Gene Carson was an eavesdropper
not your garden-variety Peeping Tom, but one of the elite
among listeners. He worked for the National Security Agency since
its founding in 1952. After forty-six years of service, Carson died,
leaving a retirement account worth close to one million dollars
to a woman that he felt he knew and loved, but who herself didnt
even know that Carson existed.
Imogene Campbell thought there had been some kind of computer
error when she received notification of her inheritance, but
repeated contact from a Washington law firm convinced her that it
was real. A month later, she and her friend Bea Stevenson were taking
the long drive from Nebraska to the nations capital to collect
the money and assorted possessions that been left to
her by Mr. Carson.
At the law offices, Campbell was somewhat relieved to learn that
most of Carsons personal effects had been turned over to the
state. There were a few notable exceptions, however, including a
brand new large screen television, a cordless telephone, jewelry,
and a pair of womens shoes. What immediately caught Campbells
eye, however, was a large wooden footlocker full of books: meticulously
kept diaries with dates ranging from 1940 to 1988. As Campbell pored
over the handwriting, she was shocked to learn that although they
had never met, Carson had used his position at the NSA to obsessively
listen to her telephone line and record intimate details of her
life for a period of twenty-six years.
Carsons diaries revealed that his eavesdropping was only made
possible by a unique career path. He started out in Signals Intelligence
during the war. Only sixteen when he enlisted, he lied about his
age to work with the code breakers. He indicated in one diary entry
that his superiors knew his real age, but turned a blind eye, treating
him as a younger brother and respecting his exceptional mathematical
After the war, Carson went through a series of jobs, including stints
with Bell Labs and General Electric. When the National Security
Agency was formed in 1952, the thought of counter-espionage rekindled
fond and exciting memories of his signal corps work. He applied
for a job and was hired immediately. He worked decrypting Soviet
communications, and was thrilled with the challenge at first. After
several years, however, the job began to wear thin. As often as
they were able to crack the codes, new ones evolved. By the time
he had been with the NSA for nine years he was burning out. The
diary entries from this period are sporadic, sometimes skipping
weeks at a time.
September 15, 1961
Last night I dreamed that I was on a conveyor belt walking, and
the belt went the other way, so no matter how much I walked I just
After consulting with his superiors, Carson was offered a temporary
internal transfer. The new job landed him in a communications control
center, listening to live civilian telephone conversations. There
were numerous different criteria for selecting lines to listen to,
but Carsons specialty was high risk civilian lines
in regions around high-security government operations. His diary
entries indicate that he was intrigued by the work.
August 11, 1962
My new job is kind of like Tobins was in `44. He would meet
at the train station in Santa Fe and ask them questions. If they
anything about Los Alamos, he reported back, and the men were immediately
transferred. Those stories that Tobin told me were great. I always
looked forward to summer nights after work at GE fishing from his
boat in the river. Loose lips sink ships, hed
say. My job is basically like Tobins was, except people never
even know anyone is asking.
One of the places Carson was charged with listening to blanketed
a vast area where three states meet: Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado.
A cold war rush had made the small town of Kimball, Nebraska Missile
Center U.S.A., a title that the town proudly prints on publicity
materials today. Located in the nations largest intercontinental
ballistic missile array, it seemed a perfect place for Carson to
listen to the telephone lines of local civilians, fishing for potential
security breaches. It was while listening to a line in Kimball that
he first heard Imogene Campbell.
September 12, 1962
Today I heard a woman talk about laundry. Her name was Ima Jean
(kind of like my name!), and she nearly made me laugh out loud.
She was talking to a friend about lint, and they have some entrepreneurial
ideas for what to do with extra lint. They will set up a collection
for all the laundries in New York and the lint will be processed
by an as yet unknown technology and used to make beautiful things.
Those girls talking funny really brightened my day.
Carson continued to tune in to Imogene Campbell every few days.
She and her husband ran a small motel. For the NSA, any hotel in
a potentially hot geographical area was something to listen to.
Even spies need places to stay, but more importantly, if any servicemen
from the silos were engaged in illicit meetings, this would be the
place. As the weeks passed, Carson listened to Imogene Campbells
phone more and more, until he was tuning in every day. His diary
becomes much more personal.
May 15, 1963
Imogene was very upset today, and Im not even sure why. She
had a long talk with Bea Evans about how she wishes it would warm
up and get sunny, but she was so depressed and melancholy. I hope
she is in a better mood tomorrow.
By 1964, every entry in the diary was about Imogene Campbell. The
accounts grew, becoming more detailed and more speculative. By the
end of 1964, two years into writing the diary, crude diagrams appear
that map out the telephone connections between Imogene Campbell,
her friends and family.
February 5, 1964
Imogene was crying today, and talking to everyone. Charlie got crushed
by a combine and died. I felt real bad for Imogene, I wished I could
help her. Im not too sad for Charlie though, Charlie wasnt
so good for her anyway. He was never home except in the middle of
winter, and Imogene thinks he should have helped out with the motel
and sold the land. If I were Charlie I would have been there to
help Imogene and none of this wouldve happened to her.
With Charlie Campbell out of the picture, Gene Carsons infatuation
with Imogene Campbell grew. He was offered a promotion at work,
but he turned it down. He was internally investigated for turning
down the promotion, but they found nothing extraordinary. Other
NSA employees said that Carson continued to identify good
leads on suspected espionage, and he was very well liked in
the office for the stories he told about his days in Signals Intelligence.
Co-workers regularly goaded him into talking about the time in 1942
when he was face to face with Alan Turing, master cryptonalyst and
inventor. Turing was being shown through the lab where Carson worked.
He looked Carson in the eye as he briskly strode past, and Carson
quickly transformed his awestruck, sixteen-year-old stare into a
performance of concentration, redirecting his gaze down at the desk.
But when he looked down, instead of seeing his work in front of
him, he was distracted by Turings ankles. Turings socks
didnt match, and not only didnt they match: one was
red and the other was blue. Years later, dozens of Carsons
co-workers all got a good laugh out of this story, even though as
one co-worker who wishes to remain anonymous put it: It was
only funny because of the way Gene told it. He was trying to be
such a man, and then he sees that his hero is wearing clowns
Carson was able to keep his job because he was well liked and older.
Over the years, however, his co-workers heard the stories less and
less, and Carson grew more self absorbed and reclusive. His diary
entries grew more emphatic, indicating that he yearned to reach
out to Imogene Campbell.
July 11, 1968
Your voice is always with me. Today I went to the bank and told
the teller that your birthday was coming up and I wanted to get
you a television. The teller really seemed happy about it, and he
winked at me when he handed over the money. I know this is just
my fantasy but I need something. Ill put the money back in
the bank tomorrow. I cant get you a TV now. Contact would
be treason, I think.
Over the next few years, Carson continued to listen and to write.
Once he actually did catch a serviceman from the silos talking freely
to his girlfriend in the hotel, and his superiors accepted it as
continued justification for listening to Campbells motel phone.
But the more he listened, the more he wanted to speak.
October 14, 1975
I just want to make contact with you. Thats all I want to
The tension created by this passive listening grew, and became the
subject of everything Carson wrote in his diaries. He knew he could
figure out a way to speak to Campbell, but he also understood that
such contact was not very likely to go unnoticed in the agency.
He considered a trip to Kimball, but he was acutely aware that if
he visited a region he was listening to, he would be discovered
for sure. A city would have been fine, but a small town like Kimball
would be sure to create a glaring red flag. He began to suffer restless
nights and anxiety dreams became commonplace.
December 7, 1979
I dreamed that I was on a very, very top-secret case. It was during
the war. All night we had been awake, squinting at vast charts of
numbers. I realized that the code was in Turings socks. I
rushed to the telephone, and called England. I was hysterical with
excitement. My fingers fumbled on a giant red telephone. As soon
as I heard an answer on the other end of the line, I started to
yell. Get Turing! Hike up his pants legs its
in the weave of his socks, when they line up you can solve the cipher!
And then I shut up, cupped my hand over my mouth, and slammed the
phone back into the receiver. I forgot. The Germans were probably
listening. Now Hitler would win the war, and it was all my fault.
Luckily, I woke up before it got worse.
By the 1980s, Carson was fighting to keep his job alive. There had
always been a healthy budget, but now younger people he didnt
know were starting to manage his division. The new guys
didnt remember Carsons stories, and began to see him
as dead wood that needed to be cleared out. With the older people
that knew and respected him he had always been able to make arguments
that kept the listening job afloat, but the new managers kept pressing
to close it down. New technologies were changing the way that the
NSA did business. Supercomputers tracking data was much more important
than a bank of phone operators.
March 12, 1985
I think you should get a cordless phone. Then you can move around
the house easier and talk to me more. I have to hear you more now.
I cannot lose you. They cant replace my love for you with
a computer. A computer cannot listen. Computers only look. Key words
mean nothing. I love you Imogene.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan dedicated the new NSA building complex on
the grounds of Fort Meade, Maryland. It was Carsons worst
nightmare; he was given a job at the new complex, and his listening
program was completely phased out. He found himself in an office
November 11, 1987
The new building looks like a computer. It is so impersonal. I used
to love Turing, but now I hate him. If he didnt exist maybe
the computer wouldnt exist. Then I could still hear you Imogene.
There is nothing personal about the computer. I cannot continue
without you. Every day on his way in and out of the building, Carson
would sigh as he passed the memorial to fallen cryptologists killed
in the line of duty. Engraved on the granite pyramid were the words
They Served In Silence.
Carsons co-workers saw his health deteriorate, but no one
said anything. Later they recalled that he looked emaciated, never
spoke, and always wore an expression of despair. But at the time,
they just didnt think it was a
problem. After the Christmas holiday in 1988 he never came back
to work. The coroners report showed a lack of nourishment.
He had stopped eating in November, starving himself to death. His
last entry reads as follows:
December 23, 1988
I remember when you used to tell me that fruit from the supermarket
is tasteless. I agree with you. If small markets work, why do we
need the super markets? I miss you.
At the urging of friends, Imogene Campbell released the diaries
to the press. Although the story was published in several liberal
newspapers, the NSA discounted the diaries as unsubstantiated fantasy.
Nonetheless, Campbell was grateful to have the money. She used it
to pay off her outstanding debt from years of operating in the red
after the interstate bypassed her motel. Today she lives comfortably
in Kimball, where she watches the large screen television almost
every night, and uses the cordless phone to talk to her friends.