NSA reaches its tentacles into space

By Maral Margossian

Flickr/Sam Churchill
Flickr/Sam Churchill

Forget donkeys and elephants: The most important animal in the realm of politics is the octopus. The octopus is known for its eight tentacles, uncanny eyesight, masterful disguises and ability to squeeze through tight places. These characteristics evoke a sinister air of impalpable omnipresence, creating the perfect symbol of an institution with too much power.

This symbol was born in the late 19th century during the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain denoting an age plagued with social problems but disguised by a veneer of glamour. This period reaped the economic benefits of the Industrial Revolution but faced underlying social tensions that eventually bubbled up to the surface in the form of riots and strikes.

A main source of these tensions was the railroad and the ruthless companies who let no town, home or business get in the way of their tracks. In 1873, American cartoonist Frank Bellew published “The Cephalopod, or Terrestrial Devil Fish – A Monster of Centralization,” which depicted an octopus with tentacles drawn as trains. One of the trains wraps around and clutches a woman cloaked in the American flag and holding the U.S. Constitution. The mouth of the octopus gapes open and beneath it is a strip of paper that reads, “Congressional Honor.” In this cartoon, the U.S. government is literally in the clutches of the railroad business. Bellew’s comic is one of the earliest depictions of an octopus representing a formidable enterprise.

Then in 1882, another political cartoonist, Frederick Keller, depicted the Southern Pacific Railroad as a menacing octopus with 10 tentacles, nine of which are seizing various components of the economy: Farmers, miners, fruit growers, lumber dealers and so on. This cartoon, titled, “The Curse of California,” uses an octopus to represent an uncontrollable entity seizing authority over aspects of life far beyond the enterprise itself. Keller’s comic reflected the resentment held by the general U.S. population toward businesses that had grown too large and powerful. This was the beginning of the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the stage was set for the octopus to star as the representative of unchecked economic dominance. In 1904, Udo J. Keppler gave Standard Oil similar treatment in a cartoon titled “Next!”

The octopus also made its symbolic appearance overseas. While America focused on strengthening its economy internally, Britain flexed its imperial muscles, gaining control over a substantial portion of the globe and leading to the famous saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” This conspicuous act of dominance made Britain an easy target for criticism. In 1888, an unknown American drew a cartoon of the head of John Bull, the British equivalent of Uncle Sam, on top of England with 11 tentacles, each one holding a piece of land labeled with names of different countries. The octopus in this case represents a government, rather than a business, but still shares the same intrusive and dominating characteristics.

These are only a few of the more famous examples of the octopus as a symbol of a formidable entity possessing exceptional amounts of power and influence. The rise of fascism and communism during World War I and World War II, the looming nuclear threat during the Cold War, the rise of anti-Semitism and various other issues all became subject to representation by the octopus. The symbol even sprang up again during the Occupy Wall Street movement, when artist Molly Crabapple created a stencil of a giant octopus colored black with white block letters saying “Fight the Vampire Squid” on it.

Despite the multitude of the octopus’ appearances in a time span extending over a century, and despite its association with incredibly diverse social, political and economic issues, the octopus has almost always exclusively been portrayed as a critique of an institution. It has been used to criticize the pervasiveness of monopolistic companies, imperialism and the expansion of communism. If the octopus was used to represent an institution, it meant that the institution was being condemned, attacked, denounced. The octopus represented dishonesty, subjugation, corruption. It never evoked pride. Until now.

On Dec. 5, the National Security Agency (NSA) launched a spy satellite called NROL-39 into space. In the midst of the Snowden scandal coupled with the revelations of NSA’s extensive spying, the NSA earned itself an Orwellian “Big Brother is watching you” reputation. Rather than try to curb this reputation, the NSA chose a logo for the rocket that reinforced it. The logo depicts a giant octopus with its tentacles wrapped around planet Earth. Beneath this image, a motto reads, “Nothing is beyond our reach.”

The launch was live tweeted and, for anyone who did not understand the logo, Karen Furgerson, spokeswoman for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) explains, “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature. Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide. ‘Nothing is beyond our reach’ defines this mission and the value it brings to our nation and the warfighters it supports, who serve valiantly all over the globe, protecting our nation.”

Strip this quote of its prose and pathos, and it essentially says, “We are everywhere and we are watching you.” For those political cartoonists wanting to create a comic criticizing the American government’s invasiveness, you’re too late; the American government beat you to it. Except the government is embracing is its furtive intelligence and taking pride in it.

What message does this send? It means that the NSA does not care that the rest of the world is appalled by the spying revelations. It means the NSA understands that spying is an unspoken reality that occurs in all countries. The NSA does not need the octopus to symbolize the organization. The NSA is the octopus.

Maral Margossian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]