What do the following words have in common?
The answer? They’re all NSA code words.
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, leaked thousands of documents about some of the most secretive programs run by the U.S. government. So secret, they’re all given classified names.
You may have heard of PRISM, the name of the secret NSA program that vacuums up Internet communications. Turns out just about everything else at the world’s biggest spy agency has its own code word.
“There’s MESSIAH, there’s PINWALE,” says Bill Arkin, who served in Army intelligence and has written several books about the spy world. “There’s BLAZINGSADDLES. These are all NSA code words.”
Even the NSA budget is assigned a code word, says Arkin.
“There are tens of thousands, describing operations, exercises, weapons activities, programs, pieces of equipment, spying things,” he says. “No one really has one, single, super-duper database on all of them.”
There are some conventions when coming up with code words. The CIA typically uses metals or a stone, like Ruby or Greystone. NSA code words are always one word, uppercase. Some may sound like two words — like the program EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE — but are written as one.
That custom may have its roots in World War II, when the Allies broke the encryption codes of their enemies and described the stolen information by a single word.
Like MAGIC: the intelligence gained from decrypted Japanese diplomatic cables. Or ULTRA: the name of the intelligence obtained from Nazi communications.
Back then, a committee or even a national leader — like Churchill — would decide on a code word. By the 1960s, the job fell to a woman sitting in a small room at NSA headquarters.
“Anytime they needed a new code word she would just pull it out of a computer,” says James Bamford, who has written extensively about the NSA. “She’d just take the next one in line.”
Bamford thinks the names are still generated by computers. He says some of the projects are so sensitive, even the code word itself is classified. When it’s compromised, NSA immediately comes up with a new one.
“They think if somebody finds out what it is, they’ll find out what the meaning of that is,” he says.
Well, not always. Not Bill Arkin’s favorite code word: NEVERSHAKEABABY.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but I know it exists and I know it’s NSA.”
Arkin says he’s seen it on documents. And of course, it’s written as one word.