Kittler on the NSA


NSA Headquarters (photo by Trevor Paglen; source: Wikimedia Commons)


Introduction to Kittler’s “No Such Agency”

 by Paul Feigelfeld and Jussi Parikka

German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s short text on the NSA (National Security Agency) titled “No Such Agency” was originally published in 1986. The German newspaper and online publication TAZ (!131154/) decided to publish the piece from its archives in January 2014, after months of heated discussion about the NSA after the Snowden leaks. What the piece reveals is less the idea that Kittler should be branded a visionary, but that the NSA has a long technological history.

The text is a sort of a review of, or at least inspired by, James Bamford’s book The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1983) and its German translation, NSA. Amerikas geheimster Nachrichtendienst, which came out in German in 1986.

At the time, Kittler had just fought through Aufschreibesysteme: 1800-1900 as his habilitation, and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was looming. More significantly, however, he had just bought his first computer and taken up programming. Like Kittler, the Arpanet was slowly switching to UNIX and C as a technical standard, before the internet of the 1990s.  In Germany during the 1970s, BKA chief Horst Herold had implemented “Rasterfahndung” or dragnet policing as a countermeasure to the RAF (Red Army Faction) threat. And as Kittler demonstrates in his text, the NSA’s role of power in information infrastructures was not a reaction to the internet, but an act of design within those systems.

The piece shows Kittler’s interest in secrecy and the military basis of media technologies – but significantly, it reminds us that the media theorist was always as interested in institutions as their technical networks of knowledge.

Photographer Trevor Paglen, famous for his photographic mapping of networks and sites of power in the post 9/11 US, and recently his NSA photography, argues how “secrecy ‘nourishes the worst excesses of power’” . But for Kittler, one could say that secrecy is power: the technically mediated possibilities of circulation, restriction and gathering of information way before the Internet and much before Edward Snowden was able to give us a further insight into the extensive contemporary forms of surveillance excessively interested in us humans. For Kittler, however, this already marks the possibility that the information gathering and processing machines are at some point not anymore even interested in human targets: “With the chance of forgetting us in the process.”

Paul Feigelfeld worked for Friedrich Kittler from 2004-2011 and is the editor of Kittler’s source code and software for the upcoming Collected Works. He worked as a teacher and researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute for Media Theories from 2010-2013, and since 2013 coordinates the Digital Cultures Research Lab at Leuphana University, Lüneburg.

Jussi Parikka is Reader at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, and author of books such as Digital Contagions (2007), Insect Media (2010) and What is Media Archaeology? (2012). Http://




“No Such Agency”

by Friedrich A. Kittler

Maybe Jagger was wrong. We can always get what we want, from CDs to cable TV. Just not what we need: information on information. The fact that currents of media desires flow camouflages a situation in which information technology is strategy.

The National Security Agency – the USA’s surveillance institution – is the only one among all government agencies and intelligence service bureaucracies enjoying the right to deny its own existence. A secret squared prevents information squared, as president Truman decreed in 1952. “No Such Agenc0y” or “Never Say Anything” are just two of the decryptions of the acronym NSA (not lacking intra-agency humor).

An organisation with 70,000 people surveilling – cautiously estimated – approximately every thousandth telecommunication message on the planet with spy satellites or radio relay systems, and using Platform, a network of 52 globally linked computer systems, to automatically decipher, store and evaluate them, leaves public relations to the CIA and its 4000 agents.

Exactly because Human Intelligence or HUMINT (like spies are called in agency jargon) has been surpassed by Signals Intelligence or SIGINT according to budget and rank, in order to leave “human understanding” to German philosophy lectures, a new Le Carré is published every year.

Technical information about technical information, however, is punishable by law. An NSA employee who handed over military computer codes to their soviet mirror agency was sentenced to 365 years in prison by a court in San Franscisco last August.

But even old-fashioned media like writing are a transgression: Yardley, as the founder, and Kahn, as the historian of American radio surveillance technologies, have experienced this.


Decrypting Codes and Ciphers


Thus, it remained somewhat astonishing that James Bamford, lawyer and journalist with no prior history was able to describe the „Puzzle Palace“ in Fort Meade (somewhere between Washington and Baltimore) on roughly 500 pages after a successful lawsuit related to some secret documents.

Were it not for the NSA’s new public relations strategy after Watergate and Bramford’s (and his translator’s) technological ignorance and an acknowledgment to the “employees of department DIV” (not specified).

Nevertheless: Bamford’s anatomy of the NSA continues to write what Derrida called  “The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond” and Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” called the Trystero conspiracy. “The interception of correspondence is as old as correspondence itself”, notes a training speaker at the British GCHQ, more historical than their US colleagues and their non-fiction writer.

But cryptanalysis, the decrypting of codes and ciphers, remained a mechanical art (with pen and paper) as long as the monopoly on data storage and transmission was reserved for the medium of writing, in which commands and poems had to go through the same channel.

Lambros Callimahos, the NSA’s guru, learned his skills as a child while reading Poe’s “The Gold-Bug”. William Friedman, who managed to decrypt Japan’s Pearl Harbour plans in 1941 (which he told Roosevelt, but not the commanders at the Pacific Coast), learned his while a student, when he famously proved that Shakespeare’s complete works are nothing but a cryptogram of Sir Francis Bacon.



Secret Service Dispatch from Berlin to Mexico City

Beautiful literature, which began to end with telegraphy. Since commands are infinitely faster than books or postal things, their mass, too, grows exponentially like maybe nothing but their own interceptability. Technological warfare is mathematics and the machinery of its encryption. Yardley, who cryptographically led the USA through World War One, was a child of military telegraphy, just like Edison, the inventor of film and photography. And that England was able to intercept and decipher a secret dispatch from Berlin to Mexico City thanks to their cable monopoly, led to the USA’s entering the war in 1917.

Wireless teletype and radio circumvented this monopoly for the price of wave diffusion. “For many a year”, said Marconi’s telegraphed dead voice in 1937 via Radio Roma, he had researched ways of hardening his invention against eavesdropping, because unspecified powers commanded him to.

An impossibility, which did not give us interception, but at least the consoling gift of mass reception. Though the Reichswehr declassified a civil radio in 1923 only after it had become clear that a company called Chiffrier Maschinen AG in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin would be able to convert the so-called „Wehrmachtnachrichtenverbindungen“ (Wehrmacht Intelligence Connections) from manual to automatic processing. And it was precisely here that the prehistory of the NSA began – Bamford could have read up on that in the work of his British colleagues.

The Blitz, Hitler’s only economically feasible option, was the motorization and remote control by land, sea and air. Thus, with tanks, subs and Stukas, electronic warfare was born (according to Don E. Gordon, Pentagon). Telecommunications chief Fellgiebel and tank general Guderian switched all command lines to radio, both tactically and operationally and long before civil FM broadcasting.

With that they not only created – as Van Creveld’s “Command in War” argues against the historians – the “principle” of military presence, but the necessity of automated cryptography.

Automata read what Automata write


ENIGMA – from Wilmersdorf, and in Bamford’s clear words a “cross between a switch box and an old-fashioned typewriter” – encrypted to such a mathematically complex degree that manual decryption on the other side would have come millennia too late for any battlefield. But England had Alan Turing, who started developing the first computer (for the Government Code and Cypher School) in 1940 from his basic circuit of a digital machine (for the abolition of intellectuals).

Only automata like COLOSSUS could read what automata like ENIGMA wrote. While agents in novels might hunt for messages in secret files, what decided World War Two was information squared: the interception of a communications system as such, with all its senders, receivers, distributors, data, addresses, commands. Andrew Hodges, Turing’s biographer, on the computer age: “The heritage of a total war and the looting of a total communications system could only lead to the construction of a total machine.”

One of Truman’s very first official acts was the order to keep secret radio decryption, crucial for the war effort, absolutely secret (which Bamford forgets). UKUSA, the crypto-pact (or technology transfer) established in 1941 between the UK and the USA, were able to switch their machines from Berlin to Moscow without delay. Which led Stalin, perhaps blinded by the rocket rays over Peenemünde and the flashlight of Hiroshima, to declare cybernetics to be a bourgeois aberration: energy instead of information.

One of Truman’s very last official acts, however, was the foundation of the NSA, which humbly states it “certainly has accelerated the advent of the computer age”. If their leading technicians don’t come from IBM, TRW, Cray Research, Harris or Bell Labs, they go to these ancillary companies. And if the computer (according to Turing) is able to answer any question an intelligence service might have for the enemy much „easier“ than the questions physicists ask nature, it is also no coincidence.

Foucault’s Swan Song


The crypto-industrial complex (Bamford’s discovery), in any case, simultaneously builds satellites and computers, which free our telephone conversations and telegrams from cables, five years ahead of their time to make them accessible for the NSA. World Post, von Stephan would have said. Therefore Bamford’s indignation about the NSA entering the domain of the FBI under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon by also surveilling US citizens for drug trade, Vietnam war etc., remains juristically abstract.

Firstly, according to Truman, US law only applies to SIGINT if a paragraph explicitly but not redundantly states that for the NSA. And secondly, law itself belongs – be it as oral-written common law or as roman-european pile of books – to the medium we call discourse, the swan song of which not only Foucault intoned.

How many million telecommunications the NSA deciphers as the input for their vacuum cleaner procedure every year, nobody knows; the according annual output of classified documents lies between 50 and 100 million – with all the waste management issues caused by modern data avalanches. This, too, is discourse analysis, however not that of a reader in a library, but of computers and high frequencies. (A technological breakthrough of COLOSSUS scale has made even microwaves, the beam of which was supposed to solve Marconi’s eavesdropping problems, surveillable).

The jurist Bamford shifts the “main problem of both revolutions, the enormous progress in the usage of satellites and microwave technology and the enormous expansion of electronic telecommunications intelligence” to the fact “that where a third revolution would have had to happen, only a giant gap exists: There are no clear legal rules for the usage of these technologies.”

NSA Computers in Frankfurt

It remains open how circuits, which already are their own bureaucracy (data, addresses, commands), might also obey the self-contradictions of a bureaucracy in everyday speech. For the time being, the NSA computers at for example Frankfurt’s former I.G. Farben headquarters continue to automatically classify every caller in Frankfurt as a non-American and every caller in New York as a US citizen.

Since ENIGMA and COLOSSUS, it is not individuals or messages that count, but communications systems as such. Perhaps Truman was closer to that „third revolution“ when he abolished law itself for SIGINT. Revolution in a literal sense would mean to reverse the – striking, in the case of the Challenger shock – balance of power between politicians and engineers. Because what stops or at least limits automatic data processing aren’t laws, but technologies. The Vietnam War, just like the NSA, was subject to the Pentagon‘s Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence department. C3I, this telling acronym, mapped war onto its circuit logic – with the well-known result, described by Van Creveld, that US front commands drowned in statistical entropy.



The State as the Site of all Clear Texts

Entropy, i.e. noise, is also being transmitted by the Red Army. What ENIGMA was for the Blitz, Telecipher is for today: a crypto-device not functioning according to rules and periods, but modulating every clear text with a unique random sequence. “In other words”, Bamford quotes an analyst from Cheltenham, “the Russians and us do not read each other’s radio communications anymore.” This inhibits SALT controls and strengthens the work of those statisticians who analyse discourses only according to their frequency in Cheltenham or Fort Meade. Words will have become waves. What remains readable are transmitted company files: oil, ore, weapons. Industrial espionage replaces the Cold War. Under the condition, however, that the NSA keeps their head start of five years. When computers from Fort Meade start moving into every office, and company terminals therefore need secure keys, the competition grows. And the NSA has no choice but to have IBM amputate 72 binary points from its publicly available Lucifer code before it hits the market. Otherwise the state wouldn’t be the site of all clear texts anymore.

With foresight, and while the rest of the world works according to John von Neumann’s classical computer architecture, the NSA is already switching again: to optical computers, surface acoustic wave filters and CCDs or charged-coupled-devices, which guarantee more than a thousand trillion multiplications per second.

This way, one day, those 99.9% of the data flow that still run past the NSA might become graspable and evaluable. Derrida’s “post in general” would become a closed system, writing and reading, calculating and enciphering itself. The NSA as the collapse of strategy and technology would be information  itself – “No Such Agency”. With the chance of forgetting us in the process.

translated by Paul Feigelfeld

Bamford, James (1982). The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America’s Most Secret Agency. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-14-006748-5.

Bamford, James (2001). The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization. Viking Pr.

Image: NSA Headquarters (photo by Trevor Paglen; source: Wikimedia Commons)

Readers may be interested in articles by and on Kittler from the TCS archive, such as:

– Kittler’s ‘Towards an Ontology of Media’, Theory, Culture & Society, March/May 2009, 26 (2-3) pp. 23-31

– the TCS Special Section on Kittler, Theory, Culture & Society, December 2006 23 (7-8)

– Nicholas Gane’s article ‘Radical Post-humanism: Friedrich Kittler and the Primacy of Technology’, Theory, Culture & Society, June 2005, 22 (3) pp. 25-41

– Nicholas Gane’s interview with Kittler and Mark Hansen: Theory, Culture & Society, December 2007, 24 (7-8) pp. 323-329

– Bernard Geoghegan’s article ‘After Kittler’, Theory, Culture & Society, November 2013, 30 (6) pp. 66-82, and other articles in the recent Special Issue on Cultural Techniques, Theory, Culture & Society, November 2013, 30 (6)

A TCS E-Special on Kittler is also in progress, and will be published later this year.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

15 + two =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.