I'm pretty sure I found the first use of "WTF" in an e-mail

Josh Clark

I wonder if Marc Maron knows this. I wonder if anyone else knows this. It's entirely possible that I'm the only person on the entire planet who knows this. I'm pretty sure I discovered the first use of "wtf" in an e-mail.

And it's actually mentioned in print form, deep in Robert Woodward's book, "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981 -1987." In it, Woodward chronicles the covert action waged by CIA director William Casey under the Reagan Administration against the governments of countries like Libya and the funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to arm the resistance against the Soviets by the Mujahideen (which later became the Taliban) in Afghanistan.

It's a pretty cool book, and at the centerpiece is the covert support of the right-wing paramilitary Contras in their battle against the leftist Sandinista government that had come to power in Nicaragua in 1979. Under Casey, the Contras received arms, guerrilla training, humanitarian aid, and leadership organization in an effort to turn the group into a politically-viable party. Casey hated the Communists and was a firm believer in the domino effect and, by God, he wasn't about to let Russian and Cuban-supported governments stand for too long in countries in the U.S.'s backyard.

Casey did absolutely everything to keep weapons and aid flowing to the Contras. He lied to Congress, he borrowed money from Saudi princes and laundered it through private American arms dealers. At one point he okayed the covert mining of Nicaragua's main harbor (an action that ended up exploding a British merchant ship). Again, he really didn't like Communists.

Had he not died a couple days after the story broke, Casey may have played out more as a villain during the investigation and hearing of the Iran-Contra affair. Instead, at the center, falling on his sword, was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who, although not the only person who managed the affair (both Casey and the NSA's Admiral John Poindexter mentored and advised North on handling the extremely covert operation), was certainly the guy who was carrying it out.

Back in the 80s, the U.S. had a problem with American nationals being kidnapped in Lebanon. Since it maintained a policy of not dealing with terrorists, the U.S. had no public recourse, aside from tracking the people who were kidnapping Americans, to little avail. The intelligence gathered on Lebanese terrorists kept leading back to Iran, which the U.S. refused to deal with as well.

That Reagan couldn't spring American hostages really stuck in the president's craw and when U.S. intelligence learned that Iran was willing to influence the Lebanese to free hostages if the U.S. would sell missiles to the Iranians. Reagan hopped on it, put the NSA in charge of the most sensitive covert operation of his two terms and it fell to Lt. Col. North to carry it out.

North went about as deep into cover as a military asset can go without a garrote. At one point he actually traveled to Iran and he and Casey discussed him taking along a cyanide pill in case he was captured and tortured. He orchestrated the sale of hundreds of TOW missiles from Israel to Iran on more than one occasion. After delivery, the U.S. restocked the Israelis' supply and collected the proceeds from untraceable Swiss and Cayman accounts. Under Casey's advisement, North funneled much of the profits from the sales to the Contras, which Congress had chosen to cut off.

It was a big deal and when it came out, heads would fly. Everyone knew it, including North. Reagan had issued a retroactive directive for the Iran missile sales to be kept quiet from Congress, but North had gone far beyond the scope of that directive by funneling profits to the Contras. Toward the end of the book, things are beginning to fall apart.

On page 500, Woodward includes an electronic message sent from North to his assistant Robert Earl, "Let's get out little-nipper in here and find out wtf is going on." And there it was, staring me in the face. It took me a second, since WTF has become so ubiquitous in the post-dot-com era. But in the next sentence, Woodward mentions offhandedly that "WTF" is Marine jargon, long-established Marine jargon, kind of like FUBAR or AWOL or TFOA. Woodward wrote Veil in 1987, long before the letters "A," "O," and "L" were ever strung together and "prodigy" was only accompanied by a grave shake of the head when mentioning Bobby Fischer or Geoffrey Rush in "Shine."

Oliver North wrote that e-mail toward the end of 1986, using either Arpanet, a dedicated encrypted telecom network for the NSA or the restricted version of the Internet (which wasn't made public until 1992, I understand from Jon Strickland at TechStuff). This means that in 1986, there were probably only a couple thousand people with access to electronic messaging and even fewer who were Marines or used jargon like wtf. Even by the following year when "Veil" was written, Woodward traipsed right past commemorating the event, because there was nothing worth commemorating yet.

What we have then, locked within page 500 of the hardcover edition of Robert Woodward's "Veil," is pretty likely evidence that Lt. Col. Oliver North was the first person in the world to write "wtf" in an e-mail.

Ta-da.

Hey check out SYSK on Facebook and Twitter. What's the hold up?

I wonder if Marc Maron knows this. I wonder if it's possible that I'm the only person on the entire planet who knows this. I'm pretty sure I discovered the first use of WTF? ever in an e-mail.

In his book, "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981 -1987," Robert Woodward chronicles the covert action waged by CIA director William Casey under the Reagan Administration against the governments of countries like Libya and the funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to arm the resistance against the Soviets by the Mujahideen (which later became the Taliban) in Afghanistan.

It's a pretty cool book, and at the centerpiece is the covert support of the right-wing paramilitary Contras in their battle against the leftist Sandinista government that had come to power in Nicaragua in 1979. Casey hated Commies and was a firm believer in the domino effect and, by God, he wasn't about to let Russian and Cuban-supported governments stand for too long in countries in the U.S.'s back yard.

Casey did absolutely everything to keep weapons and aid flowing to the Contras. He lied to Congress, borrowed money from Saudi princes and laundered it through private American arms dealers and at one point covertly mined Nicaragua's main harbor (a move that ended up exploding a British merchant ship). Again, he really didn't like Commies.

Had he not died a couple days after the story broke, Casey would have likely played out more as a villain during the investigation and hearing of the Iran-Contra affair. Instead, at the center, falling on his sword, was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who, although not the only person who managed the affair (both Casey the NSA's Admiral John Poindexter mentored and advised North on handling the extremely covert operation) was certainly the guy who was carrying it out.

Back in the 80s, the U.S. had a problem with American nationals being kidnapped in Lebanon. Since it maintained a policy of not dealing with terrorists, the U.S. had no public recourse, aside from tracking the people who were kidnapping Americans, to little avail. The intelligence gathered on Lebanese terrorists kept leading back to the Iranians, which the U.S. refused to deal with as well.

That Reagan couldn't spring American hostages really stuck in the president's craw and when U.S. intelligence learned that Iran was willing to influence the Lebanese to free