Child's play at the CIA

Patrice de Beer
11 January 2006

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.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

“ France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

“The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine” (October 2005)

“France’s political sclerosis” (October 2005)

“Paris in flames: the limits of repression” (November 2005)

“France’s enarchy” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

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” (the 2003 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?

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