Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Nagging the Buggers

One of the more interesting parts of writing something original is doing the research. Yesterday I got a call from the NSA, a super-secret intelligence agency. They wanted to tell me about the work they had done in response to a request I made.

I have been writing about someone who was involved in the space program for two governments in the 1960’s. He died a couple of years ago and on his way out, he told me lots of things he had done. He was a very modest man whose life included huge achievements. I have come to realize that he wanted me to write about them, but he didn’t want to ask.

Before I write about anyone of the Cold War era , I consider whether his or her life involved secrets. Then I try to determine which agency might have information about him. I make my requests to the agencies first, because they take the longest. Usually, it is the FBI or the CIA. But I knew my subject reported to two intelligence agencies and that he was not allowed to tell one what he had told the other. I bet that one of them was NSA. And I bet right.

An acquaintance in a chat room had once worked with the NSA. He advised me not to “ping” the NSA. It was too late. I had already sent them a request fax. After all, they have a web site saying they have a Freedom of Information Office. So I requested information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And several weeks later they called me.

A very nice lady told me that the person I was searching for had indeed been a contractor and told me which years. She added that they had destroyed his file twenty years ago and had nothing left but an indoctrination form with his signature on it. I was floored! I was sure the NSA would never admit to hearing his name uttered in their offices or even in the environment of Washington, DC. I thanked the lady and hung up the phone.

Then I thought about it for a moment. The word “contractor” almost sounded like my friend was hired by the agency for pay. He was an ex-army officer, a well-established professional man who didn’t need the money, and I knew he would never accept pay for assisting his government. So I called back.

This time, I startled the lady who had talked to me a few minutes before. I asked what a “contractor” was to them in the 1960’s. She stammered a bit but finally responded that he was not an employee, but was a person who was lent to them by another, er company.

I am working on the other, er, company for more information as this is being written. I hope they are just as helpful.

By the way—the Federal Government does not all throw away all copies of anything. It was only a few years ago that I wrote a book based on the files of the Secret Service from 1873. They were in a dusty corner of the National Archives. Maybe my great granddaughter will dig something out about this friend before she dies. She is two years old as I write this.

No comments: