Chilling and Surreal Propaganda Posters from the NSA Are Now Declassified and Put Online

“Omg wow this is rly cool and unique like I nev­er knew the gov­ermnet was wac­thing me.”

So wrote an anony­mous inter­net com­menter on a Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle about NSA mobile phone track­ing, jok­ing, or just emerg­ing from a bunker some­where off the grid. Every­one knows the gov­ern­ment is watch­ing or might be. Or at least we should since the infa­mous 2013 rev­e­la­tions about the mas­sive scope of NSA domes­tic sur­veil­lance. Reports of domes­tic spy­ing first appeared in 2005. In 2009, Alex Kings­bury at U.S. News and World Report described the Agency as “one of the most secre­tive fief­doms inside the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment… prob­a­bly famil­iar to most peo­ple only as the guys who may or may not be lis­ten­ing to your phone calls and read­ing your E‑mails as they sur­veil ter­ror­ists.”

As is often the case when gov­ern­ment over­reach, abuse, or cor­rup­tion become pub­lic knowl­edge, the ques­tion is not whether most Amer­i­cans know, but whether they care. An often-mis­used Ben Franklin quote pops up fre­quent­ly in argu­ments about a nec­es­sary bal­ance between “lib­er­ty” and “secu­ri­ty.” The lat­ter now seems to inevitably entail extra-con­sti­tu­tion­al spy­ing (as well as tor­ture, indef­i­nite deten­tion, police mil­i­ta­riza­tion and oth­er total­ly nor­mal gov­ern­ment oper­a­tions).

These days, as often as not, gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance takes place by proxy, by way of tech monop­o­lies like AT&T, Ama­zon, and Google (which the NSA helped cre­ate). Maybe, when it comes to the gov­ern­ment watch­ing, resis­tance is futile, as a species of out­er space cyborg total­i­tar­i­ans likes to say.

In any case, we might imag­ine that pub­lic debates about civ­il lib­er­ties and pri­va­cy are laugh­able to many a sea­soned intel­li­gence agent. A recent­ly declas­si­fied trove of pro­pa­gan­da posters aimed at NSA employ­ees, dat­ing from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, shows that in the mind of the Agency, there is no con­flict between lib­er­ty and secu­ri­ty. With­out secu­ri­ty (or total secre­cy), many of these posters sug­gest, all free­dom is lost. They do so in some “super freaky” ways, to quote Jason Kot­tke, look­ing like “they were cooked up by Sal­vador Dali or the Dadaists. Or even Mad Mag­a­zine.”

Some of the posters, espe­cial­ly those from the Cold War, look pret­ty chill­ing in hind­sight, with their theo­crat­ic over­tones and anti-Com­mu­nist apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism. Agency employ­ees were to under­stand that not only might they risk their jobs and clear­ances if they hap­pened to spill clas­si­fied info, but that every­thing they held dear—Christmas, prayer, fish­ing, free­dom of the press—might be destroyed. The posters get pro­gres­sive­ly groovi­er as things thawed between the super­pow­ers, and they stop allud­ing to spe­cif­ic ene­mies and threats to Chris­t­ian piety. Still, there’s some­thing a lit­tle creepy about an intel­li­gence agency co-opt­ing the Mona Lisa and Sat­ur­day Night Fever.

The agency was offi­cial­ly cre­at­ed in 1952 to mon­i­tor for­eign elec­tron­ic sig­nals, which at the time meant radio and tele­phone traf­fic. The com­par­a­tive­ly bronze-age tech­nol­o­gy avail­able in the decades these posters were print­ed makes them seem all the more quaint, with their ref­er­ences to care­less­ly dis­card­ed doc­u­ments and get­ting too chat­ty in the car pool. Is the gov­ern­ment still war­rant­less­ly spy­ing on Amer­i­cans? There may have been sev­er­al recent “inad­ver­tent com­pli­ance laps­es,” the NSA admits, but sure­ly a secret court and trust­wor­thy Con­gress will keep every­one hon­est.

See many more of these bizarre posters here.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

When Sovi­et Artists Turned Tex­tiles (Scarves, Table­cloths & Cur­tains) into Beau­ti­ful Pro­pa­gan­da in the 1920s & 1930s

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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