Decoding False Names in CIA Documents
Introduction: Code Words and False Names
Historians and other parties now have a treasure trove of Cold War era history available to them in released documents, housed online here at the Mary Ferrell Foundation and through other repositories including the National Security Archive and Black Vault.
However, anyone accessing the CIA documents will be faced with a variety of code words and false names, all of which are designed to conceal and protect critical information about operations, employees and assets in the event that the documents themselves would be "compromised". That means having them obtained by anyone outside the intelligence agency, whether it be an adversary power, the media, or any party outside the CIA itself. This security practice also conceals operational and personnel information from other agencies (as well as law enforcement and the military) who are routinely copied on certain types of CIA memoranda and reports.
But with the release of huge numbers of historical records under the JFK Records Act, careful scrutiny of the the documents themselves reveals, often directly, the true identities hidden behind the code words and false names that appear in these records. Having those true names makes reading and understanding these historical documents far easier.
For this reason, the Mary Ferrell Foundation has for years offered an extensive guide to decoding CIA cryptonyms of the 1950s and 1960s, and has now launched a sister project to add other related operational security categories such as pseudonyms and aliases. This page provides an overview of the larger spectrum of CIA security practices including those both to documents and "tradecraft" - including aliases, backstops, and covers.
The first and most common mechanism of operational and personnel security has been to assign code names (cryptonyms) to functional sections of the CIA itself, to its offices and facilities, and to other government agencies as well as to its own operations and personnel. The MFF's CIA Cryptonym Project provides sourced information on hundreds of such cryptonyms.
Cryptonyms are uppercased code names whose first two letters provide a context and aid document routing - these two digits normally refer to the geographic or functional area of a particular directorate, geographic region, office, or operation. As an example, the "AE" prefix was assigned to the Soviet Union. "AM" was used for Cuba, "OD" for the U.S. itself, and so on.
Cryptonyms for individuals and operations were extensions of a given prefix - Soviet-related crypts include AEDONOR, AEBARMAN, etc. The remainder of the code name afer the initial 2 letters was intended to be meaningless, although that appears not to have been true in all instances. In some cases the codes seem show a bit of "attitude" - such as designating ODENVY to refer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ODYOKE as a general code for the U.S. government, ODACID for the State Department, and even AMTHUG for Fidel Castro.
Protocol called for the code names to be centralized and registered, but in practice some groups - such as counter intelligence - had the authority to create and control their own codes, and even maintain their documents outside the centralized system during certain periods of time. A particular individual of interest - a Soviet double agent first contacted in Europe but ultimately residing in the United States - was designated as AEBURBLE by the CIA. But the FBI (with its own cryptonym system) designated him as TUMBLEWEED in regard to his domestic activities inside the United States, possibly because he operated in the American Southwest.
The covert operation AEDEPOT involved recruiting and training a cadre of covert European assets who could be activated in the event of war with the Soviet Union. AEDEPOT personnel were made available to other functions within the CIA at the Director's approval - for instance personnel from that unit were used in training Cuban volunteers at bases in both Panama and Guatemala for the JMMATE project against Castro's regime in Cuba.
In some instances code names for operations were also extended to individuals involved with them (usually individuals who were operational assets, sources or simply individuals interest and not CIA personnel), creating an entire series of cryptonyms. As an example, as part of the initial Cuba Project and prior to the Bay of Pigs landing, a special group of Cuban volunteers were trained to operate as a new Cuban intelligence service following the anticipated ouster of Castro. That project was designated with the cryptonym AMOT (all Cuba-related crypts begin with AM), and each individual was given an extension - AMOT-1, AMOT-2, etc.
Note that a single organization or individual might have more than one crypt assigned to them at different times. Viola June Cobb was AMUPAS-1 when operating in Cuba, but later was referred to by the crypt LICOOKY-1 when in Mexico.
Cryptonyms were widely used in regard to CIA field activities, including the identification of bases, facilities and communications centers. As an example, the prefix JM was assigned to the Cuba Project to oust Fidel Castro, and appears in a host of cryptonyms including those for its various facilities:
- JMATE - Overall Cuban operations, used after JMARC crypt was compromised in 1960
- JMWAVE - Miami forward operating base, on the site of what is now the Miami Zoo
- JMRYE - Cuban volunteer training camp in Panama
- JMMOVE - Advanced volunteer training camp at Belle Chase, Louisiana
- JMTIDE - Cuban Expeditionary Force strike base in Nicaragua
The CIA Cryptonyms main project page contains sourced information on over 1000 cryptonyms which appear in declassified CIA records on this website.
Pseudonyms and Aliases
Pseudonyms for CIA employees were often assigned for their entire career, while others were limited to the period in which the individual was working with the agency, either as a volunteer or assigned by their respective organization. That held true for both civilians and military personnel "detailed" to the CIA from a particular service. CIA contract employees could also be assigned different pseudonyms over time. Pseudonyms were registered and were restricted to use in reports, memoranda and other document related activity - not to be used externally. Perhaps one of the more "disconnected" pseudonyms appearing in CIA documents belonged to Ann Goodpasture, a CIA counter intelligence officer, who was identified in documents as Robert Riggs.
In contrast, an "alias" refers to a name used by individuals who did need to present themselves in public, using assumed identities for different operations and activities. In some instances the names were accompanied by extensive false identities. The same individual might have both a pseudonym and one or more aliases - CIA paramilitary officer David Morales was assigned the pseudonym "Zamka", which appears in numerous Cuba related documents, but he also made use of aliases. CIA officer Jacob "Jake" Esterline was given the name Anthony Ponchay, which may have served as both a pseudonym and an alias.
Aliases would be regular names, some of them similar to true names but others strikingly different. While assigned to the State Department but actually serving as a member of the CIA field station in Havana, Morales used the name Dr. Mendoza, and also appeared in Batista era police files as Mr. Dominquez. Following the revolution, Castro's intelligence linked the name in the Batista files to Morales and began making inquiries, forcing his removal from Cuba.
We do find aliases mentioned in documents, along with pseudonyms. In some instances readers actually made their own handwritten notes on documents, in order to follow what was going on - this has proved quite helpful in our later decodig efforts. Aliases that were used for any extended period of time had to be "backstopped" with residence and mailing addresses, as well as other precautions to ensure that the individual using them would be able to function using a name and identity other than their true name. Short term aliases generally involved at least a minimal level of false identification and miscellaneous but related materials sometimes referred to as "pocket litter".
CIA officer David Phillips, a propaganda and psychological warfare specialist, was assigned the pseudonym Michael Choden, but he also used a variety of aliases over his various assignments, including Donald Barton and Walter A. Bracton. Managing aliases could be somewhat challenging; while stationed overseas David Phillips was brought back to the United States for headquarters meetings. During his travel on one occasion he presented a check using his real name, only to realize that the only identification in his possession was in the name of his alias. He was arrested for passing bad checks and ended up with that charge in his legal record - which the CIA refused to challenge for him, citing operational security regulations.
CIA personnel working on assignments involving aliases were given "covers", which included employment references, residence information and other references which would support the alias name. In some cases those could be quite complex, especially for officers traveling to and from the United States. At a minimum, a backstop would involve a legitimate mailing address where mail could be collected under the alias and covertly forwarded to reach the "true name" individual. An even simpler backstop can be found in the detailing of military officers to work overseas on covert operations, in Vietnam or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Mail backstops for them simply involved having mail sent through an American Postal Office in the Philippines, Guam, Japan, etc.
A wide variety of employment covers were used, with government agencies such as USAID or even the State Department providing reasonable employment covers for officers working overseas. In other instances cooperative commercial entities provided employment cover. In other instances cooperative commercial entities provided employment cover. As an example, David Morales's personnel file reveals that after he joined the CIA from the Army, he maintained an Army cover and at various times was ostensibly working as a lumber company purchasing agent, attending college, in embassy positions in Venezuela and Cuba - designated as an US Embassy Second Secretary, a counselor positon within the State Department and later as a USAID employee in Laos and South Vietnam.
In comparison, David Phillips began his career as a contract employee. He established a public relations company in Cuba, a true undercover positon. After taking full employment he also served in a consular position in the American Embassy in Mexico City. It was standard practice to conceal CIA foreign stations and their personnel within the Embassy staffing structure.
Clearly encountering a combination of cryptonyms, pseudonyms, and aliases in CIA documents can be quite confusing - as was intended. Indeed it could be so confusing that we sometimes find handwritten annotations of "true names" and locations in the documents themselves. Obviously a security violation, but still a temptation even for CIA staff in attempting to deal with reams of reports and memoranda.
The CIA Pseudonyms main project page contains sourced information on pseudonyms, alias which appear in declassified CIA records on this website.
Thanks to Larry Hancock for contributing the main material for this page.