I wrote this story when I was thinking of my son Jason. He’s a software engineer, systems engineer, hardware engineer, network engineer, systems analyst, and Program Manager. Everything he’s learned has been through fixing something or someone else’s failure. Jason has had to fix a lot of things in his life. That’s how he’s learned to be successful. He’s learned success, fixing one failure at a time. A server crash, a database corrupted, another hardware fail, security firewall breach. A lost contract. What? That new software release isn’t ready? When? Can we port it to an APP? Why not? Jason’s done all the jobs. He gets the bigger picture. Jason knows it’s not about individual success, it’s about all of us working together. Anyway, I was thinking of Jason and this story came to mind.
During my time in DC, I was fortunate to be selected to run the largest branch in the NRO’s Imagery Ground Station. The ground station employed almost 2500 people and spent over a million dollars a day of your hard-earned taxes. I managed the Production Branch and over 400 contractors. I even had a civilian deputy. Our job was to record the imagery from each satellite pass and produce an array of products for customers throughout the Intelligence Community. When I describe the workflow, you might think what we did was a little dated. Remember, it was the late eighties and digital storage, and the “cloud” were someplace off in the future. Without giving away too much of the farm or crown jewels, here was the basic concept.
With each pass of one of our imagery satellites the data would be transmitted and eventually captured by my team of technicians who would record the new imagery on large magnetic tape reels. This raw data would then be “played down the channel” where the miracle of image processing would turn the data into imagery. The specific products for each customer would be produced on either magnetic tape or film. Yes, film! This was a huge operation. We would produce two to three miles of film products every day! We produced imagery for each military service, the FBI, State Department and of course, the “As” (NSA, DIA, and the CIA). Everyone got tailored copies of the latest imagery courtesy of my crews. You will notice, I didn’t call it intelligence. The satellite imagery was just that, a picture. Analysts produce intelligence by interpreting what’s on the film. Satellites produce imagery.
War Story 1000 Often, when people would find out I worked in “Intelligence” or later with spy satellites, they’d ask. “What is the inside scoop on China, or Russia, etc.? I’d have to declare, I haven’t any idea. I read the same news you do. My part of the intelligence process was to get the beer out. Make products. It was way up front and before anyone turned it into Intelligence.
My days running the Production Branch at the Ground Station could be broken into to three distinct segments. The mornings were filled with status meetings and engineering review boards. Starting at 0630, I’d review the status of my branch’s work the night before. Any significant problems were analyzed and added to our portion of the Station’s Status Briefing to Senior Leadership. After the 0830 Station Meeting, I’d provide the Ops perspective to the various engineering review boards. My Branch had five different segments with their own government engineer leading the fixes and upgrades. Back then, I had an interesting concept of time. I didn’t wear a watch, but I was never late. Telling time was simple. In a world where a micro second makes all the difference. If your boss hadn’t arrived for the meeting, you were early. If they were already there, you were late.
In the early afternoons I’d manage by walkabout. This was a habit I picked up in Omaha. I basically hid from senior leadership and learned from the folks who worked for me. I’d spend time with each of the sections and got to know as many of the technicians as possible. If some big event was happening in the world, I’d spend the night at the Station. My job was cooler than working at CNN. With our house less than a mile from the Ground Station, I could manage the long hours by not wasting time with the notoriously long Washington suburban commute.
On uneventful days, anywhere from 1300 to 1800hrs or so, I’d return to my office. I’d sift through an unending mountain of paperwork and field actions from my bosses. It seemed like I had more bosses than anyone should have. My local boss was a CIA civilian as was almost everyone else in leadership. The few Air Force Officers scattered around the buildings held various positions, but I rarely saw them. My Air Force boss was in California, and I had a year on the job before I met him. About that time, the Ground Station relaxed its security rules against us military folks wearing our uniforms. Because the operation and engineering work of the Station was mostly done by contractors, I decided it would be good for me to start wearing my uniform. I guess I wanted the workers to know who they could complain too. And with a nametag, they knew exactly who they could complain about.
War Story 94 Mr. Iwai spoke to me at the six-month point. You read about the CIA, Chief of Station in the last chapter. He spoke to me again six months later. Why do bad things happen around two AM? If your job is to collect imagery of bad guys, hopefully they live on the other side of world. Or so, you hope. I was sleeping, after a few uneventful days. First my pager went off, then my government cell phone rang. Next someone was calling our home phone. I’m up, Lillian was up and so were Jennifer and Jason. What’s going on Daddy? Going in again? Without a word I left.
Try to imagine, you’re eighteen years old, barely a high school diploma and you’re working at a place where miracles happen. Miracles happen because some of the smartest people with the biggest brains make it work. The big brains just didn’t work in the “front end capture room” hanging tapes. Eighteen-year-old kids worked in that room. A room where almost everyone took the work for granted. Granted until one of the kids, one of my technicians screwed up. On that fateful night, one of the workers erased the data from the last satellite pass before they ‘played it down the image processing channel. The worker degaussed or erased the TAPE! No more imagery of North Korea. Gone was the latest imagery of Soviet ICBM sites. I was not having a good night. You can’t just order up more pictures. This is not Burger King! You can’t have it your way. Satellites “fall around the earth in a predictable pattern”. We were blind!. For an entire day we had lost critical intelligence. That night’s images were all lost.
“If it happens again, I’ll fire you.” You’ve got to love his directness. That’s all Mr. Iwai said to me.
Later that day, Mr. Iwai showed up back up at my office. This time the gruffness was all gone. He came in and sat down. “How’s your day going?” he asked. With no data to process I said, “not much, quiet day.” The Station Chief never just stopped by. In a quiet, almost fatherly tone Mr. Iwai began to explain how I should trace the steps and diagram the operations. “Build a complete picture.” Mr. Iwai was teaching me how to solve difficult problems. “But all the engineers out rank me,” I said. But “you are the one I trust to run operations,” he said. The next day I had teams of engineers helping me solve “my problem.” The software geniuses reviewed their code. All good here! Not our fault. The hardware engineers scrubbed their tape machines. All equipment working fine, they said. Must be the operation procedures, some genius said. Now I had less than nothing. Everyone was innocent. Everyone was just looking at their part, not the entire operation. Must be that eighteen-year-old kid who screwed up.
Now I’m not a stranger to difficult situations and this fit all the familiar patterns. Omaha had taught me a lot. Typically, in these types of situations I don’t pay a lot of attention to the exact words people say. In fact, they usually become a blur I rarely can recall. Instead, I try and understand what their words really mean. What they wish they could say. In this case, what they meant was that they had no earthly clue why the precious data was erased. Everyone had an alibi — so why was there a dead body?
It would be easy now to write this and say that people were trying to cover their butts and their areas. That’s not the case. These engineers worked in a highly complex world and their job was to make their individual sections work, that’s it. The bigger picture was not their responsibility. My job was to get the beer out at all costs. Run production, make all the boxes work together. Software and hardware segments be damned.
The next day I showed up with pad of paper and a single pencil. It must have been one of those mechanical types. The lead kept breaking, usually as I said, Holy shit! I kept on erasing and redrawing the complex and incomprehensible world of an eighteen-year-old tape hanger. Show me the software screens the operators read, I said. Show me the tape recorders the operators use, I said. Walk me through hanging tape, I said. Everyone was forth coming, honest and really wanted to help. Everyone cared about the enormous responsibility we all had. I went over stuff a dozen or more times. Now the engineers were getting frustrated. Who the hell was this Captain? Why was he asking the same questions again? He’s not an engineer, is he? Maybe he’ll go away. Slowly a picture emerged. I listened intently. By day’s end, I had my picture. It was a confusing, jargon filled nightmare. How in the world could an eighteen-year-old kid learn all this? Short answer is they could, – most of the time. Just not all the time.
Turns out, the software worked as designed. The hardware had no problems. The operations procedures were well documented. A perfect system. Perfect for everyone but me. I wanted to keep my job, so I studied the diagram I drew. Then it was clear, everybody had a different number or name for the damned tape machines. It seemed so logical to the software engineers. It seemed straightforward to the hardware folks. It was just too damned confusing for an eighteen-year-old kid at two o’clock in the morning. Even if it was North Korea. The young technicians were expected to translate the software number into a different hardware number while following a different ops procedure which had an even different number for the same damn tape machine. No wonder we dropped a satellite pass. It was amazing we didn’t drop a pass every night. Holy crap! My days were numbered. Mr. Iwai would fire me for sure.
With my pencil diagram and answer in hand, Mr. Iwai asked me to brief the Program Director. This person managed more money than most countries had. These programs were each larger than the Apollo Program. At the time, the NRO was composed of a handful of huge, multi-billion-dollar programs. Central management was left to a budgeting officer and a Congressional Liaison. The NRO also had a few absent-minded knuckleheads in R&D, but their ideas were so far out in space nobody took them seriously. If you manage a program worth several billions of dollars and Congress wanted to give you even more, you began to see your life as a deity. As Program Director, you not only had present day operations under your leadership, but you also had future programs as well.
The purpose of my briefing was to secure the funding necessary to completely rebuild the front-end capture and magnetic tape operations. I brought one chart. A single slide with my hand drawn depiction. I titled the briefing “imagine you are eighteen years old and everyone around you is a genius.” It would take several years and millions of dollars to rebuild the systems that “worked as designed.” My job was to get the money. The genius engineers would build the new and better system.
I got the money.