'National Security Agency. Some people wonder if they even exist.'

The NSA in popular culture


The National Security Agency hasn't had as big a pop-culture presence as the other federal spy shops, but it does surface onscreen from time to time. To take the edge off the latest creepy revelations about the NSA's activities, watch "The Network," an episode of the CBS show Whiz Kids which first aired on the seventh day of the suitable year 1984, and which someone has kindly posted to YouTube in five roughly 10-minute segments. The series was about teenage hackers, who were having a media moment at the time. (WarGames had come to theaters just four months before the program debuted. For years I confused the two, vaguely remembering Matthew Broderick as the star of the TV show.) In this installment, our heroes break into the computers of the NSA.

The episode opens with a somewhat eerie sequence of telephones ringing as words appear on what now look like incredibly primitive computer screens. Then some actual actors show up and the early-'80s eerieness gives way to early-'80s awfulness:

The second segment includes the one part of the episode that I remember from when it first aired, in which a character wonders what this "NSA" thing is. "National Security Agency," a reporter explains. (You can tell he's a reporter from his hat.) "Some people wonder if they even exist. You know, they're more secret than the FBI and CIA put together." Also notable, at 7:10: a touching scene featuring Herman the Talking Robot. And by "touching," I mean "dammit, I knew I shouldn't have taken the brown acid."

The third segment. Check out the computer room at 1:29. This is what high tech was supposed to look like in 1984. You should also watch the drink switcheroo at 6:13, which sadly turns out to be a prank by an annoying bit character rather than a bizarre plot twist.

The fourth segment, in which the phone lines go down and, as a result, so do the network TV stations, because "networks use telephone lines." I can't believe I was actually alive when this was made.

The fifth and final segment, in which (SPOILER ALERT, NOT THAT YOU SHOULD GIVE A CRAP) our teen hero learns that though he thought he'd been working for the NSA, he has actually been manipulated into working for the Russians. That leads to the closing scene, which is so goddamn weird I need to quote it:

TEENAGER: Why did I believe him, Dad? Why did I go along with him?

VERY PATERNAL FATHER: Hey, the guy lied to you and you fell for it. It's not hard to lie to people and get away with it. Even to adults. And you're only 16. You did what you did because you believed it was the right thing for your country. You did it out of patriotism. But you can't get mad at yourself for that. I'm proud of you, Richie. Because you're good. You did what you did because you do your best. Because you have faith. I'm just so proud of you.

And then they embrace. Since it was 1984, I'm going to assume this exchange was a part of the whole Let's forgive ourselves for Vietnam gestalt of the time, but if you want to take it as a dispensation in advance to the people who would vote for Obama thinking he'd rein in the surveillance state, that's OK too.

(For future discussion: What ever happened to the charges filed against the kids? And why is the mom named Irene Adler?)

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12 responses to “'National Security Agency. Some people wonder if they even exist.'

  1. !984 The year Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes if we elected him president. The dumb was strong that year.

  2. “See all that stuff in there, Homer? That’s why your robot didn’t work!”

  3. Oh, well show me an episode of Punky Brewster getting tortured by the CIA…please?!

  4. I did 6 months in the NSA for my last months in the service. I had PCSed back from overseas, and didn’t have enough time to be put to any useful cryptologic work, so they stuck me as a clerk in a small library on the 11 pm. to 9 a.m. shift four days a week. Which was good, because I boogied out for 3-day weekends back home in PA.

    The office building was huge. I was so far away from the cafeteria it took 5 minutes to walk there. There were long halls of closed doors with electronic locks on them. Your co-workers never asked what you did or where you worked–that would get you a visit from The Man.

    It was the largest collection of guys wearing short-sleeve dress shirts and polyester ties that I ever saw.

    1. It was the largest collection of guys wearing short-sleeve dress shirts and polyester ties that I ever saw.

      It looks like the ISIS main room.

  5. The movie Sneakers also features the NSA.

  6. This write-up is full of spoilers.

  7. Shoulder pads!!!!

  8. Splinter Cell features the NSA quite regularly.

  9. I watched Whiz Kids frequently as a kid.

  10. You can tell he’s a reporter from his hat.

    THAT may be the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

  11. Earliest screen mention of NSA I know of was by a James Garner character in a movie set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, wherein he rattled off the names of a bunch of “initials” agencies as ones of concern; NSA was among them.

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