If "A" is for assassination and "B" is for booby trap, then "C" must be for CIA. The nation's most secret spy agency recently launched its newest feature -- the CIA Kids' Page -- a web site to teach kids the ABCs of interactive spying. What kind of real intelligence youngsters are gathering from the site, however, is dubious at best.
"The CIA Internet home page for kids," the agency explains, "is in keeping with the president's initiative to encourage children to use computers and to explore the worlds of science, geography, government and history."
Enabling kids to enter the "secret zone," the Agency's virtual tour of its Virginia headquarters includes costumed animals and carrier pigeons who outline the agency's multifaceted activities and introduce kids to the likes of Nathan Hale, undercover agent 355, and other intriguing U.S. spies. Aimed at children as young as 6, the CIA's Kids' Page even allows viewers to put funny disguises on trench-coated Fidos. "You can make a dog look like a woman," exclaimed one young user.
The Central Intelligence Agency is by no means the first federal agency to launch a Kids' Page. At www.Whitehouse.gov, for instance, a caricature of Socks, the Clinton cat, serves as host of an extensive tour of the White House, replete with pictures of his favorite nap spot on the South Lawn. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation doles out e-tips to children, such as "Don't give your address or phone number in a chat room."
Many other agencies' web sites -- from the State Department's digital diplomacy to NASA's rocket wizardry -- have kids learning about the programs, procedures and objectives of the institutions that make up the U.S. government.
That, too, is the ostensible goal of the CIA's Web site for Kids (at www.odci.gov/cia). But the agency's dumbed-down prose will leave kids sleuthing to find the truth. From misleading assertions about positive relations with Congress to puerile treatment of controversial covert actions, the CIA's latest public relations strategy -- and recruitment device -- is an exemplar of misinformation and propaganda aimed at the hearts and minds of America's youth.
As presented to youngsters, the CIA's mission is reduced to that of a clipping service: "Policy-makers like the president do not have time to read all the other countries' newspapers I There are just too many of them." But, with a budget of some $3 billion, the CIA does far more than distill the mass media.
Indeed, the CIA has managed to obscure the very activity that has made it famous -- covert action. Aside from a description of members of its covert operations branch as spies who "work to discover secrets," the web site avoids any discussion of the agency's most controversial activities.
"Well, first let's look at how we are asked to do a job," CIA for Kids pedantically explains to its young constituency. "We call it 'tasked.' Just like anything in life, there is a way or procedure for how things are done."
Since the CIA was created some 50 years ago, its tasks have routinely included assassination plots, violent coups, paramilitary and economic warfare, psychological operations, and sabotage abroad. But the web site acknowledges only that "when people think of the CIA, they think of people lurking around in trench coats, sending messages in code, and using cool tools [such as disappearing ink] to do their job. Well, to some extent that's true," reads the text. "But it's not the whole story."
The CIA Kids' Page, unfortunately, doesn't begin to tell the whole story. It doesn't tell the story of the CIA's first major operation in Central America -- the 1954 coup in Guatemala, for which Agency operatives drew up diagrams demonstrating "an effective technique I by which a room containing as many as a dozen subjects can be purified in about 20 seconds" by two assassins using submachine guns.
It doesn't include the history of the use of other "tools" -- poisoned cigars, exploding seashells and sniper rifles -- in the CIA's failed efforts to murder Cuba's Fidel Castro. Nor does it share the story of Richard Helms, the CIA director who was convicted of lying to Congress about covert actions, or the international and domestic scandal caused by the covert mining of Nicaragua's harbors, or the CIA role in the Iran-Contra operations. From this Disney World version of the CIA, all references to the Agency's dark and controversial history are omitted.
Similarly sanitized is the site's treatment of the core of intelligence work -- CIA "sources and methods."
"Some sources are covert," the agency explains. "We persuade these people to tell us their secrets."
But the CIA web masters do not acknowledge, let alone explain, the recent scandal over the CIA's "liaison" program employing as sources hundreds of individuals involved in torture, drug smuggling and even the murder of American citizens. Such information is apparently considered too mature for this younger, impressionable audience.
So, too, is the controversy over recently uncovered CIA interrogation manuals that counsel "psychological techniques" -- requiring political prisoners to stand without sleep for prolonged periods of time, holding them in solitary confinement and applying extremes of heat and cold -- to persuade unwilling sources to share secrets with their U.S.-trained captors. The fact that the Agency has been tied to torture and human rights abuses abroad is not in keeping with the rosy, "G-rated" nature of its kids' page.
In theory, there is no problem with a CIA World Wide Web page for children -- provided that it teaches our children valuable lessons. The ABCs of intelligence operations, like the ABCs of good government, should stand for candor and accountability, befitting behavior and candor.
Accountability, the "checks and balances" of the Constitution, is the bedrock of U.S. democracy. Yet an honest appraisal of the tensions between secret operations and democratic accountability is absent on the CIA's Web page, which tells youngsters only that it is "important" for the CIA and Congress to "work together and understand each other so that the job is done well."
The Agency should admit that it has a checkered and unbalanced past when it comes to working with congressional oversight committees. "The CIA treats us like mushrooms," said Norman Minetta, then a Democratic congressman from California, adding: "They keep us in the dark and feed us lots of manure."
Indeed, the CIA has often behaved badly by conducting illicit and illegal operations unbefitting a great nation. The web site could pay tribute to the discipline of learning from the past by including a complete list of illegal agency activities -- from assassination to domestic wiretapping. This would teach children that even adults must recognize and abide by the rules and the law.
And, most importantly, the web site needs candor. To take a major step toward a more honest Kids' Page, the CIA must include a frank discussion of its long and controversial history -- rather than flagrantly covering it up.
If the goal of the web site is to honestly teach children about the meaning and methods of their government, then it is time for the agency's web masters to break from the years of deception of its spymasters. Our children need to learn what the CIA is all about.
Duncan Levin is public analyst at the Center for National Security Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties advocacy group.
Pub Date: 6/21/98