Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Peek Inside the ‘Puzzle Palace’
A Peek Inside the ‘Puzzle Palace’

A Peek Inside the ‘Puzzle Palace’

A review of Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency (Mill City Press, Inc. 2017)

Created by a secret directive of President Harry Truman in 1952, the National Security Agency (NSA) is America’s largest, most expensive, and most secretive intelligence organization. For years, it was an accepted shibboleth within its Fort Meade, MD, headquarters that the acronym “NSA” stood for “No Such Agency”—which happened to be the government’s response to questions of NSA’s existence before the congressional hearings into intelligence abuses in the 1970s.

Today, NSA remains America’s largest and most expensive intelligence organization, but, much to the Agency’s chagrin, a variety of events over the years have erased its anonymity and raised its public profile considerably. To the American public, that profile is likely to be largely shaped by critical media characterizations of NSA’s role in, for example, the post-9/11Terrorist Surveillance Program and the public disclosure, and subsequent reporting, of some of the Agency’s most sensitive collection programs by Edward Snowden in 2013. Viewed solely through the prism of these events, it is not likely that a broad swath of the public holds NSA in particularly high regard. This is the dilemma of doing work essential to the nation’s security that, by its nature, must be conducted in virtually complete secrecy. After all, a congressional statute (the National Security Agency Act of 1959 codified at 50 U.S.C. § 3601) continues to protect against the disclosure of “any information concerning the organization or any function of the National Security Agency, or any information with respect to the activities thereof, or of the names, titles, salaries, or number of the persons employed by such agency.” No other intelligence agency has been granted so complete a cloak of statutory invisibility, and, consequently, it is rare to find any meaningfully informative insight about the people who actually perform the incredibly important tasks that safeguard America. Who are these folks?

Dr. Tom Willemain seems an unlikely candidate to pull back the curtain to give the world a glimpse of life inside NSA, but Dr. Willemain has written an interesting tale of his time at NSA as a mathematics researcher on sabbatical from his then-post at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Willemain, whose own biography is studded with more impressive accomplishments than can be listed in this review,[1] has written Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency[2] in which he recounts, to the extent possible after the extensive mandatory prepublication review required of all former NSA employees,[3] his experiences within the NSA headquarters “campus” that, in its more recently built structures, includes entire multi-story buildings constructed with copper-sheathing to reduce or eliminate electromagnetic emissions that might escape and be detected by adversaries.[4]

During the 2007-2008 academic year, Dr. Willemain was one of two professors to be selected to be sabbatical visitors at NSA. Thereafter, over the equivalent of three years spent at both NSA and at the affiliated Institute for Defense Analysis Center for Computing Sciences (IDA/CCS), alternating frequently between his private career as a professor and software entrepreneur and his shadowy existence as an NSA mathematics maven, he continued to serve on a variety of NSA-sponsored projects. As he candidly concedes, this is the story of a lifelong academic suddenly finding himself in the heart of some of the most sophisticated mathematics research taking place anywhere in the United States.

In relating his experience, he revisits the often painstaking, at times befuddling, process of being vetted for the essential Top Secret security clearance that is the minimum-level clearance needed to work in any substantive capacity at NSA—a process complete with a mandatory polygraph examination. He describes the feeling of working in ultra-secret spaces flanking long corridors of locked doors where even a Top Secret Codeword clearance affords no access without the requisite “need to know.” And, as he confides, some of those ultra-secret spaces are particularly chilly—a vestige of their location proximate to the NSA basement. Computers, and more particularly supercomputers, as Dr. Willemain observes, must be kept cool and protected from the enormous heat generated by their computational activities. Although NSA does not acknowledge the size of its computer inventory, it is likely that there are more supercomputers in the basement at Fort Meade than in any other location in the world. Indeed, unofficial publications refer to NSA’s computer capacity not in numbers, but in “acres” of computers, and that volume provides NSA with more computing power than anywhere else on the planet. As Willemain observes, those churning supercomputers must be kept cool, which makes for a chilly environment if you happen to work, as he did for some period of time, in the basement at NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters.

Willemain’s experience was not undertaken without a certain level of trepidation, and he candidly admits to the conflicts he felt upon entering NSA’s world. He “wondered whether I could work at NSA without complicity,” based on his “bad feeling that the Agency had been used improperly by the Bush/Cheney administration,” even if his involvement was limited to “dry statistical analysis.” He acknowledges that he embarked on the sabbatical with “doubts about the morality of the Agency’s mission.”

Somewhat to his own surprise, he found “the Agency is staffed with much more of a cross-section of America than I had imagined. The common denominators are brains and patriotism.” Aside from the insights he furnishes regarding his work at NSA which, as he admits, are certainly limited in substantive detail because of its high classification, Dr. Willemain offers interesting insights and observations into the personalities of his brilliant, frequently quirky, NSA colleagues. Interesting because, if for no better reason, they put a distinct and relatable human face on the thousands of Americans who do NSA’s work. People who, as Dr. Willemain concedes, thoroughly belie the common characterization of the government worker as a clock-watching drone.

Notably, as yet another reminder of the sensitivity of every aspect of NSA’s operations, while Willemain shares his personal views of, and interactions with, these NSA colleagues, he does not share their actual names. Each is identified throughout the book solely by a pseudonym chosen from a list compiled by Dr. Willemain and inserted, at NSA’s insistence, to prevent disclosure of the identity of actual NSA employees in the final publication. Those pseudonyms are accompanied throughout the book by swaths of black boxes representing text redacted by these same NSA reviewers. Collectively, the results of the prepublication review process make parts of the book a somewhat disrupted read.

On a broader level, Dr. Willemain describes how his experience brought him a far greater (albeit highly classified) understanding of the foreign threats facing the United States, the mission of NSA to produce the best intelligence product possible regarding those threats, and his surprise at the refreshing level of intellectual toleration that NSA’s Research Directorate fostered in seeking to promote NSA’s mission through the esoteric work of some of the most erudite mathematicians and engineers in the world. After his experience, Dr. Willemain expresses a new appreciation for what attracts brilliant academics to the NSA work environment noting: “Working at NSA, there is an immediacy to the sense of mission that is difficult to reproduce in academia. If nothing else, NSA works on problems of high national importance. There is a secret daily news summary published electronically within NSA called ‘NSA Daily.’ All one has to do is to skim these stories to understand the full urgency of the NSA mission.”

This work is facilitated, in part, through programs that Dr. Willemain identifies as “SCAMPs,” an acronym that describes “Special Cryptologic Advisory Math Panels.” SCAMPS are a unique approach at bridging the gap between what Dr. Willemain describes as the “monastic” and the “secular,” a comparative description initially supplied by a colleague of Dr. Willemain’s but aptly characterizing the divide that SCAMPs seek to traverse. Recognizing that mathematical interpretations of certain practical problems for NSA are closely inter-related with a number of currently studied research questions in pure mathematics, NSA created the SCAMP programs to allow mathematicians working for the Agency to interact with outsiders working on related problems in an effort to insure that NSA’s personnel are exposed to the thinking and activities of the broader mathematics community. SCAMP is one feature that Dr. Willemain identifies as demonstrating NSA’s open approach to fostering mathematics research that benefits both NSA and the private mathematics community as well.

This book is not a long or difficult read, and it will not afford the reader insight into any of the more controversial NSA activities that have been the subject of thousands of mainstream media articles and blog posts over the past two decades. But it is a very personal recounting by a learned man of an experience that has molded and, in some respects, reshaped his views on the work that thousands of patriots do every day at America’s largest intelligence agency. As another who toiled for a number of years in this secret world, I appreciate the effort and the sentiments.

[1] Among other achievements, Dr. Willemain has previously held faculty appointments in both the School of Engineering and the School of Management at Rensselaer, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and the School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University with SM and Ph.D. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Now retired from teaching, Dr. Willemain is also co-founder and Senior Vice President/Research at Smart Software, Inc. in Belmont, MA, where he continues to be active in algorithm development and customer training.

[2] Dr. Thomas R. Willemain, Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency, Maitland, FL, Mill City Press, Inc., 2017 (Print).

[3] Dr. Willemain has recounted his experience with the prepublication review process at greater length in Lawfare, “A Personal Tale of Prepublication Review,” January 10, 2017,

[4] The sheathing is part of the TEMPEST program designed to protect against the compromise of both affirmative foreign intelligence operations and protected U.S. communications due to unintentional leaking of electronic emanations, electrical signals, sounds or vibrations.