Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spookage 101: Decoding the CIA Style Guide

By Michael Long

So the world recently learned that the CIA has a style guide, one that leans to simplicity and precision, eschewing the PC-pretzel-making of the AP rules (“Avoid sexist pronouns by twisting the sentence into ambiguous nonsense,”) and the lurid examples one might expect from spooks (“Remember: Blood first pools, then congeals.”). Aside from the whole thing being written in lemon juice and viewable only over a candle flame, the CIA style guide is a model of straightforwardness and propriety—imagine the shading of Strunk & White if Strunk were a political analyst and White were good with the knife.

If the thing is surprising in any way, it is in its common sense: Keep the language crisp and pungent; favor the active voice; let nouns and verbs show their own power. That’s just good advice no matter who you are. Enforce this little powerhouse in high school and four years later you might see college freshmen whose paragraphs look more like paragraphs and less like texts written on the freeway. Love or hate the CIA, it’s clear that someone up in that thing loves words.

What the pamphlet lacks, however, is a true guide to CIA style—you know: styyyyyle. Herewith, proposed additions:

· Never iron your trench coat. Wrinkles make you look mysterious.
· Wear a trilby, not a fedora. And never a cloche—this isn’t Gilligan’s Island.
· When beating a suspect, bruises go below the neckline, not above.
· For interrogations after Labor Day, avoid wearing white.
· The password is never “swordfish.”
· Take August off.
· Traffic around Langley always looks bad. Don’t be intimidated. It is mostly cardboard cars maintained to scare off visitors. Drive around them.
· Although you can’t speak Spanish just by adding –o to every word, it will get you pretty far in Juarez.
· If you need a safe house in LA, call Jimmy Kimmel. He’s one of us.
· Remember: Shoot right-handed, stab left.

Michael Long, a longtime GG friend, is a writer and speechwriter living about eight miles from CIA headquarters.

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