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 America’s future.
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 Stone.
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 National Press Club recently, then what more could Sergeant Sam possibly add to the debate?
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported Hayden spoke to the Washington Press Club. This has been corrected.]
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?