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Unclassified: The CIA’s comic guide to national security jargon — with monster illustrations

The CIA has been hiding something from us: It once had a sense of humor — not to mention Maurice Sendak-esque artistic skills, all before the unfunny news of the agency’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986.

The 1982 fall edition of “Studies in Intelligence,” the CIA internal newsletter, describes a “collection of strange fauna” known as the “Bestiary of Intelligence Writing.” It was an illustrated guide for national security writers on cringeworthy cliches, with apologies to “A Political Bestiary,” a book by James Kilpatrick, former U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy and editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly.

“Older employees may recall that when the Headquarters Building was being constructed, guard dogs stalked the corridors by night to sniff out trespassers. Practically no one is aware, however, of the collection of strange fauna in a corner of a sub-basement, the location of which must remain secret,” writes the author, whose name was redacted in the version approved for public release. “Now for the first time, the Curator of the Collection has received permission to reveal the existence of the Bestiary and identify some of its principal specimens for the enlightenment, education and general edification of CIA writers.”

According to the Medium’s War is Boring blog, the newsletter was one of 200 documents recently declassified in an effort to settle a lawsuit filed by former employee Jeffrey Scudder, whose ordeal The Washington Post has documented.

It turns out that there are the 15 phrases that CIA editors hate. At the top of the list: “multidisciplinary analysis,” which “has only recently been ‘discovered’ as a species separate from other kinds of analysis.”

“Viable alternatives” is another loathed phrase. In the “Bestiary,” they are defined as “nature’s born troubleshooters.” They are “moody and shy” and apparently resemble iguanas. They also “wander off when times are good because governments and officials tend to ignore them; when times are bad, officials are dismayed to discover they don’t have any.” Little is known of the origin of this species other than it reproduces asexually.

“Broad outlines” are “gluttonous predators” that “probably evolved out of regular outlines sometime in the past, the result of too rich a diet of academic nuts roasted in professional hot air.”

Another animal linked to academia is the “foreseeable future.” These rat-like creatures are “moody and dangerous” and “frequently turn upon their masters, causing them great public humiliation.”

“Mounting crises” are rare, though “frequently detected by intelligence analysts.” They look like a stegosaurus with butterfly wings. “There is considerable non-scientific thinking about how they end their days: some believe that crises disappear … or ‘are resolved.’”

“Heightened tensions” are recognizable by their long bird-like legs and devilish ears. They thrive on “a rich diet of poverty, malnutrition and especially alienation.” They were once primarily military in nature and “observable only in the narrow no-man’s land on the borders between countries.” But in the 1980s, it seems they evolved into a political beast, appearing “wherever there are masses of people.”

Another beast to emerge in modern times is the “economic constraint.” Now a common pest, it was introduced to the United States by returning World War II soldiers. In the 1980s it flourished. Mutations of the species — “political constraints” and “military constraints” — were observed in political literature and by Pentagon analysts.

Then there are the nonstarters, “one of nature’s saddest species.” Despite an intense desire to compete, these creatures are perpetual losers. They are “fond of consoling each other that they are merely ideas whose times have not yet come,” the Bestiary’s author writes. “In truth, however, they are often worn out or refurbished ideas and never were legitimate starters.”

“Dire straits” come in “several genders,” according to the Bestiary, but “dire economic straits are more common than the political, military and social varieties.” They never appear as a single strait, only in groups of two or three.

Another beast that travels in pairs is the parameter. These are legless creatures that “must be ‘established’ by the analyst.”

Here’s the full list of disfavored cliches, all of which thrive today in Washington anyway:

  1. Multidisciplinary analysis.
  2. Viable alternatives.
  3. Mounting crises.
  4. Parameters
  5. Heightened tensions.
  6. Dire straits.
  7. Far-reaching implication.
  8. Available evidence.
  9. Foreseeable future.
  10. Almost inevitable.
  11. Nonstarter.
  12. Economic constraints.
  13. Broad outlines.
  14. Net effect.
  15. Overwhelming majority.

h/t War is Boring