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Working on the Dark Side of the Moon

Thomas Reed Willemain
Millcity Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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Shrouded in secrecy, the United States Department of Defense’s National Security Agency (NSA) is where the most clandestine of U.S. operations are carried out in the name of national security. The author, a software entrepreneur and statistics professor, spent a few years alternating between working “outside” and working “inside” at the NSA and the Central Security Service (CSS). This affiliated, shadowy think tank has a cryptological charter.

While “inside”, Willemain confronted an intense, complex and at times alien organization populated with brilliant and quirky colleagues described in brief sketches. He also met the moral challenges in which his mathematical and statistical work became elements of a potential “kill chain”. This comes across more as a feature than an obstacle in this personal account of the years spent within one of the most secretive organizations in the world. Willemain made his decision on this as a pre-tour premise and thus we have a statement, not an evolution or transformation of opinion:

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.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things ...

This assurance is at the heart of most criticisms and apologias of the NSA. In this career memoir, such potential Constitutional issues are addressed even less than the ethical ones.

Some of the NSA secrets Willemain now knows and the NSA has blacked them out of the text. Willemain left in the redaction markings, making for some intriguing, if frustrating, reading. This 2017 book came out after the 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden that the NSA intercepted and stored the communications of over a billion people worldwide, including United States citizens, and had access to the user data in iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android phones, including SMS, location, emails, and notes. Such facts are suggestive and add currency to such portions of this memoir as:

Smartphones […] I call them ‘[redacted]’ since I helped [redacted] the [redacted] and [redacted] those who [redacted] are less [redacted]…

Indeed, the blotchy paragraphs in their possible meanings had for me a compelling feel that recalled the William S. Burroughs cut-up technique introduced by the painter Brion Gysin. (There is as much suggestive and beguiling about the visual aspect of redacted text as its content.) What is left unredacted are general observations on anonymized co-workers and the routines and amenities of the office campus; a censored guided tour. No mathematics is found here, either.

The impact of the Snowden revelations does surface here and merges with the possibility of a moral dilemma:

When Edward Snowden exposed a number of NSA secrets, many high priority targets changed their behavior and disappeared from the view of our main system for tracking them […] So, without knowing it, I helped limit the damage from Snowden’s treachery. It is possible to imagine, therefore, that some of the [redacted] were later visited by bullets or bombs, making me an indirect contributor to their deaths. Not a happy thing, but I am comfortable with my distant and unwitting contribution.

Indeed, Willemain appeared to have a much more difficult time with the thought of protocol peccadilloes: “I was visited by nightly nightmares about Security blunders during my first weeks…” Pulling back a tad the curtain on the inner workings of the NSA at the cubicle and cookie-cart level provides an engaging read for anyone drawn to the mundane details supporting national intelligence in a post-Snowden world, but expect nothing like an exposé in this officially cleared work.

Tom Schulte committed to graduate studies after encountering elliptic curve cryptography in a post-baccalaureate program at Michigan’s Oakland University.

The table of contents is not available.