weird ideas since 1973

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Thu 15

My Friend’s Security Clearance


Aussies in Sydney: I’m doing my first ever Sydney bookstore event tonight (Friday)! Details here.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Australian Department of Defence. It is in fact from the Defence Security Authority section of the Department of Defence. I bet they have slogans like “Defending the Defenders,” or “Watching Your Back While You’re At The Front.” Or at least they should.

Anyway, they wrote to me because I have a friend who works there, and apparently he:

… is currently undergoing a security clearance process for access to extremely sensitive information. As part of the security clearance process, it is required that we contact nominated referees to ascertain the subject’s suitability to have access to this type of information.

Then there are a bunch of questions like this:

Are you aware of any matters of potential security concern with regards to the subject? (Unexplained changes in work patterns or performance; changes in personality; changes in their personal life)

Those are some pretty suggestive examples. So naturally I’m thinking of writing something like this:

Not at all! In fact, just the other day he said he’d never been happier, not since he met “the true believers.” I think that must be a club you have there at Defence. Anyway, he’s really been broadening his horizons—learning to speak Mandarin, for example, and always dropping into the Chinese Embassy, just to soak up some foreign culture! And I know he’s really looking forward to his next vacation; he said he really deserves it. Actually, what he said was, “Then everyone will get what they deserve.” Then he rubbed his hands together and cackled. I think he must be planning to get YOU guys presents, even though he’s going away! Hope I haven’t spoiled the surprise! Ha ha!

It’s a nice feeling, knowing that I can destroy a friend’s career with a few lines. I think it brings us closer together. I might ring him up and tell him that, and suggest that this would be an appropriate time to have me over for dinner, and spare no expense on the wine.

But I do wonder about this system. If I take this form at face value, the method the Department of Defence uses to identify potential spies is to get them to name a few friends who are willing to say they’re on the level. It seems to me that if you’re going to all the trouble of infiltrating a hostile government and working your way into a position of significance over a period of several years, you can probably arrange that. I mean, I’m no expert on international espionage. But that would seem like one of the basics to me.

Maybe Defence is right, though. It would be pretty stressful, maintaining an ice-cool facade at work all day. Maybe after a a hard day’s pretending to not revile capitalism, you might want to hit a few bars with friends in your “THE REVOLUTION IS COMING” T-shirt. Everyone needs to blow off steam sometime. If it were me, I’d always be having conversations like this:

Them: “… which is why our country’s economy is so strong.”
Me: “Yes, exactly.” (mutters) “For now.”
Them: “What?”
Me: “Nothing.”
Them: “It sounded like you muttered “for now” under your breath.”
Me: “That was gas.”
Them: “Oh. Okay.”
Me: (mutters) “Fool.”
Them: “What?”


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Stephen Atwood (#3007)

Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Quote: "I'm pretty sure my last words are gonna be along the lines of "careful, I don't think the safety's on"...Probably something like that."
Posted: 3483 days ago

Could be worse. What's American airport security up to nowadays? Last time I checked, we've banned hairgels from airplanes.

I mean, I hate those guys that gel their hair enough to make coffee tables out of their heads as much as the next guy, but he still deserves to be on the plane.

Then again...

Colette (#324)

Location: Houston, Texas, USA
Quote: ""The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy" -- Kurt Vonnegut"
Posted: 3483 days ago

I'd like to say that I love you, Max Barry. And I would totally write your friend a glowing report and attach an appendix to it explaining the holes in their system to them. Because it needs to be said.

What is the point of references, anyway? To make sure your friends actually like you? If you've really pissed someone off, you aren't going to pick them as one of your primary references. Unless you don't really want the job anyway, in which case that'd be kind of fun.

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 3483 days ago

Just don't tell them you're a writer, that'll instantly ruin it for your friend.

Hey, glad to see you're interviewing Wil Anderson tonight, I'll try to get there. God, he's *such* a funny guy, I could listen to him all night. What's with the donut though?

lyssabits (#1444)

Location: San Francisco, CA
Quote: ""Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.""
Posted: 3483 days ago

I had to serve in this capacity for a friend of mine attempting to get higher clearance in the Navy. I almost totally screwed it up, because I'd *completely* forgotten about it by the time the guy from the Deparment of Defense showed up on my doorstep asking if I knew my friend. I was so nervous when he first appeared and was so unused to hearing my friend's last name that I said, "Wait, who are you talking about?" The guy was not amused. Then I got to answer all kinds of weird hypothetical questions, "If your friend was in a situation where he could follow orders, or with a slight bending of the rules, achieve what he thought was a better result, which would he do?" I mean, do they really think anyone is going to answer, "Oh yeah, he'll totally break the rules" to a guy from the Department of Defense?

Steve Collins (#1763)

Location: Canberra, Australia
Quote: "Ouch!"
Posted: 3483 days ago

Hehehe. I know a number of people who actually work for DSA as an "Assessor". Assessors are those folks that go around asking the uncomfortable and inconvenient questions of those being assessed for TS-PV (Top Secret Positive Vet) security clearances and their nominated referees. While they absolutely never talk out of school about the people they interview, I'm led to understand that they are exposed to some pretty unusual stuff - amongst a huge volume of the incredibly mundane.
Being the subject of or a referee for someone undergoing a TS-PV is certainly an interesting experience - I've been in both positions, although I never got my clearance as the need went away.

Phill Sacre (#1822)

Location: London, UK
Quote: "Computers are like air conditioners. Both stop working, if you open windows."
Posted: 3483 days ago

It would take a braver man than I to write a bad reference for someone who's applying for a job at the Department of Defense... I'd worry that one day they would discover I'd "accidentally brutally cut my own head off whilst shaving"!

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 3483 days ago

Sorry, but the scene up there reads like it's a dialogue from your new novel, "Watching Your Back". In which case I'd buy it (provided it is also about a shoe manufacturer named Allevia).

Or I'd just buy any book you publish, like I do. D'oh. Still, it's be kinda nice. ;)

Justin (#2009)

Location: Halfmoon, NY
Quote: "Max(x) is awesome!"
Posted: 3482 days ago

Huh... what do ya know? I learned something today. But first I thought I was going crazy. Then I thought that maybe I couldn't spell. Then I thought that YOU maybe couldn't spell, but I figured that unlikely, what with the being a published author an all... Then I asked google, and they confirmed my worst fears. You Aussies spell the word "defence" differently than us Americans. We use an S rather than that C. I wonder why that is? Maybe it's just that you all are descended from murderers and rapists and it's just that rebelliousness coming through. Who knows?

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 3482 days ago

Or maybe it is because they use the original spelling, rather than putting "c"s or "z"s instead of "s"s in crazy places. ;)

Len (#2632)

Location: England
Quote: "[kwoht] v; n; to repeat words from (a book, author, etc.)."
Posted: 3482 days ago

Defence was the original English word, which the was taken over to Australia, but it was changed to defense in America. There's also a difference in pronunciation I believe; the British emphasise the second syllable, whilst the Americans emphasise the first syllable.

austin (#2462)

Location: rhode island
Quote: "hmmm...bleh..."
Posted: 3482 days ago

What a horrible friend you are Max.

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 3482 days ago

A small step to a saner world: All English-speaking nations agree to adopt American English spelling, in return the U.S.A agrees to convert to the metric system.

Machine Man subscriber Matthew Draycott (#1974)

Location: England
Quote: "Liberatis Nec Mortis"
Posted: 3480 days ago

Of what evil heresy do you speak? It’s the Americans who messed up spelling, post colonial little buggers making the language simpler (I’m taking a pass on the obvious stupid American joke) but seriously the Americans should convert back in all areas, hell re-join the common wealth, most of them love the Royals more than we do.

(Takes a long satisfied breath)

Now that’s out of my system, nice story Max

Stephen Atwood (#3007)

Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Quote: "I'm pretty sure my last words are gonna be along the lines of "careful, I don't think the safety's on"...Probably something like that."
Posted: 3479 days ago

It'll never happen.

As Dave Barry (no relation) once said, if we end up converting to the metric system, then I firmly believe that the terrorists have, indeed, won.

Besides, the metric system has absolutely NO popularity in America, provided you ignore the greatly valued 9 .mm bullet.

Mike Reason (#2743)

Location: Rhode Island, USA
Quote: ""Carpe Diem!""
Posted: 3477 days ago

That sounds like a government. Your government thinks the best way to detect spies is to ask their friends and cohorts if they're a spy. My government can't tell the difference between a bomb and a light bright.

Comments are now closed for this post.

Built on Blosxom