Veterans Day: The World’s Weirdest Standardized Test

Each Veterans Day I go through my box of assorted memorabilia and post about some aspect of my career in the U.S. Air Force as a C-130 navigator. This year I’d like to change it up a bit and discuss something I’ve never shared publicly before: my reason for leaving the military after 8 years.

I had developed an interest in military history, foreign policy, intelligence and cryptanalysis (code-breaking). I had begun a masters program in international relations and decided to get out of flying and apply for a position with the National Security Agency. In 1989 I submitted my preliminary application, and was scheduled to take the NSA’s Professional Qualification Test (PQT), which was administered by the Educational Testing Service.

The nearest test center was at the University of California at Berkeley, strangely enough. Since the test was to begin at 8:30 am and it was a two-hour drive, I thought it would be less stressful if I spent the night in a Berkeley hotel near the university. That didn’t turn out to be the case since there was some kind of protest in the street below most of the night and police sirens went off periodically.

Morning was quiet and I walked over to the test center, sat down with my No. 2 pencils and began the test.

None of us in the room had any real idea what the test was like, and even today, 27 years later with the full power of the Internet, you will find precious few details on the content of the PQT. However, in his seminal work on the NSA titled The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford described one portion of it:

The exam is designed not just to test the candidates’ academic knowledge but to spot the “cipher brains.” One question, for instance, asked the applicant to imagine that he or she was an anthropologist on a high cliff overlooking a series of islands. From the perch the anthropologist could see messengers in canoes zigzagging between the islands. In addition he or she could see smoke signals sent from island to island. After reading about a half-page of information like “Canoe A goes to island 3 then to island 7 then to island 5 and so on while Canoe B goes to island 12 then island 1 … In the meantime smoke signals are sent from island 6 to island 3 . . .” the applicant must answer questions like “Which island is the chief of the group?” and “Which island controls communications?” and “Which island is the least important?” Another question may deal with a company scattered throughout a large office building that communicates between offices by means of an unreliable intercom system. The applicant is again given information: “Because of faulty wiring, in order for a person in office A to communicate to someone in office E, he must go through office C, but those in office C can only communicate with persons in office E by first going through office J . . .” This account goes on for about half a page; then the applicant is asked “How would one get a call from office J to office B?” and “What if no one was in office A, how then would a person call from office Y to office H?” and about ten more such questions.

Those who leave the examination room without having suffered a severe breakdown probably assume NSA installs intercoms on South Sea Islands. But this portion of the test is designed to ferret out those few with the rare ability to become masters of traffic analysis, to search through reams of messages and come up with patterns.

That is an accurate description of the test I took, but Bamford never described the strangest section. There was an entire portion of the test devoted to an artificial language.

On the left-hand page we were provided with made-up vocabulary words, along with rules of grammar and usage. On the right-hand page were a series of short paragraphs followed by multiple-choice questions of the kind you would find on any standardized reading comprehension test – except the reading selection was entirely in the fake language.

A typical question would ask something like “What noun is the adjective zootfloot modifying? A. arglebargle B. whozit c. ploosnar d. none of the above – zootfloot is a verb.”

After 4 hours and 15 minutes of this kind of stuff you want to scream, but you’d stop because you’d have to determine if scream were a verb or noun in this instance.

Anyway, I completed the test and a couple of months later I received this.

nsa

This was the first step in a long process that involved a special background investigation, a trip to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade for psychological assessments, a polygraph and employment interviews, followed by a very, very long wait. Periodically I would receive assurances that I was “a very competitive candidate.”

nsa2

Alas, world events overtook the NSA’s hiring needs. While I and others waited, the Warsaw Pact imploded, the Soviet Union fell, and there was at least a prevalent belief that there would be a freeze and drawdown in the military and intelligence fields. In any case, I took a lot of freelance work writing about military history and foreign policy while I completed my masters. It was sometime in 1992 that I received a brief letter from NSA stating my file was no longer active.

Eventually I started my own intelligence agency.

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