Playing Through the Pain? - The Impact of Secrets and Dark Knowledge on Security and Intelligence Professionals

Presented at DEF CON 24 (2016), Aug. 6, 2016, 3 p.m. (60 minutes)

Dismissing or laughing off concerns about what it does to a person to know critical secrets does not lessen the impact when those secrets build a different map of reality than "normals" use and one has to calibrate narratives to what another believes. The cognitive dissonance that inevitably causes is managed by some with denial who live as if refusing to feel the pain makes it disappear. But as Philip K. Dick said, reality is that which, when you no longer believe in it, refuses to go away. And when cognitive dissonance evolves into symptoms of traumatic stress, one ignores those symptoms at one's peril. But the constraints of one's work often make it impossible to speak aloud about those symptoms, because that might threaten one's clearances, work, and career. The real cost of security work and professional intelligence goes beyond dollars. It is measured in family life, relationships, and mental and physical well-being. The divorce rate is as high among intelligence professionals as it is among medical professionals, for good reason - how can relationships be based on openness and trust when one's primary commitments make truth-telling and disclosure impossible? Richard Thieme has been around that space for years. He has listened to people in pain because of the compelling necessities of their work, the consequences of their actions, the misfiring of imperfect plans, and the burdens of - for example - listening to terrorists slit someone's throat in real time, then having to act as if they had a normal day at the office. Thieme touched on some of this impact in his story, "Northward into the Night," published in the Ranfurly Review, Big City Lit, Wanderings and Bewildering Stories before collection in "Mind Games." The story illuminates the emotional toll of managing multiple personas and ultimately forgetting who you are in the first place. The bottom line is, trauma and secondary trauma have identifiable symptoms and they are everywhere in the "industry." The "hyper-real" space which the national security state creates by its very nature extends to normals, too, now, but it's more intense for professionals. Living as "social engineers," always trying to understand the other's POV so one can manipulate and exploit it, erodes the core self. The challenge is not abstract or philosophical, it's existential, fired into our faces every day at point blank range, and it constitutes an assault on authenticity and integrity. Sometimes sanity is at stake, too, and sometimes, life itself. In one week, two different people linked to the CIA told Thieme that going into that agency was like becoming a scientologist. Think about what that analogy means. For his own sake and sanity, Thieme has thought about it a lot and that's what this talk is about - the real facts of the matter and strategies for effective life-serving responses.


  • Richard Thieme / neuralcowboy - ThiemeWorks   as Richard Thieme
    Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker focused on the challenges posed by new technologies and the future, how to redesign ourselves to meet these challenges, and creativity in response to radical change. His column, ‘Islands in the Clickstream,’ was distributed to subscribers in sixty countries before collection as a book in 2004. When a friend at the National Security Agency said after they worked together on ethics and intelligence issues, ‘The only way you can tell the truth is through fiction,’ he returned to writing short stories, 19 of which are collected in "Mind Games." His latest work is the stunning novel "FOAM," published by Exurban Press September 2015. He is also co-author of the critically extolled "UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry," a 5-year research project using material exclusively from government documents and other primary sources, now in 65 university libraries His work has been taught at universities in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, and he has guest lectured at numerous universities, including Purdue University (CERIAS), the Technology, Literacy and Culture Distinguished Speakers Series of the University of Texas, the "Design Matters" lecture series at the University of Calgary, and as a Distinguished Lecturer in Telecommunications Systems at Murray State University. He addressed the reinvention of "Europe" as a "cognitive artifact" for curators and artists at Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, keynoted CONFidence in Krakow 2015, and keynoted "The Real Truth: A World’s Fair" at Raven Row Gallery, London, He recently keynoted Code Blue in Tokyo. He loved Tokyo. He has spoken for the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Secret Service, the US Department of the Treasury, and Los Alamos National Labs and has keynoted "hacker,"security, and technology conferences around the world. He keynoted the first two Black Hats and he is speaking at DEF CON for the 21st year. Twitter: @neuralcowboy