Reactor

The CIA and the Power of Words

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 9, 2014

The cover of the CIA Style Manual (screenshot via nationalsecuritylaw.org)

The cover of the CIA Style Manual (screenshot via nationalsecuritylaw.org)

Like any proper organization that produces large quantities of writing, the CIA, it turns out, has a style manual. The legal nonprofit National Security Counselors obtained a copy of the 2011 version a little over a year ago, via a Freedom of Information Act request, and posted it online. (Quartz blogged about it yesterday.) It is an absurdly thorough, mundane yet fascinating look at the politics of language.

The 2011 Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications runs nearly 200 pages. It covers everything you’d expect from a guide of its kind: capitalization, numbers, compound words, modifiers. In some ways, it’s a completely unexceptional document.

Yet, as you page through, little things start to emerge. For instance, consider the examples used to illustrate rules for capitalization of derivatives of proper names: “bohemian lifestyle,” “draconian measures,” and “molotov cocktail” but “Castroite sympathies,” “Islamization,” and “Morse code.” When discussing figures of 1,000 or more, the writers offer this sample sentence: “According to some sources, there were 1,076,245 US casualties in World War II.” As for whether you should translate titles of publications, well, an explanation is better, such as “People’s Daily, official organ of the Chinese Communist Party.” And consider this entry on the “Word Watchers List” (an alphabetized list of commonly confusing words, word types, and word problems):

regime      has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.

These details are amusingly sinister, but probably to be expected. (It is the CIA, after all.) What’s actually most interesting about the CIA Style Manual is its unwavering insistence on clarity. Fran Moore, Director of Intelligence, writes in the foreword:

Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively. The Directorate of Intelligence and the Agency as a whole have always understood that. Both have been home, from their earliest days, to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

And she means it. Over the course of 185 pages, and especially in the “Word Watchers List,” the writers return over and over again to the importance of clear writing, imploring writers to avoid “fake analysis” (e.g. “it is not possible to predict”), “hackneyed phrases” (e.g. “hit the campaign trail”), and “verbal overkill” (e.g. “currently in progress”). In fact, I’d argue that the most surprising contributor to the CIA Style Manual is not, as Quartz suggests, the writing-guide duo of Strunk & White, but rather English author George Orwell.

In his landmark 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell railed against the dangers of vague language and the political purposes to which it is easily put. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” Orwell wrote:

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

In a bizarre turn — in its drive for precision — the CIA seems to have absorbed Orwell’s lessons. Both texts consistently urge writers to use “simple” language. Both have sections on “pretentious words” (or “diction,” in Orwell’s case): the CIA cautions against use of “contradistinction” and “eventuate,” while Orwell decries “utilize” and “inexorable.”

Yet one suspects the CIA insists on accuracy because it takes itself and its tasks seriously, and because this is a style guide for internal use. Political writing (much like art writing) in the public realm is still often incoherent or meaningless, still swathed in layers of obfuscation, but much of that (at least on the government’s end) is purposeful; there’s a difference between knowing the facts and wanting to divulge them.

The CIA’s style manual weighs in at 185 relentless pages because the organization understands what we writers tell ourselves every day: that language is not simply something that fuels the blogosphere; it is an instrument of control. Orwell knew this well, and the CIA does too: the unlikely partners share not just a commitment to clarity but a belief in the power of words.

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