In an extract from his memoir, the US whistleblower shares his experiences on the day the twin towers fell and the aftermath that led him to join up
Whenever I try to understand how the past two decades happened, I return to that September to that ground-zero day and its immediate aftermath. To return means coming up against a truth darker than the lies that tied the Taliban to al-Qaeda and conjured up Saddam Husseins illusory stockpile of WMDs. It means, ultimately, confronting the fact that the carnage and abuses that marked my young adulthood were born not only in the executive branch and the intelligence agencies, but also in the hearts and minds of all Americans, myself included.
I started working as a web designer for a woman I met in community college class. She, or I guess her business, hired me under the table at the then lavish rate of $30 an hour in cash. The trick was how many hours I would actually get paid for.
Of course, Mae could have paid me in smiles because I was smitten, just totally in love with her. And though I didnt do a particularly good job of concealing that, Im not sure that Mae minded, because I never missed a deadline or even the slightest opportunity to do a favour for her. Also, I was a quick learner. In a company of two, you have got to be able to do everything. Although I could, and did, conduct my business anywhere that, after all, is the point of working online she preferred that I come into the office, by which I mean her house, a two-storey townhouse that she shared with her husband, a neat and clever man whom Ill call Norm.
Yes, Mae was married. Whats more, the townhouse that she and Norm lived in was located on base at the south-western edge of Fort Meade, Maryland, where Norm worked as a linguist assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA). I cant tell you if its legal to run a business out of your home if your home is federal property on a military installation Fort Meade is the location of the NSA, the Central Security Service, US cyber command and the Defense Information Systems Agency, among other things but as a teenager infatuated with a married woman who was also my boss, I wasnt exactly going to be a stickler for propriety.
Its nearly inconceivable now, but at the time Fort Meade was almost entirely accessible to anyone. It wasnt all bollards and barricades and checkpoints trapped in barbed wire. I could just drive on to the army base housing the worlds most secretive intelligence agency in my 92 Civic, windows down, radio up, without having to stop at a gate and show ID. It seemed like every other weekend or so a quarter of my Japanese class would congregate in Maes little house behind NSA headquarters to watch anime and create comics. Thats just the way it was, in those bygone days when Its a free country, isnt it? was a phrase you heard in every schoolyard and sitcom.
On workdays, I would show up at Maes in the morning, pulling into her cul-de-sac after Norm left for the NSA, and I would stay through the day, until just before he returned. On the occasions that Norm and I happened to overlap during the two years or so I spent working for his wife, he was, all things considered, kind and generous to me. At first, I assumed that he was oblivious to my infatuation, or had such a low opinion of my chances as a seducer that he didnt mind leaving me alone with his wife. But one day, when we happened to pass each other him going, me coming he politely mentioned that he kept a gun on the nightstand.
With payments looming on my tuition loan, I had a more practical reason to spend time with Mae: money. I asked her to give me more hours. She agreed, and asked me to start coming in at 9am. It was an egregiously early hour, especially for a freelancer, which was why I was running late one Tuesday morning.
I was speeding down Route 32 under a mild, beautiful, Microsoft-blue sky, trying not to get caught by any speed traps. With a little luck, I would roll into Maes sometime before 9.30, and with my window down and my hand riding the wind it felt like a lucky day. I had talk radio cranked and was waiting for the news to switch to the traffic.
Just as I was about to take the Canine Road shortcut into Fort Meade, an update broke through about a plane crash in New York City.
Mae came to the door and I followed her up the stairs to the cramped office next to her bedroom. There wasnt much to it: just our two desks side by side, a drawing table for her art and a cage for her squirrels. Although I was slightly distracted by the news, we had work to do. I forced myself to focus on the task at hand. I was just opening the projects files in a simple text editor we wrote the code for websites by hand when the phone rang.
Mae picked up. What? Really?
Because we were sitting so close together, I could hear her husbands voice. And he was yelling.
Maes expression turned to alarm, and she loaded a news site on her computer. The only TV was downstairs. I was reading the sites report about a plane hitting one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, when Mae said: OK. Wow. OK, and hung up.
She turned to me. A second plane just hit the other tower.
Until that moment, I had thought it had been an accident.
Mae said: Norm thinks theyre going to close the base.
Like, the gates? I said. Seriously? The scale of what had happened had yet to hit me. I was thinking about my commute.
Norm said you should go home. He doesnt want you to get stuck.
I sighed, and saved the work I had barely started. Just when I got up to leave, the phone rang again, and this time the conversation was even shorter. Youre not going to believe this.
Pandemonium, chaos: our most ancient forms of terror. They both refer to a collapse of order and the panic that rushes in to fill the void. For as long as I live, Ill remember retracing my way up Canine Road after the Pentagon was attacked. Madness poured out of the agencys black glass towers, a tide of yelling, ringing cell phones and cars revving up in the parking lots and fighting their way on to the street. At the moment of the worst terrorist attack in US history, the staff of the NSA the major signals-intelligence agency of the US intelligence community was abandoning its work by the thousands, and I was swept up in the flood.
The NSA director, Michael Hayden, issued the order to evacuate before most of the country even knew what had happened. Subsequently, the NSA and the CIA which also evacuated all but a skeleton crew from its headquarters would explain their behaviour by citing a concern that one of the agencies might potentially, possibly, perhaps be the target of the fourth and last hijacked airplane, United Airlines flight 93, rather than, say, the White House or Capitol.
I sure as hell wasnt thinking about the next likeliest targets as I crawled through the gridlock, with everyone trying to get their cars out of the same parking lot simultaneously. I wasnt thinking about anything at all.
I remember escaping the panicked crush of the spies fleeing Fort Meade just as the north tower came down. Once on the highway, I tried to steer with one hand while pressing buttons with the other, calling family indiscriminately and never getting through. Finally, I managed to get in touch with my mother, who was working as a clerk for the federal courts in Baltimore. They, at least, werent evacuating.
Her voice scared me, and suddenly the only thing in the world that mattered to me was to reassure her.
Its OK. Im headed off base, I said. Nobodys in New York, right?
I dont I dont know. I cant get in touch with Gran.
Is Pop in Washington?
He could be in the Pentagon for all I know.
The breath went out of me. By 2001, my maternal grandfather had retired from the coastguard and was now a senior official in the FBI, serving as one of the heads of its aviation section. This meant that he spent plenty of time in plenty of federal buildings throughout DC and its environs.
Before I could summon any words of comfort, my mother spoke again. Theres someone on the other line. It might be Gran. Ive got to go.
She didnt call me back. I tried her number endlessly, but couldnt get through, so I went home to wait, sitting in front of the blaring TV while I kept reloading news sites. The new cable modem we had was proving more resilient than all of the telecom satellites and cell towers, which were failing across the country.