RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. This is not today's puzzle, but it might seem like it is. Here goes: What do the following words have in common: SHARKFINN, KEYSTONE, DISHFIRE, and TWISTEDPATH. The answer? They're all NSA code words. Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor, leaked thousands of documents about some of the most secretive programs run by the U.S. government. So secret they're all given classified names. NPR's Tom Bowman explains how they come up with them.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You may have heard of PRISM. That's the name of the secret NSA program that vacuums up Internet communications. Turns out just about everything at the world's biggest spy agency has its own code word.
BILL ARKIN: There's MESSIAH. You know, there's PINWALE. There's BLAZINGSADDLES. These are all NSA code words.
BOWMAN: Bill Arkin served in Army intelligence and has written several books about the spy world. He says even the NSA budget is assigned a code word.
ARKIN: There are tens of thousands, describing operations, exercises, weapons activities, programs, pieces of equipment, spying things, and no one really has one single, like, super-duper database on all of them.
BOWMAN: There are some conventions when coming up with code words. The CIA typically uses metals or a stone, like ruby or greystone. NSA code words are always one word, uppercase. Some may sound like two words, like the program EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE, but are written as one. That custom may have its roots in World War II when the allies broke the encryption codes of their enemies and described the stolen information by a single word: magic. That was the intelligence gained from decrypted Japanese diplomatic cables; ultra: the name of the intelligence obtained from Nazi communications. Back then, a committee or even a national leader, like Churchill, would decide on a code word. By the 1960s, that job fell to a woman sitting in a small room at NSA headquarters.
JAMES BAMFORD: And anytime they needed a new code word she would just pull it out of a computer and she'd just take the next one in line.
BOWMAN: That's James Bamford. He's written extensively about the NSA. He thinks the names are still generated by computers. And he says some of the projects are so sensitive, even the code word itself is classified. And when it's compromised, NSA immediately comes up with a new one.
BAMFORD: Because they think if someone finds out what it is they'll find out what the meaning of that is.
BOWMAN: Well, not always. Here's Bill Arkin's favorite code word.
BOWMAN: That's the name of a program?
ARKIN: I don't know what it is, but I know it exists and I know it's NSA.
BOWMAN: Arkin says he's seen it on documents. And of course it's written as one word. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
MARTIN: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.