9800 Savage Road: A Novel of the National Security Agency

9800 Savage Road: A Novel of the National Security Agency

by M. E. Harrigan

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December, 2000: In a tiny office in the basement of the National Security Agency, a handful of analysts work on a project so secret its existence is known to fewer than a hundred people. They are intercepting Osama bin Laden's every word as he talks on his satellite phone to al Qaeda cells. What he's planning is big--a strike against the U.S.--and they know from

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December, 2000: In a tiny office in the basement of the National Security Agency, a handful of analysts work on a project so secret its existence is known to fewer than a hundred people. They are intercepting Osama bin Laden's every word as he talks on his satellite phone to al Qaeda cells. What he's planning is big--a strike against the U.S.--and they know from the intercepts they'll learn the details any day… any minute. Suddenly, the conversations stop.

A Senior Executive is murdered inside the NSA complex, the first in a series of disasters inflicted from both inside and outside the carefully concealed house of spies. Alexandra O'Malley, consummate Intelligence Analyst, must sort through the clues and scramble to stop the escalating crises… but to succeed, she'll have to break all the rules.

In 9800 Savage Road, reality and fiction intersect in a terrifying story of the events leading up to 9/11 from deep within the cloistered walls of NSA. M. E. Harrigan delivers the first insider's perspective in NSA's history. She shreds the thick veil of secrecy and explores the thoughts and actions, the dedication and bureaucratic infighting, and the occasional scandals of the hidden workforce. It's a story of betrayal and treachery, courage and loyalty… so real you'll wonder how much is true.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Harrigan, who spent 27 years at the National Security Agency, brings plenty of insider knowledge but little originality to her clunky debut, a thriller set in late 2000. Alexandra O'Malley, an NSA assistant director, is part of Project Meridian, a program that's been monitoring a particularly worrisome stream of phone calls placed by terrorist Usama bin Laden (UBL) originating from al-Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan. The calls concern a major upcoming mission against America, but the phone intercepts cease before hard facts are ascertained. Alex's boyfriend, CIA agent Gabriel Ayala, parachutes into Afghanistan to tap into the terrorists' telephone system. After several murders occur involving NSA personnel, Alex takes it upon herself to solve these crimes. Harrigan gives readers an authentic peek behind the curtains of the secretive NSA, but it comes at the expense of a compelling plot or interesting, in-depth characters. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Operations Building 1, National Security Agency

Thursday, November 30, 2000


A furious wind raced across the wintry Maryland countryside, spin-ning drifts of dry early winter snow into swirling squalls. The wind whipped down from the hills and through the acres of parking lot surrounding the National Security Agency, battering cars, people, and the dilapidated old trailer balanced on concrete blocks outside the chain-link fence around the complex. The trailer’s faded gray siding shuddered in the gusts, and a sign that read "Visitors’ Center" hanging over the entrance banged against the door frame.

Inside, two Federal Protective Service officers checked identifications and handed out official white visitors’ patches to nearly a hundred guests who would be attending the promotion ceremony in the Operations Building 1 auditorium. The two guards were busy, and they were cold. Both wore puffy down-filled uniform jackets, collars zipped up to their chins. The faded green indoor-outdoor carpeting was worn bare in many places, and the outside cold filtered in through the shabby floorboards. On either end of the trailer, bracketing the guards’ workspace, window glass rattled incessantly as gusts of cold air hissed through the cracks around the frames. A total of four ancient chairs lined one short wall, each with its own particular idiosyncrasy: a missing arm, a short leg, a cracked seat, a bent back.

The trailer was NSA’s official Visitors’ Center, hauled in on a flatbed several years earlier when Security decided it was too risky to process visitors inside the OPS 1 building as we had been doing for many years. Now, visitors to any of the four buildings in the main complex—Headquarters, OPS 1, OPS 2A, and OPS 2B—were fun-neled through the ramshackle shelter. Construction of a permanent center had been delayed by what had become a yearly budget crunch. The run-down temporary structure was a poor introduction to one of the world’s most powerful intelligence organizations. It may have been well into the first year of the new millennium, but you would never guess it from that place.

Dr. Jamal Rashiq, perhaps the day’s most distinguished visitor to the Agency, was not a bit impressed by this first view of NSA, the place he had wanted so badly to see for himself. He had pictured a shiny, modern entrance staffed by poker-faced guards with automatic weapons. Banks of computers and mirrors and video cameras everywhere. He saw only two older model Sun workstations and no surveillance equipment. The guards did have handguns tucked into holsters on their belts, but they were friendly and welcomed each guest despite the cold and the conditions.

This made Jamal Rashiq uneasy. It was not at all what he expected. Being with his adoptive parents for the first time in several years made him uneasy, too. They had flown in from San Diego to attend their daughter’s promotion ceremony, and they had been ecstatic at the sight of Jamal, the boy they had saved from the refugee camp in Pakistan and welcomed into their family years before, waiting for them in the NSA parking lot. His mother fawned over him, kissed his cheeks; his father looked at him proudly. His son the famous virologist—and the elder Rashiq never thought of Jamal as anything but his true son—was right there for him to touch. Jamal could almost hear them thinking, Perhaps this family will be reunited now. Probably his "sister," Mariam, was thinking the same thing. She had been so shocked, and then so pleased, that he had responded yes to the invitation to attend her ceremony.

He had been stunned by her invitation, especially after Mariam told him the actual ceremony would be followed by a tour of the building. It was, he knew, a sign that his special mission was divinely blessed. Access to the complex was a spectacular gift, astonishing and unbelievable. He would be able to go past the fences, past the guards, past the dogs, and into the NSA buildings. He would be able to inspect and appraise for himself one of the world’s greatest enemies of Islamic supremacy. He would use his time inside to try to find a way to destroy the buildings and everyone working in them. He shivered a little in anticipation of the next hours.

Official agency escorts chaperoned the visitors in groups of ten as they left the trailer and walked briskly across the parking lot into the gatehouse at Operations Building 2B. Just outside the gatehouse, a large American flag snapped in the wind, its metal clip hooks clanging against the pole. In just a few minutes, the visitors walked through double-glass doors and into one of the country’s most secluded and best guarded government structures.

Rashiq watched closely as the guards at the gatehouse lifted a rope to allow the visitors to bypass the normal procedures that all entering NSA employees followed. Each employee slid his badge into a machine, punched in a pin number, and then passed through a turnstile. Rashiq carefully observed his sister as she went through this operation, noting the numbers she entered on the keypad. He also noted that the guards paid little attention to this ritual; the machine—called CONFIRM, according to the sign overhead—did all the work of employee verification.

He memorized another sign, posted off to the side of the check-in area:


During the Month of December, only Gatehouse 2 will remain open for the 0300-0400 early shift changes. All other gatehouses will be closed from 2330–0400.

After the group of visitors walked slowly past the guards, they were ushered down the halls and up the escalators to the Friedman Auditorium, cocooned deep within OPS 1. The William J. and Elizebeth S. Friedman Auditorium, once named only for William, world-renowned for his skills with codes and ciphers and for being the NSA’s first chief cryptologist, but renamed in the last few politically correct years to include his also cryptologically accomplished wife, had a seating capacity of about three hundred people. The Friedman was plushly decorated in a bright mauve and charcoal gray, with a thick carpet and velvet stage curtain, and was the site of all important gatherings or formalities, especially those involving family members. But whomever the outside guests might be, the welcome was always gracious—and temporary. Believe me,

At NSA, you’re either One of Us or you’re not.

At two o’clock, the huge curtain slowly parted, revealing a large American flag twinned with an equally large Agency flag, each on either side of a table stacked with gold-embossed promotion certificates. The table was draped with a rich blue covering, a large seal of the National Security Agency on the side facing the audience. A cobalt-blue vase filled with gaily colored flowers stood in front of the podium at the left of the stage. The whole scene was brightly lit and remarkably impressive.

Lt. General John Murray, the new Director of NSA, or DIRNSA— everyone who works at NSA and most of the Intelligence Community calls the Director DIRNSA because this abbreviated form of his title appears on each message sent to or from the Agency—walked across the stage and greeted the visitors. "I am proud to have you here at NSA today," he said. "Our mission could not operate successfully without you—family and friends—to support these wonderful folks who will be receiving the promotions they so richly deserve."

Dr. Rashiq stirred in his seat. Next to him, his parents were rapt; bewitched by the scenario before them and clearly euphoric their daughter was part of such a place.

The general continued. "We’ll be handing out the certificates shortly, but first you’re going to see a little about the important work these people have done here."

The lights dimmed and a short video on the activities of the Agency started. Making and showing a film on NSA and its mission, unclassified or not, was a big change in policy—the new Director’s attempt to show a more human and open side of the Agency.

A woman’s voice began: "The National Security Agency: A Vital Asset for our Country in the Information Age. " She spoke solemnly as a huge picture of the NSA seal, with an American eagle glaring proudly and fiercely at the world, filled the screen.

"On October 24 , 1952, President Truman signed the memorandum which established the National Security Agency to consolidate the collection and reporting of foreign electronic intelligence for the United States. We call that electronic intelligence SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence, because it comes from sources such as phone calls or telemetry monitoring devices or data from radars."

The insignia faded and a video fly-by of NSA’s Fort Meade campus replaced it. The narrator continued. "Since that time, the National Security Agency has provided America the decisive information advantage through the exploitation of SIGINT." Scenes of serious people doing serious work attested to the words.

"How does NSA exploit SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence?" The scene shifted to a laboratory filled with intent-looking analysts staring at dots flashing across oscilloscopes.

"Both the United States and its adversaries create an electronic blizzard of signals. "A spinning blue earth, encircled with chains of silver dots, appeared and disappeared.

"Signals emanate from everywhere: phones, fax, television, computers, and missiles." Each was accompanied by an appropriate example: TV commentators, rows of computers, a cruise missile bursting from its ship-borne launch platform.

"Through code breaking and other sophisticated techniques, the National Security Agency uncovers the information in foreign signals and provides its critical intelligence to customers throughout the government." Hundreds of ones and zeros floated across the screen, evolving slowly into reports stamped "Secretary of Defense Eyes Only" and "White House Highest Priority."

Dr. Rashiq grew restless. There would be no real information in this video, he was certain of that. Nothing about the millions of phone calls and e-mails he was sure the agency intercepted and stored. Nothing about the hundreds of satellites orbiting around the world furtively sucking up private conversations. Nothing about the way NSA targeted everyone everywhere, just in case they might need the data later. And nothing, for sure, about how NSA shared all its dirty little secrets with the Jews so they could kill Muslims all over the globe.

The film was winding down. The seal reappeared, its white border revolving around the eagle. "A strong National Security Agency means a strong America in the information age." The tape ended, and bold letters on the screen pronounced, "Information Superiority for America and Its Allies."

The lights went up, and DIRNSA took his place back at the podium and spoke to the assembled visitors. "Let me just give you a short, real-life example of how important SIGINT is to the protection and defense of our country. I’m sure none of you in this audience is old enough to remember World War Two," the general stopped to wait for the light, but appreciable, laughter, "but without the role that signals intelligence played in the battle of Midway—which, as you know, turned the tide in the Pacific theater—we might all be speaking German or Japanese today.

"How did that happen? In the late spring of 1942, the Allied war effort in the Pacific was in a precarious state. Admiral Yamamoto had scored victory after victory against our naval forces led by Admiral Chester Nimitz. We were in the desperate position of facing a blow that would be fatal to the Allied war effort in the Pacific if we didn’t know when and where the next strike would occur.

"A Navy radio intelligence group was tasked with providing communications intelligence on the Japanese navy. The Japanese command code they were working on was superenciphered, using an additive table, and was incredibly complex. The best our guys were able to do was make educated guesses based on the code, but it turned out to be enough. Through a combination of determination and skill, with a bit of trickery thrown in, the navy team was able to figure out that Yamamoto’s next attack would be against the island of Midway. And they knew when: the third of June. Admiral Nimitz moved his carriers to a point northeast of Midway and lay in wait. When the day was over, Nimitz’s forces had sunk all four of the Japanese aircraft carriers and put Japan on the defensive for the rest of the war.

"Now, I know," General Murray continued, "that this happened quite a while ago, but believe me such things continue today. How cryptology won the battle of Midway has been declassified, so I can talk about it now, but plenty of other SIGINT victories have occurred since then that I can’t tell you about. At least, not yet."

DIRNSA looked out at his audience, all listening intently. "The National Security Agency is here to serve the American people, to make sure our country continues to enjoy the freedoms our constitution guarantees us."

He put up his hand. "But enough talk about NSA and its mission. Let’s get back to the business at hand. Before we hand out the certificates to these exceptional people in the front rows, let me tell you a few things about them as a group."

He looked down at the promotees and smiled. "Never before in our history has it been so difficult to get promoted. Only forty-eight people are receiving promotion certificates today, less than three percent of those who are eligible. Twenty-one are women and four are racial minorities." He paused and looked out over the audience again. "The National Security Agency has a better educated and more diverse workforce at all levels than ever before in our history. We are proud of that."

After a few more words about special skills and accomplishments, the promotees filed out of their seats a row at a time to walk across the stage as their names were announced. A well-dressed, handsome man wearing dark glasses and led by a black Seeing Eye dog joined the General on the stage to help hand out the promotion certificates. He was Barry Ballard, NSA’s Deputy Director for Security and the workforce’s favorite Senior Executive. Tall and slender, in his midforties with silver hair and a strikingly handsome face, he looked more like he should be on a movie set than working at the Agency. Of course, his impeccably styled Armani suit, as out of place at NSA as Donald Trump at a yard sale, didn’t hurt his image at all.

He was also blind and had been since birth. It was a handicap he smiled through and got on with. Because of his popularity, Barry Ballard often took part in official Agency ceremonies, especially those involving visitors.

Jamal Rashiq saw his sister Mariam’s delighted look as she received her certificate from the handsome Deputy Director for Security and had her picture taken shaking hands with the director of NSA. Jamal could feel his parents lean forward in approval at their daughter’s success.

After cake and coffee in the main cafeteria, the visitors who wanted to tour the building were divided into groups of fifteen. Jamal’s parents stayed behind to visit with Mariam, and he joined the first group out. It was made up of several families, including two young boys, a little girl, and two teens. The tours, like the movie, were new, an attempt to provide more access and openness—but only to those who were direct relations of the NSAers: spouses, children, parents, siblings. Security opposed it initially, as they do everything that provides any insight into the Agency’s mission or layout, but they finally decided that these relatives would pose little threat. After all, they would have been included in the employee’s recurring five-year security updates.

The group’s guide was a boyish-looking Air Force captain. "Please call me Greg," he said. "We won’t be using last names today. The first place we’re going is the spookiest area of NSA—the basement." He grinned at the kids and added, "Once, many years ago, the basement was the place with the deepest, darkest secrets in this place. Every entrance was guarded night and day. You had to have very special clearances to go down there. Now," he shrugged, "now it’s pretty much just a basement, but you’ll see why it’s still spooky. Follow me," he said, moving toward the cafeteria door. "We’re on our way to the Classified Waste Disposal Center. Please stay together."

The group, each wearing a round, white visitor’s badge, followed the captain down a long hallway, much of which was undergoing massive remodeling.

"NSA is famous for this hallway," the captain said as they walked. "It’s 980 feet long—that’s like three football fields, folks. It’s the longest unobstructed corridor in the country, maybe the world."

"I wish I had my rollerblades with me," one of the boys said.

Captain Greg laughed. "Lots of employees here have said the same thing."

At the end of the hall, he directed them into a stairway leading to the basement. The stairwell was clean and white with blue trim, and it was brightly lit by big, round spaceship-shaped lights on the walls. It smelled of new paint and rubber stair treads.

The basement was neither clean nor brightly lit. It was shabby and dull. Dr. Rashiq looked around in the dim light at unpainted cinder block walls and naked steel T-shaped braces shoring up the building as they walked through a maze of boxes, forklifts, and hallways of differing sizes. Is this where the first mighty Cray Supercomputers once broke codes at the rate of 420 million operations per second? Hard to believe. He looked again at the myriad of steel braces. The whole place must be ready to fall in on itself.

He wasn’t the only one to notice. "Why are those steel beams all over the place?" one of the men asked.

Captain Greg wrinkled his forehead. "This building is almost fifty years old and supports a lot more weight now than it was designed to carry. Last year, unfortunately, part of the OPS 1 cafeteria floor started to sag. Within days, a bit of it actually caved in. No one was hurt, but, believe me, there was a very quick response. These guys," he touched one of the braces, "popped up like weeds down here. As soon as we get the money, Logistics will install some kind of permanent fix. For now, they’re just part of the basement ambiance."

Off in the distance, a man wearing a hard hat drove a small, bright yellow golf cartlike vehicle, outfitted with a flashing light and emitting an annoying beeping noise. Most of the people in this shadowy, unre-pentedly blue-collar underworld were men wearing the green badges of government contractors. They were intent on stringing cable, moving great stacks of equipment, and minding their own business.

This will be the last place at NSA targeted for restoration and new technology, Rashiq thought. The basement is not worth my time. Not for what I’m going to do.

The group turned down a corridor that was narrow and dim. Piled high on one side were pallets with boxes in pink shrink-wrap labeled "Acoustic Ceiling Tiles." A forklift was parked between the stacks. They turned another corner and ahead of them was a glassed-in area with a sign stating it was the Classified Material Conversion Center. An authoritative sign on a pedestal in front of the door read "Do Not Advance Beyond This Point."

"Okay, folks, here we are," announced the captain. "As you can see, nobody aspiring to an exalted position at NSA is going to spend much time down here in the cellar. This is definitely no place to get ‘face time’ with the Agency rulers."

He gathered them in front of the center. "Every day, the people who work at the Agency throw their classified waste into something we call ‘burn bags.’ When they have a cartful, they take the bags to little rooms—cleverly called Burn Bag Rooms—on each floor of the various buildings and toss the bags down a chute in the wall. The bags collect in one of these Conversion Centers, and several times a day huge shredders like the ones behind this door slice the bags and their contents into slivers, ready to be mixed with a thick gray substance in huge vats to become pulp for recycling. NSA processes some forty thousand pounds of classified documents this way every single day. Would you like to see how that happens?"

The group nodded. A man dressed in a white lab coat and wearing a headset opened the door to the glassed-in area and led the way toward a thick, steel door. Suddenly, the noise in the room increased to a level of roaring blasts. Each person took a turn looking through a window in the door to watch the enormous razor-sharp shredders slice their way through mounds of paper.

Excerpted from 9800 Savage Road by M. E. Harrigan.
Copyright 2009 by M. E. Harrigan.
Published in September 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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