Draft: The style of state surveillance: Mediations of the NSA as a public secret (Shepherd and Hogan)

The style of state surveillance: Mediations of the NSA as a public secret

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Created to gather and analyze intelligence during the Cold War, the National Security Agency (NSA) is a key arm of the US surveillance state that relies on protective secrecy around its activities. Yet in June 2013, Edward Snowden famously leaked a trove of internal NSA documents showing the agency’s expansion into blanket surveillance practices since 9/11. The Snowden leaks precipitated a period of revelation concerning the NSA as what Michael Taussig has called a public secret. In this article, we consider how the public secret of the NSA is mediated through its visual styles, in particular through the promotional communications of the NSA’s public website, the internal communications of PowerPoint slides among the Snowden cache, and the material communications of the agency’s physical buildings. A semiotic approach to the way the NSA mixes romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles shows how the binary ideology of the Cold War continues to permeate the NSA’s mediations of its public secret.

Keywords: surveillance, secrecy, NSA, Snowden, semiotics, ideology, bureaucracy

The June 2013 disclosure of National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by Edward Snowden not only revealed how pervasive the Western surveillance state apparatus had become, it also placed a spotlight on the NSA itself. The agency, growing out the key roles for American signals and communication intelligence in World War II and the Korean War, was secretly created in 1952 by President Truman without the approval or even knowledge of Congress (Aid, 2009: p. 88; Bamford, 2008: p. 13). Maintaining this secrecy through the Cold War, the NSA’s significance grew through its provision of intelligence about activities in Cuba, Vietnam, and the USSR. With the receding salience of the Cold War into the 1990s, however, the NSA faced downsizing, and in early 2001, it was a key target of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s program of decreased defense bureaucracy spending. Yet the events of September 11, 2001 proved decisive for the NSA’s continuity into the present, given its aftermath of ‘an atmosphere of hysteria, and […] an administration unable to shovel dollars into counterterrorism projects fast enough’ (Bamford, 2008: p. 102). Securitization discourse as popularized through counterterrorism measures not only legitimized the remit of the NSA but increased its global scope (Harris, 2010; Schulze, 2015). Largely through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA obtained general warrants that enabled a vast network of mass surveillance programs, which, as the Snowden cache shows, includes both foreign nationals and US citizens and involves the cooperation of several private communications companies.

Focusing on the NSA as a paradigmatic surveillance institution, we explore how popular understandings of the agency since the Snowden revelations are mediated through style. Typically a secretive institution, much of what is known about the NSA comes from the actions of whistleblowers like Snowden, but also previously, Mark Klein, Russ Tice, Thomas Tamm, William Binney, and Thomas Drake. These whistleblowers have been essential in rendering visible the covert activities and ideologies of the agency since the original NSA whistleblower, Perry Fellwock. Fellwock, who first revealed the agency’s existence in a 1972 interview, described its scope (‘There really aren’t any limits on NSA’), its precursor to today’s Five Eyes partnerships (The UKUSA Treaty, which ‘We violate […] by monitoring their communications constantly’), and its key branches (ELINT electronics intelligence, RADINT intelligence from radar, and COMINT radio communications intelligence). In the interview, Fellwock named a number of NSA programs related to Cold War and Vietnam War directives, but he also characterized the agency’s practices as ‘mundane,’ ‘routine,’ and ‘electronic.’ The NSA’s discourses form a fabric of the everyday for intelligence agents like Fellwock, where ‘all the material you deal with, the code words and all, becomes part of you. I’d find myself dreaming in code. And to this day when I hear certain TOP SECRET code words something in me snaps’ (Horowitz, 1972).

Fellwock’s story is evocative of an agency that mixes romantic appeals to spycraft with futuristic techno-fetishism, normalized through mundane bureaucratic discourse. In this article, we trace how the mix of romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles work to manifest the agency’s surveillance ideology in both its outward-facing as well as internal mediations. Cases examined include the NSA’s website, the PowerPoint slides among the Snowden cache of documents, and the physical buildings that make up the agency’s Fort Meade headquarters. The choice of cases here is admittedly selective; our aim is to foreground elements of the NSA’s style that have pierced through its veil of secrecy to reach public attention either deliberately, as in its promotional materials, or inadvertently, as in the leaked PowerPoint slides. Each of these cases expresses style in the semiotic sense of signification, where everyday objects are imbued with ideology through a process of naturalization, or what Roland Barthes (1957) called ‘myth.’ Attention to style as ideological reveals how the NSA’s aesthetic strategies follow useful binaries – between public and private, us and them, good and evil – that can be mapped onto broader political exigencies.

When examining the politics of state surveillance practices, the standard concern of most commentators has long tended to circle around questions of privacy rights (e.g., Barry, 1959; Brandeis & Dossick, 1890; Taylor, 2002). The ways in which governmental administrations undermine citizens’ reasonable expectations of privacy have, for instance, been critiqued in diverse national contexts, from liberal democratic societies to more authoritarian regimes (Lyon, 2004). These instances inflect and inform broader considerations of surveillance in the digital age, where privately-managed networked communication platforms have built up a robust infrastructure for the NSA’s expanding electronic surveillance apparatus. While the articulation of privacy rights forms an obvious and urgent response to the NSA’s mass surveillance, the way that the agency positions itself also implicates a deeper politics of representation as a public secret. In constructing public legitimacy around its activities, the NSA has mobilized secrecy through a style that naturalizes a binary articulation of security threats while simultaneously subverting the boundaries between public and private.

Mediation of the public secret

The political implications of the NSA’s style suggest a semiotic approach to evaluating how the agency mediates its image to diverse audiences. Semiotics considers representation from a linguistic perspective on signs, which can be read in terms of how they render certain ideologies as natural and universal (e.g., Barthes, 1957: p. 212). The process of naturalization is one that requires ongoing stylistic articulations that serve to legitimize authority. In this case, by creating binary aesthetic frameworks (e.g., good vs. evil) for legitimizing mass surveillance in the name of the public, the NSA mobilizes the publicity of secrecy in its style to construct a reasonable justification for its actions as primarily defensive. Yet, just as it shores up the apparent geo-political borders of the ongoing ‘War on Terror,’ the NSA’s blanket surveillance activities fundamentally rely on the permeability of borders between nations as well as between public and private stores of data. It is this permeability that we interrogate as the ethico-political territory of the ‘public secret’ (Taussig, 1999), examining how the simultaneously romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles of the NSA mediate the politics of surveillance.

Michael Taussig’s notion of the public secret is developed in his 1999 book Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, which seeks to characterize how truth-telling through a surfacing of secrets can be a process of unmasking that only serves to re-mystify. In this sense, the public secret is ‘that which is generally known but cannot be articulated,’ or a knowledge of what not to know (Taussig, 1999: p. 5). Thus the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s surveillance activities, as scaffolded by an infrastructure of surveillance capital in everyday networked technologies (e.g., Zuboff, 2015), were in some ways unsurprising. As Taussig (1999) claims, the public secret is ‘fated to maintain the verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to revelation which does justice to it’ (p. 8). Reading the successive accounts of NSA whistleblowers as doing justice to the public secret of mass surveillance points toward the public secret as a type of enunciation, or in other words, a style. For thinking about the politics of such a style, we deploy semiotic analysis that attends to the way that the images and discourse of the NSA’s communications, both internal and external, convey the agency’s ideological investments. By deconstructing how certain signs are naturalized within this style, we can also see how the NSA seeks to legitimize its own actions through its mediations.

The imperative to demonstrate the naturalization of ideology through the NSA’s stylistic articulations of the public secret of mass surveillance owes inspiration also to the related literature on security discourses. The idea of ‘securitization’ suggests that security is primarily constituted as a discursive agenda, where an existential threat is established intersubjectively via ‘discourse and political constellations’ (Buzan, Wæver & De Wilde, 1998: p. 25). Accordingly, the expansion since 9/11 of the U.S. security state, comprised of the NSA among several other intelligence agencies, has relied on a process of discursive production and reproduction on the part of the agencies, the administration, and the public (Hasian, Lawson & McFarlane, 2015). Discourse analytical approaches have thus been used to understand how security is constituted by discursive practices that enact a legitimation of surveillance as state power (Hansen, 2013; Van Leeuwen, 2007).

Attention to the way security discourses work in public relates to the stylistic peculiarities of the NSA’s location within what Tim Melley (2012) has identified as a covert sphere of intelligence agencies that make up a microcosm of the state itself (p. 5), including more visible institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Within this sphere, the NSA is styled as the most secretive but is also, paradoxically, rendered spectacular through its reliance on an ideological infrastructure inherited from the Cold War that permeates the covert sphere with the imperative to negate the ‘crumbling edifice of Cold War containment’ since the Vietnam War (Melley, 2012: p. 150). Our semiotic analysis hinges on what Melley calls the spectacle of this public secret and what we see as its style, paying attention to how Cold War binary ideology gets naturalized in an attempt to expand the purview of mass surveillance as a form of social control. The following analysis attends to three types of cases that we feel best illustrate how the NSA renders the public secret using stylistic conventions of romanticism, futurism, and bureaucracy in the promotional, internal, and physical mediations of the surveillance state.

The promotional face of the NSA: ‘Defending Our Nation. Securing The Future.’

The tagline of the NSA’s public website draws on a particular form of securitization discourse that has justified state surveillance through the homeland security imperative articulated around 9/11 and the ratification of the PATRIOT Act (Hills, 2006). As a legislative response to the 9/11 attacks, the PATRIOT Act (full title: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) served to reduce the government’s barriers to accessing information by making it easier to obtain general warrants for surveillance under Section 215 – a section that has since been interpreted so broadly that it has facilitated the indiscriminate collection of information on both foreign nationals and US citizens (Greenwald, 2014: p. 65). Accordingly, the public face of the NSA envelops surveillance within familiar significations of American military might. Military style romantically conveys bravery in the protection of national values, most prominently liberty, from an exaggerated terrorist threat. Such signs include official seals, flags, and military regalia. Strikingly, the site’s tagline – ‘Defending Our Nation. Securing The Future.’ – flanks a swaggering bald eagle astride a key (Figure 1). The eagle’s frontal stance suggests its body as a barrier wall, and in fact its torso is fashioned as a shield of the American flag, while the key it stands upon invokes the notion of cryptology as part of the defensive, securitized role of the military apparatus.

Figure 1. Tagline and image featured at the bottom of each NSA webpage.

The co-articulation of cryptology with a romantic version of militaristic border defense sits somewhat uneasily beside the website’s incorporation of the symbols of contemporary high-tech infrastructure. Perhaps these are meant to signify the future of the symbolic key: swirling network cables, satellite dishes, and ‘cryptologic heritage’ photographs of mid-century supercomputers. Repeated mentions of the ‘codemakers and codebreakers’ that populate the NSA’s halls serve to support its self-styled vision of ‘global cryptological dominance through responsive presence and network advantage’ (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The NSA’s vision. (NSA website)

While the styles pervading the NSA’s site involve a clear appeal to militarized patriotism under the banner of security, they jostle against the rather more bureaucratic styles of the Information Technology (IT) industry. ‘Responsive Presence’ and ‘Network Advantage,’ for example, seem to have little resonance with ‘Defending Our Nation’ and ‘Securing The Future.’ Such statements conjure the promises of effective IT support firms more so than those of massive government espionage agencies. Consider, furthermore, the wording that concludes the NSA’s mission statement on its site: the agency ‘exists to protect the Nation. Our customers know they can count on us to provide what they need, when they need it, wherever they need it.’[1] The identification of its ‘customers’ positions the NSA as a kind of service provider that can be contracted out to various clients, rather than a state apparatus like the military that protects an imagined nation and its future.

What’s happening in this apparent incongruity of styles is the NSA managing its status as public secret. Since the agency’s existence has come under increased scrutiny, its imperative to maintain a mystification around its role has only grown in importance. The NSA’s response seems to take two distinct stylistic forms: one that evokes a romantic version of military protection and another that suggests a futuristic techno-fetishism around cryptology. While on the surface, it would seem that the first invokes the past and the second invokes the future, where both coalesce is in the suggestion of a universal timelessness to the binary of good and evil underpinning the agency’s version of patriotism. Consider the ‘Careers’ section of the NSA’s website, which repeatedly promotes its innovative and exciting career opportunities for ‘the most intelligent people in the intelligence business’ to vaguely ‘protect our nation’: only once does the site ever mention what the nation should be protected from, and even then, these are threats of somewhat dubious merit (e.g., ‘international terrorism, cyber crime, narcotics trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction’).[2] It’s particularly revealing that the NSA would mention weapons of mass destruction in this context, given the way the existence of such weapons was systematically deployed within a purely discursive strategy to construct an imminent threat that would legitimize US military intervention in Iraq after 9/11 (Cap, 2011).

According to the imperative to construct an us-vs-them binary, the agency tends to thus eschew historicized specificity by framing its activities as timeless and universal through a mix of romantic espionage and futuristic cryptology. The sensationalism of this mix of styles is rendered palatably banal, however, through the stylistic channelling of the bureaucratic tone of both government and industry. For instance, the recruitment video ‘Crazy Smart’ embedded in the NSA recruitment site showcases a set of the ‘geekiest’ NSA employees within their working environments of office cubicles and boardrooms. These workers enact cryptology by writing equations and drawing line graphs on whiteboards against a backdrop of patriotic and military symbols such as American flags and official NSA seals. While most employees are styled conservatively, others in the video flaunt pink and green dyed hair while they describe their ‘breakthrough technological advances [that] have a direct contribution to the intelligence we’re able to produce for the President as well as the safety of our Nation,’ over a slow dubstep beat.[3] This video somewhat awkwardly achieves the mix of romanticism, futurism, and bureaucracy that characterizes the stylistic bricolage of the NSA. In contrast to more sensationalist portrayals of combat, spycraft, or codebreaking, the video cultivates the everydayness of the NSA’s activities as inclusive of both mainstream and countercultural employees. The way that the NSA is rendered as ordinary through signifiers of everyday office life create a sense that its activities are legitimate. Ordinariness makes the more sensational appeal of working for the NSA – described by whistleblowers like Fellwock, who started at the agency with the romantic ideal of ‘world-wide travel working in the glamorous field of intelligence’ (Horowitz, 1972), or like Binney, who aimed to graph the whole world in hopes of pinpointing ‘the bad guys’ (Mayer, 2011) – attainable. But as Taussig argues about the public secret, this kind of unmasking only serves to reinstate the aura of the secret by separating the visible exterior of the agency’s work from its interior agenda: the deployment of surveillance power for social control (Lyon, 2014).  

Internal style: The PRISM PowerPoint slides

New revelations about the NSA’s interior agenda emerged from Snowden’s provision of documents and presentation slides to the media in June 2013. Over subsequent weeks, journalists waded through the cache of documents to discern how the activities of the agency contribute to the construction of a panoptic surveillance state, where people become controlled through ‘the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring’ (Greenwald, 2014: p. 175). The PRISM program, used to collect and analyze data requested by the NSA and divulged by internet companies, was subject to particular scrutiny in this regard. Leaked PRISM documents detailed the extent of the convergence between state and commercial surveillance, where internet companies whose business models have long relied on data collection for target marketing were also shown to supplement state surveillance programs. While this coverage was framed in terms of exposing how state and commercial surveillance infrastructures are intertwined, it hinged on the public secret of such collusion.

For example, scholarly attention to Terms of Service contracts has demonstrated how legal mechanisms guiding the collection of use of personal data by internet companies always leave room for their cooperation with law enforcement and government (e.g., Braman & Roberts, 2003). Such analysis of Terms of Service agreements foregrounds how the NSA has availed itself of the increasingly sophisticated form of panoptic surveillance being developed in the commercial sector (Campbell & Carlson, 2002). The agency needed to create this alliance because, as whistleblower Thomas Drake explains, it became clear during the hysteria around 9/11 that the NSA’s ‘technology had failed to keep pace with the shift in communications to cellular phones, fibre-optic cable, and the Internet’ (Mayer, 2011). Increasingly advanced by the commercial sector rather than the military from which they emerged, networked technologies provide the PRISM program with a kind of ready-made surveillance infrastructure of which the public is not only aware but actively enabling through participation in networked platforms.

The PRISM codename for the program deploys an ocularcentric metaphor for the NSA’s ability to harness detailed demographic and post-demographic data through the lens of internet companies like Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple, and Google. While PRISM is an acronym for the bureaucratic title, ‘Planning tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management,’ it also signifies, by definition and as represented in the project logo, the refraction and dispersal of a beam of light. In the psychedelic PRISM logo adorning the slides – which the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright (2013) describes as ‘depicting the secret crystalline data machine enshrined in a wonky hexagon’ – the prism is shown to distort, slant, and colour whatever is viewed through it. Perhaps accidentally signifying the way that the agency contorts information into categories designed to suppress domestic political dissent as much as ‘international terrorism’ (Lyon, 2014), the prism’s distortion also highlights how the NSA’s signification of its surveillance processes fail to manifest as coherent visual briefs in internal communications.

Figure 3: ‘Two Types of Collection’ slide about PRISM and the associated Upstream program (Washington Post[4])

The incoherent visual style of the PRISM PowerPoint slides almost parodically evokes the sloppy visuals of bureaucratic communications (Potolsky, 2015). When published from among the Snowden cache of documents, the slides received rapid critique for both their contents and layouts. Critics bemoaned the discordant style of the slides:

[…] a car crash of clip art and bubble diagrams, drop-shadows and gradients, they look like the work of a drunken toddler, high on the potentials of AutoShapes and WordArt. There are bevelled boxes in shades of tangerine and mint, yellow blobs floating on meaningless green arrows, and that all-pervasive header choked with a congested scatter of company logos. (Wainwright, 2013; see also, Allen & Lorenz, 2013; De Cubber, 2013)

Similar to the style of the NSA’s website, but even more pronounced, the ‘Two Types of Collection’ slide can be read for how bureaucratic style overlays the way the agency communicates its remit internally (Figure 3). The romantic association with military protection and global dominance, emblematized in the Special Source Operation shield at the top left (an eagle astride the globe against the flag backdrop), is combined with the techno-futuristic map showing undersea fibre-optic internet cables. Most prominently, the speech bubble declaring ‘You Should Use Both’ the PRISM program for gaining information from internet companies alongside the Upstream program for intercepting communications across internet cables offers a strikingly bold admonition to employees to exploit all means necessary for enacting mass surveillance. The heading of the slide frames this imperative through the ‘congested scatter of company logos’ that signifies the intertwining of the agency’s goals with those of surveillance capital. The stylistic bricolage made manifest here offers a visual incarnation of the NSA’s mix of romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles in a way that conjoins the binary logic underpinning state surveillance with the permeability of the binary between public and private data.

The public secrecy of mass state surveillance is thus only further mystified by the publication of PRISM slides and documents, where the unsurprising revelation that commercial platforms fail to encrypt user communications and facilitate the NSA’s ‘backdoor’ access to personal data continues to obscure how the relationship between state and commercial surveillance imperatives works. It remains unclear, for instance, how exactly the NSA infiltrates Internet companies, or on whose terms (Price, 2014). What the PowerPoint slides show, then, is something already legible in Terms of Service documents that encase mass surveillance in the bureaucratic jargon of legality so as to evade political scrutiny. The way the slides show it, through sloppy and incoherent visuals, indicates how the stylistic iterations of the NSA often uneasily mix romanticism and futurism in a bureaucratic context that provides legitimation for an underlying us-vs-them ideology.

Like the other slides leaked, the ‘Two Types of Collection’ slide bears the ‘TOP SECRET’ classification followed by series of permission acronyms. As noted by Clare Birchall (2014), ‘the act of marking classified military operations presents a paradox’ where labels ‘speak to a desire for the secret to be known as secret, to be an open secret’ (p. 35). The openness of the secret of PRISM is rendered quotidian through the slide’s use of bureaucratic visual conventions. This is important because the complex relationships between technology, privacy, and capitalism that underlie the NSA’s capacity to enact its surveillance programs are also implicated in the way that mass surveillance has become banal through the pervasiveness of networked platforms in everyday life, alongside its mediation in everyday organizational cultures (McQuade, 2016). Contrary to the romantic version of militarized espionage embodied in NSA internal codenames like MUSCULAR, DARKTHUNDER, DROPMIRE, FOXACID, GODSURGE, OLYMPUSFIRE, QUANTUMINSERT, STRIKEZONE, and VALIDATOR (Citizenfour, 2014) – which ‘reflect the contemptuous and boastful spirit of supremacy behind them’ (Greenwald, 2014: p. 94) – the style of the PowerPoint slides expresses a mutual reinforcement between the bureaucratic banality of commercial and state surveillance, predicated on widespread public complacency around data-based infrastructures.

The architecture of the public secret

The public secrecy surrounding the NSA’s activities supports its continued cultivation of the romantic glamour of cyber-espionage within the confines of bureaucracy, as indicated in some of the top-secret codenames and, perhaps even more strikingly, in the agency’s physical buildings. Based in Fort Meade, Maryland, the NSA headquarters manifests its ideological mix of styles through a combination of the romantic associations around military spycraft with the futuristic veneer of cryptography, which together take form in the institutional architecture that legitimizes the more grandiose elements of NSA style. One of the first public depictions of the largely hidden NSA buildings in Fort Meade comes from David Horowitz’s introduction to the Fellwock interview that initially revealed the agency’s existence:

Three fences surround the headquarters. The inner and outer barriers are topped with barbed wire, the middle one is a five-strand electrified wire. Four gatehouses spanning the complex at regular intervals house specially-trained marine guards. […] Once inside, you enter the world’s longest ‘corridor’ – 980 feet long by 560 feet wide. And all along the corridor are more marine guards, protecting the doors of key NSA offices. At 1,400,000 square feet, it is larger than CIA headquarters, 1,135,000 square feet. Only the State Department and the Pentagon, and the new headquarters planned for the FBI are more spacious. But the DIRNSA (Director, National Security Agency) can be further distinguished from the headquarters buildings of these three other giant bureaucracies – it has no windows. (Horowitz, 1972)

While the buildings have changed somewhat since the 1970s (Figure 4), Horowitz’s early description highlights the aesthetic qualities of the NSA’s headquarters in line with the agency’s obvious connection to secrecy and security. Its lack of windows in particular – technically necessary to prevent the detection of conversations inside – extensive fencing, and guarded corridor embody the status of the agency as the most secretive among the US’s intelligence infrastructure.

Figure 4. NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland in 2009. http://www.nsa.gov

The physical appearance of the NSA’s Fort Meade location renders it effectively invisible to the outside observer because of its intentional security measures: ‘a labyrinth of barbed wire and electrified fences, massive boulders, motion detectors, hydraulic antitruck devices, cement barriers, attack dogs, and submachine gun-toting commandos in black ninja outfits nicknamed “Men in Black”’ (Bamford, 2008: p. 13). These physical security measures can further be read as significations of the public secret to the NSA employees who traverse its halls. Since they are not actually effective at preventing the main threat of intelligence leaks via networked hacking, physical manifestations of protection – most strikingly the ‘Men in Black’ – create a theatrical version of the NSA’s ideology of public-vs-private to communicate to its own employees.

From the vantage point of the public, the public-vs-private binary takes form in the appearance of the building’s exterior. While the headquarters evokes modern office towers, complete with sprawling parking lot and reflective glass, the blackness of the glass echoes the ‘Men in Black’ within as an incarnation of the secret in darkness. The building is a literal and figurative black box. Because they are not windows, the black glass panels covering the building reflect the outside world back on itself and obfuscate any attempt to look through in a way analogous to what the agency does with its PRISM program. This modulation of vision signifies the way that the public-vs-private boundary constitutive of the NSA’s activities that consist of devising new ways of rupturing that very boundary outside of its own domain. Indeed, there is a whole different building – the real building – encased within the shiny black exterior, one comprised of ‘a skinlike cocoon of thick, orange-colored copper shielding to keep all signals […] from ever getting out’ (Bamford, 2008: p. 14). No signals can escape the building that relies on their indiscriminate collection, eliciting James Bamford’s (2008) metaphor of a black hole to describe the invisible gravitational pull of the Fort Meade headquarters.

While the building’s interior remains largely secretive, one indication about the styles of its interior decoration comes from images depicting former NSA Chief Keith Alexander’s ‘Information Dominance Center’ war room, constructed during his tenure as General of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir prior to heading the NSA. The design of the room explicitly mimicked the bridge on the Enterprise starship from Star Trek (Figure 5). Perfectly capturing the romanticized good-vs-evil framing that guides the rationale for the US to convey global power through cyber-espionage, the interior design of the room offers insight into how surveillance is deliberately styled within a heroic science-fiction narrative (Harris, 2010: p. 9).

Figure 5. NSA’s Information Dominance Center (see Greenwald, 2013).

The kind of science fiction evoked by the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s activities, however, is typically less indebted to Star Trek than it is to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The NSA’s global network of mass surveillance, as facilitated by commercial information infrastructures like internet connections and social media platforms, has been repeatedly likened to a dystopian ‘Big Brother’ scenario (Solove, 2001). And indeed, the appearance of the Fort Meade headquarters recalls Orwell’s Ministry of Love building, a windowless block ensconced in barbed wire and patrolled by a squadron of guards.

But the two-way telescreens that enable constant surveillance of the population in Orwell’s novel seem not to incur the main challenge of the NSA’s surveillance programs, which is how to store all of the information it collects. If the Fort Meade headquarters are often described in terms of their physical size – as Horowitz noted in 1972, larger than the CIA headquarters, and as Bamford (2008) reports, now containing over seven million square feet of space (p. 95) – then the NSA’s data centers designed solely to store information are relatively gargantuan. Even Fort Meade’s expansion over time has had much to do with storing ever more data, and the agency has also needed to build new facilities in other locations to help bear the burden of exponentially increasing quantities of information. For example, the Utah Data Center in Bluffdale completed in 2015 is estimated to support the storage of 12 exabytes (an exabyte equals one trillion terabytes) of information (Schneier, 2015: p. 33).

Figure 6. The NSA’s Utah Data Center (Wikimedia Commons)

The Utah Data Center is huge for a building designed solely to store information – the 100,000-square-foot data storage area makes up only a small fraction of the overall structure of 1.5 million square feet – and relies on a style of indiscernability to protect its secrecy through an unmarked, impenetrable exterior (Figure 6). The center is made up of a series of flat, beige boxes that appear to have been dropped off in a valley between the Wasatch Range and the Oquirrh Mountains. Positioned against the mountains, it becomes apparent how the only remarkable thing about the appearance of the Utah site is in fact its size. Matthew Potolsky (2015) has articulated the data center’s immense size as part of what he calls the ‘national security sublime,’ where the scale of the NSA outstrips any attempt to imagine or represent it. The signification of this sublime architecture serves to naturalize the NSA’s ‘collect it all’ mentality and locate it within the romantic expansionist imaginaries still tied to the western states. Moreover, by hiding the NSA’s data collection capacities in plain sight through plainly styled buildings, the Utah center embodies the selectively porous boundaries between public and private that underpin the agency’s rationale for mass surveillance. In this way, the physical manifestations of the NSA as simultaneously imposing and enigmatic manifest its public secrecy in a way that obstructs attempts to assess the scope of its activities.

Conclusion: the NSA’s style of public secrecy

The Snowden leaks served to place the NSA’s massive surveillance capacity under public scrutiny, shedding light on a highly secretive agency and raising debates over privacy rights as fundamental civil liberties. But in addition to the privacy issue, the stylistic manifestations of the NSA call into question the ideologies it uses to legitimize mass surveillance. Mixing signs that are both romantic – conjuring spycraft and military heorism – and futuristic – signalling the technologies of cryptography and intelligence networks – the more sensational elements of NSA style are enveloped within bureaucratic signifiers that attempt to resolve the contradictions inherent to the construction of us-vs-them, public-vs-private, and good-vs-evil binaries by rendering them as part of the fabric of the everyday. In Barthes’s (1957) semiotic framework, this sort of naturalization signals the cultivation of myth: the social appropriation of objects and images that endows them with ideological meanings that appear apolitical (p. 216). The NSA’s continued resurrection of the mythic binaries constitutive of the Cold War can in this way be read from its styles, intended for audiences both internal and external.  

Rather than assessing the NSA’s mass surveillance activities from the perspective of privacy, then, a consideration of its styles as modes of conveying ideological meaning to various audiences evokes Taussig’s public secret. The public secret is a kind of ‘known unknown,’ to adapt Rumsfeld’s infamous phrase about the War on Terror, where the unknown is essential for the operation and deployment of power (Taussig, 1999: p. 57). Through its mediations, the NSA’s naturalization of its Cold War ideology through romantic, futuristic, and bureaucratic styles also naturalizes its own status as secret. Ironically, secrecy in this context – expressed through the NSA’s website, PowerPoint slides, and physical architecture – builds up boundaries between the private and public faces of the agency just as it relies on permeability between the boundaries of public and private communications. Citizens whose private information gets collected as part of the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance apparatus are also the audience for the agency’s public discourses about securing the nation. The shifting nature of these boundaries, along with their use by powerful state institutions, gives form to the vexed relationship between secrecy and privacy.

Yet, because the process of naturalization can be deconstructed through the semiotic method, interventions into the ideology of mass surveillance are possible by remediating the NSA’s constitutive myth. To conclude a discussion on the style of mass surveillance, we look toward artistic initiatives that perform different modes of resistance to the NSA’s mix of romanticism, futurism, and bureaucracy. Most directly, Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour documentary employs the conventions of cinema vérité, privileging ‘the performativity and temporality of speaking, questioning, writing, witnessing, and whistleblowing’ in her portrayal of Snowden (Parks, 2015: p. 14). As a resistant act of documenting the hidden experiences of surveillance, the film can be read in terms of its tactical stylistic response to the NSA’s secrecy. Similarly, Birchall frames the artistic interventions of artists Trevor Paglen and Jill Magid through the ‘aesthetics of the secret’:

In different ways, the art of both Paglen and Magid speaks to an aesthetics of the secret by bringing the secret, systems of secrecy, withholding, obfuscation and opacity into the realm of the sensible, finding what Paglen names ‘indirect’ ways of seeing and showing the secret and secrecy in the same way that astronomers have found ways to see and show dark matter. These artworks are not only ‘in relation’ to the unpresentable in the way that all representations are, but take unpresentability in the form of the secret as their explicit subject. (Birchall, 2014: p. 33)

Birchall describes Magid’s series of performative works based on her commission by the Dutch secret service, who supported her project’s method of interviewing employees but then tried to censor, and in one case even confiscated, the artworks she produced. The tension in Magid’s work between her artistic agency and the secretive context of the security agency can be read as an aesthetic proposition borne of ‘a desire to tease and tease out the relationship – formal, bureaucratic and affective – between institutions and individuals’ (Birchall, 2014: p. 38). Indeed, the question of an aesthetics of secrecy hinges on the affective rather than cognitive value of secrets, much akin to Taussig’s (1999) contention that defacement generates an ‘emotional atmosphere’ (p. 142)

The challenge for any kind of intervention is how to mobilize the emotional atmosphere produced in a way that disrupts what Taussig sees as the re-mystification of the public secret through its unmasking. Since the Snowden revelations in 2013, for example, about a quarter of internet users in the US have enacted some form of online privacy protection (Rainie & Madden, 2015). In this sense, the revelations have, to some extent, altered the affect of trust surrounding internet platforms that trade on personal data collection. Increased attention to the public secret of the NSA’s collusion with internet companies thus served to facilitate new grounds on which to question surveillant power by mediating the dialectic between spectacle and secrecy (Melley, 2012: p. 176). Artistic interventions similarly enable a conception of ‘what collectivities and subjectivities the secret makes available (rather than those that it closes down)’ (Birchall, 2014: p. 26). Such a political imperative speaks to the question of how people engage with the ideology of state agencies like the NSA through the manifold styles of what David Lyon (2017) has termed ‘surveillance culture.’ Casting surveillance as a culture, one in which we are collectively engaged in constructing and deconstructing its central myths, opens avenues for disrupting the ‘active not-knowing’ at the root of the public secret’s power.


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[1] https://www.nsa.gov/about/index.shtml

[2] https://www.nsa.gov/careers/life_at_nsa/index.shtml

[3] https://www.nsa.gov/public_info/media_center/careers/video/WorkatNSATechPerspective/index.html

[4] See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/prism-collection-documents/

Tamara Shepherd is an Assistant Professor (Digital Communication) in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary. She studies the feminist political economy of digital culture, looking at policy, labour and literacy in social media, mobile technologies, and digital games. She is an editorial board member of Social Media + Society, and her work has been published in Convergence, First Monday, International Journal of Cultural Studies, and the Canadian Journal of Communication.

Mél Hogan is an Assistant Professor (Environmental Media) in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary. Her research looks mostly at data infrastructure: the social implications and environmental impacts of data centers, and new biological modalities of data storage in DNA. Her work is published in journals like Big Data and Society, Television & New Media and the Journal of Information Policy.