The United States's leading spy agency has designs on your children,
finds Patrice de Beer.
Millions of children around the world probably got a new computer for Christmas,
among other presents. Many will use them to play games dealing – sometimes
in a gory way – with crime, war or espionage. But it is difficult to know
how many might have hooked up to the Central Intelligence Agency’s website,
where a specific “Homepage for Kids” – divided into two sections,
for younger and older children – has been designed to appeal to them.
Yes, the CIA, like many other United States government departments – including
the White House and the FBI – has its own children’s corner to familiarise
young American citizens with the intricacies of government and/or to cultivate
potential future recruits.
It makes sense: we live in a consumer-driven society where institutions must
groom future consumers almost from the cradle to prepare for any product available
in the marketplace – including jobs which (since intelligence can be a
risky trade) could lead them to their grave.
For fairness, I have checked two other intelligence agencies’ websites
to see whether they also cater for kids. The search for France’s Direction
générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE)
was easy: one try gave me an empty screen, the other (via a government website)
a brief organisational chart, an address and a telephone number: a communication
policy reduced to its barest.
Britain’s MI5 is less secretive
about what it is (“For a start, our staff are people just like you”?!)
and what its broad aims are, though it doesn’t yet cater for budding spooks.
But it does give you a chance to report (in a maximum of 1,800 characters) on
sinister characters or incidents you may encounter: “if you know something
about a threat to national security, we want to hear from you”.
The meagre offerings of its professional rivals are even more reason to congratulate
the CIA – too often portrayed as the dark, undercover arm of an intrusive
empire and criticised for its failures and its clumsiness – for having
made espionage an amusing, interactive sport. Some might poke fun at its child-centred
approach, others might say that it is never too early to warn citizens of the
vulnerabilities of their societies. Nevertheless, every reader of openDemocracy
– and not only kids – should be encouraged to discover
the nooks and crannies of intelligence through the CIA’s variety of games.
“Dr Disguise”, for example, is accompanied by the sound of a repetitive,
mysterious musical beat. You are a woman, black (looking a bit like Condoleezza
Rice, bizarre, bizarre) who can quickly switch from a suit to a kaftan-like
robe or a trendy trenchcoat, add a blonde wig or a male disguise with a goatee
and sunglasses, wear ribbons, different hats and even have a friendly animal
in tow (change the head of the dog and it becomes a cat!).
As a Wasp-like man, you
can cover your white shirt and tie with one of those raincoats worn by spies
in so many movies or with a sporting outfit, then exchange it for an Hawaiian
shirt or add the same blonde wig as above – but this time with a piece
of peacenik, anti-war neckwear.
If this is not exciting enough for long, dark, boring winter evenings, why
not join the younger ones in a “Code Warriors” party and learn how
to “break the code” of encrypted documents with the help of a decoder
which directs you towards words like “Berlin wall”, “courage”,
“intrigue” “headquarters” or “George Bush”.
You can also test your knowledge with the “Geography Trivia Game”
edition is the latest available) through questions like “what two
oceans are connected by the Panama Canal” (you’ll be given three
hints), and “what is the object in the middle of the Lebanese flag?”
(not a mushroom, a frog or a rocket, but a tree!) It would be comforting to
know that the level of geographic knowledge demanded of the players –
grown-ups or kids – is exceeded by the CIA’s operatives. But how
can we be sure?
The “CIA’s homepage for kids” is less sophisticated when
it tries to attract pre-teenagers. They are invited to visit the agency’s
headquarters in Langley, Virginia with Ginger (“That’s short for
Virginia, where my home is”) the teddy-bear, who is taking advantage of
the absence of her mistress, the analyst Marta, to show them around. They can
learn through Ginger that Marta’s job “is a very important job because
what she writes may be seen by the President and other important persons in
the government. What she does is help them make important decisions about our
country”. Which ones? We are not told.
We also learn about the members of the CIA canine corps (or K-9,
which sounds more mysterious) – like Dallas, Tiwoz, Gerro, Whisper, Maggie,
Zoltan, Nikky or Orry; and about the twin spy pigeons Harry (for Truman) and
Aerial (“for our love of flying”) and their miniature cameras.
These web pages end with a “say no to drugs” section and a notice
for parents: “We encourage parents and teachers to be involved in children’s
Internet explorations. The CIA homepage for kids provides information about
the Nation’s intelligence efforts as well as a geography quiz and other
fun things for kids to do. We do not ask or collect any information regarding
children’s visits to the kid’s homepage…”
No mention, then, of the war
on terror, Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida; nor of the controversies about intelligence
failures on Iraq and the Bush administration’s habits
of being economical with the truth. These pages, like the CIA itself, are obviously
built to outlast them all.
But, in these extraordinary times where the military and intelligence community
often takes a stance of prudence and moderation against sabre-rattling civilian
leaders with hardly any military knowledge or experience (like US presidents
Bill Clinton and George W Bush, or British prime minister Tony Blair), it is
interesting to see the eyes and ears of the “hyperpower” adopting
such a didactic and low-key approach. Where have all the old values gone?