That Damn Lie Detector
This is a story of a little-known, embarrassing chapter in James F history. It’s about how I almost went to work for the National Security Agency (NSA).
That’s right, “almost.” I came as close as you can to being employed at the NSA as a cryptanalyst. And it did not end well.
I happen to have a fairly diverse academic background; I earned a Bachelors degree in English from Emory University, followed by a Master of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. While at Tech, I took a class in network security and found I really enjoyed it; we learned about the various methods for obscuring text with ciphers, and how the best codes take millions of years to break without having any information about the encoded message. I furthered my study of cryptology by reading Crypto, an excellent book about the history of Pretty Good Privacy, and the battles its inventors had to fight with the NSA in the ‘70s and ‘80s to preserve their findings.
I knew my wife and I would be moving to Washington and that I would be needing a job up here. At one job fair I attended at Georgia Tech, I was interested to see that the NSA was there courting potential employees. They had several pamphlets describing the various jobs they had to offer; one of them was cryptanalysis. It so happened that my background fit the profile of what they were looking for quite well; my English and writing experience combined with my computer science and security knowledge gave me the perfect background for becoming a cryptanalyst.
I applied for the job, since it seemed like an interesting enough field to start working in, and the NSA was interested in interviewing me. In early 2001 they flew me up from Atlanta to BWI airport at their expense; they also put me (and several other applicants) up at the Holiday Inn by BWI.
The morning of my preliminary interview, they drove all the applicants by van to the Fort Meade, and processed us with visitor tags for the day. I met with the people who work on cryptanalysis; they seemed nice enough, even though the office was obviously pretty boring compared to what I was used to. This obviously would not be the kind of place where I could browse the Web in between bursts of working. They gave me a brief logic test that seemed counterproductive, but I think I did well enough (it seemed to test how well one’s priorities were ordered).
Later, one of the NSA’s mathematicians, who acted as my host, ferried me around to another interview-related activity. He seemed nice enough, and we talked about how expensive it was to live in Washington, and that while the government compensation you get isn’t a whole lot, the benefits of being a government employee were fairly vast.
Overall, it seemed like a fairly low-rent job: not much pay, in the middle of nowhere, and in a dumpy office. But the positives were pretty good. Presumably I’d be working with some cutting-edge technology (or maybe not, since I didn’t get to see any of the machines I’d be working on, and as we know, these federal agencies aren’t all that well funded or staffed). It was a field I was interested in, and probably a good launching point to a better-paying job two or three years down the road. And since this was a bad time for technology-type employment (still is), just having a job (and not having to look for one when I got to Washington) would be a big plus.
And… it would be pretty neat to be working for my country. I really did love the U.S. back then. I loved traveling abroad, but I always liked coming back home; I was proud of my country and its history. (Sadly, the experience that follows was a turning point that helped to change that.)
The NSA conditionally offered me employment a short time later. The condition was that I had to fly back up to Washington to complete a psychological exam, followed by a lie detector test. This is standard for all NSA employees, and they all have to go through it every so often. Everyone I talked to made it sound like a piece of cake; just something they had to deal with on an infrequent basis. And, since I had nothing to hide, I wasn’t too worried.
This time I took my wife with me. On the Sunday before my screening, we drove down to D.C. in a rental car. It wasn’t bad; I actually found a parking space by the Smithsonian in the morning, and we spent a few hours wandering around the American History museum. We had lunch and walked around, and had a deceptively nice day.
The following morning, I went through the same rigmarole I had before; a bus carted all of that day’s applicants from the BWI Holiday Inn to Fort Meade, where we were again processed and given visitor passes. This time I spent the morning on a computer taking a psychological exam. It was fairly tedious, but occasionally asked something amusing: “Do you hear voices in your head?”
Unfortunately for me, I could tell I was coming down with a cold. I had forgotten to bring my trademark Vitamin C drops to fend off colds, and the stress combined with traveling had probably done me in. My throat was scratchy and I was quickly starting to feel tired as I ate the fairly bland Fort Meade cafeteria food.
Eventually, after much waiting, it came time to take the lie detector test. A man who seemed fairly nice took me to a room with a dentist-type chair. I got in the chair and they hooked me up to the machine. The test administrator explained to me that he would ask some control questions (“Is your name James?”) before starting with the test.
The first part of the test, which is primarily about your legal history, went smoothly. They asked some mundane questions (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”) and some pretty ridiculous ones (“Have you ever plotted to overthrow the U.S. government? If so, please explain”) which I had no problem answering calmly. I passed this section with no problem.
The second part of the test was where I ran into a brick wall. It was the section on illegal drug use. After I completed it, the examiner switched off the machine and told me I was “having trouble” with one or more of the questions. And this was puzzling to me… because I have never taken any illegal drugs in my life.
I’m not kidding. I never have… not through high school, college, or the rest of my life. I just never saw a reason to take drugs; I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. Now, that may be surprising… it even surprises me a bit. I’ve been around plenty of second-hand smoke, cigarette or otherwise. But I’ve never personally done any illegal drugs, and I know this to be true.
But now, after being asked the “drug question” on a polygraph test, the machine was returning negative results. Now I was getting nervous, and on top of that, my cold was getting worse. I could feel myself getting sicker and sicker as I sat in that chair; my head was starting to pound. The examiner, perhaps presuming now I had something to hide, talked about how lots of people had used drugs one or twice, and that it was no big deal; he encouraged me to confess any experimentation I had done to get it off my chest.
But there was nothing to confess. I stressed that I had never done any drugs, ever. We went through the round of drug questioning again. Again, the examiner said the results were coming back negative.
And now – and this really made me mad -- he started to take an accusatory tone with me. He tried to get me to confess anything bad I might have done that would be giving me trouble with the question. Well, fuck that; there was no way I was going to confess my deepest darkest sins to this choad. He said I could come back the next day and try the polygraph again. I was already booked on a flight back to Atlanta that night, and I had to get back to my job the next day (they didn’t realize I was interviewing in Washington), so obviously that wasn’t going to work.
By this point, my cold and my frustration were making me miserable. I had never taken any illegal drugs. I knew it to be the truth; if the machine said I was lying, and the government didn’t trust me enough to tell the truth about it, then they could take their job offer and fucking shove it.
I was miserable on the plane ride home as I got sicker and sicker. I could barely talk about the experience to my brother when he picked us up from the airport; I was too embarrassed. I had no reason to be embarrassed; I had been telling the truth the whole time. But, in my mind, the fact that the government and their polygraph saw it differently cast aspersions on my honesty, which is something I highly value in myself. I don’t bullshit; I (almost) always tell the truth. And that had been called into question by no less an entity than my home country, the United States of America.
My hopes of having an interesting job locked up before having to move to Washington were dashed. I would instead spend the next several months frantically searching for employment with no success. I moved up to Washington with no job, and my savings slowly eroding away. I was unemployed and living in a shitty $1,000-a-month apartment. I was miserable from the moment I moved here; all because my country didn’t trust me.
I’ve come to find out in researching this article that my experience is not unique. Besides that affirmation, I learned a couple other things from experience.
The National Security Agency is an inept piece of shit, and polygraph results don’t mean a fucking thing.
Good night and God bless.