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The FBI and Its Code Names

May 3, 2000 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Before the search warrants are issued and the suspects brought into the courtroom, federal investigators have to have a name for their case.

In Spokane, Wash., there was Operation Doughboy, a case of middle-aged businessmen selling cocaine. In New York, Operation Marionette targeted mobsters accused of controlling a union ``like a puppet.″

In Rhode Island, Operation Plunder Dome is shorthand for the corruption investigation of Providence City Hall. The case, so far, has yielded five guilty pleas and a conviction in a scheme in which bribes were given for property tax breaks.


Where do the clever code names come from?

``A lot of them we’d come up with were like something out of a spy novel we’d read in junior high,″ said Donn Kidd, a former FBI supervisor in Little Rock, Ark.

Take Plunder Dome, for instance. Though agents won’t give specifics, common wisdom is that the name is a play on the 19th century City Hall dome and the Mel Gibson movie ``Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.″

Special Agent Dennis Aiken, who heads the investigation, would only say the derivation of the name was ``pretty obvious.″

``Sort of fits, doesn’t it?″ Aiken asked.

The FBI produces thousands of operation names each year. Agents are responsible for coming up with the case tags and supervisors decide whether the name is appropriate, said Special Agent Anita Dickens, an FBI spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

``They can pretty much name it whatever they want, it just has to be approved by headquarters,″ said Dickens, declining to provide specifics.

Some agents say that choosing a snappy sobriquet is one of the fun parts of a pressure-filled job.

Robert Castelli, a former New York state trooper who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said there was no science to choosing a name.

``The way you survive a career in law enforcement, especially when you’re talking about long investigations that tend to fray your nerves and keep you away from the family, you sometimes have to have a perverse sense of humor,″ Castelli said.

Abscam, for example, was chosen for the FBI investigation two decades ago in which agents posed as wealthy Arab businessman offering bribes to members of Congress for help on immigration problems.


Operation Desert Glow was exactly what it sounded like: a 1992 investigation of hazardous waste from a Colorado company that made plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads.

A 1998 Louisiana case was called Operation Rap Crack because the members of a crack cocaine ring being investigated were also members of a rap group.

``It’s only limited by your own creativity,″ said Jay Grant, spokesman for the FBI’s Boston office.

The names have a practical use, too.

They make longer cases easier to track. And in an era when field offices have more freedom to deal with reporters, the code names allow agents to talk more openly about a case, said former FBI Special Agent Harvey Burstein.

``When I was in, in the Hoover era, nothing _ and I mean nothing _ got to the media except through headquarters,″ said Burstein, now a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

In the Plunder Dome case, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., known for his wit, used the name to poke fun at investigators and prosecutors last year on a national morning radio show.

He called the case ``Wonder Dome.″

``I don’t know where they got the name,″ said Cianci, who denies any knowledge of corruption in City Hall. ``It sounds like something from World War II.″


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