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How I got thrown out of an NSA party

For NSA, the press 'makes them nervous'

By , Network World
September 16, 2010 10:36 AM ET

Network World - ORLANDO - The National Security Agency, America's high-tech spy agency and guru for military information security, is a secretive sort of creature that doesn't like to come out in the daylight, especially to deal with the media. So inviting the tech media, such as myself, to attend the NSA's first-ever "NSA Trusted Computing Conference and Exposition" was not an easy decision.

After all, they were letting some of their more prominent and smart NSA technical personnel out of the confines of places like Ft. Meade, the NSA headquarters, to talk about how much the agency wants to make use of commercial security products and virtualization -- and influence its development so it's good enough for the Top Secret mission-critical needs of the military.

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But while the NSA had apparently decided to include the press at this first-ever conference, it was a decision fraught with much hand-wringing. Which leads me to tell you how I got thrown out of an NSA party — a first for me, I might add.

Let's begin. Just to show how tortured they were about this conference and inviting the press, NSA's public affairs split the conference apart, telling press like me that we could attend one full day of the three-day conference, but the last two days were off limits except for two one-hour sessions and a couple of demos. (Yikes, I've been invited to less than half a conference!)

One vendor trying to help NSA deal with its press-phobia issues was flabbergasted, saying, "It's like they don't really want you to come."

Right, but I did anyway, with misgivings. Even after I read the NSA invitation, which reminded me that photography was prohibited and NSA would not (gasp!) pay for my food. The NSA public affairs lady — an amazingly pleasant person, by the way — even left me a voicemail in my hotel room to remind me that Wednesday and Thursday sessions were basically off limits with just two exceptions.

The anguished tolerance of the press was on display from the start. NSA's Matt Van Kirk (his title: Project Director of Technology Commercialization for Trusted Computing and the High Assurance Platform Program in the National Security Agency/Central Security Service Commercial Solution Center) kicked off the conference by declaring, "The press is here. Be mindful of that."

But it's not like the NSA is no fun at all. Van Kirk encouraged his audience to visit the vendor exhibit area and pick up special "trading cards" related to the Trusted Computing Platform (they gave me eight of them. My favorite is the picture of the "Trusted Boot Code Card" with its enormous boot and chains). He said maybe if you get enough trading cards, you get a gift prize.

So how did I get thrown out of an NSA party Tuesday evening in the courtyard of the Doubletree Hotel?

Well, the nice NSA press affairs lady had unexpectedly given me a ticket to join this NSA soiree. But as soon as I had situated myself in a corner of this outdoor gathering, where it was impossible to hear anything above the steel drums, another conference-management lady leapt in front of me and told me to leave, saying it had been decided that as press, "you make people nervous."

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