The latest Edward Snowden-fueled revelation about the NSA’s secret spy programs dropped Thursday evening, courtesy of a rather impressive team effort between the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica. The top-line takeaway, in the words of the Times, is that the NSA is “winning its long-running secret war on encryption.”
My colleague Ryan Gallagher has much more on the news over on Future Tense (where he points out that the government may be winning that war, but it certainly hasn’t won it yet). But after reading up on the covert encryption-breaking program known as “Bullrun” and its predecessor “Manassas,” you might be left with the same question as several of us in the Slate newsroom: Why the heck did the NSA decide to name the covert programs after battles in the American Civil War?
Obviously, the only people who know the definitive answer to that question aren’t talking. But thanks to our battalion of Civil War buffs on staff, we can at least make an educated guess.
In order to do that, however, first we need a quick historical refresher: The battles of Bull Run and Manassas are actually two different names for the same two battles, fought about a year apart between Union and Confederate forces. It’s relatively common for a single Civil War battle to have two names, with the North naming the clash after a nearby geographical feature (in this case, Bull Run, a tributary of the Potomac River) and the South naming it after the closest city or town (Manassas, Virginia). The Second Battle of Bull Run was actually much larger than the First Battle of Bull Run, but we can probably safely assume the NSA program is named after the latter—which was the first major land battle of the war—because of the symmetry with its British counterpart program, which is named “Edgehill” after the first pitched battle of the English Civil War.
It’s in how the First Battle of Bull Run played out that provides us with the NSA’s possible rationale for naming its spy program after a battle in which Americans went to war with themselves. The Union troops marched into battle expecting to win and to win easily, setting the stage for a quick end to the war. Northerners were so sure of their victory in fact that spectators had traveled the 30-odd miles from Washington to watch. Of course, as the First in First Battle of Bull Run suggests, that’s not what happened. After the Union troops flubbed a surprise flank attack, and after Confederate reinforcements arrived by train, a strong counterattack by the South eventually sent Union troops into a panicked retreat that turned what had been a presumed Northern victory into a Southern rout. The present-day lesson for the NSA presumably being that if the overconfident North would have only had more information about their enemy before the first shot was fired they might have been able to win the opening battle and roll to the relatively easy victory they had imagined in a war that would instead last another four long and bloody years.
As an added bonus, the battle included—as the NSA notes on the “kids” section of its website (yeah, that’s a thing)—the first formal use of so-called WIG-WAG semaphore by the American military. During the war, Signalmen would wave giant red and white flags to send messages that could be spotted from miles away. Those signals, of course, could be seen by both sides, so they were encrypted with a cipher. If the North would have been able to crack the Confederate code used at Bull Run, they’d have been better prepared for the South’s counterattack.
Of course, none of that addresses the issue of the rather questionable optics of naming a secret national security program after a battle in which an estimated 847 American soldiers were killed and another 4,000 or so injured, all at the hands of their fellow countrymen. But then again, it’s clear that the NSA never thought the American public would ever learn about its encryption-breaking program, let alone its Civil War-themed code name. As one of the documents leaked by Snowden explains, Bullrun was so top-secret that information about it wasn’t even doled out inside the government on a need-to-know basis because “there will be NO ‘need to know.’”
(h/t Matt Yglesias and John Dickerson, who know a whole lot more about the Civil War than I do.)
This post has been updated with additional information.