A 1944 US Espionage Guide to Disrupting Organizations

It's brilliant—except that your organization has already implemented every one of these self-destructive techniques

I’ve learned a surprising amount from government documents over the years. When I was writing my book Delta Blues, I submitted a Freedom of Information request for any government files on folk song collector Alan Lomax—and was shocked when several hundred pages of FBI reports showed up in my mailbox.

Why would government spies worry about a blues fanatic like Lomax? But they did. A short time later, I received a similar motherlode of documents in response to a request about record producer John Hammond—also a target for government surveillance. In fact, in the event of war between the US and the USSR, Hammond was on a short list of people who might need to be detained. (Or maybe it was a long list—who knows what's really in those government archives.)

I now advise music writers to routinely make these requests. Many just assume that the FBI is an unlikely source for information on musicians, but they might be surprised. Even today, government agents are probably keeping close tabs on numerous performers in various entertainment media.


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But my favorite government spy document has nothing to do with music. It’s a just a 32-page guidebook from 1944 entitled Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

This book is indispensable when you’re working undercover in an enemy organization. You need to subvert and obstruct, but in ways that won’t call attention to yourself. The masterminds behind Simple Sabotage Field Manual devised the perfect system. They knew all the ways you can force an organization to grind to a halt while involving yourself in “a minimum danger of injury, detection and reprisal.”

But here’s the problem: Every big organization I’ve dealt with has already implemented these sabotage procedures voluntarily. Or it seems to have happened voluntarily. I’m now wondering whether double agents aren’t really responsible—already implementing their devious plans in universities, businesses, non-profits, and other large enterprises.

Just consider these sabotage guidelines for bosses who want to quietly destroy their own organization without anyone noticing. Here are some of the techniques:

  • “Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”

  • “When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.”

  • “Give [inefficient workers] undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.”

  • “Do everything possible to delay the deliver of orders.”

  • “Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products.”

  • “Multiply paperwork.”

  • “See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”

I know what you’re saying to yourself—that this manual describes your work boss’s modus operandi today.

But even the lowest level employees can destroy a large enterprise. The manual gives these suggestions for entry-level sabotage:

  • “Work slowly.”

  • “Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.”

  • “Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible.”

  • “Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.”

  • “Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.”

  • “When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary.”

But it gets better. Here is the 8-point plan for disrupting meetings and conferences. I am confident that you will recognize this entire plan—because you live through it every day.

“(1) Insist on doing everything through ‘channels’. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

“(2) Make ‘speeches’. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.

“(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make committees as large as possible—never less than five.

“(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

“(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

“(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

“(7) Advocate ‘caution’. Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow-conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

“(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision. . . . It might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

It makes perfect sense that a government agency would come up with this plan. After all, these are the rules by which government itself operates. But these guidelines are no longer limited to political and bureaucratic organizations.

In other words, there’s sabotage everywhere nowadays. You couldn’t escape it if you wanted. In fact, these techniques are so widely-used, you start to wonder why they even bother to teach it in a manual.