Saturday, October 26, 2013

GlobalWahrman Reveals Highly Secret NSA Project from the Cold War !!

From time to time when working at the RAND Corporation, I would occassionally pick up information that I was not supposed to hear. It was very rare, and no harm was done. In all cases, the specific information had been printed in the NY Times or similar venue anyway.

I do have one story that I think is amusing and which I plan to tell you here.

I hope that by telling you this, I don't accidentally become internationally famous, have my picture in every newspaper, have beautiful women throwing themselves at my feet, get offered huge fees as a freedom-loving journalist, and be acclaimed a hero. I doubt however that any of these things will happen because by telling you this story I am not intentionally or actually damaging America and violating trust based on narcissistic self-delusion, unlike some self-righteous assholes people I could name.

The RAND Corporation was an early site on the ARPAnet, which was the prototype of what we now call the Internet. Much, but not all, of the fundamental technology of the Internet was invented for the ARPAnet and then scaled up.   (Actually, this becomes less and less true every year as the Internet evolves, but it was true at the beginning).

Among other things, the ARPAnet allowed heterogenous computers to communicate in a way that was reliable even if parts of the network went down. This is the famous "packet switching" concept, in which a message is disassembled into packets, the packets are sent by the best available route, and reassembled at the destination.

The computers that handled all this disassembly, re-transmission, reassembly, etc was all in the background and were called IMPs and TIPs and they were highly reliable, special purpose computers built by Bolt Beranak and Newman (BBN) under contract to ARPA. Although very reliable, BBN had maintenance people in various places to fix anything that broke. One of those maintenance people, the one who handled the west coast, was a good friend of ours, for some reason. He had long hair and a beard, was a surfer, was very straight and had a Top Secret / CRYPTO clearance.

CRYPTO is the clearance you need to handle cryptographic material. All cryptographic material is managed by the NSA.

Why he had that clearance was not entirely clear to me, but I think it was because there were places he had to go to fix various computers that were inside places where people did highly secret work. The ARPAnet was completely open and not secret at all, but we were aware that there was a secure version of it inside the basement of NSA, there was a version used between some military commands called MILNET, and so forth.

One day my friend got a call from his boss who told him to grab his kit of spare boards and his passport because they were sending him to London and he was leaving that afternoon. All he was told was to keep his kit of spare boards with him, fly to London, go to his hotel and wait. He would be contacted. I am not exactly sure when this was, but it was probably 1978 plus or minus a year.

So he did that. He got on a plane to London and checked into the hotel they told him to go to, and when he had been there for a few hours, trying to get some sleep, some people came to his hotel and asked him to take his parts kit and whatever tools he needed and come with them. They took him to the basement parking garage of the hotel, put him in a car, put his head down so that he could not see where they were going, and proceeded to drive over an hour somewhere.

At some point, the car stopped and they let him sit up. They were in another underground parking garage for a different hotel somewhere, but of course he had no idea where he was.

They took him upstairs to a hotel room and there, in that hotel room, was an IMP, sitting there looking completely alien and out of place. It had obviously just been moved from somewhere else. They told him it was broken and could he fix it please. Indeed it was broken, he ran diagnostics, swapped some boards and fixed it.

The people who were escorting him, and who stayed with him the entire time he was fixing the computer, then reversed the process: they took him down to the basement, put him in the car, put his head down, proceeded to drive somewhere for an hour or so, and delivered him back to the basement of the hotel he was staying at. They thanked him and told him he could go home now.

So he did.

What does it all mean ? It probably means that there was a special project somewhere that was using a very secure version of the ARPAnet for communication. It was so secret that when one of their IMPs broke, they took the trouble to move it someplace else to have it fixed, and then presumably took it back to where it was being used.

So far as I know, we never heard what project it was.

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