Was 'Sneakers' right about secret government IT?

When the movie “Sneakers” came out in 1992, it cast a somewhat unique light onto the government’s use of computers, technology and espionage. The movie was part thriller, part comedy, and starred heavyweights like Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones.

It was an almost absurd look at how government information technology worked, and is often listed as the best tech-based movie of all time. GCN award winners sometimes cite the movie as inspiration for why they chose to get into government service.

But we never thought it could possibly be real, until now. A reporter at Slate says that some of the agencies featured in the movie may actually exist, or did exist at the time.

Now, piecing this all together is a bit like putting together a conspiracy theory itself, but I’ll put on my tinfoil hat and give it a try.

A few years ago a book came out called “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems From The Pentagon’s Black World”  that showed photos of patches worn by top secret or classified military personnel.

The guys at Slate recently saw that one patch had “Setec Astronomy” printed at the bottom of it, which was the fake extension Robert Redford’s character asked for when he called Fort Meade in Sneakers. This got him connected with James Earl Jones’s character at the National Security Agency, and also initiated a trace of the call, which the Sneakers team watched on their computer monitors as the tracer slowly made its way around the globe. They hung up just in time.

Setec Astronomy, it turns out, is an anagram for “too many secrets.” 
The patch itself in real life belonged to the National Reconnaissance Organization, a group that managed American spy satellites. The reporter at Slate was asking how a term from the movie “Sneakers” got onto a government organization’s patch, but I think the opposite might be true. I think the writers of the film somehow came across the patch or the government group first, and then put it into the movie. Consider that even the name of the NRO group was classified until September 18, 1992, nine days after the Sneakers movie was released. By then the government might have figured the cat was out of the bag, so why bother to hide Setec Astronomy anymore?

Further evidence might be a memo that was released by NRO, recently unclassified, that states that journalists may be looking into information about the NRO, and advises that the best response to any query is “no comment.” And don’t forget that the agency can’t guarantee your safety. OK, I made that last part up from the movie since it’s what James Earl Jones’ character was lying about during the phone tap. But then again, perhaps I didn’t. The world may never know.

Sneakers inspired a generation of computer pros on both sides of the fence. Some went to work for government and some became the type of hacker that GCN’s Bill Jackson runs into at Black Hat each year. But everyone agrees that the movie was a pretty cool look at government IT and computer security in general, showing us some cutting-edge emerging technologies that are still useful today.

That it might also have been just a little bit true, is just icing on the cake.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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