Friday, January 26, 2007

A free vacation...complete with airfare, hotel, and interrogation!

Five months ago, after returning from our Jordan study abroad, I decided to apply for an internship with the NSA - a supposedly two-summer-long internship with a conditional job offer. Sounds great, huh?

After a couple months, I still hadn't heard anything back from them, so I figured I didn't make it. I went on with my life, making plans for the summer. Then we discovered that we'd be having a baby in July. Cool.

Not 3 days after getting the positive pregnancy test result back in November, I got a big white envelope from the NSA, giving me a conditional job offer for the Summer Language Program.


I wanted the internship, since I need some kind of career pretty soon. I graduate in a year and still don't know what I'm doing with my life. However, my first child was already on its way and would come right in the middle of the internship. We decided to go ahead with the application, just to see what would happen. Nancy and I started researching all our options - finding new national insurance, transferring to Maryland based insurance, finding cheap/free housing in Maryland.

I started by filling out a good 20 pages of background forms, detailing every place I have been and lived for the past 5 years. For normal people this would be easy - for people who don't go on missions and travel to Europe and the Middle East several times. I had to track down the addresses of all my mission apartments in Italy. Luckily I spent several months as an office elder and kept some records of apartment addresses.

I also had to provide 1-2 stateside references for everywhere I've been, plus the names and addresses of every landlord and roommate. The references had to be different for every place, so I had to track down all my old companions' addresses, find our Jordan landlord's address and phone number.

I also had to provide addresses and references for every job I've ever had, plus all that information for my immediate family.

So after countless hours of filling out the long forms, I sent in the forms and waited again. After a month, I figured they rejected me. Maybe I had been to too many places and they decided it'd be too hard to track my past.

A few days later, I got a phone call from the NSA, saying that I had to be in Baltimore from January 21-24 for pre-employment processing. They told me I would have to have a series of interviews, tests, and even a polygraph. It would all be free. Cool! Free airfare from SLC to Baltimore, 3 nights in a $120 room at Holiday Inn with $18.99 to spend on dinner every night at their fancy restaurant. Free lunch at the NSA cafeteria. Cool!

So, on Sunday afternoon I flew out there. It was an adventurous flight. Baltimore and the entire DC area got hit with the biggest snow storm of the winter - half an inch. It delayed every flight at the airport and canceled all the schools on Monday. After landing, we had to sit in the plane for an hour, waiting for any plane to leave any terminal, but the massive amounts of snow stopped everything. After finally getting off the plane, I had to wait for another hour for my suitcase to come through. Not fun. I then got on the free shuttle to the Holiday Inn and checked in.

Check-in was an interesting process. When they called me a few months ago, they told me to call myself by a code name to get the free plane and hotel reservations - I'll call it XYZ for security purposes here. So, I got to the front desk and in a hushed voice told the lady "I'm an XYZ applicant. What do I do?" She smiled and checked me in, giving me a paper that said "Welcome XYZ applicant!" again hiding the fact that I was with the NSA. Later in that paper, though, it gave directions to the NSA compound. Hmm...the XYZ plan failed there.

For the rest of my stay I had to keep claiming my XYZ status. Before ordering food at the restaurant, I had to tell them. Before taking the bus to the NSA, I had to whisper my status. I probably actually didn't have to whisper it - it's just what everyone else was doing. There were about 10-15 others there, all XYZ applicants, sitting by themselves, whispering the top-secret codeword. It was way cool.

On Monday morning, we all got picked up by some official NSA lady, who started giving us detailed directions. We couldn't figure out if she was testing us, since she said "Here are your instructions for the day - you will hear them once and once only. Get on the bus. Get off the bus. Go through the double glass doors. Turn left. Turn right. Turn right. Approach the desk. Receive your clearance and type your Social Security Number. Turn left. Go through the single glass doors. Turn right, left, left, and right, go outside, turn left, go in the double glass doors. Go through the metal detectors. Turn left, right, go through the turnstile, type the last 4 digits of your SS number, turn left, right, enter the room, and report to the secretary at the desk. Go."

I got on the bus, panicked. I couldn't remember all that!

Luckily some of the other XYZ applicants had already been there for a few days, so I followed them.

I started the day by taking some cool tests. First was the Vord test - a fake Turkic language invented by the NSA to measure language aptitude. They gave me two pages of basic vocabulary and syntax and then a 75 question test, including a section where I had to translate a newspaper article from English to Vord. It was actually a really fun test.

After that, I had to take another test with lots of random topics - math, English usage, logic, pattern finding, spelling, and another fake language, this time Latin based.

While not taking tests, I spent my time sitting the in lobby, reading old issues of the Reader's Digest and Time, while watching Fox News on a big screen TV. They wouldn't change it to CNN. I tried. Ugh.

After that day of testing, I walked back up to the hotel, claimed my XYZ status, ate free food, and went to take a nap. It had been a great, fun day of cool tests. Unfortunately the next day would prove to be the opposite.

After getting on the bus and going through the maze of instructions, I took a psychological test. 360 random phrases that I had to either claim as false, somewhat true, mostly true, and true. Actual questions that I remember:

- I daily consider suicide
- I would like the job of a forest ranger
- I hear voices in my head
- I read the crime reports in the newspaper
- I have a mortal fear of earthquakes
- I think of painful ways of killing myself
- I have back pain
- I usually know what’s going on (with my circle of friends)
- People are out to get me
- Other people can read my thoughts
- I like archery and stamp collecting
- I often feel that I can’t get out of bed
- If someone has their possessions stolen from their unlocked car they had it coming.
- I like/enjoy children
- I want to kill myself

There was also a written form - 10 pages of questions about mental disease in my immediate family, my relationships with them, my drug and alcohol use, and a page of incomplete sentences that I had to finish, such as:

Most men_________
I wish my father would_________
My greatest fear is___________
After getting drunk I______

After finishing the test, making up lame answers for the incomplete sentences (Most men like food...), I went back out the lobby to await the dreaded polygraph.

After an hour of anxious waiting, a clean-cut, ex-army dude came out to get me. He took me back to a small room with a desk and a weird chair. The room had a hidden camera and microphones.

He started by going over the background forms I filled out months before, line by line, without having me hooked up to the polygraph machine. He interrogated me about every place I lived, trying to catch inconsistencies in my story. I didn't mention in my forms the two weeks in Irbid when we first got to Jordan, and when I mentioned it with him, he caught me on it. Luckily it was an accidental omission, so he wasn't mad. He was actually really pleasant the whole time, albeit he never cracked a smile. After 3 hours, we finished going through all the forms.

Then came the crazy part.

He turned my chair so it was at a 90 degree angle from his desk, so I couldn't see him - I had to stare at the door. He then hooked me up to the machine, after intricately describing every part of it - two finger sensors on my right hand, a blood pressure thing on my elevated right arm, two springy things wrapped around my chest to measure my breathing, and a sensor that I had to sit on.

We then had to calibrate the test. I had to lie to him. He asked me if it was Sunday that day. I bravely said "No." It was Tuesday. He then asked if it was Monday. Again I said no. Before he asked if it was Tuesday, I started to panic. I knew I had to lie. I was scared to death. He asked and I said no, while literally shaking in my chair. So, I can't lie. Just ask Nancy. I really can't. So, I guess when I'm forced to, I panic.

After calibrating the machine to my obvious lie (and subsequent panic), he started the test, first asking about counter-intelligence things, mixed with identity questions. It was easy.

Him - "Is your first name Andrew?"
Me - "Yes"
Him - "Have you ever had a secret meeting with a foreign national or foreign intelligence officer with the intent of selling classified information?"
Me - "No" (No sweat. How could I even obtain classified information? Duh! Stupid question)

After 30 minutes of that, I was happy. Polygraphs are easy. I wasn't that nervous. Those were irrelevant questions. He then started the second half of the test - identity questions mixed with personal issue questions, like criminal history, drug use, etc.

Here, for some reason, I started to panic. I knew that this was more relevant, so I was worried that I'd actually mess up and make him think that I use drugs or something. Messing up on the espionage questions didn't matter - he wouldn't believe any positive readings because of the irrelevance. This part, however, was relevant.

He started with some identity questions again:

Him - "Is your last name Heiss?"
Me - (uneasily, for fear of messing up) "Yes"
Him "Have you ever committed a felony or serious misdemeanor?
Me - (expecting another identity question) ""

My body started involuntarily tensing up. I could hear the polygraph printer speeding up, printing my accelerated readings. I had messed up! I'm no criminal! My body went out of control!

He kept going with those questions for another 20 minutes. Every time he asked me the felony question, I panicked because I knew I had messed up the first time.

He then unhooked me and looked at the readings very seriously. He asked me "What does the word 'felony' mean to you?" He then left the room to talk to "his supervisor." I was mortified! He though I was a murderer or rapist! Oh no!

Three minutes later, he came back in, rehooked me up, and asked me the same questions, but he repeated the felony question several times. He then unhooked me and said "You are getting positive readings on that question every time I ask you. You have something on your mind. You did something. Did you know that 50% of rapes and 40% of murders are unsolved because nobody confesses? What's on your mind? Tell me now! (calm, monotonous voice rising) Something would only be on your mind if you did something. What did you do!?"

I panicked. I tried telling him that I didn't do anything - I was anticipating the test, expecting an identity question when he asked me the felony one. He didn't believe me. My positive readings were too consistent for that one question. He left the room again to talk with his supervisor.

I was completely distraught. He though I was a murderer and I couldn't defend myself. I was scared to death! He came back in after another 3 minutes and started raising his voice again. He said that liars don't work for the NSA, that I should come clean to get the least amount of punishment, that I could be prosecuted for holding back information that I had already began to disclose. His icy, deathly stare didn't leave my eyes. I couldn't look away for fear of looking like a liar. I felt like making up a crime just so he would stop mentally attacking me. He left again, very frustrated and angry.

He came back and said that we wouldn't need to do any additional testing and that I was done. His demeanor changed completely. He was extremely pleasant as he escorted me back to the lobby.

I walked back up to the hotel, completely psychologically deranged. 4.5 hours of intense interrogation, 30 minutes of real psychological torture. "He thinks I'm a murderer! I'll never get a job! I'm going to jail!" were some of my thoughts. After hours of mulling it over, I figured that it was all a show. He was attacking me to see how I held up. He was the good cop and the bad cop. He chose one point where he knew I messed up and attacked me. Repeatedly.

It wasn't until the next day that my theory was proven. Another XYZ applicant going for the Arabic program, from Orem and going to school at Georgetown, was there with me and had a similar experience. They drilled him on his Middle Eastern travel to Syria and on his mission to Armenia. During his polygraph, he showed a tiny positive result for the drug question, so his interviewer lady attacked him viciously for half an hour. The experience was similar for everyone else I talked to, including this account from another XYZ applicant a few years ago.

On my last day of interviews, I started with a psychiatric evaluation. I met with a psychologist who analyzed my answers to the long test that I took the day before. Apparently it was an NEOAC Five Factor Model of Personality Test. His diagnosis of me was overall pretty positive, although he wasn't happy with my lame sentence completions. He also said that my self esteem was too high and that I was too confident and too happy, since I never answered true to any of the many suicide questions. Oh well. I guess I'm just a happy guy!

My last interview was with the actual Language Program directors, who gave me the bad news. I probably wouldn't be getting the internship. There were only 8 language internships available for all the critical languages and 4 had already been filled from interns from last summer. All 4 were doing Arabic. That leaves 4 spots for Chinese, Korean, Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish. They probably aren't taking any Arabic interns, so my chances are dead. They did, however, tell me to apply for a full time position instead, since my chances will be a lot better.

After all that, I made my final trek up to the hotel, took the shuttle to the airport, and flew home.

So, even though no job came out of my tortuous vacation, my dilemma has been solved. I won't have to worry about moving to DC for 3 months and try to find insurance or anything like that. We'll be here all summer. Whew!

Plus I discovered that I'm a felon. Who knew! :)


  1. Awesome story! You even had me sweating about the interrogation. We have a few friends who work for the NSA doing Arabic stuff. Oops, I mean they live in the DC area and can't tell us where they work or what they do. They all seem to like it - I don't think it's the kind of place you would work at if you didn't want to. Good luck, whatever you decide to do!

  2. Andrew I always knew hidden behind that chipper personality was the cold heart of a felon :) That sounds like an awesome interview! Bummer on them being full up although I'm sure full time sounds much better then part time to Nancy. You know it is times like these I almost wish Jason would have stuck to the Arabic. Torture, mayhem, whatever and you all can't talk about it. Meanwhile I got the nitty gritties on the first three prostate exams Jason got to perform. SICKO!

  3. Wow! Who knew that my brother-in-law would turn out to subconsciously be a felon! Go figure. Oh well. Nobody's perfect. I mean...the NSA didn't even call me. I guess there's no need for Portuguese translators though.