Not long ago a story made the rounds about the National Security Agency’s creepy, Orwellian logo. It is exactly as it seems. This is a real logo, from the NSA/NSO, for a spy satellite. While the octopus motif is used overwhelmingly a negative context, this is not the first time octopus symbolism has been appropriated by a spy agency to represent itself. In 2007, India adopted the symbolism of the octopus in the form of an acronym. Nallari Kiran Kumar Reddy, Chief Minister of the Andhra Pradesh cabinet, created the Organization for Counter Terrorist Operations (OCTOPUS). A classic case of choosing the acronym before the name.
The National Reconnaissance Organization satellite carried a secret payload and twelve spy satellites. In yet another Orwellian twist, Karen Furgerson, spokesperson for the NRO, said, “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature.” This is transparently disingenuous. It would be neigh impossible not to recognize that the octopus would be viewed in a negative light. The octopus has been used to represent a creeping, strangling force emanating from area. Two very common themes have historically been depictions of communist and Jewish conspiracies. However, the octopus motif is by no means limited to these. It has been used to represent political parties within the United States, the federal government, law enforcement agencies, and most Western countries at one point or another. During WWII it was used by the Japanese to depict the USA, by the Chinese to depict Russia and by the Americans to depict the Japanese. Vulgar Army has dedicated an entire website to the portrayal of the evil octopus as a political motif if you’d like to see examples and read more.
The evil octopus motif is characterized by its grandiosity. Not only does it extend its many tentacles of influence, but it is enormous. The symbolism is not of a small threat, not of something realistic nor lifelike, but exaggerated and eminent. It is often depicted, as for NROL-39, reaching out over the entire world. In other forms of propaganda, it may be reaching out from one country to another. Even at its smallest scale the octopus may still be influencing an entire community or a neighborhood.
The political cartoon above depicts the conspiratorial octopus. Its tentacles are politicians, the narcotics bureau, police officers, drug traffickers and drug pushers. The lone, street-level dealer and the street drug consumer are influenced by the very tip of a tentacle. This was a cartoon from 1979, when the Australian Federal Police Act of 1979 was passed. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was merged with the new organization. Australia, too, has issues with the involvement between government, police and organized crime, serving dual roles as enforcers and importers, in the drug war. In a US American context, the most widely-known example is the CIA’s (alleged) involvement with cocaine trafficking. Cocaine provided the funds for the Contras to act as a US proxy against the Nicaraguan government.
Above is a political cartoon circa 1950, when Presidential Truman declared a State of Emergency to utilize Presidential war powers. The cartoon still resonates in 2014 in the wake of the NSA scandal, the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay and over a decade of additional encroachments upon liberty. As the cartoon indicates, the Korean War was initially referred to not as a war, but as a “police action,” one that influenced not only military endeavors in Korea but also domestically. The octopus is a spectre, a ghost of the Truman administration sneaking up on the Constitution. The symbolism could not be more clear.
The United States of America itself, including the US military, has also been depicted as a meddling cephalopod. A Latin American anti-war group, SOA Watch, brought the octopus motif into the 21st century. The School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a United States Department Of Defense training center. It was found to have trained and taught torture (or is it enhanced interrogation?) techniques to Latin American forces in the 1980s. It helped prop up pro-US dictatorial regimes. It aided in stamping out free political and religious groups. After the Cold War it shifted its attention to the War on Drugs, which continues to be its primary focus today.
The United States, specifically the US military, is depicted with a human skull in place of the body, dollar signs in its eye sockets. The text in English reads: “Close the school of assassins. Never more. It’s enough.”
A French anti-colonialist propaganda poster uses a similar motif, with a very patriotic octopus who shares similar eyes. In English: “No! France will not be a colonial country. The Americans in America!”
Both share a similar theme. The octopus is, primarily, a representation of the United States of America. It is crossing an ocean or reaching across with its tentacles. It looks out with dollar signs in its eyes, either being driven by profit or seeking gain. And it looks to influence foreign nations against their will. The symbolism is distinctly negative. This brings us back to an initial question. Why an intelligence agency appropriate a motif that has historically been used to depict various entities in a sinister, nefarious fashions?
One can only speculate. Perhaps it is intentionally Orwellian in nature. By appropriating a symbol you control it. It’s a form of Newspeak. The octopus is no longer a slimy predator, but it is, as Furgerson said, a symbol of “versatility” or “adaptability.” Maybe it is deliberately being used for the intimidation factor. Psychology is the name of the game and it is just as important to the NSA that you believe “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach” as it is for the motto to be a reality. If people are not afraid they will not implicitly consent nor comply. Maybe someone pushed a tongue-in-cheek idea through to poke fun at the growing mistrust of the American surveillance apparatus. Maybe someone just likes octopi and appreciates how versatile they are.
The USA may have also passed the point of being redeemable in the public eye. The a recent Gallup poll found that the USA is overwhelmingly viewed internationally as the world’s greatest threat to peace. Perhaps, like an evil organization from a James Bond movie, the USA will embrace its new image and utilize it to the fullest. Fear is an effective tactic. If the new plan is to eschew good PR for results, a shift toward fear-based imagery and terminology may be on the horizon. Maybe the NSA is trying to frighten you.