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Sunday, June 23, 2013

When Big Brother Was Little Brother

It’s interesting remembering ease dropping in the age before satellites and internet. Back then governments only spied on other governments, all governments – both friend and foe. I was in the Army Security Agency, stationed in Asmara, Eritrea - East Africa, some 2000 meters above sea level, a good place to listen to radio traffic. 
 Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Spy
There was a forest of antennas, hundreds of them which directed their interceptions to a compound surrounded by a double row of concentric anchor fences with barbed wire on top and dogs patrolling the corridor between . . . gate guards of course.
Inside the compound enlisted personnel sat at typewriters called mills. They had a spiked platens that took six layers of drill paper with five carbons in between. Do you remember carbon paper? The mills were in use 24/7, eight hour shifts. The typists listened to earphones and copied code as it came in, five letter code groups that looked like this.
xuskj ebjvx  mneod covd bncvd h2nd
voizd krudt  wjcbe   cifog wodht fotue
tpgom domxs djerg bmfm foldy eudgr
Thousands of pages of it . . . endless.  Sometimes the typists, called operators, went nuts. At the end of the shift their work was sorted by traffic analysts like me. We had no idea what the messages were about, only who was interested in looking at it. Carbons were removed and papers labeled, US  UK  Canadian Eyes Only and shipped by air to interested parties.
Pre Internet Security:
At the end of  each 24 hour period the carbons and papers no one was interested in were put into large paper bags, stapled shut and taken to a square anchor fence cage with a large incinerator inside. Burn detail was rotated; my turn came once every two weeks. It took about three hours to burn all the bags in the cage. Then the ashes were removed and put into a barrel. There was a hose to fill the barrel with water and a large paddle to stir the contents with. The mess was stirred until one had what was defined as a slurry. Then the sergeant was called out to inspect the slurry. He would probe the contents with a stick and if no particle larger than a quarter could be found the contents were officially declared a slurry. The barrel was then picked up by a truck which took it someplace and buried it.
It was in interesting job. We didn’t know much about what was going on, but enough to know that the general public had no idea what was going on. We copied Russian ships carrying missile parts to Cuba months before Time magazine announced: Missiles In Cuba! I remember we were called into a briefing and told it didn’t matter what was said in Time magazine, or in the papers. If we said anything to anyone about the subject we could get twelve years in the Fort Leavenworth stockade – which was a very bad place to be. Asmara was considered a hardship post, but it was easy duty and I fell in love with Africa. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

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