Explaining the Vocabulary of Espionage
Originally, “blowback” referred to an expulsion of gases, usually resulting from an explosion, pressure release, or the after effects of combustion. It later came to mean unforeseen consequences, often of a political nature.
The CIA first used the term in a 1954 report, recently declassified, on a coup in Iran that was covertly sponsored by the U.S. The “blowback” from this operation would play out on TV screens worldwide as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the overthrow of the repressive Shah, and the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. The word, as used by “The Company,” came to mean any kind of negative unintended consequences of an operation.
Spy Tip: To avoid blowback, avoid aligning yourself, covertly or otherwise, with any warring factions in your home or office. If you must support a domestic or workplace coup d’etat, be sure you back the winner, do so with minimum collateral damage, and do not supply any of the combatants with heavy armaments.
In spy slang, chicken feed is information fed to an enemy intelligence agency by an agent or double agent. “Chicken feed” intel is accurate but not particularly useful or damaging to the leaker, and it’s used to establish a covert agent’s value to an opposition agency.
Spy Tip: When trying to win someone’s confidence, it often helps to offer chicken feed—some tidbit of personal information you don’t really care about. Think of something mostly true, but not particularly sensitive, and share it—the boyfriend who dumped you, or the time you sang karaoke at the company party. You don’t have to fill in the details—like the fact that you sing quite well and were only dating that guy because he had a Piper Cub. The listener will fill in the details to suit himself, often to your advantage.
The ancient Romans discovered that a combination of ammonia and a type of clay called fuller’s earth cleaned togas better than water did. Later civilizations elected not to use a byproduct of urine to loosen tough stains and turned instead to kerosine and gasoline. After a number of explosions, professional cleaners in the 20th century began using chlorine-based industrial solvents.
In spycraft, a “dry clean” is a counter-surveillance measure. If an agent believes he’s picked up a tail, he might get into a subway and step back out right before the doors close, or, if he’s in a car, make a rapid U-turn and see if any vehicles also reverse course.
Spy tip: If you think a car might be following you, try the U-turn maneuver (safely!) or turn into a quiet cul-de-sac, and see whether the tail follows you into the dead end.
But in the world of espionage, pocket litter is stuff in a spy’s handbag or pockets that backs up his or her fake identity, or “legend.” The items should seem random and normal—cell phones, IDs, train tickets, something scribbled on a slip of paper—but should support the operative’s cover story.
Spy Tip: Jim Rockford always had a portable business card printer on hand, so he could become anybody he needed to on the fly. Just sayin’.
In the intelligence world, window dressing is a carefully-crafted deception, a set of forged documents or other evidence designed to strengthen an operative’s cover and convince foes or bystanders that the role an agent is playing is genuine.
Spy tip: When conducting surveillance, learn to blend in convincingly. In an ironic dive bar, wear an ironic t-shirt with comically expensive jeans. When infiltrating a country club, go for the khaki pants/golf shirt look—or if you’re female, plenty of hair spray.
For an excellent glossary of spy terms, see the International Spy Museum’s Language of Espionage page.
The Grammar Examiner taught high-school English for 40 years and was recognized by her citywide public school system as an outstanding ACT-prep instructor.
A tough-love drill sergeant in the classroom, she was affectionately known as “The Dragon Lady” by her students, who dared not call her by this name in person.