About Joel Brenner

I have considered myself a writer since I was very young but have often been faithless to the vocation. My mother recently reminded me that at age 10, I founded and appointed myself editor of the grandly self-styled but short-lived “Fifth Grade Times” at Crestview Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. Mrs. Heinrich, my teacher, mimeographed it on a roller-stencil in purple ink: This was 1957, two years before the Xerox copier appeared, and long before those copiers were cheap enough for general use. Thinking about that first, juvenile foray into journalism summons up a long-buried whiff of mimeograph ink, a sweetish, pungent, chemical smell familiar to anyone of a certain age. Later I edited the bi-weekly paper at Thomas Jefferson High School and then The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Decades afterward, sitting in my rather imposing office as the inspector general of the National Security Agency, I remember thinking, this is the most fun I’ve had since then.

Working on the Cardinal in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, was a heady experience. We were against the war and a lot else besides. Progress was around the corner if people would just use their heads. I wince at some of what I wrote as a smug and callow youth, but that job was one of the great learning experiences of my life, and the intensity of it was intoxicating. So was the camaraderie. My appetite for turning out copy was ferocious. I wrote on and off nearly every day and often long into the night, and was often involved in the late-night physical work of producing a daily newspaper on our own offset presses. Most of the copy was turned out on a “justowriter,” but for some reason our editorials were set on our own clattering linotype machine, in lead galleys, and we set headlines by hand on a “stick,” oily with printer’s ink. That meant selecting type, letter by letter, from a California type drawer, and I could do it blindfolded. The thrill of seeing your stuff roll off the presses around 1 a.m. – the immediate result of one’s effort – was hard to top. In those days, disseminating your writing wasn’t so easy. There were expensive, institutional presses, and there were leaflets on street corners, and not much in between. And there I was at age 19 with an institutional press at my command.

One summer I got hired as an intern with Time in New York. My first day on the job, one of the editors offered to take me to lunch downstairs in the Time-Life Building at a fancy, long-defunct restaurant called the Costa del Sol. He suggested a pitcher of margueritas. I got looped and realized afterwards, to my disgust and embarrassment, that I had spilled my guts and learned nothing whatsoever.

After gradating from college I got a Marshall scholarship, went to London for three years, and buried myself in the arcana of eighteenth and nineteenth century British legal and economic history. But I was not through with journalism. After several months in London I talked Newsweek into sending me to Africa for the summer. My boss in the Nairobi bureau, Peter Webb, was off chasing some story in West Africa or Zambia and I was holding down the fort. This was July 1970. I had my feet up on his desk when I opened the new issue of the magazine and read that anti-war radicals had blown up the Army Math Research Center in Madison – and killed a grad student. Five months later, back in Madison for a visit, I asked one of my many lefty friends what he thought of the bombing. He shook his head. “A tactical error,” he said.

I thought it was homicide.

Following law school I came to Washington, and after a stint in a small firm, considered an academic career but instead spent four terrific years as a federal prosecutor. I’m leaving a lot out, including the usual young man’s (unpublished) autobiographical novel. When I realized the novel wasn’t very good and would not in any case save me from normal life, I formed a law partnership, got tougher, enjoyed trying cases. I liked to win and hated to lose. I was climbing the ladder. In reflective moments between the narcotic, exhausting thrills of the courtroom, however, I wasn’t sure it was the right ladder.

Then came 9/11. I remember perfectly where I was when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit. Rumors were flying that the White House and State Department had also been attacked and that another plane, somewhere, was headed this way. No one in Washington really knew what was happening, and I had to get our employees home and make sure my family was safe. The streets were gridlocked. So I closed the office, left my car in the garage, and started the long walk home. Standing on a traffic island at Dupont Circle, I thought about how I was making a living by selling legal services to whomever could afford my handsome hourly fees, when I should be working for the people trying to catch the fanatics who were blowing us up. A few months later I learned that the Director of the National Security Agency was looking for an inspector general. Odd things happen. I got that job, and several years later, even more unpredictably, became the national counterintelligence executive, in charge of coordinating counterintelligence activities of seventeen federal agencies, including the FBI and CIA. You can pick this story up in the introduction of America the Vulnerable, which has been re-titled for paperback as Glass Houses.  It reflects my experience in contending with the threats to the nation coming across our networks at the speed of light.

I’m now a senior research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I focus on cybersecurity, intelligence policy, and privacy. My goal: better public policy in all these areas. I also continue to practice law and consult on security issues as Joel Brenner LLC. I handle acquisitions of sensitive U.S. technology by foreign firms and most anything involving classified information.   My goal:  Helping companies make smarter choices in protecting the value of their intellectual property and supply chain.  Reach me at joel@joelbrenner.com.

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