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Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency Paperback – May 30, 2017
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One thing I did not expect was the level of intellectual freedom and engagement that the agency nurtures. Far from my image of introverts huddled alone in their offices with their computers (although that does go on), Dr. Willemain describes deep conversations on the fundamental math and statistics behind the projects that the agency supports. He contrasts this with the environment of many universities, where the scramble for grant dollars and other easily-measured signs of work output crowd out collaboration and discussion. In fact, the agency is peopled with many who found that university life hampered their intellectual creativity while the NSA supported it.
The book is full of amusing and insightful anecdotes. For example, cryptanalysts who study Russia find it a major challenge to break their codes. To keep a researcher from getting discouraged by lack of progress, the agency might switch them over to a poor, under-developed country for a while, where it's easier to achieve success. Besides the satisfaction of a job well done, these researchers might be given internal awards and other recognitions for their accomplishments.
Dr. Willemain is a patriot, and is not about spilling America's secrets. His account deliberately avoids any juicy tales that might compromise our intelligence and refers to everyone by pseudonyms. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be at the NSA were even more aggressive at protecting information than he was. The text is marked by enticing blacked-out passages, where you stop and wonder what's missing.
NSA has elaborate safeguards to protect Americans' Fourth Amendment rights, which give protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The image of the agency is often a soulless entity that is spying on all our electronic communications, trashing our privacy in the name of National Security. Dr. Willemain disabuses us of this notion.
This book is a treasure trove for novelists who want to write about the intelligence community but have never been inside. It's also invaluable for those who are thinking about joining the intelligence community and wonder what it would be like to work there. Hint: it's better than you might think.
Best of all, Dr. Willemain introduces us to the people who are at the heart of the enterprise. He tells us that math can make the difference between life and death for those who defend America. His insightful and candid descriptions of his co-workers show that not all "geeks" are alike, and that simple stereotypes are seriously inadequate. Most of all, Dr. Willemain reveals a lot about himself, and it's hard to find a more endearing geek than him.