July 2020 Alum of the Month: Clinton Brooks '56, P'83, '84
Hotchkiss | Clinton Brooks '56

Clinton Brooks '56, P'83, '84 is a former assistant deputy director of the National Security Agency and expert on cryptology, information technology, and homeland security. His work has been widely recognized, including by national commendations, medals, and several Presidential awards.

A native of Sewickley, PA, Brooks attended Sewickley Academy. When it became time for secondary school, Hotchkiss was the only option. "My father, J. Judson Brooks, Class of 1927, had gone to Hotchkiss. The implicit family script said I would go to Hotchkiss (my brother, J. Judson Brooks Jr. '59, also would attend), then Yale, then business or law school, and return to the family banking business. I never considered any other school. Ironically, Hotchkiss became the start of the disrupter of the script."

Prep year impacted Brooks in several lasting ways. "I was on Steve Bolmer's floor of Buehler. When two classmates in the only double room on the floor were boisterously at odds with each other, Mr. Bolmer asked if I would move into the double room with Al Leisenring. We hadn't met, but we agreed. Thus commenced an everlasting friendship with a person who had a profound effect on my career. Al was a serious student, superb in mathematics. This transferred to me. Mr. Bolmer was a math teacher, and I developed a lasting relationship with him."

Brooks was also heavily influenced by Headmaster George Van Santvoord '08. "Out of the blue one day he asked me to give a presentation to the School on diminishing our wasteful electricity use. I was an introverted lad, but in this way, he was nurturing my potential leadership skills. My abilities and interest in math and science came to the fore at Hotchkiss. When it came time to follow the family script and apply to Yale, Van Santvoord asked me to consider MIT, and I did, but ultimately decided to go to Yale. I am quite glad I did as I received a much broader education there. Yet, a deviation from the family script was underway; I was heading for a career in math and science.

"Another significant aspect of my Hotchkiss experience was a lasting love of the outdoors. Al shared this interest, and we, along with classmate Ted Allen, trooped all over the hills around Lakeville on holidays. It was too far to go home for spring vacation; so I went to Ted's home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where we explored the nearby White Mountains. Senior year, Ted, Al, and I climbed Mount Washington on skis and camped out in Tuckerman's Ravine. In those days we did not have today's camping gear, and when the temperature went to 25 degrees below freezing, I frost-bit my feet. Back at Hotchkiss I struggled with severe pain. The School doctor suggested that I try running to pound blood circulation into my feet. Thus commenced long-distance running in my life, ultimately leading to a number of marathons."

At Yale, Brooks joined the NROTC. "Graduating in 1956, we faced the draft. The Korean War had occurred, and Vietnam was looming. My friends' older brothers who had been drafted said, 'You want to be an officer,' so I committed to the NROTC program." Brooks started at Yale in the Industrial Administration curriculum in the Engineering School. "For sophomore year, I checked off 35 courses of interest in the Course Catalog, but when my schedule included none of them, I switched to Yale College as a mathematics major. With my Hotchkiss background, I was placed in advanced first-year graduate school math, along with Al Leisenring. We were in way over our heads, though Al fared better than I. I was also taking my first physics course and ultimately switched to a physics major." Senior year Brooks spent time at the Brookhaven National Lab, running cloud- chamber experiments to create and then identify nuclear particles. This was also the first year he could fit astronomy in his schedule - a long-standing interest.

"Our family had a summer cottage in northern Ontario, Canada, where I spent many nights gazing at the stars, the Milky Way, and the aurora borealis. I wanted to pursue astronomy, but was concerned that if I went into the Navy before I did graduate work, it might be difficult to return to graduate school. A Lieutenant instructor in the Yale NROTC went to bat for me with the Pentagon, convincing them that I was not trying to avoid my obligations. So I remained at Yale and launched into a Ph.D. study in Radio Astronomy - a whole new domain. In 1961, I married a Sewickley Academy classmate, whose father was a Yale man and primary lawyer for a big Pittsburgh steel firm. He was unimpressed that his daughter married a graduate student in Astronomy!"

Brooks was ordered to active duty in 1965, when he received a letter from the Department of Defense and was asked to report to the Fort Meade Army base in Maryland. "Even though I was still two years from completing my Ph.D., and unable to get anyone in the Pentagon to explain what was transpiring, I dutifully drove to Fort Meade. When I located the Navy barracks, they informed me that the huge complex was the National Security Agency (NSA), more secret than the CIA. Its existence was not to be acknowledged. They said I had been cleared for access very quickly; I must have had something they really wanted.

"Ushered into the complex and briefed on some of the nation's highest security clearances, I learned of the NSA's missions to provide secure communications for the U.S. military and top-level government officials and gain access to the equivalent communications of foreign adversaries. I was reminded of President Kennedy's commitment to place an American on the moon and bring him back alive before the Soviets - a national Cold War priority. We did not have the technology to do this, and the Soviets appeared to be ahead of us." With Brooks's knowledge of astronomy, he was expected to help. His assignment was to determine the Soviets' plans, capabilities, and progress.

"It was incredibly exciting to work with and push state-of-the-art technologies of our communications and computer companies. We established antenna and communications systems surrounding the Soviet Union to be able to monitor their space and missile test launches. Needing to transmit data back from any test launch to know what had happened, we would intercept the data, figure out what was being measured, and how it was being formatted and transmitted - reverse engineering, a complicated technological machine from a string of ones and zeroes.

"When my obligatory Navy tour was completed, they wanted me to continue in a career with them. NSA wanted me to remain with them as a civilian. My Ph.D. work was still incomplete, having been interrupted, and NSA offered to hire me and give me a year's leave without pay to complete it. I did this, receiving the Ph.D. in 1968 for having built a radio astronomy system to make accurate position measurements of the just-discovered strong radio sources in space to help identify them with known optical objects. Then commenced a truly exciting career of multiple, totally different jobs within the Agency. From the Soviet space and missiles work, I was made head of the Communications Security Research and Development organization, where we worked on what became GPS.

"I was then called to the Pentagon by an Air Force Lt. General who informed me that because of my position, if the threat of a Soviet missile strike materialized, I was to take my wife and children with me to an underground survival complex 'to reestablish communications after a missile attack.' I had no idea how communications could be reestablished after radioactive missiles massively destroyed the environment. He didn't either, but added that it was my job to achieve it."

Brooks realized that it would be essential to have communications advising citizens after an attack. "I knew we could not expect humans to be able to reconstruct communications rapidly in whatever conditions might be likely, and that we needed to design a system that could repair itself. I went to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) where they were working on advanced concepts such as this - they were developing what has become the Internet." Brooks was involved with the evolution of the Internet from the start and realized its potential for both its great good and possible abuse.

"One aspect that became clear to me was that there was going to be a need for good, reliable encryption available on the Internet, and this was going to raise fundamental serious issues of protection of individual personal information and privacy in concert with law enforcement's being able to protect the safety of U.S. citizens. For years, NSA had worked with U.S. allies to try to keep the strength of encryption in commercial products at a level where we could break into it if terrorists or foreign adversaries were to use it. This was now threatened. In 1998, the Agency Director sounded the alert, 'For years we have successfully been able to put a finger in the dike when a leak occurred, but the dike is about to break open. We need a new strategy.'"

One of Brooks's strengths was in both seeing the big picture and strategic planning. "For me, this was the attraction of astronomy and working on the evolution of our universe versus the physics of quantum mechanics. I knew there would be philosophical and emotional ideological arguments raging over what was being labeled as the 'privacy versus security' issue. This is a false dichotomy, because in computer security when we say 'security' we mean confidentiality, integrity, and authentication of the information. Security includes confidentiality = privacy. The real issue is freedom versus control. I added that the arguments would be endless and theoretical unless there was a technological solution. The Director assigned me to report directly to him and develop a strategy, including a solution.

"This resulted in the key escrow concept as the technology and launched me into trying to orchestrate a National Encryption Policy for our country. I referred to our Constitution continually and was guided by it, particularly in regard to the First and Fourth Amendments in the 'Bill of Rights.' The policy I advocated was to provide strong information protection for U.S. citizens, while enabling law enforcement and national security officials to protect our citizens as they are legally authorized to do. I dreamed, it turned out naively, and too idealistically, of using the developing Internet to foster a national deliberation on this and how to implement it. The 'Clipper Chip' became the first suggested technological embodiment."

Brooks worked with five committees of Congress, the National Security Council, the Secretaries of Defense, Commerce, Treasury and State, the Office of Management and Budget, the Attorney General, the FBI Director, Vice President Al Gore, and the CEOs of the major U.S. software companies. "It was an incredible inside experience of how our government works. A major challenge was trying to explain a highly technical situation, including expectations of what the Internet might evolve to, to top-level government officials with little technical background. I spent sleepless nights wrestling with my role as an unelected government civilian orchestrating a national policy that directly impacted our Constitution's First and Fourth Amendments. I went to the Justice Department's constitutional lawyers about this. Somewhere is a 30-page analytic paper that laid my concerns to rest.

"The hacker community, academics, and civil libertarians capitalized on their technological knowledge of the Internet to distort and misinform about Clipper. Many quietly told me that the escrow idea was a good concept, but they were going to fight it any way they could because they saw it as the 'camel's nose under the tent' for the government to get control over their desire for total freedom of the Internet. This was the first indication of what was to become common in the future of the Internet: deliberate misinformation and disinformation."

Brooks formally retired in May 2001 from NSA, but his expertise in security issues led to a call back by then-Director Hayden on September 12, 2001, to work on a Homeland Security strategy following the 9/11 attacks. He recalls, "When the World Trade Center towers were brought down, I was overwhelmed, along with many of my peers, with a deep sense that we at NSA had failed our country. We felt that we should have been able to have discovered the planning for this. I became very emotional even talking about it. With the extensive insights I gained from my Encryption Policy efforts into how our government, politically and pragmatically, functions, I was highly concerned that we would do the typical political forming of a new organization.

"At the operating level in the Intelligence Community, we understood where the lack of information-sharing amongst the Agencies and organizations had precluded detecting the al-Qaeda plotting. We were working together to get information-sharing established, and I published a paper in the now-defunct Journal of Homeland Security laying out why we should not form a new Homeland Security organization. We would be starting over again right in the midst of trying to understand what the terrorist threat really was. In its first six months, the new department would be focused on where it could be located and what its uniforms should look like. The Congressional Democrats were passing a bill to establish a new department; so the Bush Administration slapped together the proposed Department of Homeland Security legislation in a week. Everything I predicted in my paper occurred.

"I was also greatly concerned that we would react with military force to punish the perpetrators and most likely get ourselves into an ever-escalating quagmire, as we are wont to do when lacking a well-formulated strategy. Instead of destroying a small al-Qaeda operation, we ended up escalating it into an ideology we are still confronting. I devoted my time to helping the NSA Director in his effort to change NSA from a Cold War, anti-Soviet Union culture to focus now on an exploding, high-technological information environment where we would be inundated with information coming at us in volumes and speed faster than we could handle it."


In a speech at Hotchkiss in the fall of 2004, Brooks addressed the topic of the true definition of terrorism, citing the poignant difference between the free-world definition and The Islamic Conference definition. He explained that al-Qaeda, at that time, was made up of foot soldiers predominantly from caring, intact families, two-thirds of whom were from the upper-middle class, with 60 percent college-educated, and added that the single common thread was that they felt and strongly expressed an overwhelming sense of humiliation. "They shared basic principles that Muslims must arm in a holy war against the West and that Islamic governments should replace secular rulers. They were also highly indignant about the Muslim deaths in the Palestine territories and Iraq." He feels we have made strides in supporting moderate Muslims, therefore encouraging and supporting their religious leaders to stand up to the distortions being propagated by the extreme elements, yet cautions that we need to be very concerned about what we have learned and pay attention to our intelligence information and analysis.

While much of Brooks's work and significant contributions to our country remain highly classified, he has received many public awards, including the Joint Service Commendation Medal; Meritorious Executive Presidential Rank Award (President Reagan); Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal; Distinguished Executive Presidential Rank Award (President Clinton); National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal; and the Director's Distinguished Service Medal, National Security Agency.

He advises that we, as a nation, need to agree on: what are the realistic threats to our national security; why are they threats; what could we do about them; and decide which we want to address and develop a well-thought-through, coherent strategy that would set our priorities, focus, and policies. Then, when the answers have been identified, manage the government to execute this.

Brooks still works unofficially with some former colleagues to try to educate decision makers on the challenge of a secure electronic voting system. "We had learned that one can have the best-designed security equipment, but if it is not properly used, it may have little or no security. The human being is always the weak link. We had a huge advantage in that we were designing for military use. The doctrine would be going to disciplined people under orders to obey it. Whether or not commercial products are used properly is purely at the discretion, whim, and understanding of the user and quite likely by how much of a nuisance or inconvenience it is."

To further this point, he explains, "When the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed, we had an opportunity to ask a ranking officer in the KGB if their organization was ever able to break any of our crypto? He replied, 'Your cryptography is superb. We did not waste our time on trying to break it. The American weakness is in your people. We exploited this.' Any secure voting system we have been able to conceive always includes a large number of people, mostly inexperienced and briefly trained, involved across disparate processes, legal restrictions, and authorities. It is a nightmare for security control and a bonanza for hackers or trained knowledgeable attackers."

In closing, Brooks reflects on today's world and expects that there will not be a post-SARS-CoV-2 return to normal. "We have no idea of what the world will be like when today's Hotchkiss students graduate from college, whatever even that may mean. We will need well-educated people with principles, fundamental values, and critical thinking skills. Hotchkiss provides these. As my career exemplifies, one can have a rewarding, meaningful, vibrant, exciting, and challenging life of continuous growth by following one's interests and keeping open to opportunities that might arise."


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