Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless 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 Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty’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.


  • 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.


  • 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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Comments (38)
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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:


  • 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?

  • Janne Vellamo says:

    I see a lot of unau­tho­rised com­ments here. Did any of you even think about ask­ing your supe­ri­ors for per­mis­sion to com­ment? All of these com­ments are also poor­ly word­ed, unprecise and ambigu­ous, so I think we’ll need to arrange a con­fer­ence where we can sort these things out. Most impor­tant­ly, we should find out who to blame for this sad state of affairs. Dheep’ looks like a suit­able cul­prit, but I’m sure we can find some more, if we put our minds to it. Sal­li can be the chair­man and for first sec­re­tary I sug­gest Ann Lan­ders. For sec­ond sec­re­tary I sug­gest the Ghost­Pony. We should prob­a­bly arrange the con­fer­ence some­where eas­i­ly acces­si­ble, like the Falk­land Islands. If you’re wor­ried about the cost, don’t wor­ry, there’s always room in the bud­get for an extra con­fer­ence and I’m sure we can all get a week off at full pay in order to attend. Those who fail to attend, will of course find them­selves on the list of cul­prits. Obvi­ous­ly, we can’t have a con­fer­ence with­out an orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, so let’s book a meet­ing for tomor­row, so we can elect one. The best place for the meet­ing would prob­a­bly be Ulaan­baatar, Mon­go­lia, because that’s where I’m fly­ing tomor­row, any­way. I see no rea­son why you could­n’t be there tomor­row too. Any­body who fails to appear, can only blame him­self for not get­ting a seat on the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, the mem­bers of which get to fly around the world and stay in 5 star hotels, all expens­es paid. If you real­ly can’t get to Ulaan­baatar tomor­row, I guess I’ll just have to make myself chair­man of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, my wife first sec­re­tary and my daugh­ter sec­ond sec­re­tary. I have no lack of rel­a­tives, who’ll be hap­py to fill the rest of the seats, so do try to make it to Ulaan­baatar by tomor­row.

  • william maylone says:

    yeah, you got it!

  • Shaun Annigan says:


    The Good Sol­dier Šve­jk, by Jaroslav Hašek

    Of course, you real­ly have to read it in the orig­i­nal Czech.

  • eric says:

    …the ref­er­ence man­u­al for the ?Vogels admin­is­tra­tion, in “The Hitch­hik­ers guide to the Galaxy”

  • says:

    All points well tak­en. How­ev­er o.s.s. or c.i.a. or open cul­ture read­ers. But how to suc­ceed in busi­ness seems eas­i­er…

  • Andy Turkington says:

    Won­der­ful book.
    I just real­ized that I do all these things at work and thought I was being help­ful!

  • Steve Moore says:

    WHat is MOST inter­est­ing about the com­ments is that there’s lit­tle evi­dence of any­one read­ing the actu­al doc­u­ment.

  • x14km2d says:

    It looks like the link to the pdf on the Guten­berg serv­er is ren­der­ing a 404 error mes­sage. Can this be cor­rect­ed in the arti­cle?

  • Marie Gould says:

    Also reply­ing to Ann Lan­ders.

    This def­i­nite­ly true for Biden, who val­ues diver­si­ty more than com­pe­tence. It is also true for the lead­ers of our fail­ing cities and states. Just look at how they oper­ate.

    And those of you who are butt hurt because pol­i­tics was brought up, move along. To those of you who think dif­fer­ent­ly, I ask you to show me where I’m mis­tak­en. Par­tic­u­lar­ly con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion.

    We have a pres­i­dent who has filled his cab­i­net, not with high­ly skilled and qual­i­fied staff but with peo­ple who meet the most checks based on inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty cri­te­ria. And he brags about it as if one should be proud of hir­ing incom­pe­tent peo­ple who hap­pen to be diverse! From his choice for VP on down the line, his selec­tions were made based on diver­si­ty not com­pe­tence.

    Diver­si­ty is not a goal for a com­pe­tent work­force. The goal should be to hire the peo­ple who are most qual­i­fied for the job. If they hap­pen to be diverse or if they have many inter­sec­tion­al attrib­ut­es, great. But make sure they can do the job first and fore­most.

  • ureuterus says:

    you get the direc­tion i’m head­ed mate

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