My Experience of Getting Detained by the National Security Agency
Three flaps of a starlet’s wing off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, peering over and above the surrounding treetops of piney woods nestled in the rolling Maryland countryside, there’s an ugly rectangular building tiled in the grey-mirrored glass.
Several buildings actually. They’re grouped into one ominous compound, almost in circle-the-wagons mode, purposely secluded from the outside world and walled off by high-fences topped with razor-wire, ringed by heavily-patroled parking lots with late-model vehicles driven by black-ops bureaucrats.
It’s them versus the world. Within their universe, everyone is a suspect. All are potential enemies, even those who walk in and out of those ugly rectangular buildings every single day. No one is trusted.
Every movement within and around the compound is monitored by non-stop surveillance. All the time. Everywhere. And — those suspicious eyes and nosy ears extend way beyond just the piney woods. They know what we do. They know what we say. They know what we write. They know what we text. All this leads to speculation about what’s coming next — will they ultimately know what we think?
This place has no visitors. This place doesn’t welcome guests. This place might as well not exist at all. Aside from the towers and wires and otherwordly white domes, those ugly grey buildings might otherwise blend in well with the broader and more expansive federal quilt of the national security and defense establishment which has come to blanket (some would say suffocate) the greater National Capital area, a mammoth region of three states growing by the month which now stretches from just south of Baltimore all the way down some 50 miles south through the District of Columbia, across the Potomac, into Northern Virginia and on to Triangle and Quantico — best known as the home of the U.S. Marine Corps, and what’s known in intelligence inner circles as “The Farm.” [See Footnote 1]
This is a complex of secrets and secrecy. It’s an arena of perpetual paranoia. It’s a regimented information labor camp where the loyal foot soldiers who come and go 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, are the spookiest of spooks. Not because they’re evil people. Rather because they’re so extraordinarily knowledgable and powerful, and yet so ordinary.
Today’s superspy isn’t James Bond sitting at a Baccarat table sipping a martini. He (and increasingly she) is a GS-11 civil servant wearing some cotton-polyester blend purchased on sale at Target with kids’ soccer games to attend on Saturdays. This is what the national defense establishment has become — not massive armies of soldiers and tanks and navies of battleships — but countless anonymous faces toiling silently behind desks topped with the latest flatscreens who can change lives with a single mouseclick.
And yet, it’s all such a mirage. As hard as this secret place tries to dissuade the curious from gazing beyond the fence or speculating as to what nefarious deeds happen behind those mirrors of grey glass, the bunker mentality within triggers quite the opposite response. Any impartial observer is left to conclude that no place that’s this inhospitable can possibly be up to much good.
Earlier today, I found this out firsthand.
On Friday, March 21st, the National Security Agency detained me for nearly two hours for “trespassing into a restricted area.” What follows is the story of that most unusual ordeal at the entrance to the smartest building in the world.
[See Footnote 2]
The signs off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway read as follows:
NSA — NEXT RIGHT
NSA — AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY
NSA — RESTRICTED ACCESS
Naturally, I didn’t heed any of the warnings. I didn’t follow the rules. I’m stubborn, some might even say stupid. Point conceded.
I wondered. What would happen if I pulled into the parking lot of the National Security Agency? Does anyone ever test their security? Remember, this is unabashedly America’s most secretive government agency. Its size, scope, staff, and budget exceed that of the Central Intelligence Agency. That’s right, it’s bigger than the CIA! And up until a few years ago, most Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what “NSA” stands for. Accordingly, let me try and explain. Put into simple terms, it’s where all the phone conversations and e-mails, and texts from just about anywhere in the world are collected, analyzed, re-analyzed, and stored. It’s the world’s largest communication database. But if this all sounds like the Library of Congress, think again. It’s not.
See, there’s a little problem. That’s because there are some legitimate questions as to what exactly is going on inside the NSA, and how much of what they do is legal. Come to find out, much of what they do is illegal. They’re now spying on Americans.
And hardly anyone is doing much about it. Short of fighting in the courts and trying to reduce their budgets (which are top secret), there’s not much we can do about it. We’ve all become targets.
I did have some legitimate reasons for visiting the National Security Agency, beyond simple curiosity and some misguided fantasy to engage in political protest.
In town this weekend on a Poker Night in America television shoot, Maryland Live Casino is only a few miles away. In fact, off the road from the distance, the huge casino might very well be indecipherable from the NSA building, or any other large government installation in the area.
My crazy idea was to have a few of the poker players “accidentally” make a wrong turn off the B/W expressway, end up stuck in the NSA parking lot and get thrown out of a restricted area by uniformed police officers. Then, capture it all on film. I wondered — what would happen if a few well-known poker players pulled up into this forbidden zone? What’s the worst thing that could go wrong? Being asked to leave? What are they going to do — shoot Darvin Moon?
Well, I wasn’t about to let our cast and crew take such a monumental risk without a trial run. Who knows what the NSA might actually do if they saw us with a bunch of electronic equipment and movie cameras? They could seize everything we own, arrest us, and ship us off to Guantanamo. As appealing as it seems to have Steve Dannenmann waterboarded, I wasn’t going to gamble the entire production on the whims of some security official carrying a sidearm at the National Security Agency.
I’m dumb, but I’m not stupid.
So, I was willing to play the unrehearsed off-camera role of guinea pig-sacrificial lamb-test dummy. At 2:30 on Friday afternoon just as a cold rain began to fall over central Maryland, I ventured off on a lonely road. I took the forbidden exit. Moments later, I would find myself detained and under interrogation. [See Footnote 3]
While driving and slowly approaching that ugly grey building, I rolled down my car window and snapped several photographs, I’d later learn a federal crime that carried the possibility of five-year imprisonment and a $10,000 fine, per offense.
The photos had innocuous intentions really, simple location shots which were meant to be shared with the crew when and if we decided to go through with the crazy idea of filming the poker players testing America’s most fiercely-protected bunker of homeland security.
Suddenly out of nowhere, someone I couldn’t see and from a place unknown shouted — PHOTO!
PHOTO! WHITE CAR! NEW YORK PLATES!
At that instant, I’d reached the front gate to the NSA employee foot entrance. Apparently, I’d made it further inside than most unwelcome guests. A perfectly-chiseled federal officer brandishing a depot of automatic weapons with several live rounds of ammunition with arms reach stepped out from a hut and approached the car. The following conversation ensured:
“What’s the nature of your business here, sir?”
“I’m on a location shoot for a new television show.”
“Were you taking photographs?”
“Yes, sir.” “
“Why were you taking photographs?”
“As I said, I’m here scouting a place to film a new television show and I wanted to see if there was a visitor’s center where I could come and ask permission.”
“This is protected property. We don’t have a visitor’s center.”
“You mean like, you don’t give tours?
Ooops. I didn’t mean to come across as a smart ass. But sometimes I can’t help it. It’s in my nature. From the instant those words left my mouth, I realized that was the wrong thing to say.
“Sir, pull your vehicle to the side. I will need identification and proof of registration.”
“It’s a rental car.”
Within minutes, five squad cars emblazoned with NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY POLICE pulled up beside me. Uniformed officers stood around as another man in a suit began asking me the questions. Oh, and it was raining.
I was detained for an unknown period of time, perhaps a few hours. It seemed longer than it was. I was forced to wait until employees began streaming out of the building. One presumes this must have been at least 4 or 5 pm. The workers consisted of all kinds of people wearing different military uniforms (fatigues, dess unis, camouflage) and civilian clothes — a mishmash of career spook bureaucrats bonded by regiment and patriotism.
My records were apparently searched during this period of detainment. I can only speculate what databases were accessed. Fortunately, my record is clean, despite some very odd associations over the years. Other officers came up and asked questions. Others surrounded the car. Then, yet another officer approached and asked me to step out of the car.
This really wasn’t good.
Oh shit, I thought. Did they find my website? All that anti-defense budget stuff and the pro-Palestinian sentiment aren’t going to go over very well with this crowd. The second officer started to grill me all over again.
“Mr. Dalla — normally, I would ask you like 60 questions. We have to make sure you’re not Ivan the Terrible coming to take us down.”
“I understand, officer. I’ll answer your questions honestly. I assure you I will cooperate.”
So, we went through it again. And again. I repeated myself, with the same recount of what happened. Obviously, the officers were looking for consistency.
I knew I’d be released — eventually. I wasn’t in any real danger. But I sure could have been inconvenienced a great deal. And, according to law, I could have been hit with heavy fines, even imprisonment. This is the iron grip that permeates within a nation that sacrifices its liberties for “national security.” Yeah, there’s a valid reason to protect federal installations, especially places where sensitive work goes on. I get that. I don’t like it. But I get it. I wish there was more transparency. But, that’s the world we live in, especially in a post-9-11 age.
My cell phone was confiscated. It was checked and re-checked. Photos I had taken earlier were erased (with no objection from me). I was informed that each photo of a restricted area carried a potential $10,000 fine and five years imprisonment. Adding up a dozen photos, that could have been quite a heavy penalty. And I don’t think they take MasterCard. [See Footnote 4]
Clearly, the intent was to intimidate me. It worked. I was ready to get the hell out of there, with no desire ever to come back. Mission accomplished.
In fairness to the security officers, they were polite and professional throughout the ordeal. They were also firm and businesslike. I was treated fairly and respectfully. No complaints. My beef is with what goes on inside that ugly building. That’s where our lives hang in the balance of a microchip.
Once my name finally checked out after a mega-search and my identity didn’t trigger an alias for Ivan the Terrible, my identification was returned. I was released and permitted to go on my way and was escorted out of the restricted area.
So, what secrets do lie within?
What do they really know about what we do?
Moreover, what shall become later of this information they gather? Perhaps most important what will “national security” mean within our society in another decade, or two? What will they know about us all then? Will anyone care?
I wonder — will there be any secrets left?
They’re watching us. But who’s watching them?
Footnote 1 — “The Farm” is where many covert operatives within the Central Intelligence Agency are trained.
Footnote 2 — Read more about this most secretive of federal agencies here at the National Security Agency Wiki page.
Footnote 3 — This was actually the second time I’ve pulled into the NSA parking lot. About 15 years ago, I ran out of gas while driving on the B/W Parkway, and coasted off the ramp into the same parking lot (it’s been renovated since then, I came to find out). I was provided with a free can of gas and was escorted off the property, without incident.
Footnote 4 — The federal officer explained that no photos are permitted which might also contain employee faces or license numbers of cars in the parking lot. The fear is “the enemy” could target an NSA employee. So, any imagery of the NSA you see in media has been doctored where all means of identification are removed. A search of “NSA PHOTOS” reveals only stock photos of the building and generic shots of some insensitive areas.