Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 20th, 2012

OPSEC” is governmentspeak for “operations security.” In practice, OPSEC programs are usually devoted to coming up with creative ways to  remind employees to keep secrets, and investigate breeches of secrecy. Google Ngrams suggests the term was birthed in the mid-1970s or so, and has proliferated since then. In the earlier Cold War, these functions were just dubbed “Security” by the Atomic Energy Commission.

“Silence Means Security” — Cold War “OPSEC” billboard from Hanford Site. (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)-

The media output is of course what I find most interesting — the ways in which employees, in the name of OPSEC, are cajoled, and often threatened, into maintaining strict cultures of secrecy. This sort of activity is a common and integral part of a secrecy system, because if you aren’t “disciplining” the employee (to invoke a little Foucault) into acting contrary to the way they are accustomed to, the whole thing becomes as leaky as a sieve. It’s not a new thing, of course, and we’ve already seen a few historical examples of this on the blog.

Sometimes it is done well — strong message, strong artistic execution. And sometimes… it is done less well.

The DOE OPSEC logo from the Arnold OPSEC era. “Propugnator causae” is something like, “Defender of the Cause.”

In the category of “less well” falls a series of OPSEC videos the DOE Nevada Operations Office put together in what looks like the late 1980s or early 1990s, featuring the hapless character “Arnold OPSEC.” They are little film clips (non-animated) demonstrating poor, dumb Arnold OPSEC as he accidentally divulges classified information through clumsy practices.

The DOE has helpfully put all of these online for your viewing pleasure. A few of my favorites follow. (You will probably need QuickTime Player to view these.)

Arnold goes jogging (and blabbing) with his “new friends,” who happen to be Soviet spies! D’oh!

Arnold gets a cell phone the size of his head and uses it to blab about secrets while driving his sports car.

Arnold uses an “airfone” on a plane, brags how important he is to his girlfriend, and nefarious terrorists hear him, and then hijack the plane and keep him as an important hostage. Sometimes your days just don’t work out.

Arnold gives a tour of Nevada Test Site, and tells a bunch of obvious-shady visitors (check out those evil eyebrows) things he shouldn’t, so his supervisor (who is mysteriously missing legs) dresses him down.

Arnold takes work home to use on his new-fangled PC and modem service, “Prodigy,” and accidentally posts it all onto the new-fangled Internet. (And you thought WikiLeaks was a new thing!)

Arnold irritates everyone at the office by publishing their birth dates and Social Security Numbers. “Arnold just doesn’t realize the kinds of information that can be considered sensitive!” Arnold is both a leak and a jerk.

“Help make our security a sure-thing. Don’t gamble with OPSEC.” I find this one very perplexing. It’s not a real situation. It’s a metaphor, you know? Arnold is gambling with OPSEC, and hit the jackpot of, um, espionage. Then he is being served little black men by a blond woman whose dimpled rear has received a little too much artistic attention. So don’t, um, do any of that. Got it?

It’s a recurrent theme in these that new-fangled technology is the result of a lot of leaks. The Information Age did create a lot of challenges for places where information flow was meant to be restricted, not encouraged. Still, I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor employees who must have been forced to sit through these scoldings.

7 Responses to “Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos”

  1. Charles Day says:

    I wonder when public service messages began to be conveyed through childish cartoons? World War II posters that warned against leaking info had adult art. Makes me wonder if CIA employees have to watch movies that feature Simon the Cyber Security Squirrel or other silly mascot.

  2. Will Thomas says:

    Charles: World War II was the ur-source of this stuff! Disney was big-time into instructional films. Here’s OPSEC Arnold’s grandfather, Pvt. Snafu:

    Also, a great film about saving bacon grease, starring Minnie and Pluto.

    An interesting tangent: in my book I mention a RAND Corporation researcher who was trying to figure out how to model ground combat; after he asked some generals to reenact how the flow of a battle might go, he remarked that he thought Disney could animate it beautifully. Decades later, he would have had recourse to the notion of computer graphics for modelling troop movements, but, at the time, Disney was the gold standard for innovative visuals. It’s also worth pointing out that during World War II, he had actually designed stop-motion films for teaching gunners on bombers how to aim at fighters.

    • August Schellhase says:

      Good point Will; I wonder if “Arnold OPSEC” is more appropriate now than ever. What are the ratings for ….”South Park”? 2013, TV Guide listed the show at number 10 among the “60 Greatest Cartoons of All Time. I sincerly believe the creators were ahead of their time as more and more adults (for unknown reasons) are watching adult cartoons.

  3. Mike Lehman says:

    I believe the concept of Op-Sec is older than the 1970s. IIRC, there were references to this in the Manhattan Project itself. But the origins of it are military and specifically in the counter-intelligence field. Given that, prior to nuclear weapons, counter-intelligence was right up there with signals intelligence as the most deeply hidden of government secrets, I suspect there was a general reluctance to openly discuss Op-Sec, even behind closed doors.

    By the 1970s, popular culture had outed Op-Sec as a concept (James Bond, Dr. Strangelove and a bunch of spy novels, including John LaCarre) so it made sense to make more specific internal references to it within the compartmentalized world beyond the intelligence community itself.

    Sorry I can’t provide a specific cite to peg down the earlier provenance. I am a fan of Arnold, although you hope he only represented who the AEC, etc might like to leave its service ASAP.

    • Thanks, Mike! Did they actually call it Op-Sec or Operations Security? The AEC seems to have always put this sort of thing under a generic “Security” heading (and this was the work of the Security Division). My invocation of the 1970s was just as the emergence of the acronym, but I thoroughly acknowledge that its appearance in the public lexicon is not necessarily the same as its appearance in the classified or even just governmental lexicon.

      • Mike Lehman says:

        Most likely was generally used in full — operational security. Shortening to Op-Sec sounds like a development of the TV Age, where everything gets re-termed into shorthand. Certainly the Cold War tendency towards acronyms for virtually any and every common phrase was also a factor.

        I also suspect that “Arnold Operational Security” would’ve been a mouthful — and not nearly as applicable to a cartoon mascot — although I can also virtually visualize a memo with the Subject heading:
        The Necessity of Animating Arnold Operation Security to Enhance Security Culture

        Fortunately, someone at this imagined committee meeting had an extra cup of coffee and said, “Are you really going to call him THAT?”

        • August Schellhase says:

          Operations Security (OPSEC) was a name given by a few individuals assigned the code name “Purple Dragon” during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to find out how critical information was leaking to the enemy. I’m not going to get into the history but you can find the declassified document here;

          The principles of OPSEC have long existed prior to it being coined “OPSEC” or the eventual signing into law in 1988 with NSDD-298. The need for OPSEC is greater now than ever as we are experiencing massive losses of sensitive information due to the age of technology we are living in.

          The name? Operations Security and not Operational or heaven forbid “Optional”.