My name is Keith Massey. I had earned a PhD in Biblical Hebrew and Arabic when 9/11 happened. The NSA hired me as an Arabic linguist, where I would work for four years, from 2002 until 2006, during which time I also spent three months in Iraq. I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for my service (though it took me almost a year to get the medal issued, a story I tell on my blog).

I left the NSA in 2006 to become a Latin teacher at a public high school. I then also wrote the book Intermediate Arabic for Dummies for Wiley Publishing, as well as several novels.

Proof: Imgur

My books:

If you want more information about my books, you can visit my blog:

Or my main website:

I will be happy to answer any questions I can about my time at the NSA, though I must state that I am still under a lifetime obligation to not divulge any classified information (that’s why this is an “Ask me Almost Anything”). In fact, every time I publish a book I have to submit it to the NSA for Pre-Publication approval first, lest I even inadvertently include anything classified.

Comments: 225 • Responses: 71  • Date: 

IamtheBiscuit33 karma

Why should I believe anything you say?

keithamassey36 karma

That really is a great question. Why do we believe anyone we encounter in our lives? The reason is, if we really approached life from the standpoint that everyone is probably lying, we would be paralyzed into inactivity. But our experience is otherwise. Most people who seem to be speaking in good faith are not lying to us. There's nothing further I can say that will make you believe me.

scword20 karma


keithamassey24 karma

As the President has said, this is a balance and a conversation we do need to have. Having worked inside one of those agencies, I know they are very accountable. Congressional committees aggressively oversee intelligence activities. Every year, I was required to read the Constitution of the United States. I would be at my work station and suddenly a pop up window appears. And I can not do anything else until I have clicked though that pop up window, which shows me sentence by sentence the Constitution. And I took that seriously. I read it. We served to protect the Constitution, not violate it. The notion that Snowden didn't like what we were doing and so fled to Hong Kong (China) and then Russia is a delicious irony. All countries conduct espionage. But we really do allow free speech here.

ReginaldvonJurgenz6 karma

Wait, are you serious about the constitution thing? That's really interesting.

keithamassey17 karma

Absolutely. I read the Constitution every year in its entirety.

whatwereyouthinking2 karma

Thank you for sharing this.

I will be shocked if I find out that Snowden pursued any type of Whistleblowing channel before he spilled classified to the media. Until then, he's a leaker at best, not a whistleblower.

A question for you: during your time at the NSA did you feel you had adequate options to blow the whistle on any type of abuse or corruption of power? Did you ever pursue anything like that?

keithamassey1 karma

I shared in another question my annoyance at seeing some fellow employees doing little to justify their salaries and management not sufficiently monitoring them so as to stop it. That was by no means common or rampant, but it was there. That's the only "abuse" I ever saw. People are surprised to hear it, or they just don't believe it, but the NSA that I worked at really did bend over backwards to respect the privacy rights of US citizens. But if I had seen something that I truly thought was wrong, there were multiple internal channels through which I would have known to report it.

cryptocyprus19 karma

Do you think Edward Snowden is a hero or villain?

keithamassey52 karma

Neither. He broke the law, but he seems to have done so out of a place of conviction. So he's no villain. He's no hero, however, because I think he honestly misunderstood the materials he leaked. We've learned since his leak that there existed significant oversight over these programs and the companies involved divulged information only through specific info requests.

Chairboy39 karma

Does 'significant oversight' mean the FISA courts that haven't rejected any requests?

If so, I have doubts that a 100% success rate is believable.

keithamassey39 karma

While I was still there, I wrote FISA requests. It was a time consuming and arduous task. It meant I had to stay frequently at work deep into the night to be available to answer questions if necessary. I never did it unless it truly mattered. That explains the success rate.

EatingSteak24 karma

I believe your answer, but I'm a little skeptical as to the details. So you're saying the principal "control" over FISA (and the fact that the public is never allowed to review the oversight) is justified solely based on the fact that it's inconvenient to make a request?

I'm doing my best to keep my pitchfork at bay here, but this seems like a really flimsy control when it involves our Constitutional rights in secrecy.

keithamassey13 karma

I hope this helps. It wasn't just inconvenient. It was downright difficult. And as a result, I didn't attempt to leverage FISA unless it was critically important and we had a slam dunk case to make. And as a result, it was a slam dunk case.

Chairboy16 karma

I appreciate the response, and I apologize for the punitive downvoting that's happening to your messages. While I still have strong reservations about how what you say jibes with my perception of what's happening, I appreciate the chance to speak with someone who is 'boots down' (as I heard in a movie once) in this area.

keithamassey17 karma

Thanks. I can see that many people are down voting this simply based on the title and their anger at the NSA. Whatever. I just urge everyone to learn all they can from a variety of sources and keep their minds open.

YouthInRevolt25 karma

learn all they can from a variety of sources and keep their minds open

The only time the American people are permitted to learn about what the NSA does is when classified information is leaked.

Why should we be expected to "keep an open mind" about the NSA's activities when we aren't even legally allowed to know about them in the first place?

keithamassey2 karma

You make a great point. What I meant by "open mind" was just to not immediately believe only one side of the story before learning all the available facts. And you're quite right, how do you believe anything when all this is shrouded in secrecy? Well, I will suggest that a program on which Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner agree is probably sufficiently monitored and legal.

fernando-poo1 karma

But wait, I thought you worked at the NSA from 2002-2006? Didn't the Bush administration claim that they didn't need FISA authority during that time period?

From 2007: Bush Reverses Course, Puts NSA Wiretaps Under FISA

Since the surveillance program was publicly disclosed in December 2005 by The New York Times, the White House has maintained, in scores of court filings, policy papers and press statements, that the president has the inherent power to conduct wiretaps without a court warrant even though a 1978 law put intelligence surveillance under judicial review...The administration continued to assert on Wednesday that the N.S.A. program had operated legally, but it also said the time had come to allow the intelligence surveillance court, known as the FISA court, to review all warrants on all wiretaps in terrorism investigations.

There were actually over 40 lawsuits brought against AT&T, Verizon and other companies, specifically because the NSA didn't obtain court orders when collecting customer data. That's why Bush insisted on granting legal immunity to the telecoms when Congress amended FISA in 2008.

I'm a little confused, because you don't seem to be making any distinction between the way the surveillance program operated seven years ago (when you left NSA) and the way it operates now. You seem to be defending the Bush era surveillance program, which was widely deemed to be unconstitutional and illegal.

keithamassey2 karma

The so-called Warrantless Wiretapping existed parallel to FISA but FISA was still employed. And I know absolutely nothing about how things actually operate inside there now. I'm speculating just like everyone else.

KalChoedan13 karma

What? No we haven't. We've learned that GCHQ has been tapping into transatlantic fibre connections and sharing the information gleaned thus with the NSA and other allies, with only nominal oversight. We've also learned that most of the media can be pressured into not reporting on any of this via D-notices and the like.

I don't know what story you've been following, but it certainly isn't the same one the rest of the world has been seeing.

keithamassey9 karma

The Guardian article referring to this describes the NSA as having 850,000 employees. It's something less than that.

fernando-poo2 karma

How would you know that though, having left seven years ago?

keithamassey1 karma

I suppose it's possible the NSA has 850,000 employees now. It's just that that number is so much bigger than what I think is true that someone was misinformed. That would be like 1 in every 500 people works at the NSA.

majikstranger9 karma

Im sure the NSA isnt some evil corporation trying to take our freedoms away but the danger is their. Maybe we trust Obama now but what about another president in a few years? What about next time we have a terrorist scare or false flag operation? By that time all that is needed for a police surveillance state is in place. Cops have alot of oversight in place and they still get away with horrible crimes and human rights violations daily.

keithamassey7 karma

You are quite right. I just saw a story today about a police officer who made a woman lift her bra after he pulled her over for a broken tail light. Sickening. But here's what makes us different. I saw that story. In other words, word of this offense got out through our press. We remain an open society where at least this dialogue takes place.

EatingSteak15 karma

word of this offense got out through our press.

I don't like this justification. Word got out on the internet. My parents watch Fox News, CNN, and CNBC, and they haven't even heard a wisp of anything about this, or hundreds (thousands) of horrors just like it.

Yes, it got out this time, but not to everyone. The problem is that there's no systematic control, and no method to guarantee that every time something like this happens, it gets out.

And even worse, (just as Snowden feared about his own leak) is that chances are, the "bra cop" case will get swept under the carpet, the woman will carry that with her for the rest of her life, and then the next time some celebrity goes to rehab or something, everyone will forget about it.

Do you think there's going to be justice for the "bra cop" and all similar cases like it?

keithamassey7 karma

Sadly, the perp is reportedly back on the job.

Northwait10 karma

Have you personally ever heard actual terrorist plans? No specifics, obviously because I guess that would be classified, but was it so much that it became dull and ordinary or was it rare enough that you would hear it and get excited because it meant the start of foiling a plot?

keithamassey24 karma

Great question. It was not an every day event, but yes, I did take part in intelligence processing that involved attack planning. I can tell you that every time it happened my heart would pound within my chest as I tried to do my job, my fingers sometimes shaking as I typed reports, knowing the time sensitive nature of this job. We stopped attacks. It never got dull...

AddRandomNumbers8 karma

No question, just warning you that you probably won't have a very "open to anything the NSA tries to tell us" group here on reddit.

keithamassey13 karma

Thanks. I'm aware of the culture here. I'm still answering every question as honestly as I can. I really am just a former employee with now seven years away from the agency. With all the automatic downvotes upon seeing the title, I'm frankly surprised it surpassed 30 :)

MrUrbanity7 karma

you did great, one of the more enjoyable AMAA's i've read in a long time.

keithamassey8 karma

Given the topic, it's been a combination of reminiscing and interrogation. All I wanted to accomplish was to tell my story. Take it or leave it, believe it or not. Thank you...

cupuz8 karma

Did you know of prism or any similar programs during your service at the NSA

keithamassey7 karma

Prism did not exist when I was there, but from what I can ascertain, it seems to be just a name put on a tweaking of the FISA Court system, all of which is public knowledge. There's nothing illegal about Prism. People need to remember that we should have no expectation of privacy when we use media run by a company with employees in the thousands. We get upset that the NSA may have held phone records, but I get a statement every month from my phone company documenting my calls, and even all my text messages. How many people at T-Mobile can access my call info?

GamerManX324 karma

Warrantless wiretapping and packet inspection seems pretty unconstitutional to me...from the government anyways. Companies are allowed to do this because they are not under the same pretenses as gov't are (OR SHOULD BE).

It would be kind of nice to see how pissed off Verizon and AT&T would get if they were suspended from logging any and all cellular data traffic.

keithamassey1 karma

If companies couldn't log that data they couldn't provide their services. Which is exactly why that data isn't privacy protected. If I ask a friend to carry a note from here to another person, I can't be outraged if they read it. We do the same thing every time we make a call or send a text.

mil24havoc22 karma


keithamassey3 karma

When you sign a contract with Verizon or sign up for a Google Account, you have agreed to let them provide you with a service. The ability of the government to subpoena/warrant that information is legal and covered under the constitutional powers.

KalChoedan10 karma

Poppycock. Of course you can entrust a friend to carry a private note, have a reasonable expectation they will not read it, and feel betrayed and outraged if they breach that trust and read it anyway. What you are suggesting is ludicrous.

keithamassey-3 karma

The analogy would work if Verizon and T-Mobile were your friends. I'm no longer an NSA Agent. I teach Latin in a public high school. Kids don't go the rest room and leave their phones unlocked and on their desks because they know even their best friends will post something outrageous to their Facebook profile. That's the world we live in.

KalChoedan18 karma

They don't need to be your friends. They merely need to be the agents trusted explicitly to maintain your privacy whilst delivering your communications. This concept has been the foundation of industries such as the postal service for... well, quite some time.

Kids taking advantage of an unlocked phone to post something outrageous to facebook is not remotely similar to the sort of breach of trust we are talking about, that is completely non-sequitur.

EDIT: Also - if you are basing your estimation of "the world we live in" on the behaviour of teenagers in a high school classroom, to coin a popular reddit phrase, you're going to have a bad time. That's a completely farcical argument.

EDIT2: Thank you for the Reddit Gold, kind internet stranger!

keithamassey-6 karma

But that's the key. You say "industries such as the postal service..." as if there is another like it. There isn't. Unlike the USPS, these have always been private companies that never claimed to grant you the expectation of privacy. I'm old enough to remember visiting my grandmother on the farm in Wisconsin and hearing her ask on a party line when her neighbor would be done with the phone so she could use it. And she joked with me that everyone listens in on everyone else just for fun.

KalChoedan6 karma

The existence of the postal service alone nonetheless refutes your claim that data cannot be privacy protected.

You can carry the data and by necessity therefore have access to the data, and still not breach the fundamental trust given to the carrier by taking advantage of that access and "reading the note".

You seem to be suggesting that because someone can read the data, they should and will read the data, and that therefore nobody can ever have any expectation of privacy in any context where their "message" passes through a third party's "hands".

That is quite clearly not true and the existence of postal services throughout the world (and throughout history, the USPS is far from the only example) prove it ably.

keithamassey-4 karma

I am not saying data cannot be privacy protected. But it is not true that since some data is privacy protected therefore all data is privacy protected. You may be outraged at your friend violating your trust, but take him to the judge and explain what crime he is to serve time for. I am not saying that just because someone can read a message that they should read it, but if I entrust a message to someone who should not read it and they do, shame on me.

TheHopefulPresident7 karma

Then why should i trust the usps? Would you say a good alegory of the data the gov't is obtaining/obtained would be that a letter was sent, not the contents of the letter?

keithamassey1 karma

The USPS is actually an entity that functions under an expectation of privacy that telecommunications companies do not.

TheHopefulPresident4 karma

Is that because it's gov't whereas the telecom's aren't?

keithamassey5 karma

This is exactly what people need to be aware of. When I place a sealed message in an envelope and put it in the mail box, there is the reasonable expectation that no one will read it until it is delivered. Now, there have been exceptions, such as in war time when letters were censored for sensitive information. When I speak loudly in a restaurant, there is no expectation of privacy that the people in the next booth aren't hearing me. Phones are a gray area. First off, if I'm speaking into a phone loudly in a restaurant, obviously my side of the conversation is no more protected than what the waiter says. In the end, no country defends your right to privacy as ferociously as the United States.

whatwereyouthinking0 karma

I've been saying this same thing for weeks, I'm more worried about how Verizon or Google is going to use my "meta data" than I am about the Government.

keithamassey0 karma

When I visit one website and then do a Google search and see an ad for the thing I just looked at, I think, this is indeed scary...

weeeaaa7 karma


keithamassey8 karma

We can only hope. I mean, that is if we're talking about the same thing... :)

SeryaphFR6 karma

When you were done at the NSA, were you proud of the work you had done? Did you ever have to do something that you felt was morally wrong, or at least posed a moral conflict to you personally?

You say that before you were deployed to Iraq you had to receive a certification for Glock 9mm. What kind of training went into that? Did they teach you the "2 to the heart, 1 to the head" thing? Were you ever afraid that you might have to use your weapons training over there?

Sorry for all of the questions, I just think this is fascinating! Thanks for doing this AMA!

keithamassey10 karma

I am and remain proud of the work I did at the NSA. Your next questions are difficult, but I will answer them. I did things at the NSA that resulted in "bad guys" being apprehended. But "bad guys" still describes people with mothers that love them. I am a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian, and this always left a sigh upon my heart. The world is a complicated place. I did the right thing. But, you know, I can also pray for the bad guys.

I was certified on the weapons I carried, but I was under orders that I could only use them in defense of my own life while in danger. I was not an official combatant. I was afraid every day that I might have to use my guns. And I thank God that I never had to.

SeryaphFR8 karma

I am very glad that you never had to use your weapon as well!

Your compassion towards those you were working against is commendable, sir, you seem like a good human being and you definitely have my respect.

This next question may also be difficult, please feel free to not answer it if it brings up too many negative memories.

Did you ever follow up on any of those bad guys after they were apprehended? If so, what happened to them? Incarceration? Death?

Thank you, sir, for your service and for all of your hard work keeping us safe. You have my gratitude and my appreciation, as well as my respect.

keithamassey3 karma

By the nature of the job, I could never have further information of anyone involved in my job. There are a few cases that come to my mind from time to time and I speak to God about it. I sincerely thank you for your kind words about my service.

ianmassey6 karma

keithamassey10 karma

LOL! Thank you, Ian. I've gotten some tough questions and responses here. I appreciate a slow ball across the plate.

luciferoverlondon6 karma

What is the interview/hiring process like?

keithamassey15 karma

I submitted my resume over the internet on Thursday after 9/11. I got an email from them the following Sunday asking me to call for an initial interview within 72 hours. I wanted to serve my country in that capacity, so I tried to really brush up on my Arabic for 48 hours, expecting to be tested in that call. When I finally called, however, they only asked me if I was a US citizen and if I had ever sold illegal drugs! Following that they flew me to Maryland for Arabic language testing (I passed), then I received a massive pile of security documents to fill out. I had to document every place I had lived and worked for the previous ten years, including three contact people (no repeats) for each place. A Department of Defense investigator came and interviewed them all, asking them to also offer names not on the list to interview. Then they flew me in for my polygraph test. I failed the first time but passed the following day (people get nervous and frequently don't pass the first time). After that I was told my Report to Duty date, which was still June of 2002. From start to finish, nine months until i walked in the door.

nicasucio3 karma

I had to document every place I had lived and worked for the previous ten years, including three contact people (no repeats) for each place.

Oh my lord, I can't even remember the names of people that I worked with 5 years ago. Nowadays though, at least you can use linkedin or any of those social networks. How did you manage to get all that info back then? Or maybe you're really organized person! :)

keithamassey5 karma

It was easy enough for me because I had only lived in three places in Wisconsin in the time periods in question. But I knew people for whom the clearance process was very time consuming because the investigators kept coming back asking for more info and more names.

kamic1 karma

Wisconsinite here saying hi

keithamassey2 karma

Hi back. Just yesterday I was explaining to someone how friendly people in Wisconsin really are. You just proved my case and made my day. Thank you.

iBradderz5 karma

What was the strangest task you were given during your time at the NSA and what was standard policy like?

keithamassey12 karma

Interesting question. My official job was as an Arabic linguist. I can't describe in great detail the strangest task I did, however, it involved me being the courier of an object. And I mean, this was like straight out of a James Bond movie kind of stuff. I was not exactly thrilled with doing it and until it was over I imagined worst case scenarios. I breathed a sigh of relief when "the thing" was no longer on my person.

speathed5 karma

What was the coolest gadget you ever used?

keithamassey18 karma

I'm sure the CIA or MI-6 have the kind of cool gadgets you see in Bond movies. But an NSA agent's coolest gadget is his or her computer, with tools on it that are simply amazing. I don't think this is classified. Hmm... No, it can't be classified. I had a tool on my computer that allowed me to create a spectogram of an audio file. I once used it to gain certainty over the identification of a particular word. And let's just say, it really mattered.

LCWC5 karma

What was it like when you were in Iraq?

keithamassey10 karma

I was scared out of my wits most of the time! I was there June to September 2004, things were getting progressively worse while I was there. My base was attacked with mortars twice while I was there. Strangely, I have dreamt I was in Iraq only once since learning, and that was the night I first left.

keithamassey6 karma

Even so, apart from a few moments of terror, there were also long stretches of boredom. I did my job day in and day out. I know a lot of people who spent even longer than I did there and never saw anything go wrong. I hope someday that Iraq is stable enough that I can go back and actually visit the country. All I saw of it was through airplane windows, armored vehicles, and views outside cement barricades.

Poops_5 karma

Why did you eventually decide to leave the NSA and become a Latin teacher?

keithamassey13 karma

Good question. I never really wanted the life an Espionage Officer. I had taught Latin in Wisconsin while working on my PhD. I applied at the NSA out of a sense of duty. The days immediately following 9/11 were scary, people thought a follow-on attack was inevitable. After I was at the NSA and had experienced some adventures, and things were calming down in the War on Terror, I was ready to move on. I met my wife, who lived in NJ, we got married, but even so I still stayed at the NSA for two more years. And then I found a job as a Latin teacher in NJ. I left in July of 2006, four years and one month after I started. But that was more time than most people fought in WWII.

the_glass_is_full4 karma

What am I doing right now?

keithamassey5 karma

If you're like me, you're watching a computer screen and sipping on a glass of red wine. If I'm right, that was sheer luck. :)

cracka_azz_cracka4 karma

How much of your writing inspiration came from strangers' emails or phone calls?

keithamassey9 karma

Zero. First of all, the NSA really does not listen to US citizens. And all we were concerned about was terrorist related activities. My writings are more about the espionage world, meaning, what agents in the field do. In the end, an Agent running through Istanbul with a gun makes for more exciting fiction than some linguist listening to phone calls :)

Indiana_Asimov3 karma

Zero. First of all, the NSA really does not listen to US citizens.

You seem to be implying that as an interpreter, the NSA shared all of their activities with you. Is this is true? If not how can you responsibly make the statement quoted above.

keithamassey7 karma

I'll certainly grant your point. I am aware of only what I was aware of. If people were committing heinous felonies in the office next door to mine, I can't claim no crimes were committed. I will, however, rest on the claim that I never saw anything that led me to believe things were other than I have reported.

Indiana_Asimov-6 karma

Then you should understand when people downvote your post and comments. You are making blanket statements without anything to back them up.

I suggest you edit you comment with a line strike through that sentence and replace it with. "As an Arabic Interpreter working at the NSA, I didn't see evidence of the NSA listening to US citizens."

keithamassey7 karma

"As an Arabic Interpreter working at the NSA, I didn't see evidence of the NSA listening to US citizens."

Thank you. I think that's a nice summary of what I have been stating.

kissmymsmc-3 karma


keithamassey7 karma

First off, it is not my sole responsibility, within Reddit, to reinstate your trust in the US government. But, that said, I will try.

Our steps to determine if a communication was foreign were not laughable. They were serious and strenuous. I know that people can read that and say, yeah, of course he would say that. But seriously, what do I get out of defending the NSA now? I've explained in this IAmA my frustration and disagreement with their Pre-Publication process. I'm telling you what I experienced inside that Agency simply because I want to share a voice you're not currently hearing in the media.

The fact is, the powerpoints Edward Snowden leaked don't even seem to me to be entirely accurate about what Prism is.

Yes, just because something has a Top Secret Classification slapped on it doesn't make it true. I remember seeing classified briefings in which facts were disputed.

We have learned that in fact Prism is not a collection device but rather a name given to the legal process whereby communications companies comply with court ordered requests for information based on probable cause of involvement in terrorist activities.

America remains the country that bends over backwards to preserve your civil liberties.

kissmymsmc3 karma


keithamassey6 karma

Thank you for your kind words. If I had observed violation of the Constitution, I would have done what I was told to do in that case--report it to either my supervisor or the security office. I never saw it and thus never faced the quandary.

Zerovarner3 karma

What is the most disturbing/frightening/unnerving thing you know about the NSA's activities at home or abroad? (if your able to answer this question)

keithamassey5 karma

I actually referred to it in a post above: administrative incompetence that resulted in us not having toner in our printers for a month!

dmo0123 karma

Awesome AMA! Reading some of the posts and your replies really help me understand what exactly is going on. (I don't tend to watch a lot of TV/News so all I hear is hearsay). My question may or may not be something you know, or are allowed to answer, but do you think that any "surveillance" was solely to counter terrorism? In other words, the government is not listening on every single person to see what their every move is? Just listening to those that may have information on terrorist acts?

keithamassey3 karma

Here's what I tell people. Have you ever had your own email get away from you? I mean, have you ever had messages you did not reply to until it became a problem? I sure have. Imagine if a government agency were trying to follow everyone's email or phone calls. It would be impossible. There aren't enough people on the planet to follow all that info. And that's proof enough that the government not only isn't, but simply can't listen in on "every single person to see what their every move is." First off, the NSA can't listen in on US citizens. Period. The FBI can only do so with a warrant signed by a judge documenting credible reason to believe someone is committing a crime. The NSA is all about stopping terrorism.

ZMild3 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. It looks like you're still answering questions periodically, which is awesome. I've got a few.

  • What was the biggest waste of money or time you saw at the NSA?

  • Do you think other services had a good understanding of your capabilities and how to employ them?

  • If you can say, did you work with foreign intel services? How'd they react to you, and did they seem pretty competent?

  • Did you know the context of you were working with, how it was recorded, etc, or were you just sent a file and told, 'just tell us what they said and don't ask questions'?

  • Was your NSA work ever a problem post-departure, interviewing for jobs or traveling internationally or whatever? Why'd you leave, anyway?

keithamassey6 karma

Good questions.

The biggest waste of money I saw at the NSA was employees who were not being supervised and held responsible for an honest day's work for an honest day's wage. At times, I worked in offices where I was aware of fellow employees doing absolutely nothing all day long. I knew this because we had a tool I used to compile my data for how many reports etc, I had done in a month. And I could pull on that tool and see that certain employees had done absolutely nothing for weeks. They busied themselves with playing on an online chat tool called Zircon, having a text window ready to maximize if their boss came by. They would all laugh in concert at some inside joke on Zircon, but why in the world their boss never investigated their actual output (zero), I will never know.

I hope all the people that accused me here of being nothing but an NSA shill will understand that I could not, would not have written the above paragraph if that were true...

Wow... Did I just become a whistleblower? :)

We have a very close relationship with other intelligence services, such as the British, Canadians, etc. Employees of GCHQ, for instance, work in NSA spaces. I had the chance to do a brief tour at GCHQ and I was impressed with them.

As for the context, of the intel, yes I knew and intelligence reporters always respected the instinct and expertise of the linguists. They want to know not just what was said but what we think it all means.

For me, post-NSA has not been a problem--yet. I teach in a public high school. But my attempts to explore employment in higher education, even with a PhD, publication credits, and my experience at the NSA, have been met with crickets. I believe that anyone who has worked there is essentially blacklisted from academia.

I left the NSA so I could live with my wife, who was already living and teaching in NJ.

PichinchaV3 karma

How difficult is it to write a "for Dummies" book?

keithamassey6 karma

It was an exciting and arduous process. I signed a contract with Wiley Publishing at the beginning of February 2008. I was to submit the book in four sections, at the end of each of the next four months. I wrote my chapters, as I continued to write more they would send back what I had done with suggestions for edits. I was doing this while also working a full time job and teaching Arabic two nights a week at a community college. I was returning edits to them deep into the summer. The book was released in October of 2008. I'm very proud of the book.

tecomancat3 karma

for someone who has never spoken any Arabic but would like to learn. What would be the first steps to take?

keithamassey5 karma

I am a firm believer that learning strategically important basic vocabulary is the key. I created a free collection of this vocabulary for Arabic. I offer it for free to the public here: You will also see on my website a series of videos teaching you how to form the Arabic alphabet.

heyjude3213 karma

Was Africa ever a major concern during your time at the NSA? It seems the US is putting more resources in such as in Somalia.

keithamassey1 karma

That has really ramped up only after I left the Agency in 2006. And from what I follow in the media, its a major concern as some US citizens have gone there to join groups like Al-Shabaab.

heyjude3211 karma

Was there any focus on Sudan? Since some groups were previously based there?

keithamassey1 karma

I was personally never involved in any intelligence related to Sudan. That's a particular dialect I never studied. I'm sure someone was studying it.

JohnGreer3 karma

Thanks for doing an awesome AMA!

What are you favorite books and movies related to espionage or terrorism, i.e. Homeland, etc.?

Do you have any habits or behaviors you employ to protect your privacy or ensure your safety?

keithamassey0 karma

I'm a huge fan of everything Bond. And I think Daniel Craig is the best Bond ever. Zero Dark 30 was a terrific film. I actually really enjoyed Jake 2.0 and I was sad to see it cancelled. Given the public nature of this forum, I will just say, regarding my privacy and safety...yes.

JoshHawj2 karma

What advice would you have for someone who is interested in learning another language, especially within the context of the intelligence field?

On that topic, I'm actually hoping to attend the DLI sometime in the upcoming year and was wondering how employment goes as far as former cryptolinguists wishing to apply to a 3 letter agency?

keithamassey3 karma

My advice to anyone wanting to learn a language is--study!! And then study more. Take personal responsibility for learning every day until you hold a competency. Study from more than one program at once, when you get tired of one, move to the next, you'll find it re-energizes you.

tecomancat2 karma

How was the pay?

keithamassey6 karma

Not bad. But not as much as you'd expect. My wife teaches Spanish at a public high school in Northern New Jersey. She makes more than I did as an Arabic linguist at the NSA. My pay dramatically increased after I passed a number of tests to gain what is called "Foreign Language Incentive Pay." But since I've left, friends still inside report that they made everybody retest with a must harder test and now few people get that bonus. With a PhD, my entry salary was in the mid 60's.

minos162 karma

thats just and state police regularly make more than that.

I thought Arab linguist made bank?

keithamassey1 karma

I know, right? Hence, now I'm a Latin teacher in a public high school. And my wife makes more than I did at the NSA. (Thanks, dear :)

Kalareth2 karma

Since you're a language enthusiast and educator, I'm wondering if you are familiar with the Fluent in 3 Months blog and Benny's approach to learning. In short, he advocates less of a focus on the basics of a language and more of an emphasis on creating a reason to use the target language in your daily life, which forces the learner into situations where being proficient in the language has actual consequences. (An oversimplification, of course, but I'm trying to stay brief!)

I'm curious also if you have thoughts on Rosetta Stone or other software for learning languages; the author of that blog reviewed it and says he cannot recommend it. Since you've written a book on Arabic, I imagine you're a bit more sympathetic to the use of books and software as language-learning tools!

Finally -- do you have any thoughts on teaching English as a foreign language? I'm considering getting TEFL/TESL/TESOL certification and finding work teaching English as a way to get abroad and increase my own exposure to other languages; do you have any experience with these certifications?

Thanks so much for this AMA, I've enjoyed your responses and appreciate you sharing your perspective of current events.

keithamassey2 karma

I'm not familiar with the Fluent in 3 Months Blog, but my overall language learning philosophy is that a motivated learner needs to learn basics, master basics, and then advance to intermediate and advanced knowledge as he or she needs it. And a willingness to use what you know, even though you make mistakes, is crucial.

Rosetta Stone is fine as long as the learner takes responsibility for working the system and learning. So many language learners are passive, they want to buy a book or a program and then they ask why they didn't learn the language. It's because they didn't work.

Teaching English abroad is a huge business with limitless possibilities. Any certification you get will open doors to opportunities. Good luck!

featser2 karma

Do you know or suspect common encryption protocols such as SSL/TLS have been "broken" by the NSA? That is, can the NSA decrypt a https session in a reasonable time and/or can it decrypt a file encrypted with, say, PGP? Thanks!

keithamassey1 karma

I actually know nothing about encryption/decryption matters. I was under the impression that working in that stuff was a clearance and access above what I had.

rashy122 karma


keithamassey6 karma

The President said it well, Snowden is not worth deploying jets over.

andrew25251 karma

do you believe that NSA guy when he says prism stopped liked 50 terrorist attacks?

keithamassey7 karma

We're talking about General Keith Alexander. I do, for a couple reasons. First, there is an extraordinary amount of Congressional oversight over Intelligence projects. If he simply lied, it would be found out. He dares not even exaggerate when he reports the effectiveness of a program. Secondly, and most importantly, I've met the man. I shook his hand and I trust him. I did something in the course of my duties that resulted in me having to brief the Director, General Alexander himself, about my rationale. And he then supported me and pushed back against other agencies that disagreed with me. He's a class act. The incident in question is recounted in my semi-autobiographical novel Amor Vincit Omnia: an Andrew Valquist Adventure.

pabben11 karma

What's your opinion on the conspiracy on the US but also 9/11, GMO, agent orange, op. westwood etcetc and now with this Snowden so called "leak". Do you believe its legit or the leak is orchestrated by the US themselves and if what would the reason be? And if you disagree, still, hypothetically what would you think the reason(s) are if it's an operation?

keithamassey4 karma

People have long believed in conspiracy theories when the truth is too difficult to fathom. How could a bunch of people learn to fly planes without caring how to land them, how could someone report this to the FBI and the FBI not follow up?

Because they're a bunch of incompetent idiots, that's how. The government I worked for was capable of screwing up and not having toner in our printer for a month while we were trying to fight terrorism. Trust me, they could not have pulled off 9/11 as a conspiracy.

Snowden is a leak, not a conspiracy. And he's not even a very serious leak, at the end of the day. He has leaked mere details about public facts.

molchewie1 karma

What led you to go in to education after everything you've seen and heard?

keithamassey4 karma

I learned Arabic because I love languages in general. And that's what brought me to the NSA. And I love sharing my passion for languages with others. I teach Latin and absolutely love it. I also love traveling, and even though I did travel a lot for the NSA, I needed to ask permission from them to leave the country for pleasure. I grew tired of the Top Secret world. Now, my wife and I spend two months every summer traveling the world and I ask no one their permission first!

icheissesatch1 karma

If you watch the show, my question is: How close is Burn Notice in being true to the life of a spy? (in terms of his field training, things he comes up with on the spot, and overall knowledge)

keithamassey5 karma

I have seen it. Highly entertaining movie. And not all that far off the mark. My training to go to Iraq was just specifically to be certified on the Glock 9mm and M4 Assault Rifle. The CIA goes much beyond that for their clandestine agents.

writeln1 karma

keithamassey3 karma

Nice. Most of my detractors here assert that I am an NSA shill. If that's true, I have nothing to worry about. Since I've spoken so positively about the NSA that people are convinced I'm an NSA shill, I would still not have anything to be worried about. My students have asked me from time to time if I'm maybe still with the NSA and under some type of deep cover as a Latin teacher in a public high school. I tell, them, no, I'm not. But I add, if I were still with the NSA and under deep cover, that's exactly what I'd say ;)

ImaginalComponent1 karma

Since you mentioned publishing, what do you think the chances are that you could disguise truth as fiction in a book? How thorough is the review process? Wouldn't it be incredibly easy to publish classified information disguised as fiction under a pseudonymn?

keithamassey5 karma

Someone like myself could easily publish a book through Kindle, etc, under a Pseudonym, and divulge classified information. However, if the leak were egregious enough that the government cared, they could and would petition Amazon to release the log on data, upload IP info, etc, connected to that account, and find me quite easily.

The FBI would deliver the warrant and Amazon would not be able to refuse the info request. Obviously, not worth it. Nor, for that matter, do I want to divulge classified information.

Every time I have submitted a book, I have done so in good faith believing that nothing I was attempting to publish contained classified information. In one of my books, however, they told me that there were several things they demanded I remove. I still completely disagree that the information they told me to remove was classified. But I complied, because I am required to do so. But, that same book contained almost the same information elsewhere that they apparently didn't spot and didn't ask me to remove. And I didn't. :)

So, I can't tell you more, but one of my books does indeed contain information the NSA told me to remove. (Don't get too excited, it really isn't classified, it was an overzealous security officer that asked me to remove it in the other spot. And I complied. But he or she was sloppy enough to miss it later in the book. And I'm not required to do their job for them.)

ImaginalComponent1 karma

Thank you for this detailed response! Things brings up another question that stretches through numerous agencies: are things being over-classified? I understand that "methods and sources" is the usual explanation for why things are classified, but does someone like Snowden really aid terrorism by leaking news that the NSA can collect info on domestic phonecalls? Why do you think you were asked to edit your book? I understand it may be difficult to answer this question clearly given that you cant divulge the specifics.

And thanks again for the AM(A)A.

keithamassey6 karma

I can say that I do think some things are over classified. It is common knowledge that the NSA conducts espionage via electronic intercept. The fact that we (and every other country on the planet) do it is not classified. Just how good we are at is is what needs to be classified. And, of course, exactly how we do it. You can go on public media and learn that France and Italy listen in on their own citizens on a level far beyond what our FBI is doing. They asked me to remove things they thought were classified because they feared the details of my description of the inside of the NSA was classified. But they were wrong. I received a promotion at a time when my late mother happened to be visiting me. My boss inside the NSA informed me that I could petition for my mother, despite being uncleared, to be given permission to enter the NSA for the ceremony. I submitted the request, it was granted, and my mother walked through the main entrance of the NSA. In one of my books, I described someone walking through the main entrance of the NSA. And they asked me to remove several details of that scene. They asked me to remove things that my uncleared late mother saw. It was ridiculous. I complied because I promised to remove anything the NSA told me to before publication. But of course it wasn't classified.

ImaginalComponent2 karma

Excellent response, thank you again :-)

Is it one person's full-time job to do these reviews? How does one get into that position? Are they reading books all day long. Sounds like a sweet job but I imagine they must need to have extensive background with the company before getting into that position.

keithamassey4 karma

When I submit these pre-publication requests I get a response that contains a code that tells me how many they have gotten. It's a few dozen a year. And, no, they don't have to have an extensive background to get that position. The typical person working security at the NSA has never seen the day to day operations, say, of an office processing intelligence in the Arabic language. You're right, sounds like a sweet job! :)

dmo0122 karma

How does that person know the information is classified?

keithamassey2 karma

As I've said, I carefully avoided ever included classified information in my books. And then I had reviewers tell me to remove things that my own mother saw. They even told me to remove a reference to the color of the badge that a person working in the cafeteria wears. Those people are not cleared for classified information. Their badge color is not classified. I suppose they might claim it's "For Official Use Only." But that information is not classified and I should never have been asked to remove it.

Comingup1 karma

What is the typical pay grade for an analyst at the NSA (and if you know, any intelligence agency?)

Does the paygrade depend on the language you know? (Ie Chinese, Arabic are more in demand/better compensated)

How'd you get the job? Also, if you happen to know, how did most of your co-workers get their jobs?

keithamassey2 karma

NSA Agents are on the normal Federal pay scale. I started at GS 12.2, meaning I was making high 50's. People can negotiate as they come in. I know a man who argued that he was not coming it at less than a 13, and he was worth it and they gave it to him. You can apply to the NSA or other government agencies through their websites. That's how I applied, all those years ago...

duckman961 karma

How would one go about joining a government agency such as the nsa, cia, and fbi?

keithamassey2 karma

Send in your resume online to any or all of their websites. That's how I did it...

Sp0tt01 karma

What genre stories do you write? And how do you come up with character names, place names, scenarios and plots. Thanks!

keithamassey3 karma

My novels do invariably contains some type of espionage angle, but that is just the backdrop to my deeper concerns, family, relationships, faith, hope, and love. My character names are drawn from personal connections. Since they are somewhat autobiographical, the main character in my novels who ends up at the NSA is named Andrew (my middle name). He's half-norwegian (as am I) and so he gets the last name Valquist. The place names are all real places I have been. In the novel Amor Vincit Omnia, Andrew has to break into the National Library of Romania, a place I have spent a lot of time. Plots are tricky, I sometimes just write and let things happen all on their own. The fight scene where Andrew then has to escape from the library is an example. As I wrote it, I had no idea how he was getting out of there.