How to Keep a Secret

There are dozens of quasi-secret, secret and top secret facilities scattered about the Capital Region, employing tens of thousands of workers. Do you know what they do at their jobs all day? No, of course you don’t. It’s a secret. But I know what happens at a few of them, because I worked there, and at a few other highly secured facilities throughout the United States. What did I do there? I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

Which meant that I couldn’t tell my wife or my daughter or my parents or my closest friendly confidants either. I was sworn not to. That’s part of the process of being authorized to have access to secrets, a sense on the part of your employer that you can keep your lips, your briefcase and your laptop closed once you leave your office each and every day. Which isn’t as hard as it might seem, since one of the paramount rules of working at a secret installation is that you don’t carry work in and out every day. Instead, you start and end your workday with a clean desk, and overnight, all your working materials are locked in strong safes, then locked behind strong doors, then guarded by strong men and women with (sometimes) strong weaponry.

So compartmentalization is king. At a secret facility, you can’t bring the office home with you. In many cases, you can’t even stay in office after quitting time. And there are no 10 PM phone calls to your staff or your boss to review the day behind or the day to come, because, hey, who knows, something might be bugged, or someone might overhear, or it might not even be your boss at the other end of the line. Sounds paranoid, sure, but as Peter Gabriel once sang: “How can we be in, if there is no outside?”

And your outside life and your inside life must remain truly distinct. In one job, I spent most of the day doing, uh, secret stuff with a group of engineers who happened to be on the other side of the negotiating table. Well, if we had a negotiating table, I mean, hypothetically speaking. But anyway, by day, these guys were in, and by night, they were out, as neighbors, on three sides. By day, we talked secrets. By night, sports, the weather, gardening, home repair, family. Ne’er the twain could meet. Ne’er they did.

So it was paranoid and schizophrenic in that regard. But in the same way that delusional people are often quite happy in their delusions, there was a comfort in having a divided life. I mean, think about it . . . you can’t bring work home. You can’t be working at 10 PM each night. You can’t sit at your home office designing, uh, secret stuff. And that’s not a bad thing in this day and age when 24/7 workaholics rule the world, is it? A: No it’s not. And keeping to such a schedule also makes you exceedingly efficient during the time that you’re working at your office, since you know that if it doesn’t get done when it’s supposed to get done, then it isn’t getting done at all.

Discretion becomes the better part of valor when you’re outside, too. Most secure facilities require ornate security passes and badges, but like an army of robots, workers know to remove them from their lanyards or their pocket pencil protectors and stuff them in wallets or purses when they leave each day. Or at lunch. Or when you run an errand. No need to advertise the fact that you’ve got access to a place that few others do. You never know who might be interested in such facts. I mean, other than your wife and kids, who you don’t let visit your office because, well, it’s a secret. And loose lips sink, um, secret things, so you need to make sure that you keep your own under control, which means that you need to be darn careful about what you drink and smoke, and how much, and where you do it, and with whom. Blackouts are no excuse for trading secrets to the other team.

There are other ways to ensure that secrets are kept, too, of course, but I can’t tell you about them, because they’re secret. And no amount of cajoling, or bribing, or teasing, or influence peddling should be able to change that, because above all else, keeping a secret is a trust — bestowed not only by your employer, but by all the taxpayers or customers or clients who fund your work. You owe it to them. Shhh.

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