In the Loop: Odd names for spy games


The sorry state of the dome is evident. For better or worse, the workers fixing it plan to steer clear of the goings-on inside the building’s chambers. (ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL/via Reuters)
Al Kamen
Columnist October 22, 2013

The latest in a string of revelations about the 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 name is bizarre, yes. But it’s 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.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

But 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 said. “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 indicating the kind of operation it is or whose identity is being protected, Aid 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), and “Yachtshop” (worldwide Internet metadata).

And then there’s the mysterious “Steelflauta,” which sounds as if it could be related to Whitetamale. (A flauta is a rolled taco.)

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 in slide presentations — which made up 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. An operation for hacking into Mexican officials’ e-mails just happened to be called Whitetamale? And PRISM, for example, seems to evoke the program’s mission. “That one does actually sound like a human sat down” and created it, he said.

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. Its replacement? The NSA dubbed it “Blarney.”

What’s broken on the Hill

The U.S. Capitol dome’s two-year, $60 million restoration project has been a long time coming.

The cast-iron dome, constructed 150 years ago — and championed by then-Sen. Jefferson Davis (D-Miss.) before he went off to run the Confederacy — has not had a complete renovation since 1960, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

The architect’s office is constantly working at restoration of the Capitol. It’s now doing an extraordinary restoration of the murals on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol, tediously retouching the walls to restore them to their original 19th-century design.

Workers will labor at night so as not to interfere with the work of Congress, a spokesman for the office told us. (These days, of course, polls are indicating it might be just as well to go ahead and work on the dome during the day.)

The project “is long overdue,” said our former colleague Guy Gugliotta, author of “Freedom’s Cap,” the story of the building of the dome in the shadow of the impending Civil War.

“There’s been a lot of water under the eaves” since a storm in the 1990s caused water to leak under the eaves and down onto the rotunda floor, Gugliotta said. Many lawmakers were most upset by that, and a 1998 study laid out what needed to be done. But a lot more damage and many more cracks — not to mention bird poop — accumulated before Congress agreed to move on it.

And it’s going to be a difficult project, because cast iron doesn’t particularly lend itself to welding.

“It melts,” Gugliotta noted, so “they’re going to have to use low-tech methods, like drilling the cracks and filling them with metal plugs, and to master those techniques before they begin. Failure is not an option. This is the U.S. Capitol.”

They’ve been called worse

We asked for Loop fans’ help last week in coming up with a new name for “lobbyist.” Seems the word has become tainted, as it apparently brings to mind unsavory images of influence peddlers, so much so that the American League of Lobbyists is changing its name.

Loop fans stepped up to the challenge. Among the printable-in-a-family-newspaper (ahem) suggestions, these were some of our favorites:

●“The House whisperers.”

●“Spinterest groups.”

●“PACslappers.”

●“Votehelpists.”

●“Legislative creationists.”

And we couldn’t help notice several entries that shared one interesting acronym: “Professional Influence Manipulators & Persuaders Society.” “Public Image Makeover Professionals.” “Provider(s) of Investors’ Money to Pols.”

And we’ll award an honorable mention to a suggestion for the lobbyists’ organization that we liked for its simplicity: “Former Congressmen and Staffers Association.”

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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