These CIA Cryptonyms have the effect of partially concealing from unauthorised view the substance of internal CIA communications, since the cryptonyms used do not offer any clue as to the nature of the subject matter.
All known CIA Cryptonyms are in the format XX / WORD where XX is a pair of Roman letters eg ZR and the WORD is a word in the English language for example RIFLE. Combining the elements gives us the classic form of a CIA Cryptonym, ZRRIFLE or ZR/RIFLE (either notation format is used, apparently with no strong regimen for when which format is to be employed other than clarity).
CIA Cryptonyms have given rise to some fascinating urban legends wherein the phenomenon of pareidolia has led researchers and theorists to attribute sinister meaning to the codewords used. In fact, it is highly unlikely any such codewords have hidden meanings, since the entire purpose of using cryptonyms is to conceal the nature of the operation, project, subject or person to which they refer.
Fuel for speculation
Whilst the use of codewords to conceal meaning is a commonplace to all intelligence services of any quality, the documented involvement by the CIA in such outre fields as ESP and Remote Viewing (QKSTAR), Hypnotism and Drug Conditioning (QKARTICHOKE), subornment and control of the media (QKMOCKINGBIRD, MKBLUEBIRD), investigation of nonhuman intelligences, sometimes erroneously called the CIA's "UFO coverup" (QKMOONDUST) and the infamous and highly documented forays into mind control by its Technical Services Section (MKULTRA) has led to an entire cottage industry of more or less unsupported theories. Even though the reality of the CIA's activities is lurid enough at times, the speculation spinning out of the known CIA Cryptonyms and their associated activities has led to a kind of mythology, a modern folklore of secret agencies and a conspiratorial paranoid worldview subculture. The beliefs of this subculture are epitomised by the views of Alex Jones and deceased researcher William Cooper who have exposed many genuine fringe activities of the CIA and other agencies both in the United States of America and other Western countries.
Standard Operating Procedure for assignment of a Cryptonym
Cryptonyms are assigned by reference to a list of cleared words. All cleared words have been checked by direct research and computer analysis against any likely accidental revelation of existing activities. In other words, no cryptonym issued will use the phrases "spy plane", "truth drug", "assassination" or the proper name of a person or country, for fear of unwittingly revealing CIA activities or altering an unauthorised viewer of activities undertaken. For this reason, bland and unrelated words are preferred.
This rule has been broken on occasion where an assistant Director or head of Section has issued a codeword for a project, operation or person without prior clearance from his or her superiors. This somewhat informal practice has been discontinued. An example of this informal codeword assignment is the foolishly aggressive cryptonym ZR/RIFLE which was used to refer to the "Executive Action" programme of the 1950s onwards aimed at removing or killing heads of foreign governments. This codeword was coined by the leader of the programme William Harvey and his "right" to coin the operational codeword was an example of the adhocracy at work in the agency of the period.