Friday, August 21, 2015

How I almost didn't work at the NSA

I served as an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency for four years after 9/11, after which point I resigned to the quieter, but no less stressful, life of a public high school teacher. Here's the story of how I tried, failed, and then succeeded in becoming an Intelligence officer at the NSA.

Like so many people, I sat watching the news on September 11, 2001 in pure shock. I gave blood the next day, like thousands of concerned citizens around the country who simply wanted to do something, anything, in response to this senseless tragedy.

I also saw that the major television news outlets were running a ticker at the bottom of the screen, telling anyone with expertise in Arabic language to consider sending their resumes to the intelligence agencies. I just happened to have expertise in that area. I had my PhD in Biblical Hebrew with a minor in Arabic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And so, out of duty and patriotism, I sent my resume online to the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. It was the least I could do. I mean, after all, we had been attacked and we also expected a follow-on attack imminently.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. I sent my resume online to the NSA that Thursday the 13th. On Sunday, I received a reply. I got an email from the NSA asking me to call a number within 72 hours for an initial interview.  I assumed that this initial interview would involve some test of the language abilities I had claimed in my resume.

I left nothing to chance. I didn’t call immediately, because I wanted to brush up on my Arabic skills and be the best I could possibly be for the test I assumed I was about to face. And so, after 48 hours of non-stop study, I called the number I had been sent. I was ready for anything.

“Yes, um, I was sent an email to call this number for an initial interview.”
“Your Social Security Number, please?”
I provided it.
“You’re Keith Massey?”
I braced myself. The language test was surely about to begin.
“I just have a few questions for you. First, are you a US Citizen?”
“Okay, good. Secondly, have you ever sold illegal drugs?”
“Um, no. Never.”
“Good. We’ll be getting in touch with you to arrange for your formal language testing here at the NSA as soon as possible.”

And that was it! Here I was assuming they would test my language abilities over the phone, but all they were really doing in that first call was weeding out unacceptable candidates. Notice, they didn’t ask me if I had ever used illegal drugs. Youthful indiscretions do not necessarily disqualify one from a Top Secret clearance. But trafficking in the stuff, well, that invalidates one forever.

They sent me an email with all the information I needed to make arrangements to travel to the NSA for my language testing. I seemed to be dealing ostensibly with a travel agency, but I imagined that the enterprise was probably something devoted solely to NSA recruitment activities. Over the phone with this travel agency, someone proposed potential dates of travel, less than a month in the future. I was informed that a shuttle at the airport would then take me to a hotel not far from an NSA facility called the Friendship Annex (FANX), where my testing would take place.

Still leaving nothing to chance, I studied hours on end in the couple of weeks I had before my formal testing. I particularly spent considerable time working on my listening and comprehension skills, which had always been the weakest part of my language abilities.

First Visit to the NSA

Flying in the month immediately after 9/11 was somewhat surreal. There were armed National Guard soldiers all over Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, something I had never seen there before. Recall that prior to 9/11 there was no TSA. Each airport ran its own provincial security operation with little consistency or even rigor. I used to have a large jackknife attached to my keys. And every time I flew before 9/11, I would put that thing with my keys in a little bowl to pass around the x-ray machine before I went through. You see, they were only trying to screen for guns and bombs. And I can remember wondering why in the world it was okay for me to be bringing a large blade onto the plane. It took a disaster to make America realize that we shouldn’t have allowed such things on planes after all.

As we were taxiing to the runway for my first flight, from Madison to Chicago, a man went berserk and was screaming that he needed to get off the plane. We taxied back and he was removed. This, of course, prompted all the other passengers to become concerned that the man in question might know something the rest of us didn’t. We were told that the man would be detained at the airport until we had safely arrived in Chicago.

From Chicago it was direct to Baltimore/Washington International Airport. After getting settled into my hotel room, I did some last minute language study in preparation for the next day.

The tests were two-fold. First, I translated a written passage. I had access to a dictionary, which both surprised and relieved me. Then there was a listening passage to translate. I’ll admit that I was additionally surprised that at the Top Secret and technologically advanced National Security Agency, this portion of the test used cassette players and tapes. I was physically hitting rewind on a machine to roll tape back to re-listen to the passage!

When it was all over, I felt very good about the text translation and not so good about the listening portion. There had been several spots in the recording where, despite listening to it over and over again, I couldn’t make out anything that seemed to make sense. And with time running out, I ended up putting down something I knew wasn’t completely correct, but that was better than leaving a hole in my translation.

The Results Come In

About a week after my testing, I got an email from the NSA. The message informed me that I had passed the graphic part of their exam (reading and translating), but that I had not passed the listening portion. And for that reason they would not pursue my potential employment any further.

I’m going to admit that I was deeply disappointed by this news. I had come to really anticipate serving my country at the NSA. It had been a few years since I finished my PhD and I had tried to keep up my Arabic skills, but I guess it wasn’t enough.

Then everything suddenly changed again. A few days after the bad news, I got a call back that they were creating a program for certain select people that had passed only one of the required skills. They would hire us and then strengthen the deficient skill once we started work at the NSA. On the basis of my advanced degrees and other scholarship, I had been selected for this program. And so, they sent me all the documents I needed to fill out for the security background check.

What a roller-coaster of emotions the whole experience had been up to that point! I mean, first off, this was all happening in the days following 9/11, with the fear of follow-on attacks, and then the Anthrax Scare. What I’ve described thus far was also happening against the backdrop of preparations for and execution of the US invasion of Afghanistan. I had experienced the stress of immediately post-9/11 air travel. There was the excitement of the whole application and testing process. Then there was the crushing disappointment of failure. And now there was the sudden elation that this adventure was back on track.

Second Visit to the NSA

In January I was flown back for my polygraph test. I was once again at the FANX. I’ll admit, I was very nervous, since I had never experienced such a thing before. My polygrapher wrapped this stuff like coiled telephone wire around my chest to measure my respiration. There was a little cuff on my finger to test perspiration. A blood pressure cuff was put on me as well.

And he proceeded to ask me questions such as “Are you now or have you ever been a member of an organization plotting the overthrow of the United States Government?”

“Nope, I am not.”

I answered everything truthfully, but at one point the guy tells me that the test indicated that I was evasive on questions regarding whether I had ever sold illegal drugs. We even had a little showdown in which he said he would wait as long as it took for me to just admit that I had once sold illegal drugs. And I wasn’t going to, since it simply wasn’t true.

He eventually unhooked me and I assumed my chances of working at the NSA were finished. Just as I left the room, however, a man stopped me and told me that failing an initial polygraph is not uncommon and he would rebook my flights to keep me there an extra day so I could try again the next day.

For that first polygraph test, I had dressed in slacks, a shirt, and a tie. The second time, I went in a t-shirt and sweat pants. I knew I just needed to relax. I had a different polygrapher, which is standard practice. And I passed.

I was informed in the middle of February that I had my Top Secret clearance, but that they would not be equipped to bring in new employees until the middle of June. I was in one of the very first new “classes” of NSA agents after 9/11. I was sworn in on Monday, June 17, 2002.

And I could not possibly have imagined, as I raised my right hand and took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, that just two years later, on June 17, 2004, I would be standing in Iraq looking at the first of three moons I would see there.

Life Lessons on the Way to the NSA

I had studied Arabic very intensely while working on my PhD. But from the time I was last formally in an Arabic class until the moment I sat down for the NSA tests was a period of eight years. If I had done nothing with my Arabic in the intervening time, I would not have succeeded. But I had regularly reviewed everything I learned and even managed to expand my vocabulary base.

Even so, as I described, it still nearly wasn’t enough! If they had not decided to admit people passing only one of the linguistic skills, well, I guess I wouldn’t be writing this post!

A part of me thinks that subconsciously I knew the day would come when Arabic would change my life. There would be a few months in which I would kind of let things slide. And then, as if in a panic, I would head back into my studies. Perhaps God was whispering in my ear that I needed to stay sharp for the momentous time to come. But after the fact, I knew that nothing truly valuable comes easily. I had kept my language skills strong through long hours of hard work. Whatever you want in life, you must be prepared to work hard for it and earn it.

I also certainly had to learn how to cope with disappointment. I had initially applied out of duty, but I soon wanted very badly to succeed in the application process. And I would spend a couple of days needing to come to terms with my failure to achieve that goal, before I then learned I was being given a second chance.
A final lesson I had to learn in the process of applying for government service was patience. Like so many Americans after 9/11, I wanted in the fight. I wanted to do my part. And it would turn out that I happened to have skills of crucial importance to that cause. But the reality is that the world sometimes just moves very slowly. The NSA got by in the early days after 9/11 by calling a bunch of retired people back into service part time. And they did indeed mobilize immediately to ramp up for a major effort. But the sheer logistics of it—where would these new employees have their desks, how to buy and install all the infrastructure these people would work with—these things took time. Indeed, these things took months.

When I finally came in the door, some of those returned retirees were still around. And the fact is, I learned many important lessons about the mission of being an Arabic linguist at the NSA from them before they were phased out as the new hires were coming in. So it all worked out for the best.

Starting Work on the Inside

I would confirm the confidence they placed in me by hiring me after failing one of their pre-employment tests. Just a month after I started, following a month-long course they sent me to, I passed that failed test with a 96%. 

The NSA took a chance on me. I mean, what if they had hired me and then I never did develop the ability to perform listening skills operationally? And the takeaway is that, in both our personal and professional lives, it pays off to have a certain tolerance of others’ weaknesses. Giving people the chance to improve, even after they have failed, can be a wise investment in potential resources for the future.

But another lesson I learned for myself is that one really can hone a skill by intense and intentional practice. Here I am reminded of a Latin quote:

assiduus usus, uni rei deditus, et ingenium et artem, saepe vincit. Constant practice, given to one thing, often beats both genius and talent.[1]
My linguistic strengths still primarily reside in grammar and translation. I just don’t have a natural talent for listening and comprehending a foreign language. But I was able to make up for that deficit by applying myself specifically in the area of my weakness.

So whatever skill you believe would advance your personal and professional life, get to work! Work on it even a little bit each day. Take personal responsibility that it is up to you to sharpen your skills, and become the person who will succeed.

[1] Cicero, Pro Balbo 45.

This post is an excerpt from my latest book, Top Secrets: Lessons for Success from the World of Espionage. It is available on Kindle and paperback.

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