‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy.’ Richard Burton could make any code name sound good. The character he plays in Where Eagles Dare, Major Smith, leads an elite commando raid on a Nazi fortress in the Austrian Alps. The aim of the mission is, ostensibly, to rescue a US general who’s been taken prisoner by the Germans. Smith’s real purpose, however, is to confirm the identity of a top-ranking Nazi spy in British intelligence. ‘Danny Boy’ is the call-sign of Smith’s superior in London, played by Michael Hordern. One of the most puzzling things about the movie is why the man allocating the code names would choose to call himself ‘Danny Boy’ (I’m reminded of Steve Buscemi’s character in Reservoir Dogs, complaining about his nom de heist being ‘Mr Pink’).

One possible reason is that Hordern’s character’s imagination has run dry, and all the good code names have already been used up. That wouldn’t be unrealistic, on the evidence of Code Names: Deciphering US Military Plans, Programmes and Operations in the 9/11 World by William Arkin (Steerforth, £17.99), an encyclopedia of several hundred secret military pseudonyms, of both the ‘Broadsword’ and the ‘Danny Boy’ variety, including ‘Elaborate Crossbow’, ‘Prominent Hammer’, ‘Picket Fence’, ‘Dark Tea’ and ‘Thermal Vicar’.*

It’s not clear to what extent the names reveal anything about the nature of the operations to which they refer, though the names of a number of ‘highly sensitive foreign materiel procurement and exploitation programmes involving … former Warsaw Pact nations and Third World manufacturers’ – ‘Gypsy Wagon’, ‘Tin Shield’, ‘Grandma Beguile’, ‘Torpid Suction’ – suggest that the US military has a fairly low opinion of such materiel.

Code Names is to be published in the UK in August, but went on sale in the US in January; all the code names in it that refer to still active operations were presumably changed as soon as the Department of Defense got its hands on a proof copy. If nothing else, the book has caused the Pentagon a serious bureaucratic headache, though Arkin says he was careful not to include anything that might be detrimental to US national security: ‘Many words were deleted and sensitive material was left out. Nothing that is in the book compromises any sensitive intelligence operations by revealing sources and methods.’ That so many ‘secrets’ can be published without threatening national security is evidence that ‘code names are not just used to confuse and confound the enemy, but to build power inside various bureaucracies and keep prying eyes, even Congressional ones, from understanding what is going on.’

His activities have made Arkin unpopular in certain quarters: earlier this year a reporter at the Washington Times received what appeared to be a Department of Defense intelligence report claiming that Arkin received a ‘monthly stipend’ from the Iraqi government during the mid-1990s. The Pentagon has confirmed that the document is a forgery, but as Arkin wrote to Donald Rumsfeld on 17 March, ‘someone familiar with Defense Department classified reporting has forged this document and given it to the press in the hope that it would be reported as genuine. Such an action raises deeply troubling questions about the integrity of the department’s processes.’

Troubling questions are also raised by the trial of Gary McKinnon, a 39-year-old man from Wood Green, in North London (internet code name: ‘Solo’), who is accused of hacking into the US military computer and causing $700,000 worth of damage. The US government wants to extradite him. Its lawyer told Bow Street Magistrates’ Court that ‘in one instance, the US army’s military district of Washington network became inoperable.’ If it really is possible to hack into the system and steal 950 passwords from a naval weapons station, perhaps the US should think twice about paying Boeing more than $100 billion to supply and manage the Future Combat Systems (FCS) project, which will connect every soldier, pilot, gun, radio and missile in the US military to a giant ‘global information grid’. The UK is planning a similar programme, known as the Future Rapid Effects System. FCS will certainly make Boeing a lot of money (that the story appeared in the Business section of the Sunday Times says perhaps all that needs to be said), but it’s not at all clear that even more impressive technology is what’s required: the technical superiority of the US over the insurgents in Iraq is already vast, and that war’s been going on for more than two years with little sign of soon coming to an end. A Boeing promotional video shows a robot car, an airborne observation drone and a missile from a fighter plane being used to take out a single enemy soldier armed only with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher: good news for whoever makes all that fancy kit; not much of a way to win a war – but then ending wars isn’t exactly in the interests of arms manufacturers.

Boeing is also being paid $2 billion a year to install missile defence systems on America’s West Coast, technology that a) hasn’t been proved to work and b) has no discernible connection with the war on terror that’s supposed to be America’s top national security priority. Beyond Boeing’s profits (which should put the meagreness of Bush’s recent promises on debt relief into perspective), its likely strategic purpose would seem to have more to do with Project 19 (so secret it doesn’t even get a code name, just a number): a ‘secret war plan for the defence of Taiwan’.

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