from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

The CIA Wants Your Kids

An aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA).

April 18, 2012

An aerial view of the National Security Agency (NSA).
Blog Post

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is a sprawling network of roughly 210,000 civilian and military employees across seventeen agencies as well as approximately 30,000 private contractors. With a budget of $75 billion between the national and military intelligence programs, the IC is authorized to carry out a range of activities and programs, including monitoring suspected nuclear weapons programs, killing suspected terrorists, and analyzing ongoing events for everyone from President Obama to soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

In an effort to counter some myths and misperceptions, create positive associations, and recruit future employees, eleven of the seventeen agencies of the IC have web pages dedicated to “kids,” which are equal parts informative, entertaining, creepy, and borderline inappropriate. (Beware that some of these pages have broken links, depriving American children fascinated by the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency.)

Most U.S. government agencies also have websites for children, which are intended to provide useful information in an entertaining format. For example, the Consumer Products Safety Commission features a self-described “goatboy!” named Kidd Safety: “I’m eleven years old and live in Goatlahoma. Don’t try to find it on a map. It is in the middle of nowheresville.” Kidd Safety emphasizes wearing safety gear during playtime, and gives tips on ways to make your home less dangerous. A related “Hey Kids!” page includes this daunting challenge for young children: “Find out how to help save lives and protect yourself and your family.”

At first glance, the IC kids’ pages raise puzzling questions. Why are the National Security Agency (NSA) Crypto Kids and its members registered trademarks?  How many hours have NSA lawyers spent making sure nobody profits off of Cypto Cat, Decipher Dog, or CSS Sam? Why does the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) kindergarten-fifth grade website, NRO Jr., play a haunting ambient soundtrack, while the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Kids Zone features patriotic fife and drums? Why are the NRO ringtones so lame? (Try “Epic Launch”—it sounds like every Michael Bay film.) Why does the CIA’s Memorial Wall still refuse to name some agents who were killed on active duty over fifty years ago, whereas the K-9 Hall of Fame names twenty retired CIA dogs?

At the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) kids web page, there are seven “missions” with “more to come!!” listed on the “mission control panel.” When you click the link for “air combat,” a uniformed avatar announces: “You have chosen to engage in air combat, good luck.” By using arrow keys to move from side-to-side and the space bar to fire, you attempt to defend yourself from incoming fighter aircraft. (Disclaimer: it’s hard!)

Another DIA game entitled, “How Quickly Can you Sort These Top Secret Documents?” asks children to drag flying pieces of paper into a binder—a particularly apt metaphor for IC over-classification. The CIA has the “Aerial Analysis Challenge” for children who dream of spying on U.S. enemies from above. At the FBI, you can disguise “Bobby Bureau” with various accessories or facial features. At the NCTC Kids Zone, you can play tic-tac-toe with Liberty, an African-American girl dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

For more practical information, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “Ready Kids” includes a readiness manual that asks fourth and fifth grade children: “Are you ready to help your family get prepared for the unexpected?...How do you get prepared for emergencies?” To help ten-year olds prepare their families for natural disasters, fires, and terrorist attacks, the manual features an extremely muscular family of bobcats in human clothing explaining the four steps of preparedness, from “Know the Facts” to “Graduate from Readiness U!”

Some children’s web pages recruit more aggressively than others. For example, the NSA has a student resources section that includes a picture of Slate, who is a rabbit that wears wrap-around shades, carries a trigonometry textbook, and is “really into music.” Above Slate’s head appears a question that most children will ask themselves at some point: “How Can I Work for NSA?” There, you will learn about the High School Work Study Program, which pays high school seniors around $20,000 for twenty to thirty-two hours of business computing or office technology work.

The CIA, meanwhile, doesn’t want to hire kids immediately, but they do provide tips to improve their future prospects, such as: communicate and write well, speak a foreign language, and—most importantly—“Seriously, Just Say ‘No’.”

All joking aside, most of these websites are harmless, albeit awkward, attempts to expose children to the U.S. Intelligence Community. Given the relentless efforts of advertising that children encounter on a daily basis, learning about the intelligence cycle from anthropomorphic animals is relatively tame, if uncool and unpersuasive.