Arriving at work on Monday, Frank found a Post-it® note on his monitor with three words: See me – George. It looked like the week was about to get off to an interesting start. The question was how?
When Frank arrived at George’s office, his boss motioned him to sit down. Then he slid a single sheet of paper to the edge of his desk.
“This arrived in the mail on Saturday. Be sure not to touch it. I don’t want your fingerprints on it.”
Frank recognized the logo at the top of the letter immediately: a tall, ancient looking building that might be a lighthouse. Startled, he looked up at George.
Frank pulled his chair up to the desk, leaned over, and did as he was told.
The Alexandria Project
December 16, 2010
Dear Mr. Marchand:
Allow me to apologize for any inconvenience that my organization’s little demonstration may have caused to you and your staff. Also, be assured that your contributions to The Alexandria Project are quite safe with us.
We hope that your contributions over the past two weeks have made real to you a matter for which someone with your responsibilities should have the utmost concern: the headlong rush of government towards complete reliance upon the Internet for all purposes, with utter indifference to the attacks launched by an increasing number of enemies of the state.
You should also note with alarm our government’s intent to replace all paper-based systems with electronic archives. As this process accelerates across the public and private sectors, the day is not far distant when our enemies will be able to eradicate the knowledge upon which our very lives depend.
When Julius Caesar set the blaze that destroyed the Library of Alexandria, and with it, the accumulated wisdom of the ancients, at least he could plead negligence rather than intent. Your organization, sir, has no such excuse, as you embark upon the deliberate destruction of the acquired wisdom of the ages that has, it appears, been foolishly entrusted to your care. Above all other government offices, you should know better, and hence our selection of the Library of Congress as the starting point of our campaign for a return to sanity.
Please know that the reach of our capabilities, and our determination to use them, extends to every one of the Federal Agencies – and to all commercial, academic, and non-profit enterprises as well. Lest you doubt the truth of this statement, you will find that at exactly 6:00 AM on Monday, December 20, the master security plans of the Department of Defense, White House, Library of Congress, MIT and Google will be contributed to The Alexandria Project. We will read them with interest, deficient as they are.
Widespread contributions, including donations from leading academic, media and commercial contributors, may only be avoided if the administration publicly announces an immediate halt to further transitions of government systems to digitized archives until such time, if ever, as adequate security measures may be devised to repel all enemies. We look forward to that announcement, with full supporting details, in the very near future.
Very truly yours,
Frank looked up, and George nodded. “Six o’clock, on the dot. So what do you think?”
“Where do I start? First of all, what’s he talking about, saying that the LOC is starting a “destruction policy?”
“Ah, that’s an interesting clue, isn’t it? You’d have to be very highly placed in the LOC to know about that, so whoever “Zenodotus” really is, he’s got access to inside information. Needless to say, that’s troubling.
“As you know, with the economy still dragging and the deficit soaring, Congress needs to show that it’s doing its part to share the pain. So in their infinite wisdom, they’re keeping all of their staffs and perks intact, and have told the LOC that it has to slash its budget every year for the next five years. As it happens, one of the easiest ways to do that is to start digitizing and pulping books as fast as we can.
Frank was surprised. “But how much money can that really save?”
“Much more than you’d expect. We already add new material exclusively in electronic form, and if we start getting rid of the old stuff, we can cancel the new storage facility we’re building out at Fort Meade, cut down on the curatorial staff, mothball parts of our current facilities – the list goes on. Hosting servers is whole lot cheaper than hosting books, and we can show increased public access benefits by throwing more and more material on line. We can make it look like a win – win proposition.”
“We’d really do that? Start pulping millions of books?” Frank was as digital as the next IT guy, but his years at the LOC had given him a reverence for the history of the place, and like most LOC employees, he loved the aura of the millions of books, maps, music and more that surrounded him at work. And personally, he thought that the Alexandria Project folks had a pretty good point. Not that this was the time to admit it.
“You said the letter arrived by mail. Where was it postmarked?”
“Alexandria, Virginia. But who knows whether the post box was just down the street from the author, or whether he drove 500 miles to post it there. As you’ll recall from the anthrax scare, it seems that if you want to remain anonymous, there’s no better communication vehicle than the good old U.S. mail.”
“OK, so let’s talk about the author. What do you make of the name “Zenodotus?”
“That part’s easy. According to the Wikipedia, he was a Greek grammarian, literary critic, Homeric scholar – and the first head librarian of the Library of Alexandria. So the story line holds true.”
“Yeah,” Frank countered, “But who knows whether the whole thing isn’t simply a cover for something else? How disruptive would it be if the whole government’s IT programs are thrown into chaos? And what happens to everything else in Congress if it has to drop everything to save the country from a ‘cybersecurity crisis?’”
Frank paused at that point, and George guessed what he was thinking.
“So does this make you look more, or less, suspicious?”
Why deny it, Frank thought. “I admit that the thought did just cross my mind.”
“I’m thinking you’re not much better off, Frank. On the one hand, you shouldn’t know about the pulping program yet – that won’t be announced until next week. But on the other, if you’ve been sneaking around every directory on the servers, whether you’ve got permitted access or not, that doesn’t help much, does it?”
Frank said nothing, and looked down at the letter again, trying to commit as much of it to memory as he could. Then he leaned back.
“Why did you share this with me, George? Does Cummings know you’ve tipped me on this yet?”
“Cummings doesn’t even know this letter exists - not yet. I only got here a half hour before you did, but I always look at the weekend mail on Monday before I start my day.”
“He’ll be pissed.”
“He’ll get over it. I’ll tell him I wanted to watch you read the letter and see how you reacted.”
Frank looked up sharply. Which way was this conversation about to turn?
“So what will you tell him?”
George leaned forward and spoke, more softly now. “Don’t worry, Frank. I don’t think you have anything to do with this. You and I have known each other for quite a long time – I’m even the God father of your daughter. I know you can be a bull-headed idiot and your own worst enemy to boot. But I don’t think you’re moron enough to try a stunt like this.”
“I’m not sure ‘thanks’ is the appropriate reply to that, but I will acknowledge relief.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Frank, because I wouldn’t call this letter good news. When you compare this letter to the little rant you committed to Carl Cummings’ tape recorder, it doesn’t look good. As soon as you leave this room, I’ll naturally have to call the CIA and turn this letter over to them. After that, all hell’s going to break loose. This isn’t just a pesky little problem here at the LOC anymore, but an imminent public relations disaster for the administration.”
Frank realized there was no denying that.
George continued. “Of course, the White House will be able to keep the lid on this with the DoD and the CIA for now. I don’t know how they’ll deal with the folks at MIT and Google – maybe they’ll just leave them in the dark for now, or maybe they’ll be upfront and get them to play ball. Either way, I don’t see a major university and corporation going public with something like this. But if Zenodotus & Co. start snapping up documents here, there and everywhere, this will be front page – fast. Come to think of it, I bet the next time, a letter like this one will go to the New York Times, NBC and, God help us, Fox News, each of which will have just had their security plans “contributed.” Now, won’t that be fun?”
The answer to that question was so obvious they both let it hang in the air. “So just exactly how screwed do you think I am, George? After all, there’s not really anything at all to connect me with this.”
“I don’t know, Frank. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and there’s not much more I’m going to be able to do to help. If the CIA decides that it needs to have at least one “person of interest” in their sights so they look like they’re doing their job, it just might be you, for lack of a better alternative.”
Frank let that one hang for a moment, too, and then stood up. “Thanks, George. I appreciate all you’ve done for me – I really do. And thanks for letting me know about the letter. The more I know, the more I can defend myself. Or at least think so.”
George stood up as well. “Frank, this isn’t much, but there’s one more small thing I can do. Start thinking about the explanation for your absence that you want to use, because as of 5:00 PM on Friday, you’re on paid administrative leave.”
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