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My very first day on the job was generally exciting but ended with moments of angst and dread. I was ased to an overcrowded office in a cold, dingy basement of the [redacted] building. There were three desks in our room. To me, the Ejection Seat was a bonus resource. Because the most recent occupant had already been ejected, the workstation sat idle.

Each desk had a computer that had been named after someone famous. Maybe my basic instinct was to act to type as an engineer plunked down in a nest of mathematicians. The other great physical resource in our room was a very long and very ancient slate blackboard, perhaps the only one remaining in Math Research and later lovingly transported to Laurel, Md.

One of my first acts of secret public service to the United States, on Day 2, was to wash the blackboard, clean the erasers, replenish the chalk supply, and use an antique vacuum cleaner to tidy up afterwards. For a long time, I had a fear that my janitorial contribution would be my most ificant. Looking back, it was probably somewhere in the middle of the top Located in the basement of the building where computers which love cold were more important than people who usually do notthe corridors were quite chilly cold air settles downward. One happy day I wandered down, anxious as usual about whether I could really crack the problem I was working, when something struck me as odd, even alien.

It took a while, but I finally realized that somebody had actually painted the walls with lighter colors. Later, there was another strange day when something again seemed very different. Somebody had installed actual lights in the ceiling, and it was easy to see where I was going.

Not quite sunshine, but a definite mood enhancer. Less dungeon, more drab government office building. To me, the corridors around the DARKROOM were quite frustrating, because along each one were many mysterious and tantalizing doors marked by mysterious and tantalizing s. I p this keeps psychological meltdowns to a tolerable few. What is most strange, to me, is that every single thing in there is made in China.

You can be sure that I checked my Chinese-made NSA laser pointer very carefully before using it in secret spaces.

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If there are any bugs in that device, they eluded me. But then, I never took the course on bugs. It never hurts to practice. Do I actually practice? Hey, I can neither confirm nor deny. As a professor, I am steeped in the tradition of frequent seminars and the imperative to create new knowledge. I viewed it as a bargain with society: We would be free to play, and society would ultimately benefit. In principle, this means that university departments must be open to new ideas, must constantly upgrade their knowledge, and must work hard to ensure that the knowledge gets passed on to new minds.

In practice, I have seen the crush of business in the university impede the development and exchange of new ideas. I have seen departmental seminars devolve to become recruiting and propaganda vehicles. I have seen supposedly eager doctoral students sit mute and never question a guest speaker. I have rarely seen seminars in which unproven, experimental ideas are discussed energetically.

Surprisingly, what I found in my corner of the NSA was a much closer approximation to the academic ideal. I was amazed at the level of intellectual activity in the Math Research organization. Not only the interns but also senior staff would enroll in specialized short courses.

There is a standing weekly statistics seminar. All this stimulating intellectual activity does come with some restrictions generated by the need for secrecy.

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One of my problems with transitioning from outside to inside was that I had a bad habit of wanting to ask that same forbidden question on the inside. Especially at the beginning of the sabbatical year, this habit created a problem. It was especially bad if I really forgot myself and asked the question out loud in a public space like a corridor.

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Indeed, it is generally not a good idea to ask such a question even behind locked doors. Not everybody has the necessary clearances and, even if they do, they may still not have the need-to-know. Everyone I worked with had at least a top-secret security clearance. But since the Snowden affair, newspapers have reported that over one million Americans have top-secret clearances. Nevertheless, it is still not OK to talk to just anyone about just anything, because there are further restrictions.

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Apparently, it was also a hospitable environment for ex-professors. I was struck by how many of my colleagues had been academics in an earlier life. I was also struck by how many of them were bitter about their years in academia. Working at NSA, there is an immediacy to the sense of mission that is difficult to reproduce in academia. If nothing else, NSA works on problems of high national importance.

If I needed a break at lunch, I could read a few stories and get re-motivated.

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At the same time, I would often come away depressed and discouraged by the unrelenting flow of stories about attacks, threats, weaknesses and dire possibilities. It is so easy to go merrily through the day on the outside and, even watching the nightly news, never understand the full dimensions of the threat matrix. Since I grew up during the height depth? Rosie was the secretary in the office that handled the sabbatical program. Rosie herself is an interesting story. She spent a full career at NSA, and during that time she burrowed in very deeply.

Some people know that the comedian Wanda Sykes had at one point worked in a clerical capacity at NSA, and she may be the most visible black alumna of the Agency. But Rosie stayed in a long time, and I noticed that she was a key member of a large circle of black women who probably ran the Agency behind the scenes. In general, my impression is that the troops fell on both extremes of the spectrum of passion for the work. At the opposite end on the passion scale, other troops felt a deep personal connection to what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, either because they had been there, they were going to deploy there, their buddies were already there, or all of the above.

Earlier, I mentioned the multitude of seminars in Math Research. There were also agency-wide seminars, which I tried to attend whenever there was a hope of expanding my sense of the big picture. One I will never forget was given by a Marine major on the subject of defeating the IEDs that were the major source of our casualties in the two wars.

Never have I seen such controlled but intense passion in any seminar on any subject in any venue. NSA is part of the Department of Defense. The DoD deals in death on a large scale. So spending time in a Mathematics Research group inside NSA can seem fairly far removed from dealing in death. Day to day, what one sees are equations, graphs of equations, computer code, data, data and more data.

One also sees technical courses, technical seminars and technical papers. Only twice did I hear anything in any way related to death. The first is classified. The other instance was a general announcement about the Memorial Wall that holds the growing list of NSA personnel killed in the line of duty. While there is almost no whiff of death in the daily business of the NSA, it is obvious to the casual observer, or at least to anyone with a minimum of moral awareness, that the work we did was part of a kill chain.

Knowing this required that I force myself, before starting the sabbatical tour of duty, to acknowledge this fact and affirm my acceptance. I thought of my father in combat in Germany and his discomfort with that memory, which involved, among other fraught moments, a recon mission that turned into an ambush that turned into a counterattack on a machine gun nest that turned into a Silver Star. I thought of my wife, daughter and son and the people who considered them targets.

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I said yes. The work done in Math Research is at the very distant end of the kill chain, but it is still in the chain. Some parts of the work are farther removed from a trigger pull than others, some closer. The first project I undertook was an attempt to develop an improved method of [redacted].

At the time, the Iraq war was raging. Not knowing is not the same as not wondering. Thomas R. Willemain, Ph. If you are using a screen-reader and are having problems using this website, please call or for assistance. Facebook Twitter LinkedIn.

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