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My Summer of Information Superiority

The attentive listener might notice a discrepancy when I talk about the length of my cyber career. Thirty-four and ½ years at NSA, but 35 years of total Federal Service, and 35 years as a “cyber warrior” until I retired in 2012.  That extra 6 months started with a summer job in one of the mailrooms at Aberdeen Proving Ground. This was originally published in my internal NSA blog in 2012.

Mail. Mail? You know what I mean: paper, envelopes, “shotgun” envelopes (for interdepartmental mail) - the stuff that e-mail was named after? Real paper, stored in “files” (in wooden or metal boxes, not on spinning platters or integrated circuits). Remember the days when all enterprise mail was physical, and retrieved from a wall of cubbyholes in a dusty room in the corner of the building, or dropped on your desk by some clueless youngster?

Hey, that might have been me: Tony Sager, GS-2 Mailroom Clerk, Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity, Army Materiel Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. That’s how I started my Federal career in the mid-70’s (*19* 70’s, you wiseacres….). I was a junior in college, and this was my big break. A Federal summer job! An official government driver’s license! Secret clearance! Woo Hoo!

There are dozens of funny stories of my time there, but here’s one that you might not expect. In the mailroom is where I first learned the basics of Information Warfare, and the power of what we now call Information Superiority – although I did not understand the lessons, or have a language for them until I had been at NSA for years. Information Superiority? Of course.

You see, the people that worked the mailroom were experts at information gathering and analysis. They knew by the size, shape, and source address of envelopes who was being queried by the Inspector General, or what sort of personnel action was being delivered. Natural Traffic Analysts, in government-speak. They knew who ordered extravagant quantities of office supplies, which offices emptied early every time the boss was on travel or went to play golf, who created the longest delays in signing Staff Processing Forms, who was good at "Managing Up" but "Disrespectful Down", etc, etc. And every month a large fanfold printout came through the mail, detailing down to the penny the amount that every person in that small Agency had been paid that month (not that anyone would have everpeeked into the printout).

And of course, the mailroom was also Gossip Central, the clearing house for all the scoop on who was doing what to whom, and when. Who was in trouble. Who was thinking of quitting. Who was having problems at home. People stopped by to drop off or grab their mail, and inevitably would stick around for a few minutes to chat.

And when the volume, variety, or velocity of information started to drop, the woman who ran the mailroom would refresh and recalibrate her sensor network by putting out 2-3 crockpots full of fragrant food in the morning, drawing in her sensors, uh, I mean “people” who sniffed, lingered, and hoped for an invitation to lunch. And you know the price of lunch: Information.

(By the way, the mailroom lunches were legendary. One example – once sweet corn season started, one of the mailroom drivers was sent to Wendy’s to fetch a bag of burgers and a couple of dozen ears of corn from the roadside stand just outside the base. Another would fetch a brand new government-issue aluminum paint-roller pan from the Agency supply system, which was then filled with melted butter in anticipation of corn. Yumm! )

Late that Summer, the Branch Chief came stomping into the mailroom and started yelling at me, angry about something that I had or had not done. I really had no idea what he was talking about, or what was happening, and I was quite traumatized by the incident. But I could see my Federal career evaporating before my eyes.

After he left, Arlene, the kind and clever woman who ran the mailroom, pulled me aside. “Don’t let him bother you. He’s just mad at life because his wife found out what happens when he goes on business travel with his secretary. He won’t be around much longer…”. Sure enough, he was gone in a couple of weeks.

Information Superiority? Indeed!

By the way, the mailroom was assigned to the “Support Operations Branch”, so the boss’ title was technically “the Chief, SOB”. Only in government. 

From that same summer job, a story for another day: how I spent the longest work-week of my life as a professional Xerox machine operator. Yes, there was such a job.

While the story is a bit dated, in hindsight I learned at least a couple of lessons from the mailroom that have stuck with me for my entire career.

·     No matter how humble your job, you have a unique view of individual and organizational behavior. You should pay attention. ·     Algorithms, protocols, randomization, zero-days, techno-cyber-wonkery – all are important, but CONTENT IS KING. All kudos to my many friends who work in social media protection, Information Operations, education and awareness, etc.



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