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Federal interns learn life lessons, some top secret

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The online story made it sound like “Spy Kids,” but I found it interesting — with a touch of nostalgia — to learn how the National Security Agency is hiring young people to work for its agents during the summers.

The news feature described how the NSA hired high school seniors or recent graduates around the Washington area to work in the summer with the hopes of recruiting them to come back to government service after college. Presumably, they could also work for the NSA during the college summer breaks as well. They are apparently paid very well, enough to help them cover their college expenses.

Part of the story’s appeal is that the students couldn’t tell anybody, even their parents, exactly what they do for the intelligence agency beyond such general statements as “on computers” or “on cryptography.” The summer hires have a top-secret clearance the same as other NSA employees, which allows them to work on assignments than range from the lowest “confidential” classification all the up to “top secret” classified projects.

These are the “summer hires,” and other government agencies — including the military — have used them for years to supplement their regular civilian employees. The story was about the NSA hires but almost every government department makes use of interns, not only in the Washington area but around the country.

The emphasis on future recruiting is newer and fairly forward-thinking for the government, but the “summer hire” program has long been a win-win for agencies willing to work with youth. The students get good jobs and invaluable experience, and the government gets a temporary supply of willing workers at relatively low cost who can give them a boost during the summer when regular employees want vacations or leave for other employment.

The story brought back a lot of good memories for me because I was one of those “summer hires” years ago. Starting from 1967 before my final year in high school through my college years, I would spend five summers working for the military as a “clerk typist” who would end up doing that and so much more.

During my first two summers, I was assigned to a graphic arts department for the Combat Development Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I don’t think I ever typed anything, but in addition to the menial chores left for interns, I found myself learning about graphic arts through daily practice alongside civilian artists and military enlisted draftsmen. I did not know then that the mechanical and compositional skills I learned would become invaluable when I went off to college and started what became lifelong work on newspapers.

My third summer I lived in Coronado, California, where I found a job as a clerk-typist on the Navy amphibious base where they train the SEAL teams. There I learned to punch a clock, how to endure the tedium of repetitive jobs and how to proofread documents the commanding officer had written without drawing his ire at correcting his grammar.

My father was a career Navy officer, so I was very much aware of military life growing up. Still, my most vivid memory working for the Navy was watching my supervisor, a crusty chief petty officer, deliver a crushing yet inspiring dressing-down of a sailor who failed to appreciate Naval traditions of excellence and duty. I don’t remember the officer’s name but I will never forget his motivational speech. I didn’t know whether to duck for cover or enlist.

My final two years of summer service were in the Pentagon, working again as a lowly clerk typist in the Secretariat of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the multi-service bureaucracy that supported the top brass in its decisions. Even more interesting for me was that I was assigned to the Southeast Asia branch during the Vietnam War. My officers were the ones who drafted war plans for every contingency and implemented the strategies the Joint Chiefs decided.

I had a “top-secret” clearance also, with all the obligations that entailed. Each day I would enter the bustling city within the mammoth five-ringed building with thousands of other people, and I would proudly pass through the guarded entrances on to my work space. I would thumb through the daily CIA reports (not as illuminating as it sounds) before starting my assignments.

I was there the summer The Washington Post printed the infamous Pentagon Papers. My officers had to drop what they were doing and spend several weeks in a tiny windowless room to read the documents — a history of the war — so they could advise the government lawyers what to try to protect from publication. They were furious at the unexpected distraction and my cheerfulness as a journalism student didn’t help their mood. But it did spark some good discussions about secrecy and a free press.

I would not trade those five summers for anything, and I am sure that the current generation of “summer hires” are gaining just as much or more. Some government programs do work very well.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.