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Col. Manners Takes Your Top Secret Questions on CIA Practices, Invasion Etiquette and More

Our man on the inside gives advice too secret to ignore.

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Yours looking forward,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

I thought you were the only one!  Now, thanks to the nine zillionth document in the Edward Snowden revelations and  journalist Peter Maass, I discovered that the National Security Agency has its own secret advice columnist who writes “Ask Zelda,” focusing on dear-to-the-NSA topics like what to do if your boss is spying on you. 

My question is this: Were you disappointed to discover that you had company and has “Zelda” stolen your thunder?

Blindsided in Biloxi

Dear Blindsided,

Actually, despite what you might imagine, “Zelda” and I are good friends.  In fact, the community of advice columnists inside the national security world is a very close-knit crew.  We even have a social group we jokingly call the Redacted Lonely Hearts Club Band.  We meet every Friday for happy hour at a local bar (name redacted) to exchange notes.  Zelda was indeed recently “outed” in the Snowden carnage.  I wouldn’t want to out other national security advice columnists, but it is a shame that most Americans don't have access to their everyday wisdom.  I can tell you that the CIA’s columnist is not only smart as a tack, but hilarious as well.  His offhand comments at our Friday gatherings regularly leave me in stitches.  “Advice from the Dark Side,” his column in the Bush years, was a national security hit.

Believe me, living in the shadows as we all do, our community desperately needs advice.  The  hundreds of thousands of us (including private contractors) in the secret world often have no one to turn to.  We certainly can’t talk about our problems in your world, and yet issues of manners, mores, or morals arise all the time, and we often have no one to consult.  That’s why, in addition to Zelda, just about every secret outfit has an advice columnist. 

I can assure you that if Edward Snowden had reached out to Zelda he would never have  become a Russian pawn.

Yours advisedly,

Col. Manners (ret.)


Dear Col. Manners,

My head’s spinning and I thought you might be able to straighten me out.  Vice-Admiral Michael Rogers, the nominee to be the new head of the National Security Agency, recently appeared before Congress and  testified that aggressive cyberwar capabilities won’t simply be located in a single cyber command.  Instead, all the major combat commands of the U.S. military will soon have their own “dedicated” cyberforces and each will be capable of launching cyberattacks. 

Say it ain’t so, Colonel!  I know that every service wants a piece of every budgetary and operational pie, but isn’t it crazy to spread the ability to launch an aggressive cyberattack around widely?

Head Spun in Houston

Dear Head Spun,

It’s not crazy at all.  It’s the height of good sense.  Recently, while testifying about the collection of the phone data of Americans, Vice-Admiral Michael Rogers  said, “One of my challenges as the director, if confirmed, is how do we engage the American people, and by extension their representatives, in a dialogue in which they have a level of comfort as to what we are doing and why.”  Quite right!  So let me lend a hand in that process.

I understand where you’re coming from, and I’d like to explain why the ability to launch a cyberattack can’t be spread widely enough in our military (and possibly beyond).  Response time on a cyberattack is everything.  If you’ve ever been inside Washington's bureaucracy, you know that anything not located at your fingertips is functionally not located anywhere.  Let’s say that U.S. Navy intelligence detects a North Korean plot to attack some aspect of its cyber-domains.  If that service has its own cyber command, then it’s instant, preemptive obliteration for North Korea's cyberwarriors.  If the Navy has to make its way through a labyrinth of military or civilian bureaucracies to get a decision on when and how to act, the North Koreans might be steering a couple of our aircraft carriers before anything gets done. 

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