Here’s Your Unclassified Briefing on Secret Government Code Names

The Pentagon’s high-profile military operations are more brand name than code name: Enduring Freedom, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn.

Perhaps the most famous coded F.B.I. operation was Abscam, the late-1970s operation in which agents posed as Arab sheikhs working for a company called Abdul Enterprises and tried to bribe lawmakers. If it is not obvious, that code name was not chosen at random.

Agents and analysts typically try to pick something clever, but being too cute can cause headaches. The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was labeled Midyear Exam (often shortened inside the F.B.I. to Midyear). Agents may have thought they were being tested, facing a politically charged investigation in a presidential campaign. But last year, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, questioned the F.B.I. director at the time, James B. Comey, about whether to read anything into the name.

GRASSLEY: Was the Clinton investigation named Operation Midyear because it needed to be finished before the Democratic National Convention? If so, why the artificial deadline? If not, why was that the name?

COMEY: Certainly not because it had to be finished by a particular date. There’s an art and a science to how we come up with code names for cases. They assure me it’s done randomly. Sometimes I see ones that make me smile and so I’m not sure. But I can assure you that — it was called Midyear Exam, was the name of the case — I can assure you the name was not selected for any nefarious purpose or because of any timing on the investigation.

Are there standard naming conventions?

Not if past practice is any indication. Some agents seem to favor odd or obscure references. Take the federal gun case Tin Panda, for example. Others reach for the obvious, like the mortgage fraud investigation named Malicious Mortgage. Cyberinvestigators often nod at industry jargon (E-Con or Fastlink). Agents have chosen names that are descriptive (Disarray), misspelled (Lemon-Aid) and iterative (Cross Country XI).

Perhaps the best guidance on the topic comes from Winston Churchill, whose opinions about World War II code names were so well regarded that in 1952, the deputy C.I.A. director, Allen W. Dulles, sent it to his covert action team. Mr. Churchill advised against choosing names that were boastful or grim or naming operations after living people. “After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names,” he wrote. The full text can be read here, and it offers some suggestions:

“Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British or American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above. There are no doubt many other themes that could be suggested.”

Why does an F.B.I. investigation even need a code name?

Convenience, mostly. It is not necessary for record-keeping because every F.B.I. case has a unique number. A code name, though, allows for a familiar shorthand that avoids sharing delicate information. Nobody is going to say, “Stay behind after this meeting so we can discuss the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election and whether the Trump campaign was involved.”

“Stay behind after this meeting so we can discuss Crossfire Hurricane,” is easier and discreet. And, for brevity’s sake, it was often shortened to Crossfire.

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