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We've got a secret 

...that we're keeping from ourselves

Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World
William M. Arkin
Steerforth Press, 608 pp., $27.95

Keeping secrets is a bitch. Making secrets, on the other hand, is as easy as opening an ink pad and whipping out a government-issue CLASSIFIED stamp. Earlier this month, the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office reported that the government made 16 million classification decisions in 2004 (that's up from a mere 9 million in 2001).

A government that generates this many secrets needs a sturdy supply of code names. And a democracy encumbered by a Byzantine secrecy system needs a public-interest decoder. Happily, one has emerged: William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst who has published some of the most detailed and penetrating national security studies of the past 25 years.

Arkin's new book, Code Names, is a true nuts-and-bolts expose on the finer points of defense and intelligence secrecy, and perhaps the largest single release of official secrets since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (Though former CIA officer Philip Agee's 1975 book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary--which blew the cover off of scores of covert operations--might run a close second.)

Arkin divides the book into four sections. One defines the vast "cast of characters" that play a part in the sprawling national security apparatus, from the various components of the intelligence community to the maze of military commands. Another provides an in-depth summary of U.S. military activities in scores of countries. The book ends with a glossary of hundreds of military and intelligence acronyms.

But the bulk of the book is devoted to an alphabetical list of more than 3,000 code names, complete with short definitions of what each one refers to. Most of them are revealed for the first time in this book.

"I started to seriously collect code names in the mid-1990s when it appeared to me that despite the end of the Cold War, government secrecy was only increasing," Arkin explains in the introduction. "Code names seemed a good way to try to organize and understand the range and breadth of American military activity in the worldÉ. Gathering them together seemed a good way to produce an anatomy, a sort of DNA map of American national security. The task became even more pressing and important with the events of 9/11, and with the war in Iraq."

The result of Arkin's code-name collecting is an enlightening but at times dizzying morass of information. I suppose that few readers will want to read the list from start to finish; it's just as well to dive in at any point and see which code names catch the eye. What follows is a random sampling.

  • Acid Gambit: A successful 1989 mission to free CIA agent Kurt Meuse from a Panamanian prison.
  • Brazen Tsunami: A 1999 military exercise in the Pacific theater "to practice intelligence support for cyber-warfare."
  • Infinite Justice: The initial name for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The name was changed to "Enduring Freedom," Arkin notes, "when Muslim scholars and clerics objected to the name on the grounds that infinite justice can only be dispensed by Allah."
  • Night Fist: A military special operations network designed "to improve the ability to detect and track difficult/time-fleeting and high-value targets."
  • Thirsty Saber: A military program to develop a target-recognition sensor "that would replicate human reasoning."

    A few pages into the list, readers may wonder: Where do they get these code names? One wishes that some defense think-tank would do a study of the matter (and concoct a choice code name for the study itself, of course).

    Lest some critics argue that the book jeopardizes national security, Arkin has a ready rebuttal. "All the information in Code Names is derived from documents in the public domain or was revealed to me by government and industry sources in the course of my journalistic duties," he writes, adding that he took pains to not reveal details that could put the country at risk. "I can say with confidence that nothing in this book could compromise the identity of a U.S. agent or a sensitive intelligence source or method. There is no information that could compromise an ongoing military operation."

    The ongoing war on terrorism, and the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, make books like this one necessary, Arkin argues.

    "In a perfect world, all this secrecy would protect legitimate secrets from prying foreign eyes. But in the real world, many of the individual secrets and much of the accumulated secrecy merely serve to keep a permanent system and a singular assumption of American national security from public debate and congressional oversight.

    "My solution is simple: Democracy works better, and a brighter and safer future is more likely to be achieved, when the people understand what is being done in their name."

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