Future Tense

The NSA’s Declassified Cold War Propaganda Posters Are a Bizarre Delight

Various NSA posters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Posters via governmentattic.org

During the Cold War, the National Security Agency wasn’t just intercepting Soviet cables and surveilling American activists. It was also creating office art.

This week, dozens of declassified NSA office posters from the 50s onward became available to the public. The “motivational posters,” published on June 4 by the public-documents website Government Attic and originally obtained through a 2016 FOIA request by an anonymous individual, range from not-so-subtle to even-less-subtle messages about the importance of staying tight-lipped and keeping the nation’s secrets away from the Soviets (and prying reporters). The posters enlist various cultural and historical references to drive the point home to NSA staffers, including nods to the Bible, the Gettysburg Address, and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Some are surreal:

Mona Lisa NSA poster
NSA

Others, just plain creepy:

NSA poster
NSA

There’s this version of the Gettysburg Address:

NSA poster Gettysburg Address
NSA

And season’s greetings, NSA-style:

NSA season's greetings poster
NSA

Long before Edward Snowden, the NSA felt the need to remind its workforce about security. These posters hung on the walls at a time when the agency was dealing with cases of defections to the Soviet Union, including cryptologists William Martin and Bernon Mitchell in 1960 and cryptologist Victor Norris Hamilton in 1962. And then there were leaks, including the intelligence compromise that led to the capture of the NSA-backed spy ship USS Pueblo in 1968.

“These posters were created when the Cold War was accelerating toward its hottest point,” said Nate Jones, director of the FOIA Project at the George Washington University’s National Security Archive. “Almost all within the U.S. government thought that the Western capitalist system was in a struggle with the Soviet communist system for the future of the word. And as the posters show, they didn’t go light on propagating this to their employees.”

James Bamford, a journalist who has covered the agency for decades, said the posters reflect the NSA’s culture at the time. “The posters pointed to the high level of paranoia at the agency,” he said, “the fear that someone would reveal that they worked there and what they did at the agency.”

The NSA doesn’t exactly see it that way. “Posters like that have been around since probably WWII and they’re reminders to the employee base what their responsibilities are,” said Chris Augustine, the NSA’s acting chief of media relations. “They weren’t in conjunction in general to any specific threat per se, other than to remind the employees what they’re supposed to be doing, the correct way.”

Augustine went on to compare them to posters about women’s history month or Equal Employment Opportunity requirements that would hang in any company office. “You do what you can to inform and educate your workforce on any number of topics,” he said.

This isn’t the first time that NSA posters have surfaced online. And the NSA isn’t the only national security agency creating memorable office art. Last November, the CIA declassified some of its posters.

The most surprising thing about the NSA posters might be how funny a handful of them are. As historian Alex Wellerstein tweeted:

You can see all the posters here.