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

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 Home­land Secu­ri­ty 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.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2015.

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

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jonathan Collins says:

    The gov­ern­ment has been work­ing word for word from this man­u­al for years! How else to explain it?

  • ALL1 says:

    I chuck­led out loud read­ing this. As a field assignees CDC, I lived this for 30 years.

    Trav­el “pro­ce­dures” for CDC must have come from the CIA. Except I was forced to com­plete no less than sev­en dif­fer­ent doc­u­ments and email, then re-email weeks lat­er because some­one claimed they nev­er received them, and instead of three peo­ple approv­ing, it was more like five.

    Lit­ter­al­ly, all the way “up the chain” to the deputy direc­tor.

    I wish I was kid­ding, but I’m not.

    Oh did I men­tion that I also had to com­plete many of the same doc­u­ments at the state lev­el for Fed­er­al trav­el so I could get reim­bursed for the com­plet­ed trav­el?

    Believe it or not!! Gov­ern­ment at its finest.

  • AD says:

    I am liv­ing the dream as we mis­s­peak.

  • Michael says:

    It’s all about pow­er. I would sug­gest read­ing Robert Greene’s book The 48 laws of pow­er and you can learn almost the dif­fer­ent ways that peo­ple, espe­cial­ly the ones who are in a posi­tion of author­i­ty, use pow­er to get their way.

  • Bradley Smith says:

    This is eye open­ing to say the least .
    The­ses doc­u­ments explain every­thing that is going on with in our cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion as well as the administration’s to come . “

    Only only an act of God and Con­gress can change this maybe not Congress(laughing hys­ter­i­cal­ly)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.