The men and women who work at the National Security Agency were greeted, on March 31, 2003, with a cheery notice on their office computers. “Welcome to SIDtoday,” a new internal website announced, explaining that the communications team in the Signals Intelligence Directorate, the heart of the NSA, was launching the publication to keep employees abreast of what was happening inside the spy agency.
The website, SIDtoday, started modestly. Its inaugural article blandly described what it called “the analyst cockpit,” a portal for intelligence experts to access their data. The following day, which was April Fools’, SIDtoday posted an offbeat story about practical jokes, recounting how the Germans in World War II built a decoy air base, complete with planes, out of wood; the kicker, according to SIDtoday, was that the British realized the base was a decoy and dropped a wooden bomb on it. (Online fact-checkers have since declared the story a “well-traveled anecdote” of dubious accuracy.)
The April Fools’ article was at the frivolous end of the SIDtoday spectrum. Because it trafficked in “top-secret” information, SIDtoday lived in a classified environment that, over the years, allowed the agency’s spies to explain to each other, in a non-technical way, a surprising amount about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why. In the first nine years of SIDtoday’s life, more than 4,500 stories were posted on the website, a gold mine of often mundane, occasionally revealing articles that made the agency human and comprehensible in a way that technical documents could not.