June 10, 2013

What do NSA contractors read, other than your email?


The kind of logo that makes you think “Yeah, these guys can take a joke.”

With the revelation this Sunday of the identity of Edward Snowden, government whistleblower and the coolest former CIA technical assistant you know,  scrutiny has fallen on the contractor for whom he worked in Hawaii before fleeing to Hong Kong. As it turns out we can judge his former employer the way we would anyone else: by looking at their bookshelves.

Booz Allen Hamilton employed Snowden for three months in Honolulu, where he was assigned to work for the NSA. It’s during his time as an analyst with the NSA that Snowden copied the documents and laughably ugly powerpoint slides which he has since leaked to Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian. 

The New York Times filled in some background on the corporate behemoth Sunday, but questions about the culture of the place remain. One of the oddities of the Booz Allen Hamilton website is a section titled “Ideas & Insights.” The site is bland in the way of all soporific corporate websites, with hilariously bad stock photography and a vast writhing sea of useless drop-down menus slapping wetly around the edges of text that expresses a careful nothing.

In this Insights section, however, nearly lost amid many hundred videos on topics like “Wind Energy Impact on Air Surveillance Radar Impact Spotlight”, are a few book choices. These books are all by current or former Booz Allen staff, and are meant to help sell the company, it seems: “Just as we advise our clients on how to manage their knowledge and tap the potential in this valuable asset, we shepherd our own intellectual capital, aware that it enriches our value to clients.” Yes, the whole site sounds like that.

What can we learn about Booz Allen and their staff from these books, or about the corporate culture that, arguably, played a part in pushing Snowden to his incredible act of conscience? Chiefly, that not a damn person at that company has an ear for irony.

First, we have a book called Abundance of Valor by Will Irwin, about operation Market-Garden, the largest parachute operation of World War 2. The money quote from the Booz Allen summary of the book: “Further misuse of intelligence, in the opinion of many historians, directly contributed to the mission’s ultimate failure.”

Next, the thrillingly titled The Business-Oriented CIO by William Tillmann. Tillmann is a former VP and CIO of Booz Allen, and his book is about managing IT, basically. The money quote: “IT departments must provide services efficiently and effectively with transparent processes and procedures.” I swear I’m not making these up.

Next: Capturing the People Advantage: Thought Leaders on Human Capital. Just a totally normal HR book, this, written by employees of a company that literally captures people.

Lastly, Tell me How This Ends, by Linda Robinson, a book about our efforts to get our forces out of Iraq after we decided there was nothing there left to royally screw up, featuring interviews with General David Petraeus. The money quote, from the book itself: “I think what’s most critical is that the White House gives this enough attention and draws some red lines.” I cannot stress enough that I am not even making this up, these are real phrases on their site.

The only remaining question seems to be, who’s bringing the wine to the next meeting of our Booz Allen Hamilton Inadvertently Mocks Booz Allen Hamilton Book Club?


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.