Mission Grammatical: CIA Has 185-Page Writing Style Book

Jul 8, 2014 1:47pm

The CIA will not say exactly how many civilians have been killed in its drone program, but if it did, it would know exactly how to write the figure – guidance is found in Chapter 2, Section 2 “Numbers 10 or More” in the Agency’s sprawling 185-page style manual.

The document, along with the CIA’s new Twitter account, provides a glimpse into the very corporate side of the shadowy intelligence agency. Just as al Qaeda reportedly had to deal with expense reports, it seems America’s James Bonds must keep a sharp eye out for “streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.”

The manual, titled Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, was posted online, reportedly last week, by the National Security Counselors, a group of attorneys who requested it through the Freedom of Information Act.

“Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing,” says the 2011 document’s Foreword, written by Fran Moore, the head of the CIA’s analytical branch. “The information the CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.”

Much of the guide will ring familiar to journalists, publishers or English teachers – the CIA even weighs in on controversial comma rules —  and the Agency goes further to encourage its employees to, basically, cut the crap in their reports.

“Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate,” the guide says under the heading “Some Helpful Precepts.” “Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem to even be.”

It also asks that employees realize who their “customers” are.

“Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers,” it says. “Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.”

DOWNLOAD the style guide here (PDF).

@CIA #SorryNotSorry

The style document was posted online days before the CIA made another online splash with the same corporate outreach tool used by many clothing brands and fast food restaurants: Twitter.

The CIA had jumped on Twitter the month before with a joke, and kept up the humor Monday when celebrating its first full month on the social network.

“Today we take 10 mins to answer 5 of the top questions you’ve asked. #twitterversary,” the CIA tweeted.

For one answer: “No, we don’t know where Tupac is.” And another: “No, we don’t know your password, so we can’t sent it to you. #sorrynotsorry”

While the CIA’s cheeky tweeter drew chuckles from some online, other critics of the Agency didn’t find the flippant side to a deadly serious organization very amusing.

“Remember when @CIA kidnapped people from all over, sent them to torture camps, and shipped them to abusive regimes? #LOL #Twitterversary,” wrote author and privacy advocate Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald has exposed the operations of the National Security Agency, another intelligence agency that works with the CIA, based on NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who also once worked for the CIA.

The CIA’s jokes also came at an inopportune time — just days after German prosecutors reportedly accused a German intelligence employee of spying for the U.S. for years. Reuters reported today that the CIA was “involved” in the spying operation related to the man’s alleged recruitment. The White House has declined to comment on the German prosecutors’ allegations.

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