Using cartoons, games and kid-friendly websites, the federal intelligence
community is seeking to win the hearts and minds of America's children.
Move over, McGruff. The trench-coated canine mascot of the National Crime Prevention
Council has some youthful competition in the battle for the hearts and minds
of America's children. Now in virtual training on the website of the National
Security Agency are the CryptoKids, the code-makers and code-breakers of
The NSA, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, has seven CryptoKids in its trademarked
menagerie, including Crypto Cat, versed in Navajo, the language of the storied
code talkers of World
War II; Decipher Dog, a cryptanalyst who learned the fine points of broadband
networking from his stepmother, an NSA network engineer; T. Top, a turtle who
knows how to design and build computers; and a language analyst named Rosetta
This Toys 'R' Us approach to spying is nothing new for the fifteen agencies
that comprise the "intelligence
community" of the US government, including the CIA, the NSA and the
National Reconnaissance Office. In 1997 President Bill Clinton mandated that
all government agencies set aside virtual space on their websites for child-friendly
material. Today, these sites serve as recruiting portals for America's youth.
The CryptoKids were born in February 2004 within the bowels of Fort Meade and,
according to Kwanza Gipson of the NSA public affairs office, were designed "strictly"
to reflect only the official information contained within the main website.
Of course, since the official stance of the agency concerning the recent warrantless
wiretapping scandal has been to deny the program's illegality and to treat domestic
spying as business as usual, this strict adherence to the office line conveniently
recuses the CryptoKids from having to discuss the issue with children. After
all, if General Michael
Hayden insists that the program is not "domestic spying," as he
did at the Washington Press Club recently, then what more could Sergeant Sam
possibly add to the debate?
Moreover, as Gipson points out, "The site offers parents a safe, online
environment in which their children can learn and play." Parents can be
sure that, of all the voices on the Internet, at least the CryptoKids won't
offer underage visitors any controversial information that could lead to a warrantless
wiretap. A similar mentality prevails at other kid-friendly government sites.
At the National Reconnaissance Office's NRO
Junior site, for example, an animated extra-terrestrial named Whirly Lizard
shares stories--first-person accounts ostensibly written by anonymous children
but eerily recited by adult voices. With all the sophistication of a Saturday-morning
cartoon, these simplistic anecdotes are designed to boost patriotism and an
interest in outer space. In a cyber-chapter titled "Proud
to Be an American," an unidentified young author explains, "I
have my teachers, my friends, my pet, my toys, my home, and my family. I have
God to watch me. I love America. I love being me." Corey Corona, an NRO
character named for the Eisenhower-era spy satellite, hosts a series of games
including Catch, in which the player pilots a cargo plane and tries to intercept
various robotic figures falling from outer space.
Cathy Bowers, a spokeswoman for the NRO, based just south of Washington-Dulles
International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, hearkens back to the educational
push of the Sputnik era to explain the purpose of the NRO kids' site. "We
need to have children understand the importance of space," she says, "to
get them interested in careers in space, intelligence and government. We call
space the 'Ultimate Vantage Point.'"
Sparking an interest in the cosmos for a target audience of kindergarteners,
first- and second graders shouldn't be difficult. As Bowers points out, kids
are already excited by outer space, especially by aliens. The twist here is
translating that purely exploratory interest into a desire to spy on friends
and neighbors. And ultimately, Bowers says, the website is about security. "It's
all about protection," she says.
When asked about the warrantless surveillance that NRO-designed and -operated
satellites enable, Bowers toes the intelligence community's line. "We stand
behind the President," she says. "Everyone's trying to protect everyone
else. Some degree of secrecy is required."
Back at CryptoKids virtual HQ, with a toothy, sugar-cube smile and a nineteenth-century
electro-transmitter, an eagle named CSS Sam presides over Operation: Dit-Dah,
one of the NSA's games for aspiring young snoops and narcs. Sam teaches Morse
code and challenges players to decrypt various words and phrases. For those
skeptical about the applicability of 160-year-old Morse code in the Internet
age, Sam reminds them in a "fun fact" that "in the movie Independence
Day, when all other ways of communicating had been destroyed, the survivors
of the alien attack used Morse code to collaborate a counter-attack plan."
It's not just government snoop organizations that blur fiction and fact, imagination
and reality on their child-friendly sites. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms website, for example, features the essay "I'm
a Bomb Dog Now!"--a first-canine account by Truman, an explosives-sniffing
Labrador retriever who works with ATF Special Agent Joe Harrington in New England.
Truman's job is essential to national security, he says, because "sometimes
people do bad things to try to hurt others. I can help stop that from happening,
or, if it has already happened, I can find evidence to help law enforcement
officers find out who did it so that the person can never do it again."
With cartoons, games and anthropomorphic animals, America's intelligence community
is ensuring security for the next generation. How safe do you feel?
Simon Maxwell Apter, a former muffin baker from Oregon,
is an intern at The Nation.