June 11, 2012

Operation What? Code names, new and old


Ah, code names! As readers of Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me know, there’s nothing like squirreling around in the lists of oddly named operatives and operations. Now it turns out that the Stuxnet cyberattacks conducted by the U.S. were code-named “Olympic Games” and, as Andrew Roberts writes, over at the Daily Beast, the name has raised eyebrows in intelligence circles.

“To give the massive, international, and imminent operation a name that implies something that is massive, international, and imminent is precisely the opposite of what code names are intended to do.”

Lest you think that “Olympic Games” is the result of a sleepy Thursday at the Pentagon, Roberts says that it’s long been U.S. practice to come up with morally uplifting and perhaps less than subtle code names, such as Operation Just Cause (the 1989 invasion of Panama), Operation Restore Hope (the 1992 intervention in Somalia), and Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan, beginning in 2001). “Operation Iraqi Liberation” was scratched after someone figured out what the acronym would be.

British code-naming practice was decidedly more oblique in the Second World War until Churchill learned that the upcoming attack on Romanian oilfields was going to be called Operation Soapsuds and declared that code names “ought not to be names of frivolous characters” or “be ordinary words.” Gone were the days of Operations Modified Dracula, Loincloth, Haddock, Boozer, and Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Soapsuds became Tidalwave, and future names had to be taken from “heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, and the names of British and American heroes.”

But isn’t the point of code names to direct attention away from what’s actually going on? A nonsense name limits the chance that someone outside the circle of initiates will be able to figure out what is being referred to: for instance, during World War II, the British scientist R.V. Jones deduced from German references to a radar system code-named “Wotan” (the one-eyed god) that the system used a single beam. He was right, and created a counter-system that made Wotan useless.

In fact, code names are a strange and enticing literary form. They often bring together apparently incongruous worlds, John le Carré’s use of the nursery rhyme “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…” being probably the most famous instance. They’re a chance for grim humor and deep cleverness. They ride right on the line of what a name is supposed to be — ideally these operations would have no names at all. But since a name is an easy way for humans to communicate about something, what should your code name favor, impenetrability or morale-raising?

Churchill, Roberts says, feared that the names of some operations might cause “an air of despondency.” In the case of “Olympic Games,” I think we just have depressing irony: the name for one of the world’s oldest symbols of international cooperation and peaceful competition has been appropriated for an aggressive attack by two countries on another country, using our planet’s newest weapons.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.