Tom Matzzie could hear it in the stranger's voice -- between words like "black sites" and "rendition."
Mr. Matzzie hadn't lived in Western Pennsylvania since he graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1993, but he never lost his trained ear for Pittsburghese.
Just a few seats away from him on an Oct. 24 Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., sat a man with a recognizable face giving a series of interviews about the National Security Agency. And every now and then, this stranger rounded his Os.
Soon enough, Mr. Matzzie, a self-described progressive, realized his fellow passenger was Michael Hayden, director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and a CIA director under President George W. Bush. An Internet search confirmed his other suspicion: Gen. Hayden, like Mr. Matzzie, was from Pittsburgh.
Within an hour these two Pittsburghers -- separated by political ideology and a handful of seats on an Amtrak train -- were connected by a news story that quickly spread through social media and eventually ended up in newspapers across the country, including this one.
Gen. Hayden was giving interviews on background to a number of journalists. To Mr. Matzzie, it sounded as if Gen. Hayden was criticizing the Obama administration. In a later interview with the Washington Post, his only public comment since the incident, Gen. Hayden insisted he was not.
"Eventually I thought, 'This is newsworthy,' " Mr. Matzzie said in an interview Friday. " 'Maybe I'll tweet about it.' I was probably the absolute worst person for this to happen to Michael Hayden."
Mr. Matzzie, 38, has spent most of his professional life working for liberal and progressive causes. The former Washington director of the liberal political group MoveOn.org has spent the past two years building Ethical Electric, a Washington-based energy company that lets users buy renewable energy, such as wind and solar.
He founded the company in 2011 after installing solar panels at his house and realizing how challenging that process can be. Today, more than 17,000 people use his company, more than half of whom reside in Pennsylvania.
He moved to Washington in 1997 after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, and worked for a number of organizations that supported left-leaning causes. He helped build Internet programs for the AFL-CIO and eventually was hired by MoveOn.org.
In those jobs, he built a network of well-connected and influential friends -- many of whom happened to follow Mr. Matzzie on Twitter and were enthralled by his blow-by-blow account of Gen. Hayden's conversations.
"If there's someone you don't want eavesdropping on you, it's Tom Matzzie," said Jeremy Wells, a former classmate at Mt. Lebanon who now works in commercial and residential real estate with Keller Williams in the South Hills.
When he heard about his friend's run-in with Gen. Hayden, he was not surprised. Mr. Wells, a conservative, had often sparred with Mr. Matzzie about political issues.
"He hasn't changed a bit," Mr. Wells said. "He's always been a politician of sorts."
Mr. Matzzie was student body president at Mt. Lebanon and recently helped plan his 20-year class reunion -- held just a couple of weeks ago Downtown at Olive or Twist.
"I would say there's certainly something about growing up in Pittsburgh that makes you aware of the world," Mr. Matzzie said. "Pittsburgh, as a city, has a connection to big moments in U.S. history."
Somewhere between Washington and Philadelphia, he found himself connected to a big story -- listening to a former NSA and CIA director give anonymous interviews as the country debates the role and scope of the NSA.
In a span of 40 minutes, Mr. Matzzie fired off 14 tweets detailing Gen. Hayden's conversations. He later wrote of his concerns about what would happen when someone informed the former NSA director what was transpiring.
Before Gen. Hayden, 68, disembarked in Newark, N.J., he tracked down Mr. Matzzie, who was heading for New York City.
"He walked up and said, 'Would you like a real interview?' " Mr. Matzzie recalled.
"I said, 'I'm not a reporter.' He said, 'Everybody's a reporter.' "
In an attempt to quickly diffuse the potentially tense situation, Mr. Matzzie said he told Gen. Hayden, "I'm a Pittsburgher, just like you are."
The two talked for several minutes about where they grew up, warrantless wiretapping and the Fourth Amendment.
Before they parted, the men smiled together for a picture that Mr. Matzzie posted to Twitter.
The caption: "Me and Steeler fan Michael Hayden."
Me and Steeler fan Michael Hayden. pic.twitter.com/vOmr6RIMPe— Tom Matzzie (@tommatzzie) October 24, 2013
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.