685.  
  1686. others are playing it at the same time—you’re ruined. You could be on top of the world, some legendary dragon-slayer
  1687.  
  1688. with your own castle and an army, but after just thirty seconds of CONNECTION  LOST you’d
  1689. find yourself reconnecting to a bone-gray screen that bore a cruel epitaph:
  1690. YOU ARE DEAD.
  1691.  
  1692. I’m a bit embarrassed nowadays at how seriously I took all of this, but I
  1693. can’t avoid the fact that I felt, at the time, as if my sister was intent on destroying my life—particularly on those
  1694.  
  1695. occasions when she’d make sure to catch  my  eye  from  across  the  room  and  smile  before  picking  up  the
  1696.  
  1697. downstairs receiver, not because she wanted to make a phone call but purely because she wanted to remind me who was
  1698.  
  1699. boss. Our parents got so fed up with our shouting matches that they did something uncharacteristically indulgent.
  1700.  
  1701. They switched our Internet billing plan from pay-by-the-minute to flat-fee unlimited access, and installed a second
  1702.  
  1703. phone line.
  1704.  
  1705. Peace smiled upon our abode.
  1706. 5
  1707.  
  1708. Hacking
  1709.  
  1710. All teenagers are hackers. They have to be, if only because their life circumstances are untenable. They think
  1711.  
  1712. they’re adults, but the adults think they’re kids.
  1713.  
  1714. Remember, if you can, your own teen years. You were a hacker, too, willing to do anything to evade parental
  1715.  
  1716. supervision. Basically, you were fed up with being treated like a child.
  1717.  
  1718. Recall how it felt when anyone older and bigger than you sought to control you, as if age and size were identical
  1719.  
  1720. with authority. At one time or another, your parents, teachers, coaches, scoutmasters, and clergy would all take
  1721.  
  1722. advantage of their position to invade your private life, impose their expectations on your future, and enforce your
  1723.  
  1724. conformity to past standards. Whenever these adults substituted their hopes, dreams, and desires for your own, they
  1725.  
  1726. were doing so, by their account, “for your own good” or “with your best interests at heart.” And while sometimes this
  1727.  
  1728. was true, we all remember those other times when it wasn’t—when “because I said so” wasn’t enough and  “you’ll  thank
  1729.  
  1730.  me  one  day”  rang  hollow.  If  you’ve  ever  been  an adolescent, you’ve surely been on the receiving end of one
  1731.  
  1732. of these clichés, and so on the losing end of an imbalance of power.
  1733.  
  1734. To grow up is to realize the extent to which your existence has been governed by systems of rules, vague guidelines,
  1735.  
  1736. and increasingly unsupportable norms that have been imposed on you without your consent and are subject to change at
  1737.  
  1738. a moment’s notice. There were even some rules that you’d only find out about after you’d violated them.
  1739.  
  1740. If you were anything like me, you were scandalized.
  1741.  
  1742. If you were anything like me, you were nearsighted, scrawny, and, age- wise, barely entering the double digits when
  1743.  
  1744. you first started to wonder about politics.
  1745.  
  1746. In school, you were told that in the system of American politics, citizens give consent through the franchise to be
  1747.  
  1748. governed by their equals. This is democracy. But democracy certainly wasn’t in place in my US history class, where,
  1749.  
  1750. if my classmates and I had the vote, Mr. Martin would have been out of a job. Instead, Mr. Martin made the rules for
  1751.  
  1752. US history, Ms. Evans made the rules for English, Mr. Sweeney made the rules for science, Mr. Stockton made the rules
  1753.  
  1754. for math, and all of those teachers constantly changed those
  1755. rules to benefit themselves and maximize their power. If a teacher didn’t want you to go to the bathroom, you’d
  1756.  
  1757. better hold it in. If a teacher promised a field trip to the Smithsonian Institution but then canceled it for an
  1758.  
  1759. imaginary infraction, they’d offer no explanation beyond citing their broad authority and the maintenance of proper
  1760.  
  1761. order. Even back then, I realized that any opposition to this system would be difficult, not least because getting
  1762.  
  1763. its rules changed to serve the interests of the majority would involve persuading the rule makers to put themselves
  1764.  
  1765. at a purposeful disadvantage. That, ultimately, is the critical flaw or design defect intentionally integrated into
  1766.  
  1767. every system, in both politics and computing: the people who create the rules have no incentive to act against
  1768.  
  1769. themselves.
  1770.  
  1771. What convinced me that school, at least, was an illegitimate system was that it wouldn’t recognize any legitimate
  1772.  
  1773. dissent. I could plead my case until I lost my voice, or I could just accept the fact that I’d never had a voice to
  1774.  
  1775. begin with.
  1776.  
  1777. However,  the  benevolent  tyranny  of  school,  like  all  tyrannies,  has  a limited shelf life. At a certain
  1778.  
  1779. point, the denial of agency becomes a license to resist, though it’s characteristic of adolescence to confuse
  1780.  
  1781. resistance with escapism or even violence. The most common outlets for a rebellious teen were useless to me, because
  1782.  
  1783. I was too cool for vandalism and not cool enough for drugs. (To this day, I’ve never even gotten drunk on liquor or
  1784.  
  1785. smoked a cigarette.) Instead, I started hacking—which remains the sanest, healthiest, and most educational way I know
  1786.  
  1787. for kids to assert autonomy and address adults on equal terms.
  1788.  
  1789. Like most of my classmates, I didn’t like the rules but was afraid of breaking them. I knew how the system worked:
  1790.  
  1791. you corrected a teacher’s mistake, you got a warning; you confronted the teacher when they didn’t admit the mistake,
  1792.  
  1793. you got detention; someone cheated off your exam, and though you didn’t expressly let them cheat, you got detention
  1794.  
  1795. and the cheater got suspended. This is the origin of all hacking: the awareness of a systemic linkage between input
  1796.  
  1797. and output, between cause and effect. Because hacking isn’t just native to computing—it exists wherever rules do. To
  1798.  
  1799. hack a system requires getting to know its rules better than the people who created it or are running it, and
  1800.  
  1801. exploiting all the vulnerable distance between how those people had intended the system to work and how it actually
  1802.  
  1803. works, or could be made to work. In capitalizing on these unintentional uses, hackers aren’t breaking the rules as
  1804.  
  1805. much as debunking them.
  1806.  
  1807. Humans are hardwired to recognize patterns. All the choices we make are
  1808. informed by a cache of assumptions, both empirical and logical, unconsciously derived and consciously developed. We
  1809.  
  1810. use these assumptions to assess the potential consequences of each choice, and we describe the ability to do all of
  1811.  
  1812. this, quickly and accurately, as intelligence. But even the smartest among us rely on assumptions that we’ve never
  1813.  
  1814. put to the test—and because we do, the choices we make are often flawed. Anyone who knows better, or thinks more
  1815.  
  1816. quickly and more accurately than we do, can take advantage of those flaws to create consequences that we never
  1817.  
  1818. expected. It’s this egalitarian nature of hacking—which doesn’t care who you are, just how you reason—that makes it
  1819.  
  1820. such a reliable method of dealing with the type of authority figures so convinced of their system’s righteousness
  1821.  
  1822. that it never occurred to them to test it.
  1823.  
  1824. I didn’t learn any of this at school, of course. I learned it online. The Internet gave me the chance to pursue all
  1825.  
  1826. the topics I was interested in, and all the links between them, unconstrained by the pace of my classmates and my
  1827.  
  1828. teachers. The more time I spent online, however, the more my schoolwork felt extracurricular.
  1829.  
  1830. The summer I turned thirteen, I resolved never to return, or at least to seriously reduce my classroom commitments. I
  1831.  
  1832. wasn’t quite sure how I’d swing that, though. All the plans I came up with were likely to backfire. If I was caught
  1833.  
  1834. skipping class, my parents would revoke my computer privileges; if I decided to drop out, they’d bury my body deep in
  1835.  
  1836. the woods and tell the neighbors I’d run away. I had to come up with a hack—and then, on the first day of the new
  1837.  
  1838. school year, I found one. Indeed, it was basically handed to me.
  1839.  
  1840. At the start of each class, the teachers passed out their syllabi, detailing the material to be covered, the required
  1841.  
  1842. reading, and the schedule of tests and quizzes and assignments. Along with these, they gave us their grading
  1843.  
  1844. policies, which were essentially explanations of how As, Bs, Cs, and Ds were calculated. I’d never encountered
  1845.  
  1846. information like this. Their numbers and letters were like a strange equation that suggested a solution to my
  1847.  
  1848. problem.
  1849.  
  1850. After school that day, I sat down with the syllabi and did the math to figure out which aspects of each class I could
  1851.  
  1852. simply ignore and still expect to receive a passing grade. Take my US history class, for example. According to the
  1853.  
  1854. syllabus, quizzes were worth 25 percent, tests were worth 35 percent, term papers were worth 15 percent, homework was
  1855.  
  1856. worth 15 percent, and class participation—that  most  subjective  of  categories,  in  every  subject—was worth 10
  1857.  
  1858. percent. Because I usually did well on my quizzes and tests without
  1859. having to do too much studying, I could count on them for a reliable pool of time-efficient points. Term papers and
  1860.  
  1861. homework, however, were the major time-sucks: low-value, high-cost impositions on Me Time.
  1862.  
  1863. What all of those numbers told me was that if I didn’t do any homework but aced everything else, I’d wind up with a
  1864.  
  1865. cumulative grade of 85, a B. If I didn’t do any homework or write any term papers but aced everything else, I’d wind
  1866.  
  1867. up with a cumulative grade of 70, a C-minus. The 10 percent that was class participation would be my buffer. Even if
  1868.  
  1869. the teacher gave me a zero in that—if they interpreted my participation as disruption—I could still manage a 65, a
  1870.  
  1871. D-minus. I’d still pass.
  1872.  
  1873. My teachers’ systems were terminally flawed. Their instructions for how to achieve the highest grade could be used as
  1874.  
  1875. instructions for how to achieve the highest freedom—a key to how to avoid doing what I didn’t like to do and still
  1876.  
  1877. slide by.
  1878.  
  1879. The moment I figured that out, I stopped doing homework completely. Every day was bliss, the kind of bliss forbidden
  1880.  
  1881. to anybody old enough to work and pay taxes, until Mr. Stockton asked me in front of the entire class why I hadn’t
  1882.  
  1883. handed in the past half-dozen or so homework assignments. Untouched as I was by the guile of age—and forgetting for a
  1884.  
  1885. moment that by giving away my hack, I was depriving myself of an advantage—I cheerfully offered my equation to the
  1886.  
  1887. math teacher. My classmates’ laughter lasted just a moment before they set about scribbling, calculating whether
  1888.  
  1889. they, too, could afford to adopt a post-homework life.
  1890.  
  1891. “Pretty clever, Eddie,” Mr. Stockton said, moving on to the next lesson with a smile.
  1892.  
  1893. I was the smartest kid in school—until about twenty-four hours later, when Mr. Stockton passed out the new syllabus.
  1894.  
  1895. This stated that any student who failed to turn in more than six homeworks by the end of the semester would get an
  1896.  
  1897. automatic F.
  1898.  
  1899. Pretty clever, Mr. Stockton.
  1900.  
  1901. Then, he took me aside after class and said, “You should be using that brain of yours not to figure out how to avoid
  1902.  
  1903. work, but how to do the best work you can. You have so much potential, Ed. But I don’t think you realize that the
  1904.  
  1905. grades you get here will follow you for the rest of your life. You have to start thinking about your permanent
  1906.  
  1907. record.”
  1908. UNSHACKLED FROM HOMEWORK, at least for a while, and so with more time to spare, I also did some more conventional—
  1909.  
  1910. computer-based—hacking. As I did, my abilities improved. At the bookstore, I’d page through tiny, blurrily
  1911.  
  1912. photocopied, stapled-together hacker zines with names like 2600 and Phrack, absorbing    their    techniques,    and  
  1913.  
  1914.   in    the    process    absorbing    their
  1915. antiauthoritarian politics.
  1916.  
  1917. I was at the bottom of the technical totem pole, a script kiddie n00b working with tools I didn’t understand that
  1918.  
  1919. functioned according to principles that were beyond me. People still ask me why, when I finally did gain some
  1920.  
  1921. proficiency, I didn’t race out to empty bank accounts or steal credit card numbers. The honest answer is that I was
  1922.  
  1923. too young and dumb to even know that this was an option, let alone to know what I’d do with the stolen loot. All I
  1924.  
  1925. wanted, all I needed, I already had for free. Instead, I figured out simple ways to hack some games, giving myself
  1926.  
  1927. extra lives and letting me do things like see through walls. Also, there wasn’t a lot of money on the Internet back
  1928.  
  1929. then, at least not by today’s standards. The closest that anyone I knew or anything I read ever came to theft was
  1930.  
  1931. “phreaking,” or making free phone calls.
  1932.  
  1933. If you asked some of the big-shot hackers of the day why, for example, they’d hacked into a major news site only to
  1934.  
  1935. do nothing more meaningful than replace the headlines with a trippy GIF proclaiming the skills of Baron von
  1936.  
  1937. Hackerface that would be taken down in less than half an hour, the reply would’ve been a version of the answer given
  1938.  
  1939. by the mountaineer who was asked his reason for climbing Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” Most hackers,
  1940.  
  1941. particularly young ones, set out to search not for lucre or power, but for the limits of their talent and any
  1942.  
  1943. opportunity to prove the impossible possible.
  1944.  
  1945. I was young, and while my curiosity was pure, it was also, in retrospect, pretty psychologically revealing, in that
  1946.  
  1947. some of my earliest hacking attempts were directed toward allaying my neuroses. The more I came to know about the
  1948.  
  1949. fragility of computer security, the more I worried over the consequences of trusting the wrong machine. As a
  1950.  
  1951. teenager, my first hack that ever courted trouble dealt with a fear that suddenly became all I could think about: the
  1952.  
  1953. threat of a full-on, scorched-earth nuclear holocaust.
  1954.  
  1955. I’d been reading some article about the history of the American nuclear program, and before I knew it, with just a
  1956.  
  1957. couple of clicks, I was at the website  of  the  Los  Alamos  National  Laboratory,  the  country’s  nuclear research
  1958.  
  1959. facility. That’s just the way the Internet works: you get curious, and
  1960. your fingers do the thinking for you. But suddenly I was legitimately freaked out: the website of America’s largest
  1961.  
  1962. and most significant scientific research and weapons development institution, I noticed, had a glaring security hole.
  1963.  
  1964. Its vulnerability was basically the virtual version of an unlocked door: an open directory structure.
  1965.  
  1966. I’ll explain. Imagine I sent you a link to download a .pdf file that’s kept on its own page of a multipage website.
  1967.  
  1968. The URL for this file would typically be something like website.com/files/pdfs/filename.pdf. Now, as the structure of
  1969.  
  1970. a URL derives directly from directory structure, each part of this URL represents a distinct “branch” of the
  1971.  
  1972. directory “tree.” In this instance, within the directory of website.com is a folder of files, within which is a
  1973.  
  1974. subfolder of pdfs, within which is the specific filename.pdf that you’re seeking to download. Today, most websites
  1975.  
  1976. will confine your visit to that specific file, keeping their directory structures closed and private. But back in
  1977.  
  1978. those dinosaur days, even major websites were created and run by folks who were new to the technology, and they often
  1979.  
  1980. left their directory structures wide open, which meant that if you truncated your file’s URL—if you simply changed it
  1981.  
  1982. to something like website.com/files—you’d be able to access every file on the site, pdf or otherwise, including those
  1983.  
  1984. that weren’t necessarily meant for visitors. This was the case with the Los Alamos site.
  1985.  
  1986. In the hacking community, this is basically Baby’s First Hack—a totally rudimentary traversal procedure known as
  1987.  
  1988. “dirwalking,” or “directory walking.” And that’s just what I did: I walked as fast as I could from file to subfolder
  1989.  
  1990. to upper-level folder and back again, a teen let loose through the parent directories. Within a half hour of reading
  1991.  
  1992. an article about the threat of nuclear weapons, I’d stumbled upon a trove of files meant only for the lab’s
  1993.  
  1994. security-cleared workers.
  1995.  
  1996. To be sure, the documents I accessed weren’t exactly the classified plans for building a nuclear device in my garage.
  1997.  
  1998. (And, anyway, it’s not as if those plans weren’t already available on about a dozen DIY websites.) Instead, what I
  1999.  
  2000. got was more along the lines of confidential interoffice memoranda and other  personal employee information. Still,  
  2001.  
  2002. as  someone suddenly acutely worried about mushroom clouds on the horizon, and also—especially—as the child of
  2003.  
  2004. military parents, I did what I figured I was supposed to: I told an adult. I sent an explanatory email to the
  2005.  
  2006. laboratory’s webmaster about the vulnerability, and waited for a response that never came.
  2007.  
  2008. Every day after school I visited the site to check if the directory structure had changed, and it hadn’t—nothing had
  2009.  
  2010. changed, except my capacity for
  2011. shock and indignation. I finally got on the phone, my house’s second line, and called the general information phone
  2012.  
  2013. number listed at the bottom of the laboratory’s site.
  2014.  
  2015. An operator picked up, and the moment she did I started stammering. I don’t even think I got to the end of the phrase
  2016.  
  2017. “directory structure” before my voice broke. The operator interrupted with a curt “please hold for IT,” and before I
  2018.  
  2019. could thank her she’d transferred me to a voice mail.
  2020.  
  2021. By the time the beep came, I’d regained some modicum of confidence and, with a steadier larynx, I left a message. All
  2022.  
  2023. I recall now of that message was how I  ended it—with relief, and by repeating my name and phone number. I think I
  2024.  
  2025. even spelled out my name, like my father sometimes did, using the military phonetic alphabet: “Sierra November Oscar
  2026.  
  2027. Whiskey Delta Echo November.” Then I hung up and went on with my life, which for a week consisted pretty much
  2028.  
  2029. exclusively of checking the Los Alamos website.
  2030.  
  2031. Nowadays, given the government’s cyberintelligence capabilities, anyone who was pinging the Los Alamos servers a few
  2032.  
  2033. dozen times a day would almost certainly become a person of interest. Back then, however, I was merely an interested
  2034.  
  2035. person. I couldn’t understand—didn’t anybody care?
  2036.  
  2037. Weeks passed—and weeks can feel like months to a teenager—until one evening, just before dinner, the phone rang. My
  2038.  
  2039. mother, who was in the kitchen making dinner, picked up.
  2040.  
  2041. I was at the computer in the dining room when I heard it was for me: “Yes, uh-huh, he’s here.” Then, “May I ask who’s
  2042.  
  2043. calling?”
  2044.  
  2045. I turned around in my seat and she was standing over me, holding the phone against her chest. All the color had left
  2046.  
  2047. her face. She was trembling.
  2048.  
  2049. Her  whisper  had  a  mournful  urgency  I’d  never  heard  before,  and  it terrified me: “What did you do?”
  2050.  
  2051. Had I known, I would have told her. Instead, I asked, “Who is it?” “Los Alamos, the nuclear laboratory.”
  2052. “Oh, thank God.”
  2053.  
  2054. I gently pried the phone away from her and sat her down. “Hello?”
  2055.  
  2056. On the line was a friendly representative from Los Alamos IT, who kept calling me Mr. Snowden. He thanked me for
  2057.  
  2058. reporting the problem and informed me that they’d just fixed it. I restrained myself from asking what had taken so
  2059.  
  2060. long—I restrained myself from reaching over to the computer
  2061. and immediately checking the site.
  2062.  
  2063. My mother hadn’t taken her eyes off me. She was trying to piece together the conversation, but could only hear one
  2064.  
  2065. side. I gave her a thumbs-up, and then, to further reassure her, I affected an older, serious, and unconvincingly
  2066.  
  2067. deep voice and stiffly explained to the IT rep what he already knew: how I’d found the directory traversal problem,
  2068.  
  2069. how I’d reported it, how I hadn’t received any response until now. I finished up with, “I really appreciate you
  2070.  
  2071. telling me. I hope I didn’t cause any problems.”
  2072.  
  2073. “Not at all,” the IT rep said, and then asked what I did for a living. “Nothing really,” I said.
  2074. He asked whether I was looking for a job and I said, “During the school year, I’m pretty busy, but I’ve got a lot of
  2075.  
  2076. vacation and the summers are free.”
  2077.  
  2078. That’s when the lightbulb went off, and he realized that he was dealing with a teenager. “Well, kid,” he said,
  2079.  
  2080. “you’ve got my contact. Be sure and get in touch when you turn eighteen. Now pass me along to that nice lady I spoke
  2081.  
  2082. to.”
  2083.  
  2084. I handed the phone to my anxious mother and she took it back with her into the kitchen, which was filling up with
  2085.  
  2086. smoke. Dinner was burnt, but I’m guessing the IT rep said enough complimentary things about me that any punishment I
  2087.  
  2088. was imagining went out the window.
  2089. 6
  2090.  
  2091. Incomplete
  2092.  
  2093. I don’t remember high school very well, because I spent so much of it asleep, compensating for all my insomniac
  2094.  
  2095. nights on the computer. At Arundel High most of my teachers didn’t mind my little napping habit, and left me alone so
  2096.  
  2097. long as I wasn’t snoring, though there were still a cruel, joyless few who considered it their duty to always wake
  2098.  
  2099. me—with the screech of chalk or the clap of erasers—and ambush me with a question: “And what do you think, Mr.
  2100.  
  2101. Snowden?”
  2102.  
  2103. I’d lift my head off my desk, sit up in my chair, yawn, and—as my classmates tried to stifle their laughter—I’d have
  2104.  
  2105. to answer.
  2106.  
  2107. The truth is,  I  loved these moments, which were among the greatest challenges high school had to offer. I loved
  2108.  
  2109. being put on the spot, groggy and dazed, with thirty pairs of eyes and ears trained on me and expecting my failure,
  2110.  
  2111. while I searched for a clue on the half-empty blackboard. If I could think quickly enough to come up with a good
  2112.  
  2113. answer, I’d be a legend. But if I was too slow, I could always crack a joke—it’s never too late for a joke. In the
  2114.  
  2115. absolute worst case, I’d sputter, and my classmates would think I was stupid. Let them. You should always let people
  2116.  
  2117. underestimate you. Because when people misappraise your intelligence and abilities, they’re merely pointing out their
  2118.  
  2119. own vulnerabilities—the gaping holes in their judgment that need to stay open if you want to cartwheel through later
  2120.  
  2121. on a flaming horse, correcting the record with your sword of justice.
  2122.  
  2123. When I was a teen, I think I was a touch too enamored of the idea that life’s most important questions are binary,
  2124.  
  2125. meaning that one answer is always Right, and all the rest of the answers are Wrong. I think I was enchanted by the
  2126.  
  2127. model of computer programming, whose questions can only be answered in one of two ways: 1 or 0, the machine-code
  2128.  
  2129. version of Yes or No, True or False. Even the multiple-choice questions of my quizzes and tests could be approached
  2130.  
  2131. through the oppositional logic of the binary. If I didn’t immediately recognize one of the possible answers as
  2132.  
  2133. correct, I could always try to reduce my choices by a process of elimination, looking for terms such as “always” or
  2134.  
  2135. “never” and seeking out invalidating exceptions.
  2136.  
  2137. Toward the end of my freshman year, however, I was faced with a very different kind of assignment—a question that
  2138.  
  2139. couldn’t be answered by filling in  bubbles with a  #2  pencil, but only by  rhetoric: full sentences in  full
  2140.  
  2141. paragraphs. In plain terms, it was an English class assignment, a writing
  2142. prompt: “Please produce an autobiographical statement of no fewer than
  2143. 1,000 words.” I was being ordered by strangers to divulge my thoughts on perhaps the only subject on which I didn’t
  2144.  
  2145. have any thoughts: the subject of me, whoever he was. I  just couldn’t do it. I  was blocked. I  didn’t turn anything
  2146.  
  2147. in and received an Incomplete.
  2148.  
  2149. My problem, like the prompt itself, was personal. I couldn’t “produce an autobiographical statement” because my life
  2150.  
  2151. at the time was too confusing. This was because my family was falling apart. My parents were getting a divorce. It
  2152.  
  2153. all happened so fast. My father moved out and my mother put the house in Crofton on the market, and then moved with
  2154.  
  2155. my sister and me into an apartment, and then into a condominium in a development in nearby Ellicott City. I’ve had
  2156.  
  2157. friends tell me that you aren’t really an adult until you bury a parent or become one yourself. But what no one ever
  2158.  
  2159. mentions is that for kids of a certain age, divorce is like both of those happening simultaneously. Suddenly, the
  2160.  
  2161. invulnerable icons of your childhood are gone. In their stead, if there’s anyone at all, is a person even more lost
  2162.  
  2163. than you are, full of tears and rage, who craves your reassurance that everything will turn out okay. It won’t,
  2164.  
  2165. though, at least not for a while.
  2166.  
  2167. As the custody and visitation rights were being sorted by the courts, my sister threw herself into college
  2168.  
  2169. applications, was accepted, and started counting down the days until she’d leave for the University of North Carolina
  2170.  
  2171. at Wilmington. Losing her meant losing my closest tie to what our family had been.
  2172.  
  2173. I reacted by turning inward. I buckled down and willed myself into becoming another person, a shape-shifter putting
  2174.  
  2175. on the mask of whoever the people I cared about needed at the time. Among family, I was dependable and sincere. Among
  2176.  
  2177. friends, mirthful and unconcerned. But when I was alone, I was subdued, even morose, and constantly worried about
  2178.  
  2179. being a burden. I was haunted by all the road trips to North Carolina I’d complained through, all the Christmases I’d
  2180.  
  2181. ruined by bringing home bad report cards, all the times I’d refused to get off-line and do my chores. Every childhood
  2182.  
  2183. fuss I’d ever made flickered in my mind like crime-scene footage, evidence that I was responsible for what had
  2184.  
  2185. happened.
  2186.  
  2187. I tried to throw off the guilt by ignoring my emotions and feigning self- sufficiency, until I projected a sort of
  2188.  
  2189. premature adulthood. I stopped saying that I was “playing” with the computer, and started saying that I was “working”
  2190.  
  2191. on it. Just changing those words, without remotely changing what I was doing, made a difference in how I was
  2192.  
  2193. perceived, by others and even by
  2194. myself.
  2195.  
  2196. I stopped calling myself “Eddie.” From now on, I was “Ed.” I got my first cell phone, which I wore clipped to my belt
  2197.  
  2198. like a grown-ass man.
  2199.  
  2200. The unexpected blessing of trauma—the opportunity for reinvention— taught me to appreciate the world beyond the four
  2201.  
  2202. walls of home. I was surprised to find that as I put more and more distance between myself and the two adults who
  2203.  
  2204. loved me the most, I came closer to others, who treated me like a peer. Mentors who taught me to sail, trained me to
  2205.  
  2206. fight, coached me in public speaking, and gave me the confidence to stand onstage—all of them helped to raise me.
  2207.  
  2208. At the beginning of my sophomore year, though, I started getting tired a lot and falling asleep more than usual—not
  2209.  
  2210. just at school anymore, but now even at the computer. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a more or less
  2211.  
  2212. upright position, the screen in front of me full of gibberish because I’d passed out atop the keys. Soon enough my
  2213.  
  2214. joints were aching, my nodes were swollen, the whites of my eyes turned yellow, and I was too exhausted to get out of
  2215.  
  2216. bed, even after sleeping for twelve hours or more at a stretch.
  2217.  
  2218. After having had more blood taken from me than I’d ever imagined was in my body, I was eventually diagnosed with
  2219.  
  2220. infectious mononucleosis. It was both a seriously debilitating and seriously humiliating illness for me to have, not
  2221.  
  2222. least because it’s usually contracted through what my classmates called “hooking up,” and at age fifteen the only
  2223.  
  2224. “hooking up” I’d ever done involved a modem. School was totally forgotten, my absences piled up, and not even that
  2225.  
  2226. made me happy. Not even an all-ice-cream diet made me happy. I barely had the energy to do anything but play the
  2227.  
  2228. games my parents gave me—each of them trying to bring the cooler game, the newer game, as if they were in a
  2229.  
  2230. competition to perk me up or mitigate their guilt about the divorce. When I no longer had it in me to even work a
  2231.  
  2232. joystick, I wondered why I was alive. Sometimes I’d wake up unable to recognize my surroundings. It would take me a
  2233.  
  2234. while to figure out whether the dimness meant that I was at my mother’s condo or my father’s one-bedroom, and I’d
  2235.  
  2236. have no recollection of having been driven between them. Every day became the same.
  2237.  
  2238. It was a haze. I remember reading The Conscience of a Hacker (aka The Hacker’s Manifesto), Neal Stephenson’s Snow
  2239.  
  2240. Crash, and reams of J. R. R. Tolkien, falling asleep midchapter and getting the characters and action confused, until
  2241.  
  2242. I was dreaming that Gollum was by my bedside and whining, “Master, Master, information wants to be free.”
  2243. While I was resigned to all the fever dreams sleep brought me, the thought of having to catch up on my schoolwork was
  2244.  
  2245. the true nightmare. After I’d missed approximately four months of class, I got a letter in the mail from Arundel High
  2246.  
  2247. informing me that I’d have to repeat my sophomore year. I’d say I was shocked, but the moment I read the letter, I
  2248.  
  2249. realized that I’d known this was inevitable and had been dreading it for weeks. The prospect of returning to school,
  2250.  
  2251. let alone of repeating two semesters, was unimaginable to me, and I was ready to do whatever it took to avoid it.
  2252.  
  2253. Just at the point when my glandular disease had developed into a full-on depression, receiving the school news shook
  2254.  
  2255. me out of my slump. Suddenly I was upright and getting dressed in something other than pajamas. Suddenly I was online
  2256.  
  2257. and on the phone, searching for the system’s edges, searching for a hack. After a bit of research, and a lot of
  2258.  
  2259. form-filling, my solution landed in the mailbox: I’d gotten myself accepted to college. Apparently, you don’t need a
  2260.  
  2261. high school diploma to apply.
  2262.  
  2263. Anne Arundel Community College was a local institution, certainly not as venerable as my sister’s school, but it
  2264.  
  2265. would do the trick. All that mattered was that it was accredited. I took the offer of admission to my high school
  2266.  
  2267. administrators, who, with a curious and barely concealed mixture of resignation and glee, agreed to let me enroll.
  2268.  
  2269. I’d attend college classes two days a week, which was just about the most that I could manage to stay upright and
  2270.  
  2271. functional. By taking classes above my grade level, I wouldn’t have to suffer through the year I’d missed. I’d just
  2272.  
  2273. skip it.
  2274.  
  2275. AACC was about twenty-five minutes away, and the first few times I drove myself were perilous—I was a newly licensed
  2276.  
  2277. driver who could barely stay awake at the wheel. I’d go to class and then come directly home to sleep. I was the
  2278.  
  2279. youngest person in all my classes, and might even have been the youngest person at the school, alternately a mascot-
  2280.  
  2281. like object of novelty and a discomfiting presence. This, along with the fact that I was still recovering, meant that
  2282.  
  2283. I didn’t hang out much. Also, because AACC was a commuter school, it had no active campus life. The anonymity of the
  2284.  
  2285. school suited me fine,  though,  as  did  my  classes,  most  of  which  were  distinctly  more interesting than
  2286.  
  2287. anything I’d napped through at Arundel High.
  2288.  
  2289.  
  2290.  
  2291. BEFORE I GO any further and leave high school forever, I should note that I still owe that English class assignment,
  2292.  
  2293. the one marked Incomplete. My autobiographical statement. The older I get, the heavier it weighs on me, and yet
  2294.  
  2295. writing it hasn’t gotten any easier.
  2296. The fact is, no one with a biography like mine ever comes comfortably to autobiography. It’s hard to have spent so
  2297.  
  2298. much of my life trying to avoid identification,   only   to   turn   around   completely   and   share   “personal
  2299.  
  2300. disclosures” in a book. The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of
  2301.  
  2302. blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture. You train yourself to be
  2303.  
  2304. inconspicuous, to look and sound like others. You live in the most ordinary house, you drive the most ordinary car,
  2305.  
  2306. you wear the same ordinary clothes as everyone else. The difference is, you do it on purpose: normalcy, the ordinary,
  2307.  
  2308. is your cover. This is the perverse reward of a self-denying career that brings no public glory: the private glory
  2309.  
  2310. comes not during work, but after, when you can go back out among other people again and successfully convince them
  2311.  
  2312. that you’re one of them.
  2313.  
  2314. Though there are a score of more popular and surely more accurate psychological terms for this type of identity
  2315.  
  2316. split, I tend to think of it as human encryption. As in any process of encryption, the original material— your core
  2317.  
  2318. identity—still exists, but only in a locked and scrambled form. The equation that enables this ciphering is a simple
  2319.  
  2320. proportion: the more you know about others, the less you know about yourself. After a time, you might forget your
  2321.  
  2322. likes and even your dislikes. You can lose your politics, along with any and all respect for the political process
  2323.  
  2324. that you might have had. Everything gets subsumed by the job, which begins with a denial of character and ends with a
  2325.  
  2326. denial of conscience. “Mission First.”
  2327.  
  2328. Some version of the above served me for years as an explanation of my dedication to privacy, and my inability or
  2329.  
  2330. unwillingness to get personal. It’s only now, when I’ve been out of the IC almost as long as I was in it, that I
  2331.  
  2332. realize: it isn’t nearly enough. After all, I was hardly a spy—I wasn’t even shaving—when I failed to turn in my
  2333.  
  2334. English class assignment. Instead, I was a kid who’d been practicing spycraft for a while already—partly through my
  2335.  
  2336. online experiments with  game-playing identities, but  more  than  anything through dealing with the silence and lies
  2337.  
  2338. that followed my parents’ divorce.
  2339.  
  2340. With that rupture, we became a family of secret-keepers, experts at subterfuge and hiding. My parents kept secrets
  2341.  
  2342. from each other, and from me and my sister. My sister and I would eventually keep our own secrets, too, when one of
  2343.  
  2344. us was staying with our father for the weekend and the other was staying with our mother. One of the most difficult
  2345.  
  2346. trials that a child of divorce has to face is being interrogated by one parent about the new life of the other.
  2347.  
  2348. My mother would be gone for stretches, back on the dating scene. My
  2349. father tried his best to fill the void, but, at times, he would become enraged by the protracted and expensive
  2350.  
  2351. divorce process. Whenever that happened, it would seem to me as if our roles had reversed. I had to be assertive and
  2352.  
  2353. stand up to him, to reason with him.
  2354.  
  2355. It’s painful to write this, though not so much because the events of this period are painful to recall as because
  2356.  
  2357. they’re in no way indicative of my parents’ fundamental decency—or of how, out of love for their children, they were
  2358.  
  2359. eventually able to bury their differences, reconcile with respect, and flourish separately in peace.
  2360.  
  2361. This kind of change is constant, common, and human. But an autobiographical statement is static, the fixed document
  2362.  
  2363. of a person in flux. This is why the best account that someone can ever give of themselves is not a statement but a
  2364.  
  2365. pledge—a pledge to the principles they value, and to the vision of the person they hope to become.
  2366.  
  2367. I’d enrolled in community college to save myself time after a setback, not because I intended to continue with my
  2368.  
  2369. higher education. But I made a pledge to myself that I’d at least complete my high school degree. It was a weekend
  2370.  
  2371. when I finally kept that promise, driving out to a public school near Baltimore to take the last test I’d ever take
  2372.  
  2373. for the state of Maryland: the exam for the General Education Development (GED) degree, which the US government
  2374.  
  2375. recognizes as the standard equivalent to a high school diploma.
  2376.  
  2377. I remember leaving the exam feeling lighter than ever, having satisfied the two years of schooling that I still owed
  2378.  
  2379. 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
  2380.  
  2381. my word.
  2382. 7
  2383.  
  2384. 9/11
  2385.  
  2386. From the age of sixteen, I was pretty much living on my own. With my mother throwing herself into her work, I often
  2387.  
  2388. had her condo to myself. I set my own schedule, cooked my own meals, and did my own laundry. I was responsible for
  2389.  
  2390. everything but paying the bills.
  2391.  
  2392. I had a 1992 white Honda Civic and drove it all over the state, listening to the indie alternative 99.1 WHFS—“Now
  2393.  
  2394. Hear This” was one of its catchphrases—because that’s what everybody else did. I wasn’t very good at being normal,
  2395.  
  2396. but I was trying.
  2397.  
  2398. My life became a circuit, tracing a route between my home, my college, and my friends, particularly a new group that
  2399.  
  2400. I met in Japanese class. I’m not quite sure how long it took us to realize that we’d become a clique, but by the
  2401.  
  2402. second semester we attended class as much to see each other as to learn the language. This, by the way, is the best
  2403.  
  2404. way to “seem normal”: surround yourself with people just as weird, if not weirder, than you are. Most of these
  2405.  
  2406. friends were aspiring artists and graphic designers obsessed with then controversial anime, or Japanese animation. As
  2407.  
  2408. our friendships deepened, so, too, did my familiarity with anime genres, until I could rattle off relatively informed
  2409.  
  2410. opinions about a new library of shared experiences with titles like Grave of the Fireflies, Revolutionary Girl Utena,
  2411.  
  2412. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, The Vision of Escaflowne, Rurouni Kenshin, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,
  2413.  
  2414. Trigun, The Slayers, and my personal favorite, Ghost in the Shell.
  2415.  
  2416. One of these new friends—I’ll call her Mae—was an older woman, much older, at a comfortably adult twenty-five. She
  2417.  
  2418. was something of an idol to the rest of us, as a published artist and avid cosplayer. She was my Japanese
  2419.  
  2420. conversation partner and, I was impressed to find out, also ran a successful Web-design business that I’ll call
  2421.  
  2422. Squirrelling Industries, after the pet sugar gliders she occasionally carried around in a purple felt Crown Royal
  2423.  
  2424. bag.
  2425.  
  2426. That’s the story of how I became a freelancer: I started working as a Web designer for the girl I met in class. She,
  2427.  
  2428. 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
  2429.  
  2430. hours I’d actually get paid for.
  2431.  
  2432. Of course, Mae could’ve paid me in smiles—because I was smitten, just totally in love with her. And though I didn’t
  2433.  
  2434. do a particularly good job of
  2435. concealing that, I’m not sure that Mae minded, because I never missed a deadline or even the slightest opportunity to
  2436.  
  2437. do a favor for her. Also, I was a quick learner. In a company of two, you’ve got to be able to do everything. Though
  2438.  
  2439. I could, and did, conduct my Squirrelling Industries business anywhere—that, after all, is the point of working
  2440.  
  2441. online—she preferred that I come into the office, by which I mean her house, a two-story town house that she shared
  2442.  
  2443. with her husband, a neat and clever man whom I’ll call Norm.
  2444.  
  2445. Yes, Mae was married. What’s more, the town house that she and Norm lived in was located on base at the southwestern
  2446.  
  2447. edge of Fort Meade, where Norm worked as an air force linguist assigned to the NSA. I can’t tell you if it’s legal to
  2448.  
  2449. run a business out of your home if your home is federal property on a military installation, but as a teenager
  2450.  
  2451. infatuated with a married woman who was also my boss, I wasn’t exactly going to be a stickler for propriety.
  2452.  
  2453. It’s nearly inconceivable now, but at the time Fort Meade was almost entirely accessible to anyone. It wasn’t all
  2454.  
  2455. bollards and barricades and checkpoints trapped in barbed wire. I could just drive onto the army base housing the
  2456.  
  2457. world’s most secretive intelligence agency in  my ’92 Civic, windows down, radio up, without having to stop at a gate
  2458.  
  2459. and show ID. It seemed like every other weekend or so a quarter of my Japanese class would congregate in Mae’s little
  2460.  
  2461. house behind NSA headquarters to watch anime and create comics. That’s just the way it was, in those bygone days when
  2462.  
  2463. “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” was a phrase you heard in every schoolyard and sitcom.
  2464.  
  2465. On workdays I’d show up at Mae’s in the morning, pulling into her cul-de- sac after Norm left for the NSA, and I’d
  2466.  
  2467. stay through the day, until just before he returned. On the occasions that Norm and I happened to overlap during the
  2468.  
  2469. two years or so I spent working for his wife, he was, all things considered, kind and generous to me. At first, I
  2470.  
  2471. assumed that he was oblivious to my infatuation, or had such a low opinion of my chances as a seducer that he didn’t
  2472.  
  2473. mind leaving me alone with his wife. But one day, when we happened to pass each other—him going, me coming—he
  2474.  
  2475. politely mentioned that he kept a gun on the nightstand.
  2476.  
  2477. Squirrelling Industries, which was really just Mae and me, was pretty typical of basement start-ups circa the dot-com
  2478.  
  2479. boom, small enterprises competing for scraps before everything went bust. How it worked was that a large company—a
  2480.  
  2481. carmaker, for instance—would hire a major ad agency or PR  firm  to  build  their  website and  just  generally spiff
  2482.  
  2483.  up  their  Internet presence. The large company would know nothing about building websites, and the ad agency or PR
  2484.  
  2485. firm would know only slightly more—just enough to
  2486. post a job description seeking a Web designer at one of the then proliferating freelance work portals.
  2487.  
  2488. Mom-and-pop operations—or, in this case, older-married-woman/young- single-man operations—would then bid for the
  2489.  
  2490. jobs, and the competition was so intense that the quotes would be driven ridiculously low. Factor in the cut that the
  2491.  
  2492. winning contractor would have to pay to the work portal, and the money was barely enough for an adult to survive on,
  2493.  
  2494. let alone a family. On top of the lack of financial reward, there was also a humiliating lack of credit: the
  2495.  
  2496. freelancers could rarely mention what projects they’d done, because the ad agency or PR firm would claim to have
  2497.  
  2498. developed it all in-house.
  2499.  
  2500. I got to know a lot about the world, particularly the business world, with Mae as my boss. She was strikingly canny,
  2501.  
  2502. working twice as hard as her peers to make it in what was then a fairly macho industry, where every other client was
  2503.  
  2504. out  to  screw you  for  free labor. This culture of  casual exploitation incentivized freelancers to find ways to
  2505.  
  2506. hack around the system, and Mae had a talent for managing her relationships in such a way as to bypass the work
  2507.  
  2508. portals. She tried to cut out the middlemen and third parties and deal directly with the largest clients possible.
  2509.  
  2510. She was wonderful at this, particularly after my help on the technical side allowed her to focus exclusively on the
  2511.  
  2512. business and art. She parlayed her illustration skills into logo design and offered basic branding services. As for
  2513.  
  2514. my work, the methods and coding were simple enough for me to pick up on the fly, and although they could be brutally
  2515.  
  2516. repetitive, I wasn’t complaining. I took to even the most menial Notepad++ job with pleasure. It’s amazing what you
  2517.  
  2518. do for love, especially when it’s unrequited.
  2519.  
  2520. I can’t help but wonder whether Mae was fully aware of my feelings for her all along, and simply leveraged them to
  2521.  
  2522. her best advantage. But if I was a victim, I was a willing one, and my time under her left me better off.
  2523.  
  2524. Still, about a year into my tenure with Squirrelling Industries, I realized I had to plan for my future. Professional
  2525.  
  2526. industry certifications for the IT sector were becoming hard to ignore. Most job listings and contracts for advanced
  2527.  
  2528. work were beginning to require that applicants be officially accredited by major tech companies like IBM and Cisco in
  2529.  
  2530. the use and service of their products. At least, that was the gist of a radio commercial that I kept hearing. One
  2531.  
  2532. day, coming home from my commute after hearing the commercial for what must have been the hundredth time, I found
  2533.  
  2534. myself dialing the 1-800 number and signing up for the Microsoft certification course that was being offered by the
  2535.  
  2536. Computer Career Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The
  2537. entire operation, from its embarrassingly high cost to its location at a “satellite campus” instead of at the main
  2538.  
  2539. university, had the faint whiff of a scam, but I didn’t  care.  It  was  a  nakedly  transactional affair—one that  
  2540.  
  2541. would  allow Microsoft to impose a tax on the massively rising demand for IT folks, HR managers to pretend that an
  2542.  
  2543. expensive piece of paper could distinguish bona fide pros from filthy charlatans, and nobodies like me to put the
  2544.  
  2545. magic words “Johns Hopkins” on their résumé and jump to the front of the hiring line.
  2546.  
  2547. The certification credentials were being adopted as industry standard almost as quickly as the industry could invent
  2548.  
  2549. them. An “A+ Certification” meant that you were able to service and repair computers. A “Net+ Certification” meant
  2550.  
  2551. that you were able to handle some basic networking. But these were just ways to become the guy who worked the Help
  2552.  
  2553. Desk. The best pieces of paper were grouped under the rubric of the Microsoft Certified Professional series. There
  2554.  
  2555. was the entry-level MCP, the Microsoft Certified Professional; the more accomplished MCSA, the Microsoft Certified
  2556.  
  2557. Systems Administrator; and  the  top  piece  of  printed-out  technical  credibility,  the MCSE, Microsoft Certified
  2558.  
  2559. Systems Engineer. This was the brass ring, the guaranteed meal ticket. At the lowest of the low end, an MCSE’s
  2560.  
  2561. starting salary was $40,000 per year, a sum that—at the turn of the millennium and the age of seventeen—I found
  2562.  
  2563. astonishing. But why not? Microsoft was trading above $100 per share, and Bill Gates had just been named the richest
  2564.  
  2565. man in the world.
  2566.  
  2567. In terms of technical know-how, the MCSE wasn’t the easiest to get, but it also didn’t require what most self-
  2568.  
  2569. respecting hackers would consider unicorn genius either. In terms of time and money, the commitment was considerable.
  2570.  
  2571. I had to take seven separate tests, which cost $150 each, and pay something like $18,000 in tuition to Hopkins for
  2572.  
  2573. the full battery of prep classes, which— true to form—I didn’t finish, opting to go straight to the testing after I
  2574.  
  2575. felt I’d had enough. Unfortunately, Hopkins didn’t give refunds.
  2576.  
  2577. With payments looming on my tuition loan, I now had a more practical reason to spend time with Mae: money. I asked
  2578.  
  2579. her to give me more hours. She  agreed,  and  asked  me  to  start  coming  in  at  9:00  a.m.  It  was  an
  2580.  
  2581. egregiously early hour, especially for a freelancer, which was why I was running late one Tuesday morning.
  2582.  
  2583. I  was speeding down Route 32 under a beautiful Microsoft-blue sky, trying not to get caught by any speed traps. With
  2584.  
  2585. a little luck, I’d roll into Mae’s sometime before 9:30, and—with my window down and my hand riding the wind—it felt
  2586.  
  2587. like a lucky day. I had the talk radio cranked and was
  2588. waiting for the news to switch to the traffic.
  2589.  
  2590. Just as I was about to take the Canine Road shortcut into Fort Meade, an update broke through about a plane crash in
  2591.  
  2592. New York City.
  2593.  
  2594. Mae came to the door and I followed her up the stairs from the dim entryway to the cramped office next to her
  2595.  
  2596. bedroom. There wasn’t much to it: just our two desks side by side, a drawing table for her art, and a cage for her
  2597.  
  2598. squirrels. Though I was slightly distracted by the news, we had work to do. I forced myself to focus on the task at
  2599.  
  2600. hand. I was just opening the project’s files in a simple text editor—we wrote the code for websites by hand—when the
  2601.  
  2602. phone rang.
  2603.  
  2604. Mae picked up. “What? Really?”
  2605.  
  2606. Because we were sitting so close together, I could hear her husband’s voice. And he was yelling.
  2607.  
  2608. Mae’s expression turned to alarm, and she loaded a news site on her computer. The only TV was downstairs. I was
  2609.  
  2610. reading the site’s report about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, when Mae said,
  2611.  
  2612. “Okay. Wow. Okay,” and hung up.
  2613.  
  2614. She turned to me. “A second plane just hit the other tower.” Until that moment, I’d thought it had been an accident.
  2615. Mae said, “Norm thinks they’re going to close the base.”
  2616.  
  2617. “Like, the gates?” I said. “Seriously?” The scale of what had happened had yet to hit me. I was thinking about my
  2618.  
  2619. commute.
  2620.  
  2621. “Norm said you should go home. He doesn’t want you to get stuck.”
  2622.  
  2623. I sighed, and saved the work I’d barely started. Just when I got up to leave, the phone rang again, and this time the
  2624.  
  2625. conversation was even shorter. Mae was pale.
  2626.  
  2627. “You’re not going to believe this.”
  2628.  
  2629. Pandemonium, chaos: our most ancient forms of terror. They both refer to a collapse of order and the panic that
  2630.  
  2631. rushes in to fill the void. For as long as I live, I’ll remember retracing my way up Canine Road—the road past the
  2632.  
  2633. NSA’s headquarters—after the Pentagon was attacked. Madness poured out of the agency’s black glass towers, a tide of
  2634.  
  2635. yelling, ringing cell phones, and cars revving up in the parking lots and fighting their way onto the street. At the
  2636.  
  2637. moment of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the staff of the NSA
  2638. —the major signals intelligence agency of the American IC—was abandoning
  2639. its work by the thousands, and I was swept up in the flood.
  2640.  
  2641. NSA director Michael Hayden issued the order to evacuate before most of the country even knew what had happened.
  2642.  
  2643. Subsequently, the NSA and the CIA—which also evacuated all but a skeleton crew from its own headquarters on 9/11—
  2644.  
  2645. would explain their behavior by citing a concern that one of the agencies might potentially, possibly, perhaps be the
  2646.  
  2647. target of the fourth and last hijacked airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, rather than, say, the White House or
  2648.  
  2649. Capitol.
  2650.  
  2651. I sure as hell wasn’t thinking about the next likeliest targets as I crawled through the gridlock, with everyone
  2652.  
  2653. trying to get their cars out of the same parking lot simultaneously. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all. What I
  2654.  
  2655. was doing was obediently following along, in what today I recall as one totalizing moment—a clamor of horns (I don’t
  2656.  
  2657. think I’d ever heard a car horn at an American military installation before) and out-of-phase radios shrieking the
  2658.  
  2659. news of the South Tower’s collapse while the drivers steered with their knees and feverishly pressed redial on their
  2660.  
  2661. phones. I can still feel it—the present-tense emptiness every time my call was dropped by an overloaded cell network,
  2662.  
  2663. and the gradual realization that, cut off from the world and stalled bumper to bumper, even though I was in the
  2664.  
  2665. driver’s seat, I was just a passenger.
  2666.  
  2667. The stoplights on Canine Road gave way to humans, as the NSA’s special police went to work directing traffic. In the
  2668.  
  2669. ensuing hours, days, and weeks they’d be joined by convoys of Humvees topped with machine guns, guarding new
  2670.  
  2671. roadblocks and checkpoints. Many of these new security measures became permanent, supplemented by endless rolls of
  2672.  
  2673. wire and massive installations of surveillance cameras. With all this security, it became difficult for me to get
  2674.  
  2675. back on base and drive past the NSA—until the day I was employed there.
  2676.  
  2677. These trappings of what would be called the War on Terror weren’t the only reason I gave up on Mae after 9/11, but
  2678.  
  2679. they certainly played a part. The events of that day had left her shaken. In time, we stopped working together and
  2680.  
  2681. grew distant. I’d chat her up occasionally, only to find that my feelings had changed and I’d changed, too. By the
  2682.  
  2683. time Mae left Norm and moved to California, she felt like a stranger to me. She was too opposed to the war.
  2684. 8
  2685.  
  2686. 9/12
  2687.  
  2688. Try to remember the biggest family event you’ve ever been to—maybe a family reunion. How many people were there?
  2689.  
  2690. Maybe 30, 50? Though all of them together comprise your family, you might not really have gotten the chance to know
  2691.  
  2692. each and every individual member. Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully
  2693.  
  2694. maintain in life, is just 150. Now think back to school. How many people were in your class in grade school, and in
  2695.  
  2696. high school? How many of them were friends, and how many others did you just know as acquaintances, and how many
  2697.  
  2698. still others did you simply recognize? If you went to school in the United States, let’s say it’s a thousand. It
  2699.  
  2700. certainly stretches the boundaries of what you could say are all “your people,” but you may still have felt a bond
  2701.  
  2702. with them.
  2703.  
  2704. Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11. Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a
  2705.  
  2706. familiar name or just a familiar face—and imagine they’re gone. Imagine the empty houses. Imagine the empty school,
  2707.  
  2708. the empty classrooms. All those people you lived among, and who together formed the fabric of your days, just not
  2709.  
  2710. there anymore. The events of 9/11 left holes. Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.
  2711.  
  2712. Now, consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.
  2713.  
  2714. The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction by way of American self-destruction, with the
  2715.  
  2716. promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatizing impact— whose very
  2717.  
  2718. existence—the US government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted. After having spent roughly
  2719.  
  2720. half that period as an employee of the American Intelligence Community and roughly the other half in exile, I know
  2721.  
  2722. better than most how often the agencies get things wrong. I know, too, how the collection and analysis of
  2723.  
  2724. intelligence can inform the production of disinformation and propaganda, for use as frequently against America’s
  2725.  
  2726. allies as its enemies—and sometimes against its own citizens. Yet even given that knowledge, I still struggle to
  2727.  
  2728. accept the sheer magnitude and speed of  the change, from an  America that sought to  define itself by  a calculated
  2729.  
  2730. and performative respect for dissent to  a  security state whose militarized police demand obedience, drawing their
  2731.  
  2732. guns and issuing the order for total submission now heard in every city: “Stop resisting.”
  2733. This  is  why  whenever I  try  to  understand how  the  last  two  decades happened, I return to that September—to
  2734.  
  2735. that ground-zero day and its immediate aftermath. To return to that fall means coming up against a truth darker than
  2736.  
  2737. the lies that tied the Taliban to al-Qaeda and conjured up Saddam Hussein’s illusory stockpile of WMDs. It means,
  2738.  
  2739. ultimately, confronting the fact that the carnage and abuses that marked my young adulthood were born not only in the
  2740.  
  2741. executive branch and the intelligence agencies, but also in the hearts and minds of all Americans, myself included.
  2742.  
  2743. I remember escaping the panicked crush of the spies fleeing Fort Meade just as the North Tower came down. Once on the
  2744.  
  2745. highway, I tried to steer with one   hand   while   pressing   buttons   with   the   other,   calling   family
  2746.  
  2747. indiscriminately and never getting through. Finally I managed to get in touch with my mother, who at this point in
  2748.  
  2749. her career had left the NSA and was working as a clerk for the federal courts in Baltimore. They, at least, weren’t
  2750.  
  2751. evacuating.
  2752.  
  2753. Her  voice  scared me,  and  suddenly the  only  thing  in  the  world  that mattered to me was reassuring her.
  2754.  
  2755. “It’s okay. I’m headed off base,” I said. “Nobody’s in New York, right?” “I don’t—I don’t know. I can’t get in touch
  2756.  
  2757. with Gran.”
  2758. “Is Pop in Washington?”
  2759.  
  2760. “He could be in the Pentagon for all I know.”
  2761.  
  2762. The breath went out of me. By 2001, Pop had retired from the Coast Guard and was now a senior official in the FBI,
  2763.  
  2764. serving as one of the heads of its aviation section. This meant that he spent plenty of time in plenty of federal
  2765.  
  2766. buildings throughout DC and its environs.
  2767.  
  2768. Before I could summon any words of comfort, my mother spoke again. “There’s someone on the other line. It might be
  2769.  
  2770. Gran. I’ve got to go.”
  2771.  
  2772. When she didn’t call me back, I tried her number endlessly but couldn’t get through, so I went home to wait, sitting
  2773.  
  2774. in front of the blaring TV while I kept reloading news sites. The new cable modem we had was quickly proving more
  2775.  
  2776. resilient than all of the telecom satellites and cell towers, which were failing across the country.
  2777.  
  2778. My mother’s drive back from Baltimore was a slog through crisis traffic. She arrived in tears, but we were among the
  2779.  
  2780. lucky ones. Pop was safe.
  2781.  
  2782. The next time we saw Gran and Pop, there was a lot of talk—about
  2783. Christmas plans, about New Year’s plans—but the Pentagon and the towers were never mentioned.
  2784.  
  2785. My father, by contrast, vividly recounted his 9/11 to me. He was at Coast Guard Headquarters when the towers were
  2786.  
  2787. hit, and he and three of his fellow officers left their offices in the Operations Directorate to find a conference
  2788.  
  2789. room with a screen so they could watch the news coverage. A young officer rushed past them down the hall and said,
  2790.  
  2791. “They just bombed the Pentagon.” Met with expressions of disbelief, the young officer repeated, “I’m serious— they
  2792.  
  2793. just bombed the Pentagon.” My father hustled over to a wall-length window that gave him a view across the Potomac of
  2794.  
  2795. about two-fifths of the Pentagon and swirling clouds of thick black smoke.
  2796.  
  2797. The more that my father related this memory, the more intrigued I became by the line: “They just bombed the
  2798.  
  2799. Pentagon.” Every time he said it, I recall thinking, “They”? Who were “They”?
  2800.  
  2801. America immediately divided the world into “Us” and “Them,” and everyone was either with “Us” or against “Us,” as
  2802.  
  2803. President Bush so memorably remarked even while the rubble was still smoldering. People in my neighborhood put up new
  2804.  
  2805. American flags, as if to show which side they’d chosen. People hoarded red, white, and blue Dixie cups and stuffed
  2806.  
  2807. them through every chain-link fence on every overpass of every highway between my mother’s home and my father’s, to
  2808.  
  2809. spell out phrases like UNITED WE STAND
  2810. and STAND TOGETHER NEVER FORGET.
  2811.  
  2812. I sometimes used to go to a shooting range and now alongside the old targets, the bull’s-eyes and flat silhouettes,
  2813.  
  2814. were effigies of men in Arab headdress. Guns that had languished for years behind the dusty glass of the display
  2815.  
  2816. cases were now marked SOLD. Americans also lined up to buy cell phones, hoping for advance warning of the next
  2817.  
  2818. attack, or at least the ability
  2819. to say good-bye from a hijacked flight.
  2820.  
  2821. Nearly a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that  they’d failed  at  their  
  2822.  
  2823. primary job,  which  was  protecting America. Think of the guilt they were feeling. They had the same anger as
  2824.  
  2825. everybody else, but they also felt the guilt. An assessment of their mistakes could wait. What mattered most at that
  2826.  
  2827. moment was that they redeem themselves. Meanwhile, their bosses got busy campaigning for extraordinary budgets and
  2828.  
  2829. extraordinary powers, leveraging the threat of terror to expand their capabilities and mandates beyond the
  2830.  
  2831. imagination not just of the public but even of those who stamped the approvals.
  2832. September 12 was the first day of a new era, which America faced with a unified  resolve,  strengthened  by  a  
  2833.  
  2834. revived  sense  of  patriotism  and  the goodwill and sympathy of the world. In retrospect, my country could have
  2835.  
  2836. done so much with this opportunity. It could have treated terror not as the theological phenomenon it purported to
  2837.  
  2838. be, but as the crime it was. It could have used this rare moment of solidarity to reinforce democratic values and
  2839.  
  2840. cultivate resilience in the now-connected global public.
  2841.  
  2842. Instead, it went to war.
  2843.  
  2844. The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision. I was outraged, yes, but
  2845.  
  2846. that was only the beginning of a process in  which  my  heart  completely defeated my  rational judgment. I accepted
  2847.  
  2848. 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
  2849.  
  2850. liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed. I embraced the truth constructed for the good of the state, which in my
  2851.  
  2852. passion I confused with the good of the country. It was as if whatever individual politics I’d developed had crashed
  2853.  
  2854. —the anti-institutional hacker ethos instilled in me online, and the apolitical patriotism I’d inherited from my
  2855.  
  2856. parents, both wiped from my system—and I’d been rebooted as a willing vehicle of vengeance. The sharpest part of the
  2857.  
  2858. humiliation comes from acknowledging how easy this transformation was, and how readily I welcomed it.
  2859.  
  2860. I wanted, I think, to be part of something. Prior to 9/11, I’d been ambivalent about serving because it had seemed
  2861.  
  2862. pointless, or just boring. Everyone I knew who’d served had done so in the post–Cold War world order, between the
  2863.  
  2864. fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of 2001. In that span, which coincided with my youth, America lacked for
  2865.  
  2866. enemies. The country I grew up in was the sole global superpower, and everything seemed—at least to me, or to people
  2867.  
  2868. like me—prosperous and settled. There were no new frontiers to conquer or great civic problems to solve, except
  2869.  
  2870. online. The attacks of 9/11 changed all that. Now, finally, there was a fight.
  2871.  
  2872. My  options dismayed me,  however. I  thought I  could best  serve my country behind a terminal, but a normal IT job
  2873.  
  2874. seemed too comfortable and safe  for  this  new  world  of  asymmetrical  conflict.  I  hoped  I  could  do something
  2875.  
  2876. like in the movies or on TV—those hacker-versus-hacker scenes with walls of virus-warning blinkenlights, tracking
  2877.  
  2878. enemies and thwarting their schemes. Unfortunately for me, the primary agencies that did that—the NSA, the CIA—had
  2879.  
  2880. their hiring requirements written a half century ago and often rigidly required a traditional college degree, meaning
  2881.  
  2882. that though the
  2883. tech industry considered my AACC credits and MCSE certification acceptable, the government wouldn’t. The more I read
  2884.  
  2885. around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were
  2886.  
  2887. growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that they’d sometimes waive the degree requirement
  2888.  
  2889. for military veterans. It’s then that I decided to join up.
  2890.  
  2891. You might be thinking that my decision made sense, or was inevitable, given my family’s record of service. But it
  2892.  
  2893. didn’t and it wasn’t. By enlisting, I was as much rebelling against that well-established legacy as I was conforming
  2894.  
  2895. to it—because after talking to recruiters from every branch, I decided to join the army, whose leadership some in my
  2896.  
  2897. Coast Guard family had always considered the crazy uncles of the US military.
  2898.  
  2899. When I told my mother, she cried for days. I knew better than to tell my father, who’d already made it very clear
  2900.  
  2901. during hypothetical discussions that I’d be wasting my technical talents there. I was twenty years old; I knew what I
  2902.  
  2903. was doing.
  2904.  
  2905. The day I left, I wrote my father a letter—handwritten, not typed—that explained my decision, and slipped it under
  2906.  
  2907. the front door of his apartment. It closed with a statement that still makes me wince. “I’m sorry, Dad,” I wrote,
  2908.  
  2909. “but this is vital for my personal growth.”
  2910. 9
  2911.  
  2912. X-Rays
  2913.  
  2914. I joined the army, as its slogan went, to be all I could be, and also because it wasn’t the Coast Guard. It didn’t
  2915.  
  2916. hurt that I’d scored high enough on its entrance exams to qualify for a chance to come out of training as a Special
  2917.  
  2918. Forces  sergeant,  on  a  track  the  recruiters  called  18  X-Ray,  which  was designed to augment the ranks of the
  2919.  
  2920. small flexible units that were doing the hardest fighting in America’s increasingly shadowy and disparate wars. The
  2921. 18 X-Ray program was a considerable incentive, because traditionally, before
  2922. 9/11, I would’ve had to already be in the army before being given a shot at attending the Special Forces’ exceedingly
  2923.  
  2924. demanding qualification courses. The new system worked by screening prospective soldiers up front, identifying those
  2925.  
  2926. with the highest levels of fitness, intelligence, and language- learning ability—the ones who might make the cut—and
  2927.  
  2928. using the inducements  of  special  training  and  a  rapid  advance  in  rank  to  enlist promising candidates who
  2929.  
  2930. might otherwise go elsewhere. I’d put in a couple of months of grueling runs to prepare—I was in great shape, but I
  2931.  
  2932. always hated running—before my recruiter called to say that my paperwork was approved: I was in, I’d made it. I was
  2933.  
  2934. the first candidate he’d ever signed up for the program, and I could hear the pride and cheer in his voice when he
  2935.  
  2936. told me that after training, I’d probably be made a Special Forces Communications, Engineering, or Intelligence
  2937.  
  2938. sergeant.
  2939.  
  2940. Probably.
  2941.  
  2942. But first, I had to get through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
  2943.  
  2944. I sat next to the same guy the whole way down there, from bus to plane to bus, Maryland to Georgia. He was enormous,
  2945.  
  2946. a puffy bodybuilder somewhere between two and three hundred pounds. He talked nonstop, his conversation alternating
  2947.  
  2948. between describing how he’d slap the drill sergeant in the face if he gave him any lip and recommending the steroid
  2949.  
  2950. cycles I should take to most effectively bulk up. I don’t think he took a breath until we arrived at Fort Benning’s
  2951.  
  2952. Sand Hill training area—which in hindsight, I have to say, didn’t actually seem to have that much sand.
  2953.  
  2954. The drill sergeants greeted us with withering fury and gave us nicknames based on our initial infractions and grave
  2955.  
  2956. mistakes, like getting off the bus wearing a brightly colored floral-patterned shirt, or having a name that could be
  2957.  
  2958. modified slightly into something funnier. Soon I was Snowflake and my seatmate was Daisy and all he could do was
  2959.  
  2960. clench his jaw—nobody dared to
  2961. clench a fist—and fume.
  2962.  
  2963. Once the drill sergeants noticed that Daisy and I were already acquainted, and that I was the lightest in the
  2964.  
  2965. platoon, at five foot nine and 124 pounds, and  he  the  heaviest,  they  decided  to  entertain  themselves by  
  2966.  
  2967. pairing  us together as often as possible. I still remember the buddy carry, an exercise where you had to carry your
  2968.  
  2969. supposedly wounded partner the length of a football field using a number of different methods like the “neck drag,”
  2970.  
  2971. the “fireman,” and the especially comedic “bridal carry.” When I had to carry Daisy, you couldn’t see me beneath his
  2972.  
  2973. bulk. It would look like Daisy was floating, though I’d be under him sweating and cursing, straining to get his
  2974.  
  2975. gigantic ass to the other side of the goal line before collapsing myself. Daisy would then get up with a laugh, drape
  2976.  
  2977. me around his neck like a damp towel, and go skipping along like a child in the woods.
  2978.  
  2979. We were always dirty and always hurting, but within weeks I was in the best shape of my life. My slight build, which
  2980.  
  2981. had seemed like a curse, soon became an advantage, because so much of what we did were body-weight exercises.  Daisy  
  2982.  
  2983. couldn’t  climb  a  rope,  which  I  scampered  up  like  a chipmunk. He struggled to lift his incredible bulk above
  2984.  
  2985. the bar for the bare minimum of pull-ups, while I could do twice the number with one arm. He could barely manage a
  2986.  
  2987. handful of push-ups before breaking a sweat, whereas I could do them with claps, or with just a single thumb. When we
  2988.  
  2989. did the two- minute push-up tests, they stopped me early for maxing the score.
  2990.  
  2991. Everywhere we went, we marched—or ran. We ran constantly. Miles before mess, miles after mess, down roads and fields
  2992.  
  2993. and around the track, while the drill sergeant called cadence:
  2994.  
  2995. I went to the desert where the terrorists run pulled out my machete pulled out my gun.
  2996. Left, right, left, right—kill kill kill!
  2997.  
  2998. Mess with us and you know we will! I went to the caves
  2999. where the terrorists hide pulled out a grenade
  3000. and threw it inside.
  3001.  
  3002. Left, right, left, right—kill kill kill! Mess with us and you know we will!
  3003.  
  3004. RUNNING IN UNIT formation, calling cadence—it lulls you, it puts you outside yourself, filling your ears with the din
  3005.  
  3006. of dozens of men echoing your own shouting voice and forcing your eyes to fix on the footfalls of the runner in front
  3007.  
  3008. of you. After a while you don’t think anymore, you merely count, and your mind dissolves into the rank and file as
  3009.  
  3010. you pace out mile after mile. I
  3011. would say it was serene if it wasn’t so deadening. I would say I was at peace
  3012. if I weren’t so tired. This was precisely as the army intended. The drill sergeant goes unslapped not so much because
  3013.  
  3014. of fear but because of exhaustion: he’s never worth the effort. The army makes its fighters by first training the
  3015.  
  3016. fight out of them until they’re too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey.
  3017.  
  3018. 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
  3019.  
  3020. of our bunks, reciting the Soldier’s Creed, and then singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Daisy would always forget
  3021.  
  3022. the words. Also, he was tone-deaf.
  3023.  
  3024. Some guys would stay up late talking about what they were going to do to bin Laden once they found him, and they were
  3025.  
  3026. all sure they were going to find him. Most of their fantasies had to do with decapitation, castration, or horny
  3027.  
  3028. camels. Meanwhile, I’d have dreams about running, not through the lush and loamy Georgia landscape but through the
  3029.  
  3030. desert.
  3031.  
  3032. Sometime  during  the  third  or  fourth  week  we  were  out  on  a  land navigation movement, which is when your
  3033.  
  3034. platoon goes into the woods and treks over variegated terrain to predetermined coordinates, clambering over boulders
  3035.  
  3036. and wading across streams, with just a map and a compass—no GPS, no digital technology. We’d done versions of this
  3037.  
  3038. movement before, but never in full kit, with each of us lugging a rucksack stuffed with around fifty pounds of gear.
  3039.  
  3040. 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
  3041.  
  3042. I set out, loping across the range.
  3043.  
  3044. Toward the middle of the movement, I was on point and scrambled atop a storm-felled tree that arched over the path at
  3045.  
  3046. about chest height so that I could shoot an azimuth to check our bearings. After confirming that we were on track, I
  3047.  
  3048. went to hop down, but with one foot extended I noticed the coil of a snake directly below me. I’m not exactly a
  3049.  
  3050. naturalist, so I don’t know what species of snake it was, but then again, I didn’t really care. Kids in North
  3051.  
  3052. Carolina grow up being told that all snakes are deadly and I wasn’t about to start doubting it now.
  3053. Instead, I started trying to walk on air. I widened the stride of my outstretched foot, once, twice, twisting for the
  3054.  
  3055. extra distance, when suddenly I realized I was falling. When my feet hit the ground, some distance beyond the snake,
  3056.  
  3057. a fire shot up my legs that was more painful than any viper bite I could imagine. A few stumbling steps, which I had
  3058.  
  3059. to take in order to regain my balance, told me that something was wrong. Grievously wrong. I was in excruciating
  3060.  
  3061. pain, but I couldn’t stop, because I was in the army and the army was in the middle of the woods. I gathered my
  3062.  
  3063. resolve, pushed the pain away, and just focused on maintaining a steady pace—left, right, left, right—relying on the
  3064.  
  3065. rhythm to distract me.
  3066.  
  3067. 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
  3068.  
  3069. didn’t 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
  3070.  
  3071. 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
  3072.  
  3073. my lower half in after.
  3074.  
  3075. The next morning I was torn from a fitful sleep by the clanking of a metal trash can  being thrown down the  squad
  3076.  
  3077. bay,  a  wake-up call  that  meant someone hadn’t done their job to the drill sergeant’s satisfaction. I shot up
  3078.  
  3079. automatically, swinging myself over the edge and springing to the floor. When I landed, my legs gave way. They
  3080.  
  3081. crumpled and I fell. It was like I had no legs at all.
  3082.  
  3083. 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
  3084.  
  3085. legs every muscle in my body seized and I sank down immediately.
  3086.  
  3087. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered around me, with laughter that turned to concern and then to silence as the drill
  3088.  
  3089. sergeant approached. “What’s the matter with you, broke-dick?” he said. “Get up off my floor before I make you a part
  3090.  
  3091. of it, permanently.” When he saw the agony flash across my face as I immediately and unwisely struggled to respond to
  3092.  
  3093. his commands, he put his hand to my chest to stop me. “Daisy! Get Snowflake here down to the bench.” Then he crouched
  3094.  
  3095. down over me, as if he didn’t want the others to hear him being gentle, and said in a quiet rasp, “As soon as it
  3096.  
  3097. opens, Private, you’re going to crutch your broken ass to Sick Call,” which is where the army sends its injured to be
  3098.  
  3099. abused by professionals.
  3100.  
  3101. There’s a major stigma about getting injured in the army, mostly because the army is dedicated to making its soldiers
  3102.  
  3103. feel invincible but also because it likes to protect itself from accusations of mis-training. This is why almost all
  3104.  
  3105. training-injury victims are treated like whiners or, worse, malingerers.
  3106. After he carried me down to the bench, Daisy had to go. He wasn’t hurt, and those of us who were had to be kept
  3107.  
  3108. separated. We were the untouchables, the lepers, the soldiers who couldn’t train because of anything from sprains,
  3109.  
  3110. lacerations, and burns to broken ankles and deep necrotized spider bites. My new battle buddies would now come from
  3111.  
  3112. this bench of shame. A battle buddy is the person who, by policy, goes everywhere you go, just as you go everywhere
  3113.  
  3114. they go, if there’s even the remotest chance that either of you might be alone. Being alone might lead to thinking,
  3115.  
  3116. and thinking can cause the army problems.
  3117.  
  3118. The battle buddy assigned to me was a smart, handsome, former catalog model Captain America type who’d injured his
  3119.  
  3120. hip about a week earlier but hadn’t attended to it until the pain had become unbearable and left him just as gimpy as
  3121.  
  3122. me. Neither of us felt up to talking, so we crutched along in grim silence—left, right, left, right, but slowly. At
  3123.  
  3124. the hospital I was X-rayed and told that I had bilateral tibial fractures. These are stress fractures, fissures on
  3125.  
  3126. the surface of the bones that can deepen with time and pressure until they crack the bones down to the marrow. The
  3127.  
  3128. 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
  3129.  
  3130. was dismissed from the examination room to get a ride back to the battalion.
  3131.  
  3132. Except I  couldn’t go yet, because I  couldn’t leave without my battle buddy. He’d gone in to be X-rayed after me and
  3133.  
  3134. hadn’t returned. I assumed he was still being examined, so I waited. And waited. Hours passed. I spent the time
  3135.  
  3136. reading newspapers and magazines, an unthinkable luxury for someone in basic training.
  3137.  
  3138. 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
  3139.  
  3140. call, he was livid. “Snowflake, you enjoying your reading? Maybe you could get some pudding while you’re at it, and
  3141.  
  3142. some copies of Cosmo for the girls? Why in the hell haven’t you two dirtbags left yet?”
  3143.  
  3144. “Drill Sarn”—that’s how everybody said it in Georgia, where my Southern accent had resurfaced for the moment—“I’m
  3145.  
  3146. still waiting on my battle buddy, Drill Sarn.”
  3147.  
  3148. “And where the fuck is he, Snowflake?”
  3149.  
  3150. “Drill Sarn, I don’t know. He went into the examination room and hasn’t come out, Drill Sarn.”
  3151.  
  3152. He wasn’t happy with the answer, and barked even louder. “Get off your
  3153. crippled ass and go fucking find him, goddamnit.”
  3154.  
  3155. I got up and crutched over to the intake counter to make inquiries. My battle buddy, they told me, was in surgery.
  3156.  
  3157. It was only toward evening, after a barrage of calls from the drill sergeant, that I found out what had happened. My
  3158.  
  3159. battle buddy had been walking around on a broken hip for the past week, apparently, and if he hadn’t been taken into
  3160.  
  3161. surgery immediately and had it screwed back together, he might have been incapacitated for  life. Major nerves could
  3162.  
  3163. have been severed, because the break was as sharp as a knife.
  3164.  
  3165. I was sent back to Fort Benning alone, back to the bench. Anybody on the bench for more than three or four days was
  3166.  
  3167. at serious risk of being “recycled”—forced to start basic training over from scratch—or, worse, of being transferred
  3168.  
  3169. to the Medical Unit and sent home. These were guys who’d dreamed of being in the army their entire lives, guys for
  3170.  
  3171. whom the army had been their only way out of cruel families and dead-end careers, who now had to  face  the  prospect
  3172.  
  3173.  of  failure  and  a  return  to  civilian  life  irreparably damaged.
  3174.  
  3175. 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
  3176.  
  3177. 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
  3178.  
  3179. being separated and shunned, as if the drill sergeants feared we’d contaminate others with our weakness or with the
  3180.  
  3181. ideas that had occurred to us while benched. We were punished beyond the pain of our injuries themselves, excluded
  3182.  
  3183. from petty joys like watching the fireworks on the Fourth of  July. Instead, we pulled “fire guard” that night for
  3184.  
  3185. the empty barracks, a task that involved watching to make sure that the empty building didn’t burn down.
  3186.  
  3187. We pulled fire guard two to a shift, and I stood in the dark on my crutches, pretending to be useful, alongside my
  3188.  
  3189. partner. He was a sweet, simple, beefy eighteen-year-old with a dubious, perhaps self-inflicted injury. By his own
  3190.  
  3191. account, he should never have enlisted to begin with. The fireworks were bursting in the distance while he told me
  3192.  
  3193. how much of a mistake he’d made, and how agonizingly lonely he was—how much he missed his parents and his home, their
  3194.  
  3195. family farm somewhere way out in Appalachia.
  3196.  
  3197. I sympathized, though there wasn’t much I could do but send him to speak to the chaplain. I tried to offer advice,
  3198.  
  3199. suck it up, it might be better once you’re  used  to  it.  But  then  he  put  his  bulk  in  front  of  me  and,  in
  3200.  
  3201.  an
  3202. endearingly childlike way, told me point-blank that he was going AWOL—a crime in the military—and asked me whether I
  3203.  
  3204. would tell anybody. It was only then that I noticed he’d brought his laundry bag. He meant that he was going AWOL
  3205.  
  3206. that very moment.
  3207.  
  3208. I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation, beyond trying to talk some sense into him. I warned him that going AWOL
  3209.  
  3210. was a bad idea, that he’d end up with a warrant out for his arrest and any cop in the country could pick him up for
  3211.  
  3212. the rest of his life. But the guy only shook his head. Where he lived, he said, deep in the mountains, they didn’t
  3213.  
  3214. even have cops. This, he said, was his last chance to be free.
  3215.  
  3216. 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
  3217.  
  3218. couldn’t 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,
  3219.  
  3220. I’d be penalized for having let the conversation get this far without calling for reinforcements and beating him with
  3221.  
  3222. a crutch.
  3223.  
  3224. I was angry. I realized I was yelling at him. Why didn’t he wait until I was in the latrine to make a break for it?
  3225.  
  3226. Why was he putting me in this position?
  3227.  
  3228. He spoke softly. “You’re the only one who listens,” he said, and began to cry.
  3229.  
  3230. The saddest part of that night is that I believed him. In the company of a quarter thousand, he was alone. We stood
  3231.  
  3232. in silence as the fireworks popped and snapped in the distance. I sighed and said, “I’ve got to go to the latrine.
  3233.  
  3234. I’m going to be a while.” Then I limped away and didn’t look back.
  3235.  
  3236. That was the last I ever saw of him. I think I realized, then and there, that I
  3237. wasn’t long for the army, either.
  3238.  
  3239. My next doctor’s appointment was merely confirmation.
  3240.  
  3241. The doctor was a  tall, lanky Southerner with a  wry demeanor. After examining me and a new set of X-rays, he said
  3242.  
  3243. that I was in no condition to continue with my company. The next phase of training was airborne, and he told me,
  3244.  
  3245. “Son, if you jump on those legs, they’re going to turn into powder.”
  3246.  
  3247. I was despondent. If I didn’t finish the basic training cycle on time, I’d lose my slot in 18X, which meant that I’d
  3248.  
  3249. be reassigned according to the needs of the army. They could make me into whatever they wanted: regular infantry, a  
  3250.  
  3251. mechanic, a  desk jockey, a  potato peeler, or—in my  greatest nightmare—doing IT at the army’s help desk.
  3252.  
  3253. The doctor must have seen how dejected I was, because he cleared his
  3254. throat and gave me a choice: I could get recycled and try my luck with reassignment, or he could write me a note
  3255.  
  3256. putting me out on what was called “administrative separation.” This, he explained, was a special type of severance,
  3257.  
  3258. not characterized as either honorable or dishonorable, only available to enlistees who’d been in the services fewer
  3259.  
  3260. than six months. It was a clean break, more like an annulment than a divorce, and could be taken care of rather
  3261.  
  3262. quickly.
  3263.  
  3264. I’ll admit, the idea appealed to me. In the back of my mind, I even thought it might be some kind of karmic reward
  3265.  
  3266. for the mercy I’d shown to the Appalachian who’d gone AWOL. The doctor left me to think, and when he came back in an
  3267.  
  3268. hour I accepted his offer.
  3269.  
  3270. Shortly thereafter I was transferred to the Medical Unit, where I was told that in order for the administrative
  3271.  
  3272. separation to go through I had to sign a statement attesting that I was all better, that my bones were all healed. My
  3273.  
  3274. signature was a requirement, but it was presented as a mere formality. Just a few scribbles and I could go.
  3275.  
  3276. As I held the statement in one hand and the pen in the other, a knowing smile crossed my face. I recognized the hack:
  3277.  
  3278. what I’d thought was a kind and generous offer made by a caring army doctor to an ailing enlistee was the
  3279.  
  3280. government’s way of avoiding liability and a disability claim. Under the military’s rules, if I’d received a medical
  3281.  
  3282. discharge, the government would have had to  pay the bills for any issues stemming from my injury, any treatments and
  3283.  
  3284.  therapies it  required. An  administrative discharge put  the burden on me, and my freedom hinged on my willingness
  3285.  
  3286. to accept that burden.
  3287.  
  3288. I signed, and left that same day, on crutches that the army let me keep.
  3289. 10
  3290.  
  3291. Cleared and in Love
  3292.  
  3293. I can’t remember exactly when, in the midst of my convalescence, I started thinking clearly again. First the pain had
  3294.  
  3295. to ebb away, then gradually the depression ebbed, too, and after weeks of waking to no purpose beyond watching the
  3296.  
  3297. clock change I slowly began paying attention to what everyone around me was telling me: I was still young and I still
  3298.  
  3299. had a future. I only felt that way myself, however, once I was finally able to stand upright and walk on my own. It
  3300.  
  3301. was one of the myriad things that, like the love of my family, I’d simply taken for granted before.
  3302.  
  3303. As I made my first forays into the yard outside my mother’s condo, I came to realize that there was another thing I’d
  3304.  
  3305. taken for granted: my talent for understanding technology.
  3306.  
  3307. Forgive me if I come off like a dick, but there’s no other way to say this: I’d always been so comfortable with
  3308.  
  3309. computers that I almost didn’t take my abilities seriously, and didn’t want to be praised for them or to succeed
  3310.  
  3311. because of them. I’d wanted, instead, to be praised for and to succeed at something else—something that was harder
  3312.  
  3313. for me. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar; I was also heart and muscle.
  3314.  
  3315. That explained my stint in the army. And over the course of my convalescence, I came to realize that although the
  3316.  
  3317. experience had wounded my pride, it had improved my confidence. I was stronger now, not afraid of the pain as much as
  3318.  
  3319. grateful to be improved by it. Life beyond the barbed wire was getting easier. In the final reckoning, all the army
  3320.  
  3321. had cost me was my hair, which had grown back, and a limp, which was healing.
  3322.  
  3323. I was ready to face the facts: if I still had the urge to serve my country, and I most certainly did, then I’d have
  3324.  
  3325. to serve it through my head and hands— through computing. That, and only that, would be giving my country my best.
  3326.  
  3327. Though I wasn’t much of a veteran, having passed through the military’s vetting could only help my chances of working
  3328.  
  3329. at an intelligence agency, which was where my talents would be most in demand and, perhaps, most challenged.
  3330.  
  3331. Thus I became reconciled to what in retrospect was inevitable: the need for a security clearance. There are,
  3332.  
  3333. generally speaking, three levels of security clearance: from low to high, confidential, secret, and top secret. The
  3334.  
  3335. last of these can be further extended with a Sensitive Compartmented Information
  3336. qualifier, creating the coveted TS/SCI access required by positions with the top-tier agencies—CIA and NSA. The
  3337.  
  3338. TS/SCI was by far the hardest access to get, but also opened the most doors, and so I went back to Anne Arundel
  3339.  
  3340. Community College while I searched for jobs that would sponsor my application for the grueling Single Scope
  3341.  
  3342. Background Investigation the clearance required. As the approval process for a TS/SCI can take a year or more, I
  3343.  
  3344. heartily recommend it to anyone recovering from an injury. All it involves is filling out some paperwork, then
  3345.  
  3346. sitting around with your feet up and trying not to commit too many crimes while the federal government renders its
  3347.  
  3348. verdict. The rest, after all, is out of your hands.
  3349.  
  3350. On paper, I was a perfect candidate. I was a kid from a service family, nearly every adult member of which had some
  3351.  
  3352. level of clearance; I’d tried to enlist and fight for my country until an unfortunate accident had laid me low. I had
  3353.  
  3354. no criminal record, no drug habit. My only financial debt was the student  loan  for  my  Microsoft  certification,  
  3355.  
  3356. and  I  hadn’t  yet  missed  a payment.
  3357.  
  3358. None of this stopped me, of course, from being nervous.
  3359.  
  3360. I drove to and from classes at AACC as the National Background Investigations Bureau rummaged through nearly every
  3361.  
  3362. aspect of my life and interviewed almost everyone I knew: my parents, my extended family, my classmates and friends.
  3363.  
  3364. They went through my spotty school transcripts and, I’m sure, spoke to a few of my teachers. I got the impression
  3365.  
  3366. that they even spoke to Mae and Norm, and to a guy I’d worked with one summer at a snow cone stand at Six Flags
  3367.  
  3368. America. The goal of all this background checking was not only to find out what I’d done wrong, but also to find out
  3369.  
  3370. how I might be compromised or blackmailed. The most important thing to the IC is not that you’re 100 percent
  3371.  
  3372. perfectly clean, because if that were the case they wouldn’t hire anybody. Instead, it’s that you’re robotically
  3373.  
  3374. honest—that there’s no dirty secret out there that you’re hiding that could be used against you, and thus against the
  3375.  
  3376. agency, by an enemy power.
  3377.  
  3378. This, of course, set me thinking—sitting stuck in traffic as all the moments of my life that I regretted went
  3379.  
  3380. spinning around in a loop inside my head. Nothing I could come up with would have raised even an iota of eyebrow from
  3381.  
  3382. investigators who are used to finding out that the middle-aged analyst at a think tank likes to wear diapers and get
  3383.  
  3384. spanked by grandmothers in leather. Still, there was a paranoia that the process created, because you don’t have to
  3385.  
  3386. be a closet fetishist to have done things that embarrass you and to fear that strangers might misunderstand you if
  3387.  
  3388. those things were exposed. I mean, I
  3389. grew up on the Internet, for Christ’s sake. If you haven’t entered something shameful or gross into that search box,
  3390.  
  3391. then you haven’t been online very long—though I wasn’t worried about the pornography. Everybody looks at porn, and
  3392.  
  3393. for those of you who are shaking your heads, don’t worry: your secret is safe with me. My worries were more personal,
  3394.  
  3395. or felt more personal: the endless conveyor belt of stupid jingoistic things I’d said, and the even stupider
  3396.  
  3397. misanthropic opinions I’d abandoned, in the process of growing up online. Specifically, I was worried about my chat
  3398.  
  3399. logs and forum posts, all the supremely moronic commentary that I’d sprayed across a score of gaming and hacker
  3400.  
  3401. sites. Writing pseudonymously had meant writing freely, but often thoughtlessly. And since a major aspect of early
  3402.  
  3403. Internet culture was competing with others to say the most inflammatory thing, I’d never hesitate to advocate, say,
  3404.  
  3405. bombing a country that taxed video games, or corralling people who didn’t like anime into reeducation camps. Nobody
  3406.  
  3407. on those sites took any of it seriously, least of all myself.
  3408.  
  3409. When I went back and reread the posts, I cringed. Half the things I’d said I hadn’t even meant at the time—I’d just
  3410.  
  3411. wanted attention—but I didn’t fancy my odds of explaining that to a gray-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses peering
  3412.  
  3413. over a giant folder labeled PERMANENT  RECORD. The other half, the things I think I had meant at the time, were even
  3414.  
  3415. worse, because I wasn’t that
  3416. kid anymore. I’d grown up. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t recognize the voice
  3417. as my own—it was that I now actively opposed its overheated, hormonal opinions. I found that I wanted to argue with a
  3418.  
  3419. ghost. I wanted to fight with that dumb, puerile, and casually cruel self of mine who no longer existed. I couldn’t
  3420.  
  3421. stand the idea of being haunted by him forever, but I didn’t know the best way to express my remorse and put some
  3422.  
  3423. distance between him and me, or whether I should even try to do that. It was heinous to be so inextricably,
  3424.  
  3425. technologically bound to a past that I fully regretted but barely remembered.
  3426.  
  3427. This might be the most familiar problem of my generation, the first to grow up online. We were able to discover and
  3428.  
  3429. explore our identities almost totally unsupervised, with hardly a thought spared for the fact that our rash remarks
  3430.  
  3431. and profane banter were being preserved for perpetuity, and that one day we might be expected to account for them.
  3432.  
  3433. I’m sure everyone who had an Internet connection before they had a job can sympathize with this—surely everyone has
  3434.  
  3435. that one post that embarrasses them, or that text or email that could get them fired.
  3436.  
  3437. My  situation  was  somewhat  different,  however,  in  that  most  of  the message boards of my day would let you
  3438.  
  3439. delete your old posts. I could put together one tiny little script—not even a real program—and all of my posts
  3440. would be gone in under an hour. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to do. Trust me, I considered it.
  3441.  
  3442. But  ultimately, I  couldn’t. Something kept preventing me.  It  just  felt wrong. To blank my posts from the face of
  3443.  
  3444. the earth wasn’t illegal, and it wouldn’t even have made me ineligible for a security clearance had anyone found out.
  3445.  
  3446. But the prospect of doing so bothered me nonetheless. It would’ve only served to reinforce some of the most corrosive
  3447.  
  3448. precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must
  3449.  
  3450. answer for it forever. What mattered to me wasn’t so much the integrity of the written record but that of my soul. I
  3451.  
  3452. didn’t want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend that they were perfect, because that was a world that
  3453.  
  3454. 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
  3455.  
  3456. how far I’d come. To deny my younger self would have been to deny my present self’s validity.
  3457.  
  3458. I decided to leave the comments up and figure out how to live with them. I even decided that true fidelity to this
  3459.  
  3460. stance would require me to continue posting. In time, I’d outgrow these new opinions, too, but my initial impulse
  3461.  
  3462. remains unshakable, if only because it was an important step in my own maturity. We can’t erase the things that shame
  3463.  
  3464. us, or the ways we’ve shamed ourselves, online. All we can do is control our reactions—whether we let the past
  3465.  
  3466. oppress us, or accept its lessons, grow, and move on.
  3467.  
  3468. This was the first thing that you might call a principle that occurred to me during this idle but formative time, and
  3469.  
  3470. though it would prove difficult, I’ve tried to live by it.
  3471.  
  3472. Believe it  or  not, the only online traces of  my existence whose past iterations have never given me worse than a
  3473.  
  3474. mild sense of embarrassment were my dating profiles. I suspect this is because I’d had to write them with the
  3475.  
  3476. expectation that their words truly mattered—since the entire purpose of the enterprise was for somebody in Real Life
  3477.  
  3478. to actually care about them, and, by extension, about me.
  3479.  
  3480. I’d joined a website called HotOrNot.com, which was the most popular of the rating sites of the early 2000s, like
  3481.  
  3482. RateMyFace and AmIHot. (Their most effective features were combined by a young Mark Zuckerberg into a site called
  3483.  
  3484. FaceMash, which later became Facebook.) HotOrNot was the most popular of these pre-Facebook rating sites for a simple
  3485.  
  3486. reason: it was the best of the few that had a dating component.
  3487.  
  3488. Basically, how it worked was that users voted on each other’s photos: Hot
  3489. or Not. An extra function for registered users such as myself was the ability to contact other registered users, if
  3490.  
  3491. each had rated the other’s photos Hot and clicked “Meet Me.” This banal and crass process is how I met Lindsay Mills,
  3492.  
  3493. my partner and the love of my life.
  3494.  
  3495. Looking at the photos now, I’m amused to find that nineteen-year-old Lindsay was  gawky, awkward, and  endearingly
  3496.  
  3497. shy.  To  me  at  the  time, though, she was a smoldering blonde, absolutely volcanic. What’s more, the photos
  3498.  
  3499. themselves were beautiful: they had a serious artistic quality, self- portraits more than selfies. They caught the
  3500.  
  3501. eye and held it. They played coyly with light and shade. They even had a hint of meta fun: there was one taken inside
  3502.  
  3503. the photo lab where she worked, and another where she wasn’t even facing the camera.
  3504.  
  3505. 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
  3506.  
  3507. chatting. Lindsay was studying fine art photography. She had her own website, where she kept a journal and posted
  3508.  
  3509. more shots: forests, flowers, abandoned factories, and—my favorite— more of her.
  3510.  
  3511. I scoured the Web and used each new fact I found about her to create a fuller picture: the town she was born in
  3512.  
  3513. (Laurel, Maryland), her school’s name (MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art). Eventually, I admitted to
  3514.  
  3515. cyberstalking her. I felt like a creep, but Lindsay cut me off. “I’ve been searching about you, too, mister,” she
  3516.  
  3517. said, and rattled off a list of facts about me.
  3518.  
  3519. These were among the sweetest words I’d ever heard, yet I was reluctant to see her in person. We scheduled a date,
  3520.  
  3521. and as the days ticked down my nervousness grew. It’s a scary proposition, to take an online relationship off- line.
  3522.  
  3523. It would be scary even in a world without ax murderers and scammers. In my experience, the more you’ve communicated
  3524.  
  3525. with someone online, the more disappointed you’ll be by meeting them in person. Things that are the easiest  to  say  
  3526.  
  3527. on-screen  become  the  most  difficult  to  say  face-to-face. Distance favors intimacy: no one talks more openly
  3528.  
  3529. than when they’re alone in a room, chatting with an unseen someone alone in a different room. Meet that person,
  3530.  
  3531. however, and you lose your latitude. Your talk becomes safer and tamer, a common conversation on neutral ground.
  3532.  
  3533. Online, Lindsay and I had become total confidants, and I was afraid of losing  our  connection  in  person.  In  
  3534.  
  3535. other  words,  I  was  afraid  of  being rejected.
  3536. I shouldn’t have been.
  3537.  
  3538. Lindsay—who’d insisted on driving—told me that she’d pick me up at my mother’s condo. The appointed hour found me
  3539.  
  3540. standing outside in the twilight cold, guiding her by phone through the similarly named, identical-looking streets of
  3541.  
  3542. my mother’s development. I was keeping an eye out for a gold ’98
  3543. Chevy Cavalier, when suddenly I was blinded, struck in the face by a beam of light from the curb. Lindsay was
  3544.  
  3545. flashing her brights at me across the snow.
  3546.  
  3547. “Buckle up.” Those were the first words that Lindsay said to me in person, as I got into her car. Then she said,
  3548.  
  3549. “What’s the plan?”
  3550.  
  3551. It’s then that I realized that despite all the thinking I had been doing about her, I’d done no thinking whatsoever
  3552.  
  3553. about our destination.
  3554.  
  3555. If I’d been in this situation with any other woman, I’d have improvised, covering for myself. But with Lindsay it was
  3556.  
  3557. different. With Lindsay, it didn’t matter. She drove us down her favorite road—she had a favorite road—and we talked
  3558.  
  3559. 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
  3560.  
  3561. talked.
  3562.  
  3563. It was perfection. Talking face-to-face turned out to be just an extension of all our phone calls, emails, and chats.
  3564.  
  3565. Our first date was a continuation of our first contact online and the start of a conversation that will last as long
  3566.  
  3567. as we will. We talked about our families, or what was left of them. Lindsay’s parents were also divorced: her mother
  3568.  
  3569. and father lived twenty minutes apart, and as a kid Lindsay had been shuttled back and forth between them. She’d
  3570.  
  3571. lived out of a bag. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she slept in her room at her mother’s house. Tuesdays,
  3572.  
  3573. Thursdays, and Saturdays she slept in her room at her father’s house. Sundays were the dramatic day, because she had
  3574.  
  3575. to choose.
  3576.  
  3577. She told me how bad my taste was, and criticized my date apparel: a button-down shirt decorated with metallic flames
  3578.  
  3579. over a wifebeater and jeans (I’m sorry). She told me about the two other guys she was dating, whom she’d already
  3580.  
  3581. mentioned online, and Machiavelli would’ve blushed at the ways in which I set about undermining them (I’m not sorry).
  3582.  
  3583. I told her everything, too, including the fact that I wouldn’t be able to talk to her about my work—the work I hadn’t
  3584.  
  3585. even started. This was ludicrously pretentious, which she made obvious to me by nodding gravely.
  3586.  
  3587. I told her I was worried about the upcoming polygraph required for my clearance and she offered to practice with me—a
  3588.  
  3589. goofy kind of foreplay. The philosophy she lived by was the perfect training: say what you want, say who you are,
  3590.  
  3591. never be ashamed. If they reject you, it’s their problem. I’d never
  3592. been so comfortable around someone, and I’d never been so willing to be called out for my faults. I even let her take
  3593.  
  3594. my photo.
  3595.  
  3596. I had her voice in my head on my drive to the NSA’s oddly named Friendship Annex complex for the final interview for
  3597.  
  3598. my security clearance. I found myself in a windowless room, bound like a hostage to a cheap office chair.  Around  my
  3599.  
  3600.  chest  and  stomach  were  pneumographic  tubes  that measured my breathing. Finger cuffs on my fingertips measured
  3601.  
  3602. my electrodermal activity, a blood pressure cuff around my arm measured my heart rate, and a sensor pad on the chair
  3603.  
  3604. detected my every fidget and shift. All of these devices—wrapped, clamped, cuffed, and belted tightly around me
  3605. —were connected to the large black polygraph machine placed on the table in front of me.
  3606.  
  3607. Behind the table, in a nicer chair, sat the polygrapher. She reminded me of a teacher I once had—and I spent much of
  3608.  
  3609. the test trying to remember the teacher’s name, or trying not to. She, the polygrapher, began asking questions. The  
  3610.  
  3611. first  ones  were  no-brainers: Was  my  name  Edward  Snowden?  Was
  3612. 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
  3613.  
  3614. ever had a problem with alcohol or taken illegal drugs? Had I ever been an agent of a foreign power? Had I ever
  3615.  
  3616. advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government? The only admissible answers were binary: “Yes” and
  3617.  
  3618. “No.” I answered “No” a lot, and kept waiting for the questions I’d been dreading. “Have you ever impugned the
  3619.  
  3620. competence and character of the medical staff at Fort Benning online?” “What were you searching for on the network of
  3621.  
  3622. the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory?” But those questions never came and, before I knew it, the test was over.
  3623.  
  3624. I’d passed with flying colors.
  3625.  
  3626. As required, I had to answer the series of questions three times in total, and all three times I passed, which meant
  3627.  
  3628. that not only had I qualified for the TS/SCI, I’d also cleared the “full scope polygraph”—the highest clearance in
  3629.  
  3630. the land.
  3631.  
  3632. I had a girlfriend I loved and I was on top of the world. I was twenty-two years old.
  3633. PART TWO
  3634. 11
  3635.  
  3636. The System
  3637.  
  3638. I’m going to press Pause here, for a moment, to explain something about my politics at age twenty-two: I didn’t have
  3639.  
  3640. any. Instead, like most young people, I had solid convictions that I refused to accept weren’t truly mine but rather
  3641.  
  3642. a contradictory cluster of inherited principles. My mind was a mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals
  3643.  
  3644. I encountered online. It took me until my late twenties to finally understand that so much of what I believed, or of
  3645.  
  3646. what I thought I believed, was just youthful imprinting. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults
  3647.  
  3648. around us, and in  the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions, until we’ve deluded
  3649.  
  3650. ourselves into thinking that the words we’re using are our own.
  3651.  
  3652. My parents were, if not dismissive of politics in general, then certainly dismissive of politicians. To be sure, this
  3653.  
  3654. dismissal had little in common with the disaffection of nonvoters or partisan disdain. Rather, it was a certain
  3655.  
  3656. bemused detachment particular to their class, which nobler ages have called the federal civil service or the public
  3657.  
  3658. sector, but which our own time tends to refer to as the deep state or the shadow government. None of those epithets,
  3659.  
  3660. however, really captures what it is: a class of career officials (incidentally, perhaps one of the last functional
  3661.  
  3662. middle classes in American life) who— nonelected and non-appointed—serve or work in government, either at one of the
  3663.  
  3664. independent agencies (from the CIA and NSA to the IRS, the FCC, and so on) or at one of the executive departments
  3665.  
  3666. (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the like).
  3667.  
  3668. These were my parents, these were my people: a nearly three-million- strong professional government workforce
  3669.  
  3670. dedicated to assisting the amateurs chosen by the electorate, and appointed by the elected, in fulfilling their
  3671.  
  3672. political duties—or, in the words of the oath, in faithfully executing their offices. These civil servants, who stay
  3673.  
  3674. in their positions even as administrations come and go, work as diligently under Republicans as under Democrats
  3675.  
  3676. because they ultimately work for the government itself, providing core continuity and stability of rule.
  3677.  
  3678. These  were  also  the  people  who,  when  their  country  went  to  war, answered the call. That’s what I had done
  3679.  
  3680. after 9/11, and I found that the patriotism my parents had taught me was easily converted into nationalist fervor.
  3681.  
  3682. For a time, especially in my run-up to joining the army, my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the
  3683.  
  3684. least sophisticated video games,
  3685. where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable.
  3686.  
  3687. However,  once  I  returned  from  the  Army  and  rededicated myself  to computing, I  gradually came to  regret my  
  3688.  
  3689. martial fantasies. The more I developed my abilities, the more I matured and realized that the technology of
  3690.  
  3691. communications  had  a  chance  of  succeeding  where  the  technology  of violence had failed. Democracy could never
  3692.  
  3693. be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber. In the early
  3694. 2000s the Internet was still just barely out of its formative period, and, to my mind at least, it offered a more
  3695.  
  3696. authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals  than  even  America itself.  A  place  where  everyone was
  3697.  
  3698. equal? Check. A place dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Check, check, check. It helped that
  3699.  
  3700. nearly all the major founding documents of Internet culture framed it in terms reminiscent of American history: here
  3701.  
  3702. was this wild, open new frontier that belonged to anyone bold enough to settle it, swiftly becoming colonized by
  3703.  
  3704. governments and corporate interests that were seeking to regulate it for power and profit. The large companies that
  3705.  
  3706. were charging large fees—for hardware, for software, for the long-distance phone calls that you needed back then to
  3707.  
  3708. get online, and for knowledge itself, which was humanity’s common inheritance and so, by all rights, should have been
  3709.  
  3710. freely available—were irresistible contemporary avatars of the British, whose harsh taxation ignited the fervor for
  3711.  
  3712. independence.
  3713.  
  3714. This revolution wasn’t happening in history textbooks, but now, in my generation, and any of us could be part of it
  3715.  
  3716. solely by dint of our abilities. This was thrilling—to participate in the founding of a new society, one based not on
  3717.  
  3718. where we were born or how we grew up or our popularity at school but on our knowledge and technological ability. In
  3719.  
  3720. school, I’d had to memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: now its words were lodged in my memory alongside
  3721.  
  3722. John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which employed the same self-evident, self-
  3723.  
  3724. elect plural pronoun: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race,
  3725.  
  3726. economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his
  3727.  
  3728. or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
  3729.  
  3730. This technological meritocracy was certainly empowering, but it could also be humbling, as I came to understand when
  3731.  
  3732. I first went to work in the Intelligence Community. The decentralization of the Internet merely emphasized the
  3733.  
  3734. decentralization of computing expertise. I might have been the top computer person in my family, or in my
  3735.  
  3736. neighborhood, but to work for
  3737. the IC meant testing my skills against everyone in the country and the world. The Internet showed me the sheer
  3738.  
  3739. quantity and variety of talent that existed, and made clear that in order to flourish I had to specialize.
  3740.  
  3741. There were a few different careers available to me as a technologist. I could have become a software developer, or,
  3742.  
  3743. as the job is more commonly called, a programmer, writing the code that makes computers work. Alternatively, I could
  3744.  
  3745. have become a hardware or network specialist, setting up the servers in their racks and running the wires, weaving
  3746.  
  3747. the massive fabric that connects every computer, every device, and every file. Computers and computer programs were
  3748.  
  3749. interesting to me, and so were the networks that linked them together. But I was most intrigued by their total
  3750.  
  3751. functioning at a deeper level of abstraction, not as individual components but as an overarching system.
  3752.  
  3753. I thought about this a lot while I was driving, to and from Lindsay’s house and to and from AACC. Car time has always
  3754.  
  3755. been thinking time for me, and commutes are long on the crowded Beltway. To be a software developer was to run the
  3756.  
  3757. rest stops off the exits and to make sure that all the fast-food and gas station franchises accorded with each other
  3758.  
  3759. and with user expectations; to be a hardware specialist was to lay the infrastructure, to grade and pave the roads
  3760.  
  3761. themselves; while to be a network specialist was to be responsible for traffic control, manipulating signs and lights
  3762.  
  3763. to safely route the time-crunched hordes to their proper destinations. To get into systems, however, was to be an
  3764.  
  3765. urban  planner,  to  take  all  of  the  components available  and  ensure  their interaction to maximum effect. It
  3766.  
  3767. was, pure and simple, like getting paid to play God, or at least a tinpot dictator.
  3768.  
  3769. There are two main ways to be a systems guy. One is that you take possession of the whole of an existing system and
  3770.  
  3771. maintain it, gradually making it more efficient and fixing it when it breaks. That position is called a systems  
  3772.  
  3773. administrator,  or  sysadmin.  The  second  is  that  you  analyze  a problem, such as how to store data or how to
  3774.  
  3775. search across databases, and solve it by engineering a solution from a combination of existing components or by
  3776.  
  3777. inventing entirely new ones. This position is called a systems engineer. I eventually would do both of these jobs,
  3778.  
  3779. working my way into administration and from there into engineering, oblivious throughout about how this intense
  3780.  
  3781. engagement with the deepest levels of integration of computing technology was exerting an influence on my political
  3782.  
  3783. convictions.
  3784.  
  3785. I’ll try not to be too abstract here, but I want you to imagine a system. It doesn’t matter what system: it can be a
  3786.  
  3787. computer system, an ecosystem, a
  3788. legal system, or even a system of government. Remember, a system is just a bunch of parts that function together as a
  3789.  
  3790. whole, which most people are only reminded of when something breaks. It’s one of the great chastening facts of
  3791.  
  3792. working with systems that the part of a system that malfunctions is almost never the part in which you notice the
  3793.  
  3794. malfunction. In order to find what caused the system to collapse, you have to start from the point where you spotted
  3795.  
  3796. the problem, and trace the problem’s effects logically through all of the system’s components. Because a sysadmin or
  3797.  
  3798. engineer is responsible for such repairs, they have to be equally fluent in software, hardware, and networking. If
  3799.  
  3800. the malfunction turns out to be a software issue, the repair might involve scrolling through line after line of code
  3801.  
  3802. in a UN General Assembly’s worth of programming languages. If it’s a hardware issue, it might require going over a
  3803.  
  3804. circuit board with a flashlight in the mouth and a soldering gun in hand, checking each connection. If networking is
  3805.  
  3806. implicated, it might mean tracing every twist and turn of the cables that run above the ceiling and under the floor,
  3807.  
  3808. connecting the distant data centers full of servers with an office full of laptops.
  3809.  
  3810. Because systems work according to instructions, or rules, such an analysis is ultimately a search for which rules
  3811.  
  3812. failed, how, and why—an attempt to identify the specific points where the intention of a rule was not adequately
  3813.  
  3814. expressed by  its  formulation or  application. Did the  system fail  because something was not communicated, or
  3815.  
  3816. because someone abused the system by accessing a resource they weren’t allowed to, or by accessing a resource they
  3817.  
  3818. were allowed to but using it exploitatively? Was the job of one component stopped, or impeded, by another? Did one
  3819.  
  3820. program, or computer, or group of people take over more than their fair share of the system?
  3821.  
  3822. Over the course of my career, it became increasingly difficult for me to ask these questions about the technologies I
  3823.  
  3824. was responsible for and not about my country. And it became increasingly frustrating to me that I was able to repair
  3825.  
  3826. the former but not the latter. I ended my time in Intelligence convinced that my country’s operating system—its
  3827.  
  3828. government—had decided that it functioned best when broken.
  3829. 12
  3830.  
  3831. Homo contractus
  3832.  
  3833. I had hoped to serve my country, but instead I went to work for it. This is not a trivial distinction. The sort of
  3834.  
  3835. honorable stability offered to my father and Pop wasn’t quite as available to me, or to anyone of my generation. Both
  3836.  
  3837. my father and Pop entered the service of their country on the first day of their working lives and retired from that
  3838.  
  3839. service on the last. That was the American government that was familiar to me, from earliest childhood—when it had
  3840.  
  3841. helped to feed, clothe, and house me—to the moment when it had cleared me to  go  into  the  Intelligence  Community.
  3842.  
  3843.  That  government  had  treated  a citizen’s service like a compact: it would provide for you and your family, in
  3844.  
  3845. return for your integrity and the prime years of your life.
  3846.  
  3847. But I came into the IC during a different age.
  3848.  
  3849. By the time I arrived, the sincerity of public service had given way to the greed of the private sector, and the
  3850.  
  3851. sacred compact of the soldier, officer, and career civil  servant was  being replaced by  the  unholy bargain of  
  3852.  
  3853. Homo contractus, the primary species of US Government 2.0. This creature was not a sworn servant but a transient
  3854.  
  3855. worker, whose patriotism was incentivized by a better paycheck and for whom the federal government was less the
  3856.  
  3857. ultimate authority than the ultimate client.
  3858.  
  3859. During the American Revolution, it had made sense for the Continental Congress to hire privateers and mercenaries to
  3860.  
  3861. protect the independence of what was then barely a functioning republic. But for third-millennium hyperpower America
  3862.  
  3863. to rely on privatized forces for the national defense struck me as strange and vaguely sinister. Indeed, today
  3864.  
  3865. contracting is most often associated with its major failures, such as the fighting-for-hire work of Blackwater (which
  3866.  
  3867. changed its name to Xe Services after its employees were convicted of killing fourteen Iraqi civilians, and then
  3868.  
  3869. changed its name again to Academi after it was acquired by a group of private investors), or the torture-for-hire
  3870.  
  3871. work of CACI and Titan (both of which supplied personnel who terrorized prisoners at Abu Ghraib).
  3872.  
  3873. These sensationalist cases can lead the public to believe that the government employs contractors in order to
  3874.  
  3875. maintain cover and deniability, off-loading the illegal or quasi-legal dirty work to keep its hands clean and
  3876.  
  3877. conscience clear. But that’s not entirely true, or at least not entirely true in the IC, which tends to focus less on
  3878.  
  3879. deniability and more on never getting caught in the first place. Instead, the primary purpose served by IC
  3880.  
  3881. contracting is
  3882. much more mundane: it’s a workaround, a loophole, a hack that lets agencies circumvent federal caps on hiring. Every
  3883.  
  3884. agency has a head count, a legislative limit that dictates the number of people it can hire to do a certain type of
  3885.  
  3886. work. But contractors, because they’re not directly employed by the federal government, aren’t included in that
  3887.  
  3888. 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 want
  3889.  
  3890. —all they have to do is testify to a few select congressional subcommittees that the terrorists are coming for our
  3891.  
  3892. children, or the Russians are in our emails, or the Chinese are in our power grid. Congress never says no to this
  3893.  
  3894. type of begging, which is actually a kind of threat, and reliably capitulates to the IC’s demands.
  3895.  
  3896. Among the documents that I provided to journalists was the 2013 Black
  3897. Budget. This is a classified budget in which over 68 percent of its money,
  3898. $52.6 billion, was dedicated to the IC, including funding for 107,035 IC employees—more than a fifth of whom, some
  3899.  
  3900. 21,800 people, were full-time contractors. And that number doesn’t even include the tens of thousands more employed
  3901.  
  3902. by companies that have signed contracts (or subcontracts, or sub- subcontracts) with the agencies for a specific
  3903.  
  3904. service or project. Those contractors are never counted by the government, not even in the Black Budget, because to
  3905.  
  3906. add their ranks to the contracting total would make one disturbing fact extraordinarily clear: the work of American
  3907.  
  3908. Intelligence is done as frequently by private employees as it is by government servants.
  3909.  
  3910. To be sure, there are many, even in government, who maintain that this trickle-down scheme is advantageous. With
  3911.  
  3912. contractors, they say, the government can encourage competitive bidding to keep costs down, and isn’t on the hook to
  3913.  
  3914. pay pensions and benefits. But the real advantage for government officials is  the  conflict of  interest inherent in
  3915.  
  3916.  the  budgeting process itself. IC directors ask Congress for money to rent contract workers from private companies,
  3917.  
  3918. congresspeople approve that money, and then those IC directors and congresspeople are rewarded, after they retire
  3919.  
  3920. from office, by being given high-paying positions and consultancies with the very companies they’ve just enriched.
  3921.  
  3922. From the vantage of the corporate boardroom, contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption. It’s
  3923.  
  3924. America’s most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse.
  3925.  
  3926. But however much the work of  Intelligence is  privatized, the federal government remains the only authority that can
  3927.  
  3928. grant an individual clearance to access classified information. And because clearance candidates must be sponsored in
  3929.  
  3930. order to apply for clearance—meaning they must already have a
  3931. job offer for a position that requires clearance—most contractors begin their careers in a government position. After
  3932.  
  3933. all, it’s rarely worth the expense for a private company to sponsor your clearance application and then pay you to
  3934.  
  3935. wait around for a year for the government’s approval. It makes more financial sense for a company to just hire an
  3936.  
  3937. already-cleared government employee. The situation created by this economy is one in which government bears all the
  3938.  
  3939. burdens of background checks but reaps few of the benefits. It must do all of the work and assume all of the expense
  3940.  
  3941. of clearing a candidate, who, the moment they have their clearance, more often than not bolts for the door,
  3942.  
  3943. exchanging the blue badge of the government employee for the green badge of the contractor. The joke was that the
  3944.  
  3945. green symbolized “money.”
  3946.  
  3947. The government job that had sponsored me for my TS/SCI clearance wasn’t the one I wanted, but the one I could find: I
  3948.  
  3949. was officially an employee of the state of Maryland, working for the University of Maryland at College Park. The
  3950.  
  3951. university was helping the NSA open a new institution called CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language.
  3952.  
  3953. CASL’s ostensible mission was to study how people learned languages and to develop computer-assisted methods to help
  3954.  
  3955. them do so more quickly and better. The hidden corollary of this mission was that the NSA also wanted to develop ways
  3956.  
  3957. to improve computer comprehension of language. If the other agencies were having difficulties finding competent
  3958.  
  3959. Arabic (and Farsi and Dari and Pashto and Kurdish) speakers who passed their often ridiculous security checks to
  3960.  
  3961. translate and interpret on the ground—I know too many Americans rejected merely because they had an inconvenient
  3962.  
  3963. distant cousin they’d never even met—the NSA was having its own tough time ensuring that its computers could
  3964.  
  3965. comprehend and analyze the massive amount of foreign- language communications that they were intercepting.
  3966.  
  3967. I don’t have a more granular idea of the kinds of things that CASL was supposed to do, for the simple reason that
  3968.  
  3969. when I showed up for work with my  bright,  shiny  clearance, the  place  wasn’t  even  open  yet.  In  fact,  its
  3970.  
  3971. building was still under construction. Until it was finished and the tech was installed, my job was essentially that
  3972.  
  3973. of a night-shift security guard. My responsibilities were limited to showing up every day to patrol the empty halls
  3974.  
  3975. after the construction workers—those other contractors—were finished, making sure that nobody burned down the
  3976.  
  3977. building or broke in and bugged it. I  spent hour after hour making rounds through the half-completed shell,
  3978.  
  3979. inspecting the day’s progress: trying out the chairs that had just been installed in the state-of-the-art auditorium,
  3980.  
  3981. casting stones back and forth across the suddenly graveled roof, admiring the new drywall, and literally watching the
  3982. paint dry.
  3983.  
  3984. This is the life of after-hours security at a top secret facility, and truthfully I didn’t mind it. I was getting
  3985.  
  3986. 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
  3987.  
  3988. one functioning computer that I had access to on the premises to search for a new position. During the daytime, I
  3989.  
  3990. caught up on my sleep and went out on photography expeditions with Lindsay, who—thanks to my wooing and scheming—had
  3991.  
  3992. finally dumped her other boyfriends.
  3993.  
  3994. At the time I was still naive enough to think that my position with CASL would be a bridge to a full-time federal
  3995.  
  3996. career. But the more I looked around, the more I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve
  3997.  
  3998. my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a
  3999.  
  4000. private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a
  4001.  
  4002. subcontractor for a  private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit.
  4003.  
  4004. The realization was dizzying.
  4005.  
  4006. It was particularly bizarre to me that most of the systems engineering and systems administration jobs that were out
  4007.  
  4008. there were private, because these positions came with almost universal access to the employer’s digital existence.
  4009.  
  4010. It’s unimaginable that a major bank or even a social media outfit would hire outsiders for systems-level work. In the
  4011.  
  4012. context of the US government, however, restructuring your intelligence agencies so that your most sensitive systems
  4013.  
  4014. were being run by somebody who didn’t really work for you was what passed for innovation.
  4015.  
  4016.  
  4017.  
  4018. THE AGENCIES  WERE hiring tech companies to hire kids, and then they were giving them the keys to the kingdom,
  4019.  
  4020. because—as Congress and the press were told—the agencies didn’t have a choice. No one else knew how the keys, or the
  4021.  
  4022. kingdom, worked. I tried to rationalize all this into a pretext for optimism. I swallowed my incredulity, put
  4023.  
  4024. together a résumé, and went to the
  4025. job fairs, which, at least in the early aughts, were the primary venues where
  4026. contractors found new work and government employees were poached. These fairs went by the dubious name of “Clearance
  4027.  
  4028. Jobs”—I think I was the only one who found that double meaning funny.
  4029.  
  4030. At the time, these events were held every month at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just down the road
  4031.  
  4032. from the CIA’s headquarters, or at one of the grubbier Marriott-type hotels near the NSA’s headquarters at Fort
  4033. Meade. They were pretty much like any other job fair, I’m told, with one crucial exception: here, it always felt like
  4034.  
  4035. there were more recruiters than there were recruits. That should give you an indication of the industry’s appetite.
  4036.  
  4037. The recruiters paid a lot of money to be at these fairs, because these were the only places in the country where
  4038.  
  4039. everyone who walked through the door wearing their stickum name tag badge had supposedly already been prescreened
  4040.  
  4041. online and cross-checked with the agencies—and so was presumed to already have a clearance, and probably also the
  4042.  
  4043. requisite skills.
  4044.  
  4045. Once you left the well-appointed hotel lobby for the all-business ballroom, you entered Planet Contractor. Everybody
  4046.  
  4047. would be there: this wasn’t the University of Maryland anymore—this was Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Booz Allen
  4048.  
  4049. Hamilton, DynCorp, Titan, CACI, SAIC, COMSO, as well as a hundred other different acronyms I’d never heard of. Some
  4050.  
  4051. contractors had tables, but the larger ones had booths that were fully furnished and equipped with refreshments.
  4052.  
  4053. After you handed a prospective employer a copy of your résumé and small-talked a bit, in a sort of informal
  4054.  
  4055. interview, they’d break out their binders, which contained lists of all the government billets they were trying to
  4056.  
  4057. fill.  But  because  this  work  touched  on  the  clandestine, the  billets  were accompanied not by standardized
  4058.  
  4059. job titles and traditional job descriptions but with intentionally obscure, coded verbiage that was often particular
  4060.  
  4061. to each contractor. One company’s Senior Developer 3 might or might not be equivalent to another company’s Principal
  4062.  
  4063. Analyst 2, for example. Frequently the only way to differentiate among these positions was to note that each
  4064.  
  4065. specified its own requirements of years of experience, level of certifications, and type of security clearance.
  4066.  
  4067. After the 2013 revelations, the US government would try to disparage me by referring to me as “only a contractor” or
  4068.  
  4069. “a former Dell employee,” with the implication that I didn’t enjoy the same kinds of clearance and access as a blue-
  4070.  
  4071. badged agency staffer. Once that discrediting characterization was established,  the  government  proceeded  to  
  4072.  
  4073. accuse  me  of  “job-hopping,” hinting that I was some sort of disgruntled worker who didn’t get along with superiors
  4074.  
  4075. or an exceptionally ambitious employee dead-set on getting ahead at all costs. The truth is that these were both lies
  4076.  
  4077. of convenience. The IC knows better than anyone that changing jobs is part of the career track of every contractor:
  4078.  
  4079. it’s a mobility situation that the agencies themselves created, and profit from.
  4080.  
  4081. In national security contracting, especially in tech contracting, you often
  4082. find yourself physically working at an agency facility, but nominally—on paper—working for Dell, or Lockheed Martin,
  4083.  
  4084. or one of the umpteen smaller firms that frequently get bought by a Dell or a Lockheed Martin. In such an
  4085.  
  4086. acquisition, of course, the smaller firm’s contracts get bought, too, and suddenly there’s a different employer and
  4087.  
  4088. job title on your business card. Your day-to-day work, though, remains the same: you’re still sitting at the agency
  4089.  
  4090. facility, doing your tasks. Nothing has changed at all. Meanwhile, the dozen coworkers sitting to your left and
  4091.  
  4092. right—the same coworkers you work with on  the  same  projects  daily—might technically be  employed by  a  dozen
  4093.  
  4094. different companies, and those companies might still be a few degrees removed from the corporate entities that hold
  4095.  
  4096. the primary contracts with the agency.
  4097.  
  4098. I wish I remembered the exact chronology of my contracting, but I don’t have a copy of my résumé anymore—that file,
  4099.  
  4100. Edward_Snowden_Resume.doc, is locked up in the Documents folder of one of my old home computers, since seized by the
  4101.  
  4102. FBI. I do recall, however, that my first major contracting gig was actually a subcontracting gig: the CIA had hired
  4103.  
  4104. BAE Systems, which had hired COMSO, which hired me.
  4105.  
  4106. BAE Systems is a midsize American subdivision of British Aerospace, set up expressly to win contracts from the
  4107.  
  4108. American IC. COMSO was basically its recruiter, a few folks who spent all their time driving around the Beltway
  4109.  
  4110. trying to find the actual contractors (“the asses”) and sign them up (“put the asses in chairs”). Of all the
  4111.  
  4112. companies I talked to at the job fairs, COMSO was the hungriest, perhaps because it was among the smallest. I never
  4113.  
  4114. learned what the company’s acronym stood for, or even if it stood for anything. Technically speaking, COMSO would be
  4115.  
  4116. my employer, but I never worked a single day at a COMSO office, or at a BAE Systems office, and few contractors ever
  4117.  
  4118. would. I’d only work at CIA headquarters.
  4119.  
  4120. In fact, I only ever visited the COMSO office, which was in Greenbelt, Maryland, maybe two or three times in my life.
  4121.  
  4122. One of these was when I went down there to negotiate my salary and sign some paperwork. At CASL I’d been making
  4123.  
  4124. around $30K/year, but that job didn’t have anything to do with technology, so I felt comfortable asking COMSO for
  4125.  
  4126. $50K. When I named that figure to the guy behind the desk, he said, “What about $60K?”
  4127.  
  4128. At the time I was so inexperienced, I didn’t understand why he was trying to overpay me. I knew, I guess, that this
  4129.  
  4130. wasn’t ultimately COMSO’s money, but I only later understood that some of the contracts that COMSO and BAE and others
  4131.  
  4132. handled were of the type that’s called “cost-plus.” This meant that
  4133. the middlemen contractors billed the agencies for whatever an employee got paid, plus a fee of 3 to 5 percent of that
  4134.  
  4135. every year. Bumping up salaries was in everyone’s interest—everyone’s, that is, except the taxpayer’s.
  4136.  
  4137. The COMSO guy eventually talked me, or himself, up to $62K, as a result of my once again agreeing to work the night
  4138.  
  4139. shift. He held out his hand and, as I shook it, he introduced himself to me as my “manager.” He went on to explain
  4140.  
  4141. that the title was just a formality, and that I’d be taking my orders directly from the CIA. “If all goes well,” he
  4142.  
  4143. said, “we’ll never meet again.”
  4144.  
  4145. In the spy movies and TV shows, when someone tells you something like that, it usually means that you’re about to go
  4146.  
  4147. on a dangerous mission and might die. But in real spy life it just means, “Congratulations on the job.” By the time I
  4148.  
  4149. was out the door, I’m sure he’d already forgotten my face.
  4150.  
  4151. I left that meeting in a buoyant mood, but on the drive back, reality set in: this, I realized, was going to be my
  4152.  
  4153. daily commute. If I was going to still live in Ellicott City, Maryland, in proximity to Lindsay, but work at the CIA
  4154.  
  4155. 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
  4156.  
  4157. me. I knew it wouldn’t take long before I’d  start  to  lose  my  mind.  There  weren’t  enough  books  on  tape  in  
  4158.  
  4159. the universe.
  4160.  
  4161. I couldn’t ask Lindsay to move down to Virginia with me because she was still just in her sophomore year at MICA, and
  4162.  
  4163. had class three days a week. We discussed this, and for cover referred to my job down there as COMSO—as in, “Why does
  4164.  
  4165. COMSO have to be so far away?” Finally, we decided that I’d find a small place down there, near COMSO—just a small
  4166.  
  4167. place to crash at during the days while I worked at night, at COMSO—and then I’d come up to Maryland again every
  4168.  
  4169. weekend, or she’d come down to me.
  4170.  
  4171. I set off to find that place, something smack in the middle of that Venn diagram overlap of cheap enough that I could
  4172.  
  4173. afford it and nice enough that Lindsay could survive it. It turned out to be a difficult search: Given the number of
  4174.  
  4175. people who work at the CIA, and the CIA’s location in Virginia— where the housing density is, let’s say, semirural—
  4176.  
  4177. the prices were through the roof. The 22100s are some of the most expensive zip codes in America.
  4178.  
  4179. Eventually, browsing on Craigslist, I found a room that was surprisingly within my budget, in a house surprisingly
  4180.  
  4181. near—less than fifteen minutes from—CIA headquarters. I went to check it out, expecting a cruddy bachelor pad pigsty.
  4182.  
  4183. Instead, I pulled up in front of a large glass-fronted McMansion, immaculately maintained with a topiary lawn that
  4184.  
  4185. was seasonally decorated.
  4186. I’m being completely serious when I say that as I approached the place, the smell of pumpkin spice got stronger.
  4187.  
  4188. A guy named Gary answered the door. He was older, which I expected from the “Dear Edward” tone of his email, but I
  4189.  
  4190. hadn’t expected him to be so well dressed. He was very tall, with buzz-cut gray hair, and was wearing a suit, and
  4191.  
  4192. 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
  4193.  
  4194. kitchen, where he was preparing a tray of apples, sticking cloves in them and dousing them with nutmeg, cinnamon, and
  4195.  
  4196. sugar.
  4197.  
  4198. Once those apples were baking in the oven, Gary showed me the room, which was in the basement, and told me I could
  4199.  
  4200. move in immediately. I accepted the offer and put down my security deposit and one month’s rent.
  4201.  
  4202. Then he told me the house rules, which helpfully rhymed: No mess.
  4203. No pets.
  4204.  
  4205. No overnight guests.
  4206.  
  4207. I confess that I almost immediately violated the first rule, and that I never had any interest in violating the
  4208.  
  4209. second. As for the third, Gary made an exception for Lindsay.
  4210. 13
  4211.  
  4212. Indoc
  4213.  
  4214. You know that one establishing shot that’s in pretty much every spy movie and TV show that’s subtitled “CIA
  4215.  
  4216. Headquarters, Langley, Virginia”? And then the camera moves through the marble lobby with the wall of stars and the
  4217.  
  4218. floor with the agency’s seal? Well, Langley is the site’s historical name, which the agency prefers Hollywood to use;
  4219.  
  4220. CIA HQ is officially in McLean, Virginia;  and  nobody  really  comes  through  that  lobby  except  VIPs  or
  4221.  
  4222. outsiders on a tour.
  4223.  
  4224. That building is the OHB, the Old Headquarters Building. The building where almost everybody who works at the CIA
  4225.  
  4226. enters is far less ready for its close-up: the NHB, the New Headquarters Building. My first day was one of the very
  4227.  
  4228. few I spent there in daylight. That said, I spent most of the day underground—in a grimy, cinder-block-walled room
  4229.  
  4230. with all the charm of a nuclear fallout shelter and the acrid smell of government bleach.
  4231.  
  4232. “So this is the Deep State,” one guy said, and almost everybody laughed. I think he’d been expecting a circle of Ivy
  4233.  
  4234. League WASPs chanting in hoods, whereas I’d been expecting a group of normie civil service types who resembled
  4235.  
  4236. younger versions of my parents. Instead, we were all computer dudes—and yes, almost uniformly dudes—who were clearly
  4237.  
  4238. wearing “business casual” for the first time in our lives. Some were tattooed and pierced, or bore evidence of having
  4239.  
  4240. removed their piercings for the big day. One still had punky streaks of dye in his hair. Almost all wore contractor
  4241.  
  4242. badges, as green and crisp as new hundred-dollar bills. We certainly didn’t look like a hermetic power-mad cabal that
  4243.  
  4244. controlled the actions of America’s elected officials from shadowy subterranean cubicles.
  4245.  
  4246. This session was the first stage in our transformation. It was called the Indoc, or Indoctrination, and its entire
  4247.  
  4248. point was to convince us that we were the elite, that we were special, that we had been chosen to be privy to the
  4249.  
  4250. mysteries of state and to the truths that the rest of the country—and, at times, even its Congress and courts—
  4251.  
  4252. couldn’t handle.
  4253.  
  4254. I couldn’t help but think while I sat through this Indoc that the presenters were preaching to the choir. You don’t
  4255.  
  4256. need to tell a bunch of computer whizzes that they possess superior knowledge and skills that uniquely qualify them
  4257.  
  4258. to  act  independently and  make decisions on  behalf of  their fellow citizens without any oversight or review.
  4259.  
  4260. Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism.
  4261. This, to my thinking, actually represented the great nexus of the Intelligence Community and the tech industry: both
  4262.  
  4263. are entrenched and unelected powers that pride themselves on maintaining absolute secrecy about their developments.
  4264.  
  4265. Both believe that they have the solutions for everything, which they never hesitate to unilaterally impose. Above
  4266.  
  4267. all, they both believe that these solutions are inherently apolitical, because they’re based on data, whose
  4268.  
  4269. prerogatives are regarded as preferable to the chaotic whims of the common citizen.
  4270.  
  4271. Being indoctrinated into the IC, like becoming expert at technology, has powerful psychological effects. All of a
  4272.  
  4273. sudden you have access to the story behind the story, the hidden histories of well-known, or supposedly well- known,
  4274.  
  4275. events. That can be intoxicating, at least for a teetotaler like me. Also, all of a sudden you have not just the
  4276.  
  4277. license but the obligation to lie, conceal, dissemble, and dissimulate. This creates a sense of tribalism, which can
  4278.  
  4279. lead many to believe that their primary allegiance is to the institution and not to the rule of law.
  4280.  
  4281. I wasn’t thinking any of these thoughts at my Indoc session, of course. Instead, I was just trying to keep myself
  4282.  
  4283. awake as the presenters proceeded to instruct us on basic operational security practices, part of the wider body of
  4284.  
  4285. spy techniques the IC collectively describes as “tradecraft.” These are often so obvious as to be mind-numbing: Don’t
  4286.  
  4287. tell anyone who you work for. Don’t leave sensitive materials unattended. Don’t bring your highly insecure cell phone
  4288.  
  4289. 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
  4290.  
  4291. mall.
  4292.  
  4293. Finally, the litany ended, the lights came down, the PowerPoint was fired up, and faces appeared on the screen that
  4294.  
  4295. was bolted to the wall. Everyone in the room sat upright. These were the faces, we were told, of former agents and
  4296.  
  4297. contractors who, whether through greed, malice, incompetence, or negligence failed to follow the rules. They thought
  4298.  
  4299. they were above all this mundane stuff and their hubris resulted in their imprisonment and ruin. The people on the
  4300.  
  4301. screen, it was implied, were now in basements even worse than this one, and some would be there until they died.
  4302.  
  4303.  
  4304.  
  4305. All in all, this was an effective presentation.
  4306.  
  4307. I’m told that in the years since my career ended, this parade of horribles— of incompetents, moles, defectors, and
  4308.  
  4309. traitors—has been expanded to include an  additional category: people  of  principle, whistleblowers in  the  public
  4310.  
  4311. interest. I can only hope that the twenty-somethings sitting there today are struck by the government’s conflation of
  4312.  
  4313. selling secrets to the enemy and
  4314. disclosing them to journalists when the new faces—when my face—pop up on the screen.
  4315.  
  4316. I came to work for the CIA when it was at the nadir of its morale. Following the intelligence failures of 9/11,
  4317.  
  4318. Congress and the executive had set out on an aggressive reorganization campaign. It included stripping the position
  4319.  
  4320. of director of Central Intelligence of its dual role as both head of the CIA and head of the entire American IC—a
  4321.  
  4322. dual role that the position had held since the founding of the agency in the aftermath of World War II. When George
  4323.  
  4324. Tenet was forced out in 2004, the CIA’s half-century supremacy over all of the other agencies went with him.
  4325.  
  4326. The CIA’s rank and file considered Tenet’s departure and the directorship’s demotion as merely the most public
  4327.  
  4328. symbols of the agency’s betrayal by the political class it had been created to serve. The general sense of having
  4329.  
  4330. been manipulated by the Bush administration and then blamed for its worst excesses gave rise to a culture of
  4331.  
  4332. victimization and retrenchment. This was only  exacerbated by  the  appointment of  Porter Goss,  an  undistinguished
  4333.  
  4334. former  CIA  officer  turned  Republican congressman from  Florida,  as  the agency’s new director—the first to serve
  4335.  
  4336. in the reduced position. The installation of a politician was taken as a chastisement and as an attempt to weaponize
  4337.  
  4338. the CIA by putting it under partisan supervision. Director Goss immediately began a sweeping campaign of firings,
  4339.  
  4340. layoffs, and forced retirements that left the agency understaffed and more reliant than ever on contractors.
  4341.  
  4342. Meanwhile, the public at large had never had such a low opinion of the agency, or such insight into its inner
  4343.  
  4344. workings, thanks to all the leaks and disclosures about its extraordinary renditions and black site prisons.
  4345.  
  4346. At the time, the CIA was broken into five directorates. There was the DO, the Directorate of Operations, which was
  4347.  
  4348. responsible for the actual spying; the DI, the Directorate of Intelligence, which was responsible for synthesizing
  4349.  
  4350. and analyzing the results of that spying; the DST, the Directorate of Science and Technology, which built and
  4351.  
  4352. supplied computers, communications devices, and weapons to the spies and showed them how to use them; the DA, the
  4353.  
  4354. Directorate of Administration, which basically meant lawyers, human resources, and all those who coordinated the
  4355.  
  4356. daily business of the agency and served as a liaison to the government; and, finally, the DS, the Directorate of
  4357.  
  4358. Support, which was a strange directorate and, back then, the largest. The DS included everyone who worked for the
  4359.  
  4360. agency in a support capacity, from the majority of the agency’s technologists and medical doctors to the personnel in
  4361.  
  4362. the cafeteria and the gym and the guards at the gate. The primary function of the DS was to manage the CIA’s global
  4363.  
  4364. communications infrastructure, the
  4365. platform ensuring that the spies’ reports got to the analysts and that the analysts’ reports got to the
  4366.  
  4367. administrators. The DS housed the employees who provided technical support throughout the agency, maintained the
  4368.  
  4369. servers, and kept them secure—the people who built, serviced, and protected the entire network of the CIA and
  4370.  
  4371. connected it with the networks of the other agencies and controlled their access.
  4372.  
  4373. These were, in short, the people who used technology to link everything together. It should be no surprise, then,
  4374.  
  4375. that the bulk of them were young. It should also be no surprise that most of them were contractors.
  4376.  
  4377. My team was attached to the Directorate of Support and our task was to manage the CIA’s Washington-Metropolitan
  4378.  
  4379. server architecture, which is to say the vast majority of the CIA servers in the continental United States—the
  4380.  
  4381. enormous  halls  of  expensive  “big  iron”  computers  that  comprised  the agency’s internal networks and
  4382.  
  4383. databases, all of its systems that transmitted, received, and stored intelligence. Though the CIA had dotted the
  4384.  
  4385. country with relay servers, many of the agency’s most important servers were situated on- site. Half of them were in
  4386.  
  4387. the NHB, where my team was located; the other half were in the nearby OHB. They were set up on opposite sides of
  4388.  
  4389. their respective buildings, so that if one side was blown up we wouldn’t lose too many machines.
  4390.  
  4391. My TS/SCI security clearance reflected my having been “read into” a few different “compartments” of information. Some
  4392.  
  4393. of these compartments were SIGINT (signals intelligence, or intercepted communications), and another was HUMINT
  4394.  
  4395. (human intelligence, or the work done and reports filed by agents and analysts)—the CIA’s work routinely involves
  4396.  
  4397. both. On top of those, I was read into a COMSEC (communications security) compartment that allowed me to work with
  4398.  
  4399. cryptographic key material, the codes that have traditionally been considered the most important agency secrets
  4400.  
  4401. because they’re used to protect all the other agency secrets. This cryptographic material  was  processed  and  
  4402.  
  4403. stored  on  and  around  the  servers  I  was responsible for managing. My team was one of the few at the agency
  4404.  
  4405. permitted to actually lay hands on these servers, and likely the only team with access to log in to nearly all othem.
  4406.  
  4407. In the CIA, secure offices are called “vaults,” and my team’s vault was located a bit past the CIA’s help desk
  4408.  
  4409. section. During the daytime, the help desk was staffed by a busy contingent of older people, closer to my parents’
  4410.  
  4411. age. They wore blazers and slacks and even blouses and skirts; this was one of the few places in the CIA tech world
  4412.  
  4413. at the time where I recall seeing a
  4414. sizable number of women. Some of them had the blue badges that identified them as government employees, or, as
  4415.  
  4416. contractors called them, “govvies.” They spent their shifts picking up banks of ringing phones and talking people in
  4417.  
  4418. the building or out in the field through their tech issues. It was a sort of IC version of call-center work:
  4419.  
  4420. resetting passwords, unlocking accounts, and going by rote through the troubleshooting checklists. “Can you log out
  4421.  
  4422. and back in?”  “Is  the  network cable plugged in?”  If  the  govvies, with  their minimal tech experience, couldn’t
  4423.  
  4424. deal with a particular issue themselves, they’d escalate it to more specialized teams, especially if the problem was
  4425.  
  4426. happening in the “Foreign Field,” meaning CIA stations overseas in places like Kabul or Baghdad or Bogotá or Paris.
  4427.  
  4428. I’m a bit ashamed to admit how proud I felt when I first walked through this  gloomy array. I  was  decades younger
  4429.  
  4430. than  the  help  desk  folks  and heading past them into a vault to which they didn’t have access and never would. At
  4431.  
  4432. the time it hadn’t yet occurred to me that the extent of my access meant that the process itself might be broken,
  4433.  
  4434. that the government had simply given up on meaningfully managing and promoting its talent from within because the new
  4435.  
  4436. contracting culture meant they no longer had to care. More than any other memory I have of my career, this route of
  4437.  
  4438. mine past the CIA help desk has come to symbolize for me the generational and cultural change in the IC of which I
  4439.  
  4440. was a part—the moment when the old-school prepster clique that traditionally staffed the agencies, desperate to keep
  4441.  
  4442. pace with technologies they could not be bothered to understand, welcomed a new wave of  young  hackers  into  the  
  4443.  
  4444. institutional fold  and  let  them  develop,  have complete   access   to,   and   wield   complete   power   over  
  4445.  
  4446. unparalleled technological systems of state control.
  4447.  
  4448. In time I came to love the help desk govvies, who were kind and generous to me, and always appreciated my willingness
  4449.  
  4450. to help even when it wasn’t my job. I, in turn, learned much from them, in bits and pieces, about how the larger  
  4451.  
  4452. organization  functioned  beyond  the  Beltway.  Some  of  them  had actually worked out in the foreign field
  4453.  
  4454. themselves once upon a time, like the agents they now assisted over the phone. After a while, they’d come back home
  4455.  
  4456. to the States, not always with their families intact, and they’d been relegated to the help desk for the remaining
  4457.  
  4458. years of their careers because they lacked the computer skills required to compete in an agency increasingly focused
  4459.  
  4460. on expanding its technological capabilities.
  4461.  
  4462. I was proud to have won the govvies’ respect, and I was never quite comfortable with how many of my team members
  4463.  
  4464. condescendingly pitied and even made fun of these bright and committed folks—men and women who
  4465. for low pay and little glory had given the agency years of their lives, often in inhospitable and even outright
  4466.  
  4467. dangerous places abroad, at the end of which their ultimate reward was a job picking up phones in a lonely hallway.
  4468.  
  4469.  
  4470.  
  4471. AFTER 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.—
  4472.  
  4473. when the help desk was staffed by a discreetly snoozing skeleton crew and the rest of the agency was pretty much
  4474.  
  4475. dead.
  4476.  
  4477. At night, especially between, say, 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., the CIA was empty and lifeless, a vast and haunted
  4478.  
  4479. complex with a postapocalyptic feel. All the escalators were stopped and you had to walk them like stairs. Only half
  4480.  
  4481. of the elevators were working, and the pinging sounds they made, only barely audible during the bustle of daytime,
  4482.  
  4483. now sounded alarmingly loud. Former CIA directors glared down from their portraits and the bald eagles seemed less
  4484.  
  4485. like statues than like living predators waiting patiently to swoop in for the kill. American flags billowed like
  4486.  
  4487. ghosts—spooks in red, white, and blue. The agency had recently committed to a new eco-friendly energy-saving policy
  4488.  
  4489. and installed motion-sensitive overhead lights: the corridor ahead of you would be swathed in darkness and the lights
  4490.  
  4491. would switch on when you approached, so that you felt followed, and your footsteps would echo endlessly.
  4492.  
  4493. For twelve hours each night, three days on and two days off, I sat in the secure office beyond the help desk, among
  4494.  
  4495. the twenty desks each bearing two or three computer terminals reserved for the sysadmins who kept the CIA’s global
  4496.  
  4497. network online. Regardless of how fancy that might sound, the job itself was relatively banal, and can basically be
  4498.  
  4499. described as waiting for catastrophe to happen. The problems generally weren’t too difficult to solve. The moment
  4500.  
  4501. 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
  4502.  
  4503. data center hidden a floor below my own in the New Headquarters Building—or walk the eerie half mile through the
  4504.  
  4505. connecting tunnel over to the data center in the Old Headquarters Building—and tinker around with the machinery
  4506.  
  4507. itself.
  4508.  
  4509. My partner in this task—the only other person responsible for the nocturnal functioning of the CIA’s entire server
  4510.  
  4511. architecture—was a guy I’m going to call Frank. He was our team’s great outlier and an exceptional personality in
  4512.  
  4513. every sense. Besides having a political consciousness (libertarian to the point of stockpiling Krugerrands) and an
  4514.  
  4515. abiding interest in subjects outside of tech (he read vintage mysteries and thrillers in paperback),
  4516. he was a fifty-something been-there-done-that ex-navy radio operator who’d managed to graduate from the call center’s
  4517.  
  4518. ranks thanks to being a contractor.
  4519.  
  4520. I have to say, when I first met Frank, I thought: Imagine if my entire life were like the nights I spent at CASL.
  4521.  
  4522. Because, to put it frankly, Frank did hardly any work at all. At least, that was the impression he liked to project.
  4523.  
  4524. He enjoyed telling me, and everyone else, that he didn’t really know anything about computing and  didn’t understand
  4525.  
  4526. why  they’d put  him  on  such an important team. He used to say that “contracting was the third biggest scam in
  4527.  
  4528. Washington,” after the income tax and Congress. He claimed he’d advised his boss that he’d be “next to useless” when
  4529.  
  4530. they suggested moving him to the server team, but they moved him just the same. By his own account, all he’d done at
  4531.  
  4532. work for the better part of the last decade was sit around and read books, though sometimes he’d also play games of
  4533.  
  4534. solitaire—with a real deck of cards, not on the computer, of course—and reminisce about former wives (“she was a
  4535.  
  4536. keeper”) and girlfriends (“she took my car but it was worth it”). Sometimes he’d just pace all night and reload the
  4537.  
  4538. Drudge Report.
  4539.  
  4540. When the phone rang to signal that something was broken, and bouncing a server didn’t fix it, he’d just report it to
  4541.  
  4542. the day shift. Essentially, his philosophy (if you could call it that) was that the night shift had to end sometime
  4543.  
  4544. and the day shift had a deeper bench. Apparently, however, the day shift had gotten tired of coming in to work every
  4545.  
  4546. morning to find Frank’s feet up in front of the digital equivalent of a dumpster fire, and so I’d been hired.
  4547.  
  4548. For some reason, the agency had decided that it was preferable to bring me in than to let this old guy go. After a
  4549.  
  4550. couple of weeks of working together, I was convinced that his continued employment had to be the result of some
  4551.  
  4552. personal connection or favor. To test this hypothesis I tried to draw Frank out, and asked him which CIA directors or
  4553.  
  4554. other agency brass he’d been with in the navy. But my question only provoked a tirade about how basically none of the
  4555.  
  4556. navy vets high up at the agency had been enlisted men—they’d all been officers, which explained so much about the
  4557.  
  4558. agency’s dismal record. This lecture went on and on, until suddenly a panicked expression came over his face and he
  4559.  
  4560. jumped up and said, “I gotta change the tape!”
  4561.  
  4562. I had no idea what he was talking about. But Frank was already heading to the gray door at the back of our vault,
  4563.  
  4564. which opened onto a dingy stairwell that gave direct access to the data center itself—the humming, freezing night-
  4565.  
  4566. black chamber that we sat directly on top of.
  4567.  
  4568. Going down into a server vault—especially the CIA’s—can be a disorienting experience. You descend into darkness
  4569.  
  4570. blinking with green and
  4571. red LEDs like an evil Christmas, vibrating with the whir of the industrial fans cooling the precious rack-mounted
  4572.  
  4573. machinery to  prevent it  from melting down. Being there was always a bit dizzying—even without a manic older guy
  4574.  
  4575. cursing like the sailor he was as he dashed down the server hall.
  4576.  
  4577. Frank stopped by a shabby corner that housed a makeshift cubicle of reclaimed equipment, marked as belonging to the
  4578.  
  4579. Directorate of Operations. Taking up almost the entirety of the sad, rickety desk was an old computer. On closer
  4580.  
  4581. inspection, it was something from the early ’90s, or even the late
  4582. ’80s, older than anything I remembered from my father’s Coast Guard lab—a computer so ancient that it shouldn’t even
  4583.  
  4584. have been called a computer. It was more  properly a  machine, running  a  miniature tape  format  that  I  didn’t
  4585.  
  4586. recognize but was pretty sure would have been welcomed by the Smithsonian.
  4587.  
  4588. Next to this machine was a massive safe, which Frank unlocked.
  4589.  
  4590. He fussed with the tape that was in the machine, pried it free, and put it in the safe. Then he took another antique
  4591.  
  4592. tape out of the safe and inserted it into the  machine  as  a  replacement, threading  it  through  by  touch  alone.
  4593.  
  4594.  He carefully tapped a few times on the old keyboard—down, down, down, tab, tab, tab. He couldn’t actually see the
  4595.  
  4596. effect of those keystrokes, because the machine’s monitor no longer worked, but he struck the Enter key with
  4597.  
  4598. confidence.
  4599.  
  4600. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But the itty-bitty tape began to tick-tick-tick and then spin, and Frank
  4601.  
  4602. grinned with satisfaction.
  4603.  
  4604. “This  is  the  most  important machine in  the  building,” he  said.  “The agency doesn’t trust this digital
  4605.  
  4606. technology crap. They don’t trust their own servers. You know they’re always breaking. But when the servers break
  4607.  
  4608. down they risk losing what they’re storing, so in order not to lose anything that comes in during the day, they back
  4609.  
  4610. everything up on tape at night.”
  4611.  
  4612. “So you’re doing a storage backup here?”
  4613.  
  4614. “A storage backup to tape. The old way. Reliable as a heart attack. Tape hardly ever crashes.”
  4615.  
  4616. “But what’s on the tape? Like personnel stuff, or like the actual incoming intelligence?”
  4617.  
  4618. Frank put a hand to his chin in a thinking pose and pretended to take the question seriously. Then he said, “Man, Ed,
  4619.  
  4620. 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.
  4621.  
  4622. It’s raw intelligence. Very raw.”
  4623. He laughed his way upstairs, leaving me speechless and blushing in the darkness of the vault.
  4624.  
  4625. It was only when Frank repeated this same tape-changing ritual the next night, and the night after that, and on every
  4626.  
  4627. night we worked together thereafter, that I began to understand why the agency kept him around—and it wasn’t just for
  4628.  
  4629. 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
  4630.  
  4631. enough to know how to handle that proprietary tape system. All the other techs who’d come up  in  the  dark  ages  
  4632.  
  4633. when  tape  was  the  medium  now  had  families  and preferred to be home with them at night. But Frank was a
  4634.  
  4635. bachelor and remembered the world before the Enlightenment.
  4636.  
  4637. After I found a way to automate most of my own work—writing scripts to automatically update servers and restore lost
  4638.  
  4639. network connections, mostly—I started having what I came to call a Frank amount of time. Meaning, I had all night to
  4640.  
  4641. do pretty much whatever I wanted. I passed a fair number of hours in long  talks  with  Frank,  especially  about  
  4642.  
  4643. the  more  political  stuff  he  was reading: books about how the country should return to the gold standard, or
  4644.  
  4645. about the intricacies of the flat tax. But there were always periods of every shift when Frank would disappear. He’d
  4646.  
  4647. either put his head into a whodunit novel and not lift it until morning, or he’d go strolling the halls of the
  4648.  
  4649. agency, hitting the cafeteria for a lukewarm slice of pizza or the gym to lift weights. I had my own way of keeping
  4650.  
  4651. to myself, of course. I went online.
  4652.  
  4653. When you go online at the CIA, you have to check a box for a Consent to Monitoring Agreement, which basically says
  4654.  
  4655. that everything you do is being recorded and that you agree that you have no expectation of any privacy whatsoever.
  4656.  
  4657. You end up checking this box so often that it becomes second nature. These agreements become invisible to you when
  4658.  
  4659. you’re working at the agency, because they pop up constantly and you’re always trying to just click them down and get
  4660.  
  4661. back to what you were doing. This, to my mind, is a major reason  why  most  IC  workers  don’t  share  civilian  
  4662.  
  4663. concerns  about  being tracked online: not because they have any insider information about how digital surveillance
  4664.  
  4665. helps to protect America, but because to those in the IC, being tracked by the boss just comes with the job.
  4666.  
  4667. Anyway, it’s not like there’s a lot to be found out there on the public Internet that’s more interesting than what
  4668.  
  4669. the agency already has internally. Few realize this, but the CIA has its own Internet and Web. It has its own kind of
  4670.  
  4671. Facebook, which allows agents to interact socially; its own type of Wikipedia,  which  provides  agents  with  
  4672.  
  4673. information about  agency  teams,
  4674. projects, and missions; and its  own internal version of  Google—actually provided by Google—which allows agents to
  4675.  
  4676. search this sprawling classified network. Every CIA component has its own website on this network that discusses what
  4677.  
  4678. it does and posts meeting minutes and presentations. For hours and hours every night, this was my education.
  4679.  
  4680. According to  Frank, the  first  things everyone looks up  on  the  CIA’s internal networks are aliens and 9/11, and
  4681.  
  4682. that’s why, also according to Frank, you’ll never get any meaningful search results for them. I looked them up
  4683.  
  4684. anyway.  The  CIA-flavored  Google  didn’t  return  anything  interesting  for either, but hey—maybe the truth was
  4685.  
  4686. out there on another network drive. For the record, as far as I could tell, aliens have never contacted Earth, or at
  4687.  
  4688. least they haven’t contacted US intelligence. But al-Qaeda did maintain unusually close ties with our allies the
  4689.  
  4690. Saudis, a fact that the Bush White House worked suspiciously hard to suppress as we went to war with two other
  4691.  
  4692. countries.
  4693.  
  4694. Here is one thing that the disorganized CIA didn’t quite understand at the time, and that no major American employer
  4695.  
  4696. outside of Silicon Valley understood, either: the computer guy knows everything, or rather can know everything. The  
  4697.  
  4698. higher up  this  employee is,  and  the  more  systems-level privileges he has, the more access he has to  virtually
  4699.  
  4700. every byte of his employer’s digital existence. Of course, not everyone is curious enough to take advantage of this
  4701.  
  4702. education, and not everyone is possessed of a sincere curiosity. My forays through the CIA’s systems were natural
  4703.  
  4704. extensions of my childhood desire to understand how everything works, how the various components of a mechanism fit
  4705.  
  4706. together into the whole. And with the official title and privileges of a systems administrator, and technical prowess
  4707.  
  4708. that enabled my clearance to be used to its maximum potential, I was able to satisfy my every informational
  4709.  
  4710. deficiency and then some. In case you were wondering: Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real.
  4711.  
  4712. Chemtrails are not a thing.
  4713.  
  4714. On the CIA’s internal news sites I read top secret dispatches regarding trade talks and coups as they were still
  4715.  
  4716. unfolding. These agency accounts of events were often very similar to the accounts that would eventually show up on
  4717.  
  4718. network news, CNN, or Fox days later. The primary differences were merely in  the sourcing and the level of detail.
  4719.  
  4720. Whereas a  newspaper or magazine account of an upheaval abroad might be attributed to “a senior official speaking on
  4721.  
  4722. condition of anonymity,” the CIA version would have explicit sourcing—say, “ZBSMACKTALK/1, an  employee of  the
  4723.  
  4724. interior ministry who regularly responds to specific tasking, claims secondhand knowledge, and has proven reliable in
  4725.  
  4726. the past.” And the true name and
  4727. complete personal history of ZBSMACKTALK/1, called a case file, would be only a few clicks away.
  4728.  
  4729. Sometimes an internal news item would never show up in the media at all, and the excitement and significance of what
  4730.  
  4731. I was reading both increased my appreciation of the importance of our work and made me feel like I was missing out by
  4732.  
  4733. just sitting at a workstation. This may come off as naive, but I was surprised to learn how truly international the
  4734.  
  4735. CIA was—and I don’t mean its operations, I mean its workforce. The number of languages I heard in the cafeteria was
  4736.  
  4737. astounding. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of my own provincialism. Working at CIA Headquarters was a thrill, but it
  4738.  
  4739. 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
  4740.  
  4741. early twenties and, apart from stints in North Carolina, childhood trips to visit my grandfather at Coast Guard bases
  4742.  
  4743. where he’d held commands, and my few weeks in the army at Fort Benning, I’d never really left the Beltway.
  4744.  
  4745. As I read about events happening in Ouagadougou, Kinshasa, and other exotic cities I could never have found on a
  4746.  
  4747. noncomputerized map, I realized that as long as I was still young I had to serve my country by doing something truly
  4748.  
  4749. meaningful abroad. The alternative, I thought, was just becoming a more successful Frank: sitting at progressively
  4750.  
  4751. bigger desks, making progressively more money, until eventually I, too, would be obsolesced and kept around only to
  4752.  
  4753. handle the future’s equivalent of a janky tape machine.
  4754.  
  4755. It was then that I did the unthinkable. I set about going govvy.
  4756.  
  4757. I think some of my supervisors were puzzled by this, but they were also flattered, because the typical route is the
  4758.  
  4759. reverse: a public servant at the end of their tenure goes private and cashes in. No tech contractor just starting out
  4760.  
  4761. goes public and takes a pay cut. To my mind, however, becoming a govvy was logical: I’d be getting paid to travel.
  4762.  
  4763. I got lucky, and a position opened up. After nine months as a systems administrator, I applied for a CIA tech job
  4764.  
  4765. abroad, and in short order I was accepted.
  4766.  
  4767. My last day at CIA Headquarters was just a formality. I’d already done all my paperwork and traded in my green badge
  4768.  
  4769. for a blue. All that was left to do was to sit through another indoctrination, which now that I was a govvy was held
  4770.  
  4771. in an elegant conference room next to the cafeteria’s Dunkin’ Donuts. It was here that I performed the sacred rite in
  4772.  
  4773. which contractors never participate.  I  raised  my  hand  to  swear  an  oath  of  loyalty—not  to  the
  4774. government or agency that now employed me directly, but to the US Constitution. I solemnly swore to support and
  4775.  
  4776. defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
  4777.  
  4778. The next day, I drove my trusty old Honda Civic out into the Virginia countryside. In order to get to the foreign
  4779.  
  4780. station of my dreams, I first had to go back to school—to the first sit-in-a-classroom schooling I’d ever really
  4781.  
  4782. finish.
  4783. 14
  4784.  
  4785. The Count of the Hill
  4786.  
  4787. My first orders as a freshly minted officer of the government were to head for the  Comfort Inn  in  Warrenton,
  4788.  
  4789. Virginia, a  sad,  dilapidated motel  whose primary client was the “State Department,” by which I mean the CIA. It
  4790.  
  4791. was the worst motel in a town of bad motels, which was probably why the CIA chose it. The fewer other guests, the
  4792.  
  4793. lower the chances that anybody would notice that this particular Comfort Inn served as a makeshift dormitory for the
  4794.  
  4795. Warrenton Training Center—or, as folks who work there call it, the Hill.
  4796.  
  4797. When I checked in, the desk clerk warned me not to use the stairs, which were blocked off by police tape. I was given
  4798.  
  4799. a room on the second floor of the main building, with a view of the inn’s auxiliary buildings and parking lot. The
  4800.  
  4801. room was barely lit, there was mold in the bathroom, the carpets were filthy  with  cigarette  burns  under  the  No  
  4802.  
  4803. Smoking  sign,  and  the  flimsy mattress was stained dark purple with what I hoped was booze. Nevertheless, I liked
  4804.  
  4805. it—I was still at the age when I could find this seediness romantic— and I spent my first night lying awake in bed,
  4806.  
  4807. watching the bugs swarm the single domed overhead light fixture and counting down the hours to the free continental
  4808.  
  4809. breakfast I’d been promised.
  4810.  
  4811. The next morning, I discovered that on the continent of Warrenton, breakfast  meant  individual-size  boxes  of  
  4812.  
  4813. Froot  Loops  and  sour  milk. Welcome to the government.
  4814.  
  4815. The Comfort Inn was to be my home for the next six months. My fellow Innmates and I, as we called ourselves, were
  4816.  
  4817. discouraged from telling our loved ones where we were staying and what we were doing. I leaned hard into those
  4818.  
  4819. protocols, rarely heading back to Maryland or even talking to Lindsay on the phone. Anyway, we weren’t allowed to
  4820.  
  4821. take our phones to school, since class was classified, and we had classes all the time. Warrenton kept most of us too
  4822.  
  4823. busy to be lonely.
  4824.  
  4825. If the Farm, down by Camp Peary, is the CIA’s most famous training institution, chiefly because it’s the only one
  4826.  
  4827. that the agency’s PR staff is allowed to talk to Hollywood about, the Hill is without a doubt the most mysterious.
  4828.  
  4829. Connected via microwave and fiber optics to the satellite relay facility at Brandy Station—part of the Warrenton
  4830.  
  4831. Training Center’s constellation of sister sites—the Hill serves as the heart of the CIA’s field communications
  4832.  
  4833. network, carefully located just out of nuke range from DC. The salty old techs who worked there liked to say that the
  4834.  
  4835. CIA could survive
  4836. losing its headquarters to a catastrophic attack, but it would die if it ever lost Warrenton, and now that the top of
  4837.  
  4838. the Hill holds two enormous top secret data centers—one of which I later helped to construct—I’m inclined to agree.
  4839.  
  4840. The Hill earned its name because of its location, which is atop, yes, a massive steepness. When I arrived, there was
  4841.  
  4842. just one road that led in, past a purposely under-marked perimeter fence, and then up a grade so severe that whenever
  4843.  
  4844. the temperature dropped and the road iced over, vehicles would lose traction and slide backward downhill.
  4845.  
  4846. Just beyond the guarded checkpoint lies the State Department’s decaying diplomatic communications training facility,
  4847.  
  4848. whose prominent location was meant to reinforce its role as cover: making the Hill appear as if it’s merely a place
  4849.  
  4850. where the American foreign service trains technologists. Beyond it, amid the back territory, were the various low,
  4851.  
  4852. unlabeled buildings I studied in, and even farther on was the shooting range that the IC’s trigger pullers used for
  4853.  
  4854. special training. Shots would ring out, in a style of firing I wasn’t familiar with: pop-pop, pop; pop-pop, pop. A
  4855.  
  4856. double-tap meant to incapacitate, followed by an aimed shot meant to execute.
  4857.  
  4858. I was there as a member of class 6-06 of the BTTP, the Basic Telecommunications Training Program, whose intentionally
  4859.  
  4860. beige name disguises one of the most classified and unusual curricula in existence. The purpose of the program is to
  4861.  
  4862. train TISOs (Technical Information Security Officers)—the CIA’s cadre of elite “communicators,” or, less formally,
  4863.  
  4864. “commo guys.” A TISO is trained to be a jack-of-all-trades, a one-person replacement for previous generations’
  4865.  
  4866. specialized roles of code clerk, radioman, electrician, mechanic, physical and digital security adviser, and computer
  4867.  
  4868. technician. The main job of this undercover officer is to manage the technical infrastructure for CIA operations,
  4869.  
  4870. most commonly overseas at stations hidden inside American missions, consulates, and embassies—hence the  State
  4871.  
  4872. Department connection. The  idea  is,  if  you’re in  an  American embassy, which is to say if you’re far from home
  4873.  
  4874. and surrounded by untrustworthy foreigners—whether hostiles or allies, they’re still untrustworthy foreigners to the
  4875.  
  4876. CIA—you’re going to have to handle all of your technical needs internally. If you ask a local repairman to fix your
  4877.  
  4878. secret spy base, he’ll definitely do it, even for cheap, but he’s also going to install hard-to-find bugs on behalf
  4879.  
  4880. of a foreign power.
  4881.  
  4882. As a result, TISOs are responsible for knowing how to fix basically every machine in the building, from individual
  4883.  
  4884. computers and computer networks to CCTV and HVAC systems, solar panels, heaters and coolers, emergency
  4885. generators, satellite hookups, military encryption devices, alarms, locks, and so on. The rule is that if it plugs in
  4886.  
  4887. or gets plugged into, it’s the TISO’s problem.
  4888.  
  4889. TISOs also have to know how to build some of these systems themselves, just as they have to know how to destroy them
  4890.  
  4891. —when an embassy is under siege, say, after all the diplomats and most of their fellow CIA officers have been
  4892.  
  4893. evacuated. The TISOs are always the last guys out. It’s their job to send the final “off the air” message to
  4894.  
  4895. headquarters after they’ve shredded, burned, wiped, degaussed, and disintegrated anything that has the CIA’s
  4896.  
  4897. fingerprints on it, from operational documents in safes to disks with cipher material, to ensure that nothing of
  4898.  
  4899. value remains for an enemy to capture.
  4900.  
  4901. Why this was a job for the CIA and not for the State Department—the entity  that  actually  owns  the  embassy  
  4902.  
  4903. building—is more  than  the  sheer difference in competence and trust: the real reason is plausible deniability. The
  4904.  
  4905. worst-kept secret in modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform
  4906.  
  4907. for espionage. The old explanations for why a country might try to maintain a notionally sovereign physical presence
  4908.  
  4909. on another country’s soil faded into obsolescence with the rise of electronic communications and jet-powered
  4910.  
  4911. aircraft. Today, the most meaningful diplomacy happens directly between ministries and ministers. Sure, embassies do
  4912.  
  4913. still send the occasional démarche and help support their citizens abroad, and then there are the consular sections
  4914.  
  4915. that issue visas and renew passports. But those are often in a completely different building, and anyway, none of
  4916.  
  4917. those activities can even remotely justify the expense of maintaining all that infrastructure. Instead, what
  4918.  
  4919. justifies the expense is the ability for a country to use the cover of its foreign service to conduct and legitimize
  4920.  
  4921. its spying.
  4922.  
  4923. TISOs work under diplomatic cover with credentials that hide them among these foreign service officers, usually under
  4924.  
  4925. the identity of “attachés.” The largest  embassies  would  have  maybe  five  of  these  people,  the  larger
  4926.  
  4927. embassies would have maybe three, but most just have one. They’re called “singletons,” and I remember being told that
  4928.  
  4929. of all the posts the CIA offers, these have the highest rates of divorce. To be a singleton is to be the lone
  4930.  
  4931. technical officer, far  from home, in  a  world where everything is  always broken.
  4932.  
  4933. My class in Warrenton began with around eight members and lost only one before graduation—which I was told was fairly
  4934.  
  4935. uncommon. And this motley crew was uncommon, too, though pretty well representative of the
  4936. kind of malcontents who voluntarily sign up for a career track that all but guarantees they’ll spend the majority of
  4937.  
  4938. their service undercover in a foreign country. For the first time in my IC career, I wasn’t the youngest in the room.
  4939.  
  4940. At age twenty-four, I’d say I was around the mean, though my experience doing systems work at headquarters certainly
  4941.  
  4942. gave me a boost in terms of familiarity with the agency’s operations. Most of the others were just tech- inclined
  4943.  
  4944. kids straight out of college, or straight off the street, who’d applied online.
  4945.  
  4946. In a nod to the paramilitary aspirations of the CIA’s foreign field branches, we called each other by nicknames—
  4947.  
  4948. quickly assigned based on eccentricities
  4949. —more often than by our true names. Taco Bell was a suburb: wide, likable, and blank. At twenty years old, the only
  4950.  
  4951. job he’d had prior to the CIA was as the night-shift manager at a branch of the eponymous restaurant in Pennsylvania.
  4952.  
  4953. Rainman was in his late twenties and spent the term bouncing around the autism spectrum between catatonic detachment
  4954.  
  4955. and shivering fury. He  wore  the  name  we  gave  him  proudly  and  claimed  it  was  a  Native American honorific.
  4956.  
  4957. Flute earned his name because his career in the Marines was far less interesting to us than his degree in panpipes
  4958.  
  4959. from a music conservatory. Spo was one of the older guys, at thirty-five or so. He was called what he was called
  4960.  
  4961. because he’d been an SPO—a Special Police Officer—at the CIA’s headquarters, where he got so bored out of his mind
  4962.  
  4963. guarding the gate at McLean that he was determined to escape overseas even if it meant cramming his entire family
  4964.  
  4965. into a single motel room (a situation that lasted until the management found his kids’ pet snake living in a dresser
  4966.  
  4967. drawer). Our  elder  was  the  Colonel, a  midforties former  Special  Forces commo sergeant who, after numerous
  4968.  
  4969. tours in the sandbox, was trying out for his second act. We called him the Colonel, even though he was just an
  4970.  
  4971. enlisted guy, not an officer, mostly out of his resemblance to that friendly Kentuckian whose  fried  chicken  we  
  4972.  
  4973. preferred to  the  regular  fare  of  the Warrenton cafeteria.
  4974.  
  4975. My nickname—I guess I can’t avoid it—was the Count. Not because of my aristocratic bearing or dandyish fashion sense,
  4976.  
  4977. but because, like the felt vampire puppet of Sesame Street, I had a tendency to signal my intention to interrupt
  4978.  
  4979. class by raising my forefinger, as if to say: “One, two, three, ah, ha, ha, three things you forgot!”
  4980.  
  4981. These were the folks with whom I’d cycle through some twenty different classes, each in its own specialty, but most
  4982.  
  4983. having to do with how to make the technology available in any given environment serve the government of the United
  4984.  
  4985. States, whether in an embassy or on the run.
  4986. One drill involved lugging the “off-site package,” which was an eighty- pound suitcase of communications equipment
  4987.  
  4988. that was older than I was, up onto a building’s roof. With just a compass and a laminated sheet of coordinates, I’d
  4989.  
  4990. have to find in all that vast sky of twinkling stars one of the CIA’s stealth satellites, which would connect me to
  4991.  
  4992. the agency’s mothership, its Crisis Communications Center in McLean—call sign “Central”—and then I’d use the Cold
  4993.  
  4994. War–era kit inside the package to establish an encrypted radio channel. This drill was a practical reminder of why
  4995.  
  4996. the commo officer is always the first in and last out: the chief of station can steal the deepest secret in the
  4997.  
  4998. world, but it doesn’t mean squat until somebody gets it home.
  4999.  
  5000. That night I stayed on base after dark, and drove my car up to the very top of the Hill, parking outside the
  5001.  
  5002. converted barn where we studied electrical concepts meant to prevent adversaries from monitoring our activities. The
  5003.  
  5004. methods we learned about at times seemed close to voodoo—such as the ability to reproduce what’s being displayed on
  5005.  
  5006. any computer monitor by using only the tiny electromagnetic emissions caused by the oscillating currents in its
  5007.  
  5008. internal components, which can be captured using a special antenna, a method  called  Van  Eck  phreaking.  If  this  
  5009.  
  5010. sounds  hard  to  understand,  I promise we all felt the same way. The instructor himself readily admitted he never
  5011.  
  5012. fully comprehended the details and couldn’t demonstrate it for us, but he knew the threat was real: the CIA was doing
  5013.  
  5014. it to others, which meant others could do it to us.
  5015.  
  5016. 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
  5017.  
  5018. called Lindsay for the first time in weeks, or even a month. We talked until my phone’s battery died, my breath
  5019.  
  5020. becoming visible as the night got colder. There was nothing I wanted more than to share the scene with her—the dark
  5021.  
  5022. fields, the undulating hills, the high astral shimmer—but describing it to her was the best I could do. I was already
  5023.  
  5024. breaking the rules by using my phone; I would’ve been breaking the law by taking a picture.
  5025.  
  5026. One of Warrenton’s major subjects of study involved how to service the terminals and cables, the basic—in many ways,
  5027.  
  5028. the primitive—components of any  CIA  station’s  communications  infrastructure.  A  “terminal,”  in  this context,
  5029.  
  5030. is just a computer used to send and receive messages over a single secure network. In the CIA, the word “cables”
  5031.  
  5032. tends to refer to the messages themselves, but technical officers know that “cables” are also far more tangible:
  5033.  
  5034. they’re the cords or wires that for the last half century or so have linked the agency’s terminals—specifically its
  5035.  
  5036. ancient Post Communications Terminals—all  over  the  world,  tunneling  underground  across  national
  5037. borders, buried at the bottom of the ocean.
  5038.  
  5039. Ours was the last year that TISOs had to be fluent in all of this: the terminal hardware, the multiple software
  5040.  
  5041. packages, and the cables, too, of course. For some of my classmates, it felt a bit crazy to have to deal with issues
  5042.  
  5043. of insulation and sheathing in what was supposed to be the age of wireless. But if any of them voiced doubts about
  5044.  
  5045. the relevance of any of the seemingly antiquated tech that we were being taught, our instructors would remind us that
  5046.  
  5047. ours was also the first year in the history of the Hill that TISOs weren’t required to learn Morse code.
  5048.  
  5049. Closing in on graduation, we had to fill out what were called dream sheets. We were given a list of the CIA stations
  5050.  
  5051. worldwide that needed personnel, and were told to rank them in the order of our preferences. These dream sheets then
  5052.  
  5053. went to the Requirements Division, which promptly crumpled them up and tossed them in the trash—at least according to
  5054.  
  5055. rumor.
  5056.  
  5057. My dream sheet started with what was called the SRD, the Special Requirements Division. This was technically a
  5058.  
  5059. posting not at any embassy but here in Virginia, from which I would be sent out on periodic tours of all the uglier
  5060.  
  5061. spots in the sandbox, places where the agency judged a permanent posting too harsh or too dangerous—tiny, isolated
  5062.  
  5063. forward operating bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the border regions of Pakistan, for example. By choosing SRD, I was
  5064.  
  5065. opting for challenge and variety over being stuck in just one city for the entire duration of what was supposed to be
  5066.  
  5067. an up-to-three- years stint. My instructors were all pretty confident that SRD would jump at the chance to bring me
  5068.  
  5069. on, and I was pretty confident in my newly honed abilities. But things didn’t quite go as expected.
  5070.  
  5071. As was evident from the condition of the Comfort Inn, the school had been cutting some corners. Some of my classmates
  5072.  
  5073. had begun to suspect that the administration was actually, believe it or not, violating federal labor laws. As a
  5074.  
  5075. work-obsessed recluse, I  initially wasn’t bothered by this, nor was anyone around my age. For us, this was the sort
  5076.  
  5077. of low-level exploitation we’d experienced so often that we already mistook it for normal. But unpaid overtime,
  5078.  
  5079. denied leave, and refusals to honor family benefits made a difference to the older classmates. The Colonel had
  5080.  
  5081. alimony payments, and Spo had a family: every dollar counted, every minute mattered.
  5082.  
  5083. These grievances came to a head when the decrepit stairs at the Comfort Inn finally collapsed. Luckily no one was
  5084.  
  5085. injured, but everyone was spooked, and my classmates started grumbling that if the building had been bankrolled by
  5086.  
  5087. any entity other than the CIA, it would’ve been condemned for fire-code
  5088. violations years  ago.  The  discontent spread, and  soon  enough what  was basically a school for saboteurs was
  5089.  
  5090. close to unionizing. Management, in response,  dug  in  its  heels  and  decided  to  wait  us  out,  since  
  5091.  
  5092. everybody involved eventually had to either graduate or be fired.
  5093.  
  5094. A few of my classmates approached me. They knew that I was well liked by the instructors, since my skills put me near
  5095.  
  5096. the top of my class. They were also aware, because I’d worked at headquarters, that I knew my way around the
  5097.  
  5098. bureaucracy. Plus I could write pretty well—at least by tech standards. They wanted me to act as a sort of class
  5099.  
  5100. representative, or class martyr, by formally bringing their complaints to the head of the school.
  5101.  
  5102. I’d like to say that I was motivated to take on this cause solely by my aggrieved  sense  of  justice.  But  while  
  5103.  
  5104. that  certainly  did  factor  into  the decision, I can’t deny that for a young man who was suddenly excelling at
  5105.  
  5106. nearly everything he attempted, challenging the school’s crooked administration just sounded like fun. Within an hour
  5107.  
  5108. I was compiling policies to cite from the internal network, and before the day was done my email was sent.
  5109.  
  5110. The next morning the head of the school had me come into his office. He admitted the school had gone off the rails,
  5111.  
  5112. but said the problems weren’t anything he could solve. “You’re only here for twelve more weeks—do me a favor and just
  5113.  
  5114. tell your classmates to suck it up. Assignments are coming up soon, and then you’ll have better things to worry
  5115.  
  5116. about. All you’ll remember from your time here is who had the best performance review.”
  5117.  
  5118. What he said had been worded in such a way that it might’ve been a threat, and it might’ve been a bribe. Either way,
  5119.  
  5120. it bothered me. By the time I left his office the fun was over, and it was justice I was after.
  5121.  
  5122. I walked back into a class that had expected to lose. I remember Spo noticing my frown and saying, “Don’t feel bad,
  5123.  
  5124. man. At least you tried.”
  5125.  
  5126. He’d been at the agency longer than any of my other classmates; he knew how  it  worked,  and  how  ludicrous  it  
  5127.  
  5128. was  to  trust  management  to  fix something that management itself had broken. I was a bureaucratic innocent by
  5129.  
  5130. comparison, disturbed by the loss and by the ease with which Spo and the others accepted it. I hated the feeling that
  5131.  
  5132. the mere fiction of process was enough to dispel a genuine demand for results. It wasn’t that my classmates didn’t
  5133.  
  5134. care enough to fight, it was that they couldn’t afford to: the system was designed so  that  the  perceived cost  of  
  5135.  
  5136. escalation exceeded the  expected benefit of resolution. At age twenty-four, though, I thought as little of the
  5137. costs as I did of the benefits; I just cared about the system. I wasn’t finished.
  5138.  
  5139. I rewrote and re-sent the email—not to the head of the school now, but to his boss, the director of Field Service
  5140.  
  5141. Group. Though he was higher up the totem pole than the head of the school, the D/FSG was pretty much equivalent in
  5142.  
  5143. rank and seniority to a few of the personnel I’d dealt with at headquarters. Then I copied the email to his boss, who
  5144.  
  5145. definitely was not.
  5146.  
  5147. A few days later, we were in a class on something like false subtraction as a form of field-expedient encryption,
  5148.  
  5149. when a front-office secretary came in and declared that the old regime had fallen. Unpaid overtime would no longer be
  5150.  
  5151. required, and, effective in two weeks, we were all being moved to a much nicer  hotel.  I  remember the  giddy  pride
  5152.  
  5153.  with  which  she  announced, “A Hampton Inn!”
  5154.  
  5155. 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
  5156.  
  5157. at the door, summoning me back to his office. Spo immediately leaped from his seat, enveloped me in a hug, mimed
  5158.  
  5159. wiping away a tear, and declared that he’d never forget me. The head of the school rolled his eyes.
  5160.  
  5161. There, waiting in the school head’s office was the director of the Field Service Group—the school head’s boss, the
  5162.  
  5163. boss of nearly everyone on the TISO career track, the boss whose boss I’d emailed. He was exceptionally cordial, and
  5164.  
  5165. didn’t project any of the school head’s clenched-jaw irritation. This unnerved me.
  5166.  
  5167. I tried to keep a calm exterior, but inside I was sweating. The head of the school began our chat by reiterating how
  5168.  
  5169. the issues the class had brought to light were in the process of being resolved. His superior cut him off. “But why
  5170.  
  5171. we’re here is not to talk about that. Why we’re here is to talk about insubordination and the chain of command.”
  5172.  
  5173. If he’d slapped me, I would’ve been less shocked.
  5174.  
  5175. I had no idea what the director meant by insubordination, but before I had the opportunity to ask, he continued. The
  5176.  
  5177. CIA was quite different from the other civilian agencies, he said, even if, on paper, the regulations insisted it
  5178.  
  5179. wasn’t. And in an agency that did such important work, there was nothing more important than the chain of command.
  5180.  
  5181. Raising a forefinger, automatically but politely, I pointed out that before I emailed above my station, I’d tried the
  5182.  
  5183. chain of command and been failed by it. Which was precisely the last thing I should have been explaining to the chain
  5184.  
  5185. of command itself, personified just across a desk from me.
  5186. The head of the school just stared at his shoes and occasionally glanced out the window.
  5187.  
  5188. “Listen,” his boss said. “Ed, I’m not here to file a ‘hurt feelings report.’ Relax. I recognize that you’re a
  5189.  
  5190. talented guy, and we’ve gone around and talked to all of your instructors and they say you’re talented and sharp.
  5191.  
  5192. Even volunteered for the war zone. That’s something we appreciate. We want you here,  but  we  need  to  know  that  
  5193.  
  5194. we  can  count  on  you.  You’ve  got  to understand that there’s a system here. Sometimes we’ve all got to put up
  5195.  
  5196. with things we don’t like, because the mission comes first, and we can’t complete that mission if every guy on the
  5197.  
  5198. team is second-guessing.” He took a pause, swallowed, and said, “Nowhere is this more true than in the desert. A lot
  5199.  
  5200. of things happen out in the desert, and I’m not sure that we’re at a stage yet where I’m comfortable you’ll know how
  5201.  
  5202. to handle them.”
  5203.  
  5204. This was their gotcha, their retaliation. And though it was entirely self- defeating, the head of the school was now
  5205.  
  5206. smiling at the parking lot. No one besides me—and I mean no one—had put down SRD, or any other active combat
  5207.  
  5208. situation for that matter, as their first or second or even third choice on their dream sheets. Everyone else had
  5209.  
  5210. prioritized all the stops on the European champagne circuit, all the neat sweet vacation-station burgs with windmills
  5211.  
  5212. and bicycles, where you rarely hear explosions.
  5213.  
  5214. Almost perversely, they now gave me one of these assignments. They gave me Geneva. They punished me by giving me what
  5215.  
  5216. I’d never asked for, but what everybody else had wanted.
  5217.  
  5218. As if he were reading my mind, the director said, “This isn’t a punishment, Ed. It’s an opportunity—really. Someone
  5219.  
  5220. with your level of expertise would be wasted in the war zone. You need a bigger station, that pilots the newest
  5221.  
  5222. projects, to really keep you busy and stretch your skills.”
  5223.  
  5224. Everybody in class who’d been congratulating me would later turn jealous and think that I’d been bought off with a
  5225.  
  5226. luxury position to avoid further complaints. My reaction, in the moment, was the opposite: I thought that the head of
  5227.  
  5228. the school must have had an informant in the class, who’d told him exactly the type of station I’d hoped to avoid.
  5229.  
  5230. The director got up with a smile, which signaled that the meeting was over. “All right, I think we’ve got a plan.
  5231.  
  5232. Before I leave, I just want to make sure we’re clear here: I’m not going to have another Ed Snowden moment, am I?”
  5233. 15
  5234.  
  5235. Geneva
  5236.  
  5237. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, is largely set in Geneva, the bustling, neat, clean, clockwork-
  5238.  
  5239. organized Swiss city where I now made my home. Like many Americans, I’d  grown up  watching the  various movie
  5240.  
  5241. versions and TV cartoons, but I’d never actually read the book. In the days before I left the States, however, I’d
  5242.  
  5243. been searching for what to read about Geneva, and in nearly all the lists I found online, Frankenstein stood out from
  5244.  
  5245. among the tourist guides and histories. In fact, I  think the only PDFs I downloaded for the flight over were
  5246.  
  5247. Frankenstein and the Geneva Conventions, and I only finished the former. I did my reading at night over the long,
  5248.  
  5249. lonely months I spent by myself before Lindsay moved over to join me, stretched out on a bare mattress in the living
  5250.  
  5251. room of the comically fancy, comically vast, but still almost entirely unfurnished apartment that the embassy was
  5252.  
  5253. paying for on the Quai du Seujet, in the Saint-Jean Falaises district, with the Rhône out one window and the Jura
  5254.  
  5255. Mountains out the other.
  5256.  
  5257. Suffice it to say, the book wasn’t what I expected. Frankenstein is an epistolary novel that reads like a thread of
  5258.  
  5259. overwritten emails, alternating scenes of madness and gory murder with a cautionary account of the way technological
  5260.  
  5261. innovation tends to outpace all moral, ethical, and legal restraints. The result is the creation of an uncontrollable
  5262.  
  5263. monster.
  5264.  
  5265. In the Intelligence Community, the “Frankenstein effect” is widely cited, though the more popular military term for
  5266.  
  5267. it is “blowback”: situations in which policy decisions intended to advance American interests end up harming them
  5268.  
  5269. irreparably. Prominent examples of the “Frankenstein effect” cited by after-the-fact civilian, governmental,
  5270.  
  5271. military, and even IC assessments have included America’s funding and training of the mujahideen to fight the
  5272.  
  5273. Soviets, which resulted in the radicalization of Osama bin Laden and the founding of al-Qaeda, as well as the de-
  5274.  
  5275. Baathification of the Saddam Hussein–era Iraqi military, which resulted in the rise of the Islamic state. Without a
  5276.  
  5277. doubt, however, the major instance of the Frankenstein effect over the  course  of  my  brief  career  can  be  found
  5278.  
  5279.  in  the  US  government’s clandestine drive to restructure the world’s communications. In Geneva, in the same
  5280.  
  5281. landscape where Mary Shelley’s creature ran amok, America was busy creating a network that would eventually take on a
  5282.  
  5283. life and mission of its own and wreak havoc on the lives of its creators—mine very much included.
  5284.  
  5285. The CIA station in the American embassy in Geneva was one of the prime
  5286. European laboratories of this decades-long experiment. This city, the refined Old World capital of family banking and
  5287.  
  5288. an immemorial tradition of financial secrecy, also lay at the intersection of EU and international fiber-optic
  5289.  
  5290. networks, and happened to fall just within the shadow of key communications satellites circling overhead.
  5291.  
  5292. The CIA is the primary American intelligence agency dedicated to HUMINT (human intelligence), or covert intelligence
  5293.  
  5294. gathering by means of interpersonal  contact—person  to  person,  face-to-face,  unmediated  by  a screen. The COs
  5295.  
  5296. (case officers) who specialized in this were terminal cynics, charming liars who smoked, drank, and harbored deep
  5297.  
  5298. resentment toward the rise of  SIGINT (signals intelligence), or  covert intelligence gathering by means of
  5299.  
  5300. intercepted communications, which with each passing year reduced their privilege and prestige. But though the COs had
  5301.  
  5302. a general distrust of digital technology reminiscent of Frank’s back at headquarters, they certainly understood how
  5303.  
  5304. useful it could be, which produced a productive camaraderie and a healthy rivalry. Even the most cunning and
  5305.  
  5306. charismatic CO will, over the course of their career, come across at least a few zealous idealists whose loyalties
  5307.  
  5308. they can’t purchase with envelopes stuffed with cash. That was typically the moment when they’d turn to technical
  5309.  
  5310. field officers like myself
  5311. —with questions, compliments, and party invitations.
  5312.  
  5313. To serve as a technical field officer among these people was to be as much a cultural ambassador as an expert
  5314.  
  5315. adviser, introducing the case officers to the folkways and customs of a new territory no less foreign to most
  5316.  
  5317. Americans than Switzerland’s twenty-six cantons and four official languages. On Monday, a  CO  might  ask  my  advice
  5318.  
  5319. on  how  to  set  up  a  covert  online communications channel with a potential turncoat they were afraid to spook.
  5320.  
  5321. On Tuesday, another CO might introduce me to someone they’d say was a “specialist” in from Washington—though this was
  5322.  
  5323. in fact the same CO from the day before, now testing out a disguise that I’m still embarrassed to say I didn’t  
  5324.  
  5325. suspect  in  the  least,  though  I  suppose  that  was  the  point.  On Wednesday, I  might be  asked how  best  to  
  5326.  
  5327. destroy-after-transmitting (the technological version of burn-after-reading) a disc of customer records that a CO had
  5328.  
  5329. managed to purchase from a crooked Swisscom employee. On Thursday, I might have to write up and transmit security
  5330.  
  5331. violation reports on COs, documenting minor infractions like forgetting to lock the door to a vault when they’d gone
  5332.  
  5333. to the bathroom—a duty I’d perform with considerable compassion, since I once had had to write up myself for exactly
  5334.  
  5335. the same mistake. Come Friday, the chief of operations might call me into his office and ask me if, “hypothetically
  5336.  
  5337. speaking,” headquarters could send over an
  5338. infected thumb drive that could be used by “someone” to hack the computers used by delegates to the United Nations,
  5339.  
  5340. whose main building was just up the street—did I think there was much of a chance of this “someone” being caught?
  5341.  
  5342. I didn’t and they weren’t.
  5343.  
  5344. END PART ONE
RAW Paste Data
We use cookies for various purposes including analytics. By continuing to use Pastebin, you agree to our use of cookies as described in the Cookies Policy. OK, I Understand
Top