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How the CIA, FBI and Secret Service Come Up With Their Code Names

Rawhide, Tumbler, Mogul, Lancer… Smurfette? What’s the secret behind the coolest (and weirdest) White House code names?

Is there a better way to change everything about your life than by changing your name? Because while it might not completely erase your circumstances, it definitely allows for a new you, if in name only. So this week, we’re looking at what’s in a new name — for yourself, for your favorite TV characters, for your boat, for your stripper, for your son and for nearly everybody (and thing) in between.

“Quick Lift,” “Roman Shield,” “Briar Patch,” “Bachelor” and the somewhat insulting “Bug Nest” — these are just a few of the names that I get out of the Washington Post’s Secret Service code-name generator. I put my name in over and over again and keep getting underwhelming results. The only one I sort of like is “Banana,” but that’s just because it makes me laugh. Still, if I were president, I wouldn’t want to spend four or eight years being called “Banana”: “Banana has left the Oval,” “Banana is on Air Force One,” “Get that shifty-looking guy in the crowd, he may be trying to assassinate Banana!” 

Fortunately, real U.S. government codenames aren’t doled out by the Post’s algorithm, which Post reporter Philip Bump explains is “a simple randomization based on the first letter of your name.” Instead, every agency has their own system, each totally different from the next. The only thing they have in common is that they don’t want to share how their codenames are dished out. “For operational security reasons, the Secret Service cannot discuss specifically, nor in general terms, the means and methods we utilize to carry out our protective responsibilities,” I’m told by a Secret Service spokesperson. “Thanks for your interest in the FBI. Unfortunately, we have to decline your request for assistance on ‘how codenames are formed.’ Reason being, we do not discuss processes and procedures,” says Linda Wilkins, public affairs specialist for the FBI. And as for the CIA, well, I never even heard back. 

While I’m not too surprised by the tight-lipped nature of our government’s intelligence agencies, what is shocking is just how widely known their “sources and methods” already are for codename appropriation. Let’s start with the CIA, which is probably the most straightforward, in that it’s the most like the Post’s Banana generator. “CIA operations aren’t inherently given a codename,” explains former CIA officer Jeff Asher. “They only assign cryptonyms to individuals or organizations who they think need protection in cable traffic.” For the layman like me who doesn’t know what “cable traffic” means, Asher explains that it’s “how intelligence organizations communicate formally. If you send an email to somebody, it’s not formal, but cable traffic is something that goes into an official system. So, for example, if the embassy in Moscow wanted to communicate with the embassy in D.C., that’s a formal communication and would be done over cable traffic.” 

So the CIA only uses codenames to refer to something over official communications as an added layer of security. As for how it’s generated, Asher explains that the first two letters of the cryptonym — or its “digraph” — are representative of the country in which the operation pertains to, and those two letters are totally random. “Russia has been GT and AE,” Asher offers as an example. Following those two letters is a random word. When I ask Asher if those words are computer-generated or not, he explains, “I can’t really get into that,” but I was told by Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, that the words do indeed come from a pre-approved list that’s generated by a computer.

GTPROLOGUE was likely an example of this, as “Prologue” seems to have little to do with the person to which this codename was assigned: Alexander Zhomov, a double agent of the KGB who communicated with the CIA in the 1980s in order to feed information later discovered to be largely false. Additionally, “The now declassified digraph TP meant the asset or program was related to Iran,” explains author and former CIA Officer Alex Finley. “TPAJAX, for example, was a covert action program whose objective was to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran, in 1953.” The basic point of a CIA codename is to be secretive, and so, as Asher explains, “It’s not some sexy process. It’s not designed to be cool; it’s solely designed as a security measure.”

Still, Weiner says that sometimes, the CIA officer can “skip that process altogether” by coming up with their own code word. One possible example of this is DBROCKSTARS. Weiner explains that “in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the dubious sources that the CIA had in Iraq were collectively called ‘Rockstars.’” So they combined Iraq’s digraph — “DB” — with the word identifying the group.

While cool codenames seem to be the exception over at the CIA, for the FBI they seem to be the rule, at least sometimes. “It really boils down to the creativity of the agents that are involved,” explains former FBI Agent Vincent Sellers, author of Eyes Pried Open: Rookie FBI Agent. Generally, FBI cases don’t get names, just case numbers. As Sellers explains, “I used to work in the San Diego field office, which is a medium-sized office of about 300 agents. Maybe a thousand or so cases might open up in a year there, and of those thousand cases, I’d say maybe two or three were given codenames.”

While CIA names are designed to keep things secret, over at the FBI, cases are named when several are rolled into one or when a case might generate some publicity. “We often worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and if we had a case that might get some good press for them, they’d often come up with some clever moniker to make it sexier,” Sellers says. As for who chooses the name, “it typically it would be the lead agent,” he continues, explaining that a senior agent would likely be put in charge of a case, and then be given the responsibility of naming it. Since the purpose is to highlight the good work of the FBI when a case is cracked, coolness and catchiness do matter. As FBI Supervisor Donn Kidd once told the AP, “A lot of them we’d come up with were like something out of a spy novel we’d read in junior high.” Names like Operation Plunder Dome, Operation Stormy Nights and Operation Big Coon Dog are just a handful of examples of the creative titles that FBI agents have assigned to cases. 

This level of creative freedom is a departure from the early days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Weiner, who is also the author of Enemies: A History of the FBI, explains, “During Hoover’s days and for some time thereafter, names tended to be portmanteaus, or words formed from two or more other words.” One such example is ABSCAM — or Arab-Scam — where FBI agents posed as rich Arabs seeking political favors from U.S. politicians. Another famous one was the Unabomber case, where bomber Ted Kaczynski originally targeted universities and airlines, so the case name UNABOMB was born out of university-and-airline-bomber. 

“Hoover wanted the codenames to be short, like slugs out of a newspaper story. He wanted one-word codenames preferably of six letters, and what Hoover said was law back then,” Weiner explains. Hoover died in 1972, but the convention remained for years after his death, as ABSCAM and UNABOMB were both in the 1980s. Why this changed isn’t entirely clear, but it’s pretty obvious that in the last decade or so of the 20th century — and a bit into the 21st century — agents were given much more creative license. As one agent, who prefers to go unnamed, tells me, “Agents create the codenames — at least when I was one from 1995 to 2004. I’d guess they’ve cracked down on that a bit since our codenames could sometimes be perceived negatively by those outside of law enforcement or with no sense of humor.”

It seems “cracking down” is exactly what happened, as LaRae Quy, a former undercover FBI agent explains. These days, codenames are generated by a computer,” he says. But Weiner casts some doubt on this, citing “Crossfire Hurricane,” which was the case name for the investigation into the Trump campaign’s coordination with the Russians. “‘Crossfire hurricane’ is a line from the Rolling Stones song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ and it seems impossible, given the nature of the case, that this was randomly generated,” he says.

He also points to the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, from May 3, 2017, where this exchange took place between Comey and Senator Chuck Grassley:

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 codenames 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.

So while the FBI’s codenames are about promoting their operations and CIA’s are about disguising them, the Secret Service’s — which are actually assigned by the White House Communications Agency — serve no practical purpose whatsoever. That said, long ago, they used to be about disguising the activities of the president. “That was before they had encrypted messaging,” explains presidential historian Mike Purdy, author of 101 Presidential Insults. So during the 1940s, President Harry Truman’s codename —“General” — was likely a closely guarded secret; nowadays, however, the codenames of the First Family are public knowledge. 

“Now it’s done more for the sake of convenience and brevity, and it’s also just part of tradition,” Purdy says. Indeed, the codenames are so useless that former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis candidly tells me, “I have no idea what it was.” According to the Washington Post, it was “Peso,” but it seems to be impossible to confirm, as the “the White House never publishes this officially,” Purdy says, “people just figure it out by overhearing the Secret Service.”

As Michelle Obama writes in her autobiography Becoming, “Now that the Secret Service would be protecting us for years to come, the agency selected official codenames for us. Barack was ‘Renegade,’ and I was ‘Renaissance.’ The girls were allowed to choose their own names from a pre-approved list of alliterative options. Malia became ‘Radiance,’ and Sasha picked ‘Rosebud.’” As for our present, Bloodsport-loving chief executive, his name is “Mogul” and Melania’s is “Muse.” While Purdy explains that the family’s titles are always alliterative to represent the family as a unit, why the specific letter is chosen is unclear. “M” for the Trumps following the “R’s” of the Obamas certainly isn’t alphabetical, and “R” names were previously used by the Reagans.

Vowels also have been used, as Bill Clinton was “Eagle” and Hillary was “Evergreen,” both of which they retained when Hillary ran for president in 2016. George W. Bush had two names — “Tumbler” when he was the son of the president, which he smartly revised to “Trailblazer” when he became president himself. “The names were often reflective of the person,” Purdy says. “So Jimmy Carter was ‘Deacon,’ harkening to his Christian faith, and Reagan’s ‘Rawhide’ was a reference to his Western image.” Still, despite the voluntary nature of these names, not everyone loved their monkiers, as Vice President Al Gore’s daughter, Karenna, later lamented the name she chose as a young girl: “Smurfette.”

Some secret service codenames have also become bizarrely ironic. JFK was named “Lancer,” and while that certainly was a reference to his “Camelot” image, “Lancer” no doubt also evokes an image of Kennedy’s notorious promiscuity. Richard Nixon too had a name that later seemed to take on a double-meaning, as “Searchlight” brings to mind the late-night break-in of the Watergate Hotel, which was carried out with flashlights.

Speaking of Watergate, it’s worth bringing up the codename “Deep Throat” here as well, even though it wasn’t a government codename. Instead, it was created by Bob Woodward, who used it as a way to refer to his source during the Watergate scandal. Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who outed himself as Deep Throat back in 2005, actually hated the name Deep Throat as it was a reference to a famous porn film from the time (and, objectively, a pretty terrible name). It certainly did stick, though, as when Felt died in 2008, just about every headline read like some version of “Deep Throat Dead” with only the occasional reference to his actual name. 

So I guess, all things considered, “Banana” isn’t so bad after all. It’s a bit better than “Deep Throat” and probably just about as cool as “Smurfette,” though it hardly has the ring of something like “Unabomber.” Still, things didn’t turn out so well for that guy anyway, regardless of his pretty rad codename.