In the navy I was a Morse code intercept operator, in what was designated The Naval Security Group. The "security" referred to two things.
One was the nature of our work: It was all very hush-hush, and we had the Top Secret Crypto clearances to prove it. The other meaning of "security" dealt with keeping the navy or the U.S. or perhaps the entire Free World safe, sound, and well, secure.
But if security was the NavSecGru's purpose, it failed miserably on both counts.
First, while no one I knew talked about our work, someone sure did: If you wanted to know about it, all you had to do was look in Time or Newsweek or The New York Times or for all I know, House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens, because the media knew exactly what we did.
Second, when it came to us keeping anyone safe and sound (including ourselves), I was disabused of that notion about three years into my hitch.
Long-range bombers, short-range planning
It was about 0615 and I'd just put on my headsets and settled in for the day watch in the radio shack, when the guy next to me, a new kid from Minnesota named Nelson, poked me.
"Hey, whatta make of this?" he said.
I looked over at what he'd just copied. It was a typical Russian military exercise signal - a bunch of numbers followed by a codeword - something we saw all the time. The only thing different was the codeword itself, which was "ATTAKA."
"Who is it?" I said.
"I checked the call sign," he said. "It's a long-range bomber squadron."
"Yeah, so?" I said.
"So that word probably means 'attack,'" he said.
"Of course it means 'attack,'" I said. "But so what?"
"You don't think that's important?" he said.
"No, I don't," I said. "Look, Nelson, get your head on straight. If the Russians are actually gonna attack someone, like us for example, do you think they're gonna do it by announcing it using a codeword that looks just like its English equivalent? Especially when that word is 'attack'?"
"I dunno," he said. "It might be something."
"It is," I said. "It's an exercise. They do them, we do them. We know when they do them, they know when we do them. This is just business as usual."
"So what should I do?" he said.
"Nothing," I said. "Just forget it."
But of course he didn't. Instead, he called over our chief, Tex Berry and showed it to him.
After once glance, a look of disgust covered Tex's face.
"Nice move, Nelson," said Tex. "Now you've really screwed up the works."
"H-h--how?" sputtered Nelson.
"'Cause now that you've just showed me that, like some freakin' kindergartner showin' his mommy a drawing of his doggie, I sure can't ignore it, can I?"
"But you're not supposed to ignore it," said Nelson. "Are you?"
Tex just shook his head and walked away.
"Well, he isn't supposed to, is he?" he asked me.
"No," I said. "And that's the problem."
"What's the problem?" he whined.
"Just wait," I said. "You'll see soon enough."
And he did, when Tex came back with the watch officer.
Here's the thing: Like a lot of the guys in the service, Tex lacked a formal education, but had a first-rate mind. Plus after 20 years in the navy, he knew exactly how the military worked or didn't. So after Nelson showed him the ATTAKA message, even though he knew it was only an exercise, there was no way he could sit on it just in case. Instead, he followed procedure, went up the chain of command, and called in the watch officer.
The watch officer was more of a new kid than Nelson - an ensign named Jorik who was 22, fresh out of OCS, had been in the field about a week and was clueless about what went on in the navy in general, and in the world of intercept in particular.
He looked at the message, frowned, and then said to Tex, "So, whatta ya think it is, Chief?"
"I'm almost positive I know what it is," said Tex. "It's just one more Russian exercise."
"So if you're positive it's just an exercise, why'd you notify me?"
"Well, Mr. Jorrik, I said I was almost positive it was an exercise, not that I was positive. So if it isn't one, and I signed off on it, I ain't gonna be in this man's navy long enough to collect my full pension."
"Hey, Chief, it's a strategic bomber squadron," I said. "If you're wrong, you won't have to worry about your pension or anything else and neither will the rest of us."
"Seidenstein, if I want any of your crap, I'll squeeze your head," he said, and winked.
"So what should I do?" asked Ensign Jorik, looking more like a little kid than ever.
"That's up to you, sir," said Tex, dodging the issue.
"Well, what would you do, Chief," asked Jorik.
"I'd keep going up the chain of command, sir, and call in the operations officer."
Which is just what Jorik did. And he had to call him in, literally: It was Sunday morning and all the brass were home, since they day workers who worked 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with weekends off, while the intercept operations worked round the clock. It was perfect navy logic: The people who made the most important decisions were also the most removed from the hour-to-hour operation of the facility.
The nix from Nixon
Anyhow, the ops officer came in, took a look, and then called some other officer, who called some other officer until finally the captain himself stood there, reading and rereading the message, drooling.
Why drooling? To him this looked like something so serious, he could now use our super-duper, top secret communication system called CRITIC. It was reserved for only dire emergencies and it guaranteed a message would be in the hands of the president of these here United States within 15 minutes of transmission.
For a pathetic glory hound like our captain, stuck in a third-rate command in a jerkwater German town, this was his Great Opportunity. He'd never sent a message to the president before; he'd never have a chance again.
He went for it.
But what if he was wrong? What if Tricky Dick, six hours behind us, got rousted at 0400 to be told of an impending Russian attack, only to later find out it was just another routine Russian exercise?
Well, the captain had that base covered too: He had Ensign Jorik sign the communique, since he was the Watch Officer and a hopelessly naive one at that.
Of course everything turned out like we thought it would.
For the Russians, it was just another routine exercise.
For the president, it was a colossal blunder. From his office came a vicious telegram, in no uncertain terms questioning the watch officer's competence, intelligence, and sanity.
And for Ensign Jorik, it was a great learning experience. He learned what all enlisted men learn in their first five minutes of boot camp, but which officers too often never learn at all.
It's The First Unwritten Rule of Navy Command Structure.
Coincidentally, it's also The First Unwritten Rule of Plumbing.
It is: Crap Flows Downhill.