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FOIA request for NROL-39 surveillance satellite logo (twitter.com/palewire)
270 points by danso on Oct 10, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

From a previous FOIA request[1] explaining the logo:

"The secret origin of the patch is initially from [redacted] where the problem during the test stage in the thermal vacuum was traced to a large piece of cabling called an octopus harness. The running joke for the crew was that the octopus harness had taken over the world."

[1] http://www.paglen.com/download/octopus.pdf

Apparently some NRO folks got smacked down on another mission when they tried to use a quote from the Ricky Bobbie movie as the slogan "If you ain't first, you're last"


Ha, yup you're right! They even tried to preemptively get around that by putting it in Latin, but that failed.


I have the solution: "si non primus es novissimi". It is Latin and roughly translates to "If you ain't first, you're last" according to Google Translator. Someone can check this translation, but it should solve the copyright issue since Ricky Bobby doesn't speak latin. It will also be more mysterious for the average, non-latin literate observer.

This Latin approach has worked before and allowed one of my previous organizations to have the slogan "Doing God's work with other people's money" fly right through the approval process.

> It is Latin and roughly translates to "If you ain't first, you're last" according to Google Translator.

Google translate is not up to the task of translating more than an isolated word without serious errors. I can't actually check your translation, but I can point out some issues:

- The verb, es, and the word "first", primus, are both singular. They match! And they're supposed to. But novissimi is plural. In the sentence as given, novissimi plays no role, much like the "cabbage" in the sentence "this sentence contains cabbage six words".

- Novissimi means, literally, "newest". (Heck, it doesn't just mean "newest", the two words are etymologically identical.) It does metaphorically refer to the rear of something, since the back of the army is where the least experienced (newest) troops get placed. A better word for "last" would probably be postremus, meaning literally "last" and metaphorically "worst".

- There's only one verb. (Compare "if you're not first, you're last".) That isn't the problem in Latin that it would be in English, but I flag it because the final two issues require careful thinking about what verb to use where...

- This is a conditional statement using a present indicative verb. The strong implication is present that, as described, you really aren't first. If the statement was meant to be hypothetical or counterfactual, you'd probably use subjunctive mood.

- I cannot guarantee that the concept "to be first" is best expressed by combining the verb "to be" with the adjective "first", as you've done here. It's quite possible that there's a verb that describes winning a race or a competition or whatever, and that verb would be a more idiomatic way of expressing this meaning. I have no knowledge of whether that's actually true, but it's the kind of thing that comes up a lot when you're trying to translate between languages. (This sort of thing is why it's much safer to translate things into your native language than out of your native language, even if you have near-perfect command of the other language.) English is very free with "be + adjective" constructions; many languages are more prone to specialized verbs. (Compare the Latin verb rubere, "to be red". Expressing the concept as ruber esse, "to be" + "red (adj.)" is an error.)

Interestingly, I just plugged it into Google Translate and got a somewhat different translation that makes more sense to me (granted my Latin is a bit rusty):

si non prius, postremo te

Your correction reminds me on Monty Python Life of Brian, ROMANES EUNT DOMUS.

Apparently they also got into trouble because of the menacing look of NROL-39. Quoting from page 17 of the document you linked:

"[redacted] said after the octopus logo, the White House threatened to require presidential approval if the NRO approved any more menacing logos."

Perhaps as it was during the 2013 period when US security agencies were in the spotlight. Here is Jon Stewart Daily Show on this exact logo.[1] (US-only video, here is the NSFW-ish punchline [2]).

NROL-10 launched in 2000 with an almost Miyazaki-esque logo designed by school children.[3] Most of the mission logos seem to be in jest, or more recently Marvel Avengers-based.

[1] http://www.cc.com/video-clips/wnciaf/the-daily-show-with-jon...

[2] https://kotaku.com/john-stewart-claims-responsibility-for-pe...

[3] https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NROL-10_Mission_Pa...

I don’t think there’s copyright on a short, generic phrase like that.

It may be sinister, but its a damn fine design (interesting, and intimidating in a thriller movie kind of way), isn't it? Beats the crap out of boring bureaucracy.

Wonder what other cool logos / unit patches / etc I am not aware of.

Nuke commands have had some good ones throughout the years. Some funny, but mostly just extremely eerie.

Death wears bunny slippers:


Politically incorrect:


Satisfaction guaranteed:


Central heating:


Some of those are great, especially the Warsaw Pact Central Heating one.

It's always a bit reassuring to know that dark humor is allowed to exist somewhere within these faceless organizations. They're still allowed to be human. Being a secret agency and protected from the Twitter brigades always helps!

> They're still allowed to be human.

Are they, and are they, by extension, allowed to see "the enemy" as humans, too, or are these stickers part of the rituals of compensation?

> [Hobbes] foresaw the necessary idolatry of power itself by this new human type, that he would be flattered at being called a power-thirsty animal, although actually society would force him to surrender all his natural forces, his virtues and his vices, and would make him the poor meek little fellow who has not even the right to rise against tyranny, and who, far from striving for power, submits to any existing government and does not stir even when his best friend falls an innocent victim to an incomprehensible raison d'etat.

-- Hannah Arendt

In light of that, "tough and mischievous", variations of which 99% of these patches seem to be, doesn't have quite the luster. On the extreme end we have stuff like calling children "fun-sized terrorists", which is clearly not dark humor that expresses humanity, but cartoonish dehumanization.

> protected from the Twitter brigades

Covering one's ears further removes any semblance of luster.

Gallows humor is a coping mechanism. I'd be more worried if they acted like everything is normal.

Clay Shirky said something really smart about teenager's usage of public social media: They're talking to each other, not you. So stop listening. You wouldn't eavesdrop on teenager's at the local food court, would you?

I'd only start worrying once the inside jokes become agitprop, bumper stickers, or campaign slogans.

> Gallows humor is a coping mechanism. I'd be more worried if they acted like everything is normal.

False dichotomies are a sophistry mechanism.

I'm noting what Hannah Arendt said also applies to a lot of people with money, or people in the military, plenty of positions of supposed power.

> So stop listening. You wouldn't eavesdrop on teenager's at the local food court, would you?

Did you seriously compare talking in a less than fawning way about insignia of soldiers in a military conducting wars of aggression, that were posted here as "cool and interesting", with snooping on minors? Wow.

We're both "snooping" in that sense, I just am not fawning over their conversation, that is all. Why can't the people who disagree with, but neither want to refute nore expand on my comment, simply ignore it? They are not the target audience, after all.

> I'd only start worrying once the inside jokes become agitprop, bumper stickers, or campaign slogans.

I'm not "worrying", I'm simply totally unimpressed, have been for ages, by anything in that bucket, and the Arendt quote is a good summary of why. I would guess that the worst things are regularly perpetrated by the utterly bland, not by those who call themselves deathlords of hellfire or whatever, but nonetheless, I think it's the opposite of "cool", it's unintentionally derpy.

Okay. I get it.

I'm just trying to avoid immediately judging any group by their inside jokes. Also, my inner ethnographer is fascinated by how group culture is formed. Probably because, like Groucho Marx, I've never been part of a group.

>In light of that, "tough and mischievous", variations of which 99% of these patches seem to be, doesn't have quite the luster. On the extreme end we have stuff like calling children "fun-sized terrorists", which is clearly not dark humor that expresses humanity, but cartoonish dehumanization.

yes, i suppose when you bring up something totally unrelated to the subject at hand spoken in a different context by unconnected people, it does seem pretty bad

It's not "totally unrelated" or "unconnected", it's the container these stickers are made in. You failing to see that doesn't change it, and "seems pretty bad" is just saying nothing.

i think what we can all agree on here is that you are morally superior to the funny patch slogan people

Giving children guns and suicide vests is the dehumanizing bit.

> are these stickers part of the rituals of compensation?

Are weird-looking caricatures of dangerous animals "rituals of compensation" for US sports teams?

No. In both cases, they're about threatening the enemy and bonding the group. A lot of things in militaries, both modern and historic, were about that. If you look at the patches of various military units across time and nations, you'll see plenty of things that are meant to signal dominance.

> plenty of things that are meant to signal dominance

And that's why I pointed out that it's usually done by meek little fellows in the larger scheme of things. Asserting dominance over others is coupled with being dominated in turn, the dichotomy isn't so much "dominant vs dominated", but rather "dominated and dominating vs. free".

Seeing plenty of that all throughout history is a great reason to call it out for what it is, so we can have something worthwile.

Reminds me of a joke we used to tell as kids. "How long does it take for western technology to reach the east? About 20 minutes from launch."

Fun nearly fatal fact. The nuke launch codes were all zeros. Making a lot of 80 movies regarding getting the codes pointless.

[Citation requested]

As clear a proofe as anie that the Americane Revolution, hafing overthrowne the Tyrannikal Nature of Evil Popishness, has replacede the corruptede Imperial Idolotrie of suche Devils as 'St George' with the Superior and Enlightenede Virtues of Libertie, Equalitie, and Fraternitie.

Trevor Paglen has a section on this subject in his talk “ Seeing The Secret State: Six Landscapes” [1], it starts at around 28m. He details the symbolism and clues those logos provide. Highly recommended.

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF4vQA7eWgE

Trevor Paglen [0] has produced some amazing works and many of my all time favourite photographs. I agree with you but also highly recommend those unaware of him look into his other publications and exhibitions.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trevor_Paglen

> many of my all time favourite photographs

i'm particularly partial to this one:


i emailed him to ask about buying a print but never heard back

What's being photographed in this one?

> This photograph depicts a classified “listening station” deep in the forests of West Virginia. The station is located at the center of the “National Radio Quiet Zone,” a region of approximately 34,000 square kilometres in West Virginia and parts of Maryland. Within the Quiet Zone, radio transmissions are severely restricted: omnidirectional and high-powered transmissions (such as wireless internet devices and FM radio stations) are not permitted.

> The listening station, which forms part of the global ECHELON system, was designed in part to take advantage of a phenomenon called “moonbounce.” Moonbounce involves capturing communications and telemetry signals from around the world as they escape into space, hit the moon, and are reflected back towards Earth.

> The photograph is a long exposure under the full moon light.

I watched that talk when it was first published. So so so well done!

I second (third?) Paglen’s work in this space. His book “I could tell you but then you’d have to be destroyed by me” is excellent.

There's the (infamous?) Cocaine Intelligence Unit patch:


International Space Station Orbital Outhouse Team:


If not for the typeface, I'd think it was from the 60s, inspired by the Bond films' SPECTRE, and with a motto reminiscent of American peak postwar supremacy ("Nothing is Beyond Our Reach"). I had honestly forgotten it was actually a "relic" just a few years old. And how it was hilariously tweeted out by the Director of National Intelligence just months after the Snowden reveal: https://twitter.com/ODNIgov/status/408712553179533312

I found another winner, this might be the best one yet. Guess USAFE ain't the best post.


The TIGER/Line Census data logo is rad in a wolf-howling-at-moon sort of way:


I read that the Los Angeles Homicide Department has mugs with the slogan "Our day begins when your day ends."

Escambia Sheriff's Office Homicide Unit has a nice looking challenge coin with phrase, "We check in when they check out"... https://www.reddit.com/r/ChallengeCoins/comments/dcrgxb/esca...

there are some books out there detailing mission patches from history, if you haven't checked them out I would suggest it.

Here's one for space flight missions [0], but the military books are much more interesting imo.

Also, if you're just into patch/military design, check out the art books for the Ace Combat, Armored Core, and Metal Gear franchise video games.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/Human-Space-Flight-Mission-Handbook/d...

All the DEA vanity patches are pretty good. Their SpecOps unit especially. I believe it has a reaper with a quote "god giveth, we take away"

If you hate bureaucracy and boring logos, this one from NROL-10 might be of your liking:


Wow nice one. What a logo.

I am stopping by to mention Trevor Paglen's work who helps uncover and popularize some of this junk. You can watch his full presentation "Seeing The Secret State: Six Landscapes"[0] for background on this unclassified unit patch as well as surprising photos and TLEs and much, much more.

What a time we live in!

0: https://media.ccc.de/v/30C3_-_5604_-_en_-_saal_1_-_201312282...

My dad worked at the Skunk Works for 20 years, and Northrop Grumman for almost as long. He has a billion of these mission patches in boxes and/or framed in his home office. I love them. Wish there was a big online repo of them to browse.

Sounds like you could start one!

many of the patches themselves will be classified, his dad could get into trouble if they were documented.

About a year ago there was always this one guy at the MIT swap fest who had loads of memorabilia like you've mentioned. He had patriot missile mugs, miniatures of satellite projects from Raytheon etc. He was so cool to talk to, although I no longer live in Boston.

That is killer. I grew up around so much of that cool stuff you talk about – especially the coffee mugs. So many mugs I wish hadn’t hit the floor or lost their logo.

A friend of mine from high school had a parent who worked on the F117A project and maybe the coolest mug I've ever seen. It was a mug that had an F117 fighter that would disappear when the mug got hot enough, with the engineering team skunkworks patch on the other side - man was it cool.

My brother worked on the F-117 and has that mug. Very good thermochromics.

Sounds like you could seed the repo!

These logos are awesome! I’ve seen lots of military and IC logos, and they all have relatively similar art styles. Who actually draws these things? Are these by ordinary members of the community who work on the project, or is there an art department that works on these?

It baffles me that in order to request a file from some database you need to write a letter to a person who then responds back after a month. Did you end up incurring fees of $48/h for searching and per-page fees as well? I thought that a major benefit of the internet is that we don’t have to do this anymore.

The Internet reduces the cost of access distribution, but not the work of locating information and meeting bureaucratic regulations for its publication. Even for institutions in which data preservation and access is fundamental to the bottom line, this is a hard problem. Think of the many game companies who have had to remake classics without access to the original source code and/or assets, such Icewind Dale II [0] and FF7 [1].

The good news is that repeated public records requests can eventually push an agency to come up with a streamlined process that prioritizes making records available by default. Or at least, a bulk dump, in the case of the FBI and celebrity death files [2]

[0] https://kotaku.com/nobody-can-find-the-source-code-for-icewi...

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/ysjeu/iama_guy_who_ha...

[2] https://vault.fbi.gov/popular-culture

Someone with clearance still have to review what can and what can not be released. Probably goes through couple approvals and checks too.

If you can write a program that can automate this, then you're a better programmer than most of us.


the request end is automated at least: https://www.muckrock.com/foi/create/

I don't quite have the time to find them right now, but there was a series of quite hilarious internal emails that were sort of exasperated about how there should never be a repeat of the octopus logo from now on

Here's a writeup of the 15 pages of internal documents/emails about the logo that released upon a FOIA request



You may be referring to the document linked by 'Rebelgecko here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21217671. On page 17, I found the following quote from a chain of e-mails:

"[redacted] said after the octopus logo, the White House threatened to require presidential approval if the NRO approved any more menacing logos."

I can't be the only one who cringed at the "release the swag" comment. You won't catch me dead wearing/carrying something with something spy agency-related on it.

The logo is just cool. While I probably wouldn't seek it out, I wouldn't mind having this stitched on my bag.

Is there a site with all of the available logos? Surely, someone is aggregating these. Appreciate the already linked logos!

There appears to be a handful of NROL logos (and related documentation) FOIAed on Muckrock: https://www.muckrock.com/search/?q=nrol

edit: Check out the wikipedia list of NROL launches https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NRO_launches

A handful of those look like they're asking for memes.

Awesome, thank you!

Batman (1966), Joker, Penguin and Catwoman were part of the "United Underworld"... always wanted to get this logo [1] on a t-shirt but never got it cleaned up enough to scale.

[1] https://i.imgur.com/KP6Gf7e.png

"The enemy has nowhere to hide"

Love the logo, but damn if that isn't ominous and intimidating.

Interesting that the PDF was created 2019-01-03 10:34:05 and modified 2019-10-04 10:35:22, assuming the metadata is in any way accurate, considering that NROL-39 was launched in 2013.

Reminds me of the book "I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me". It's all about various patches from secret projects.

Damn, I'm totally having this logo professionally printed and framed.

Krakens on globes. I still find the similarity to the propaganda drawing from a 1938 Stürmer (Nazi propaganda publication) unsettling: see e.g. "World domination" section at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisemitic_canard. Sure, it's been used before as well, but it's what I feel reminded of. In many different classes in (German) school we talked quite a lot about Nazi Germany and propaganda, where we also talked about this image and all the messages it transport. A similar logo was also used in the ACTA protests 2010 and found itself criticized for its similarity, e.g. https://taz.de/!5101105/.

Apart from that, thanks for this FOIA request! It's great that the original vector graphics are now available.

It should be noted that there's an extensive history[0] of octopi being used in propaganda posters dating back to 1877, depicting countries such as: Russia/USSR, England/Britain, Prussia/Germany, Japan, America (by both the Nazis and various communists), not to mention more abstract things like imperialism, landlordism, oil companies, company directors, etc. The Nazis didn't even coin the depiction of Jews as octopi, as there's a late 19th century example depicting the Rothschild family as such[1]. Hell, the same year as the crude and anti-semitic Nazi example you have Americans publishing books calling Hitler an octopus in both title and artwork.[2]

It's understandable that a German class on Nazi propaganda would focus on the anti-semitic element, and I sympathise with those that are going to have a stronger emotional reaction to such images, but it's important to remember that it's minority of anti-semitic examples compared to numerous examples without such connotations. Perhaps especially so when it's an org depicting itself as the octopus.

[0] https://hyperallergic.com/375900/the-map-octopus-a-propagand...

[1] https://atlanticsentinel.com/2017/08/the-octopus-in-politica...

[2] https://www.flickr.com/photos/120380035@N05/13567332414

Thanks for links, there were quite a few images I didn't know. I was certainly aware of uses before the Nazis, but what I tried to say was this cartoon in particular has a similar composition and overall layout. Which is probably the main reason I felt reminded of this particular image.

Note that this is nothing new. The logo was already public.

The point is that a vector format / high resolution version was never public. The best we had until recently was a photograph of the physical embroidered patch.

Was the vector version public?


Shoutout to Muckrock for powering that FOIA request!

Can we get one of the alien logos next?

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