Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless, Kafkaesque Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)

Simple Sabotage Manual

I’ve always admired people who can successfully navigate what I refer to as “Kafka’s Castle,” a term of dread for the many government and corporate agencies that have an inordinate amount of power over our permanent records, and that seem as inscrutable and chillingly absurd as the labyrinth the character K navigates in Kafka’s last allegorical novel. Even if you haven’t read The Castle, if you work for such an entity—or like all of us have regular dealings with the IRS, the healthcare and banking system, etc.—you’re well aware of the devilish incompetence that masquerades as due diligence and ties us all in knots. Why do multi-million and billion dollar agencies seem unable, or unwilling, to accomplish the simplest of tasks? Why do so many of us spend our lives in the real-life bureaucratic nightmares satirized in the The Office and Office Space?


One answer comes via Laurence J. Peter’s 1969 satire The Peter Principle—which offers the theory that managers and executives get promoted to the level of their incompetence---then, David Brent-like, go on to ruin their respective departments. The Harvard Business Review summed up disturbing recent research confirming and supplementing Peter’s insights into the narcissism, overconfidence, or actual sociopathy of many a government and business leader. But in addition to human failings, there’s another possible reason for bureaucratic disorder; the conspiracy-minded among us may be forgiven for assuming that in many cases, institutional incompetence is the result of deliberate sabotage from both above and below. The ridiculous inner workings of most organizations certainly make a lot more sense when viewed in the light of one set of instructions for “purposeful stupidity,” namely the once top-secret Simple Sabotage Field Manual, written in 1944 by the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Now declassified and freely available on the CIA’s website, the manual the agency describes as “surprisingly relevant” was once distributed to OSS officers abroad to assist them in training “citizen-saboteurs” in occupied countries like Norway and France. Such people, writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, “might already be sabotaging materials, machinery, or operations of their own initiative,” but may have lacked the devious talent for sowing chaos that only an intelligence agency can properly master. Genuine laziness, arrogance, and mindlessness may surely be endemic. But the Field Manual asserts that “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature” and requires a particular set of skills. The citizen-saboteur “frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance, and information and suggestions regarding feasible methods of simple sabotage.”

You can read and download the full document here. To get a sense of just how “timeless”—according to the CIA itself—such instructions remain, see the abridged list below, courtesy of Business Insider. You will laugh ruefully, then maybe shudder a little as you recognize how much your own workplace, and many others, resemble the kind of dysfunctional mess the OSS meticulously planned during World War II.

Organizations and Conferences

  • Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

Managers

  • In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.
  • Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw.
  • To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
  • Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Employees

  • Work slowly
  • Work slowly.
  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.
  • Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
  • Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.

via Slate/Business Insider

Related Content:

The CIA’s Style Manual & Writer’s Guide: 185 Pages of Tips for Writing Like a Spook

The C.I.A.’s “Bestiary of Intelligence Writing” Satirizes Spook Jargon with Maurice Sendak-Style Drawings

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    This is civil service defined! Incredible!

  • Josh Jones says:

    I’m tempted to think whoever wrote this just transcribed already inept institutional culture and prepared it for export.

  • Ann Landers says:

    It appears to be the Democrats playbook.

  • theGhostPony says:

    Aaaand some people just have to politicize everything.

    What a maroon.

  • Timothy Dalton says:

    Haha. What? Are you having a stroke? Did you fall on your keyboard?

  • Timothy Dalton says:

    My reply was also to Ann Landers. Bad layout on this comment section

  • Brian says:

    You’re an idiot.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Stimulating discussion here

  • Jason Green says:

    We should schedule a working lunch to discuss how to improve these comments.

  • mlg says:

    was it a democrat who made a list of what food stamps could be used to buy? the republican sabotage of policies to serve the public need are fairly represented in this playbook of inefficiency..

  • DH says:

    I’m loving the comments. Clearly, there is no need for a “Simple Internet Comment Thread Sabotage” field manual. The saboteurs are everywhere!

  • Richard says:

    Cool. I think we do all of those things here in Alamance County.

  • Richard says:

    Sounds like what McCrory (republican governor) is doing to my state,

  • Trippin says:

    Benghazi!

  • truthordare says:

    The legend of government incompetence likely exceeds the reality, I would guess, especially if we account for chronic underfunding.

    Like when people complain about the post office, but the most they come up with is that they won’t leave packages at the door.

  • Carmelo Ruiz says:

    The title of this piece is misleading. It’s not a CIA manual. The CIA would not be formed until 1947. Please correct the title.

  • Chris Weitz says:

    Thanks for posting; but this is not from the CIA, which did not exist in 1944. This is from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s WW2 precursor.

  • Doug T says:

    I wonder if Detroit Mercy Hospitals appreciate their ad seeking quality people on the page describing these behaviors?

  • Willard says:

    who needs government to sabotage anything? civilians are fine desperately doing it themselves. look at this comments section!

    look at ANY comments section, anywhere on the internet, and you’ll see people take the simplest of stories and somehow end up talking blame and politics.

    I sprained my ankle today… it’s Hillary’s fault from when she was Secretary of State.

    My child got a failing grade today… it’s the GOP’s hatred of family values that did it.

    et cetera.

  • grim says:

    North Carolina?

  • Wilbur Mills says:

    The Republican-controlled US Congress uses this manual as its bible.

  • Wilbur Mills says:

    For anyone complaining that some people are making political comments on this article: what could have more political origins than a field manual to conduct sabotage against the Axis? WWII was one of the biggest political/ideological fights of the past 100 years.

  • David says:

    Hmm… This is exactly how the Scottish National Party works…

  • Dheep' says:

    Boy you got that right !
    “Who needs government to sabotage anything? Civilians are fine at doing it themselves. Look at this comments section!”

  • Scott Douglas Laxier says:

    Well said, DK.

  • salli says:

    tell me – were you born an idiot or did you learn to be that way by watching your redneck moron parents?

  • Pieter Doring says:

    Jesus this is the manual for public administration in México!

    With out any doubt the mexican goverment has red this manual to apply it to themselves.

  • Ralph says:

    I used to work for the VA. This explains the VA perfectly. Not all of them but the one where I worked. To a tee. Who needs an enemy to subvert us when our own govt agencies have people running their facilities who do the same thing?

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