NSA's First Director: "I Was the Only Red Pencil."

Two internal NSA oral histories — one formerly classified Top Secret, another merely "For Official Use Only" — surfaced yesterday on secrets-spilling site Cryptome. And, so far, they are a delightful trove of spooktacular managerial affectations and clandestine bureaucratic in-fighting.

In particular, an interview with the agency's first director, Ralph Julian Canine, conducted at Fort Meade in the mid-1960s, offers a unique vista onto the institutional culture of the early NSA: the view of the man tasked with rough-hewing a large, expensive mass of living beings and materiale into a coherent new arm of the U.S. government.

How'd he do that?

Stephen L. David, Deputy Commandant, National Cryptologic School: One of the most outstanding stories about you is the way you made sure that everybody knew who was boss. And do you remember when you had a decision ... made a decision that all gray furniture would be with gray furniture, and brown furniture with the brown furniture? This seemed like a lot of wasted time.

Canine: It wasn't at all! I wanted the people to ... 1 knew that the way you got people to do things was to know the fellow that was giving the order. And I knew that if I made them move all their files, that they'd be all mad at me and they'd know who issued the order.

David: They were mad at you?

Canine: They were mad at me. ((Laughter heard.)) They all complained.

This is some solid leadership advice: be capricious and demanding early!

And: Pay attention to the subtle impact of color.

David: There's another story about you that either your staff or you made a decision that you were the only one to use a red pencil.

Canine: That's right. That wasn't the first time I'd made that decision. I made that decision in practically every outfit I'd been in, was that I was the only red pencil. I wanted them to ... when they saw a red pencil writing, or a marking, that the boss put that on there and that that was urgent.

David: We have at one time during the first few months of your command, you used the word "unreconstructed rebels". And this was part of that whole furniture/red pencil era.

Canine: We had a lot of them in NSA.

David: How did you go about converting "unreconstructed rebels" to your way?

Canine: Well, some I never converted. ((Chuckling heard.)) They had a pretty hard time. ((More laughter heard.)) I got rid of some of them. Those that I could, I got rid of, as Sullivan can tell you. ((Audio abruptly stops at this point [...]))

I hope you are taking notes. These are the insights one needs to corral flakey "creative" math geniuses, and other beautiful minds, efficiently into the service of Empire. Reconstruct the ones you can, accept the unreconstructed rebels you can't, and ask your Higher Power for the wisdom to know the difference.

There's something new for everyone in these transcripts (listed below by their level of secrecy, interview subject, and approximate recording date) — well, sure, excepting maybe James Bamford, author of four mammoth tomes comprising the whole breadth of the NSA's history. Nothing new here for you, James. Sorry:

  • Declassified // Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Canine (retired), and six others // 1965 or 1966
  • Declassified // Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Canine (retired) // Late 1960s
  • Declassified // Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Canine (retired) // Mid-to-late 1960s
  • Unclassified // Capt. George McGinnis, navy cryptologic officer // Feb. 2005

Incidentally, Cryptome is running a Kickstarter to keep doing its idiosyncratic, "mom and pop" document-dumping thing. SO: Don't let Big Box secrets-sharing sites tied to ebay billionaires or embassy couch surfers crowd out local, independent secrets-spillers! Be nice, please! Keep cool, but care.

[cropped official military portrait of Ralph Canine via the National Security Agency via Wikipedia]