What’s the deal with NSA’s operation names?

October 22, 2013
FILE - This June 6, 2013, file photo shows a sign outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. Spying by the National Security Agency has cost the United States economically and angered allies, a bipartisan group of senators said Sept. 25, in unveiling legislation that would end the collection of millions of Americans' phone records and data on Internet usage. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) The National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The latest revelation in the string of formerly top-secret National Security Agency’s operations is a project in which U.S. agents hacked into Mexican officials’ e-mails. It’s dubbed “Whitetamale,” which could be the name of a vegetarian special at a Tex-Mex joint, or possibly an ethnicity-bending rap artist.

The moniker is bizarre, yes. But not unexpected. Previous NSA code names have been curious-er. Our favorite so far is “Egotisticalgiraffe,” the moniker given to a technique that allowed the NSA to uncover the identities of those using a communications system designed to keep users anonymous.

So what’s behind the odd titles?

Matthew Aid, author of “The Secret Sentry: the Untold History of the National Security Agency,” explains that most of the NSA’s code names are no more than computer-generated sequences of words.

“Some computer has a strange sense of humor, ” he says. “I’ve never met an egotistical giraffe. I’m waiting for ‘rusticrhubarb’. There are only so many words in the English language.”

They are intentionally random so as to avoid in any way indicating the kind of operation it is or whose identity is being protected, he says.

Witness some of the other cable-intercept programs included in the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Aid’s wackier favorites include Moneyrocket (targeting counterterrorism in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia), Shiftingshadow (Afghanistan and Pakistan), Yachtshop (worldwide Internet metadata),

And then there’s the mysterious Steelflauta, which sounds like it could be related to Whitetamale. (A flauta is a rolled tortilla dish).

The NSA’s daily workings are rife with code names. Missions, programs, operations, companies, and individuals are assigned them.  The bizarre lexicon then shows up on Power Point presentations — which was the bulk of Snowden’s document dump.

For example, Aid says, the telecom companies that participated in the Prism program were given nifty (and random) aliases. Verizon is “Stormbrew,” while AT&T is “Fairview.”

Yet some names seem intentionally chosen. Prism, for example, actually seems to evoke the program’s mission.  “That one does actually sound like a human sat down” and created it, he says.

And sometimes, it seems that there’s a sly sense of humor at work. The NSA’s first cable-intercept program, created during the Cold War, was called Shamrock, though it was eventually shuttered after criticism from Congress. It’s replacement? The NSA dubbed it “Blarney.”

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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