KEYNOTE: Playing Through the Pain: The Impact of Dark Knowledge and Secrets on Security and Intelligence Professionals

Dismissing or laughing off concerns about what it does to a person to know critical secrets does not lessen the impact on life, work, and relationships of building a different map of reality than “normal people” use. One has to calibrate narratives to what another believes. One has to live defensively, warily. This causes at the least cognitive dissonance which some manage by denial. But refusing to feel the pain does not make it go away. It just intensifies the consequences when they erupt.
Philip K. Dick said, reality is that which, when you no longer believe in it, does not go away. When cognitive dissonance evolves into symptoms of traumatic stress, one ignores those symptoms at one’s peril. But the very 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. And whistle blower protection is often non-existent.

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?
One CIA veteran wrote: “I was for a while an observer to the Personnel Management working group in the DO. I noted they/we were obscenely proud of having the highest rates of alcoholism, adultery, divorce, and suicide in the US Government. I personally have 23 professional suicides in my mental logbook, the first was an instructor that blew his brains out with a shotgun when I was in training. The latest have tended to be senior figures who could not live with what they knew.”
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 soul-wrenching experiences. 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 everyone 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 existential challenge constitutes an assault on authenticity and integrity. Sometimes sanity is at stake, too, and sometimes, life itself.
We might as well begin our discussion with reality. Choosing unreality instead means we have to spend energy and time on a trek from unreality to reality simply to begin. This talk is about reality – the real facts of the matter and strategies needed for effective life-serving responses, a way to manage the paradoxical imperatives and identity-threatening pressures of our lives and work.

Richard Thieme

Richard Thieme (www.thiemeworks.com) is an author and professional speaker who addresses the challenges posed by new technologies and the future, how to redesign ourselves to meet these challenges, and creativity in response to radical change. He has published hundreds of articles, dozens of short stories, five books with more coming, and has delivered hundreds of speeches. A novel, FOAM, was published in September 2015 and “A Richard Thieme Reader,” collecting fiction and non-fiction, was published on Amazon Kindle in 2016. His pre-blog column, “Islands in the Clickstream,” was distributed to thousands of subscribers in sixty countries before collection as a book in 2004. When a friend at the NSA told him, “The only way you can tell the truth [that we discuss} is through fiction,” he returned to writing short stories (35 published to date), one result of which is “Mind Games,” a collection of nineteen stories about anomalies, infosec, professional intelligence and edgy realities. More edgy realities are illuminated in the recently published and critically extolled “UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry” to which he contributed, a 5-year research project using material from inside the military and intelligence communities to document government responses to the phenomena from WW2 to the present. It is in the collections of 65 university libraries.

Many speeches address creativity, shifts in identities, and technology-related security and intelligence issues. He and Dan Geer, CISO of CIA’s In-Q-Tel, did a “fireside chat” as a keynote for Source Boston and Richard keynoted SOURCE Boston and SOURCE Seattle in 2016 and will keynote SOURCE Dublin in 2017. He keynoted the first two Black Hats and spoke in 2016 at Def Con for the 21st year. He has keynoted conferences in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, Wellington and Auckland, Dublin and London, Berlin and Heidelberg, the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague), Ghent Belgium, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Johannesburg SA, Lodz and Krakow Poland, and Eilat Israel. Clients range from GE, Microsoft and Medtronic to the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, FBI, US Dept of the Treasury. Los Alamos National Lab, and the US Secret Service.

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, and the “Design Matters” lecture series at the University of Calgary (Alberta). He addressed the reinvention of “Europe” as a “cognitive artifact” for curators and artists at Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, keynoted “The Real Truth: A World’s Fair” at Raven Row Gallery, London, and recently keynoted Code Blue in Tokyo.