(c) 2002,2022 Peter McCollum

Training, Tradecraft, and Technology



The CIA has operated training facilities in various places around the world, for various purposes. Some facilities were permanent, others were temporary, to support a particular operation. A facility would typically involve personnel from the Agency's Office of Training (OTR), and might also include experts from other departments, such as commo, paramilitary, security, etc. Trainees could be foreigners that had been recruited for an operation, or other Agency personnel, or various military/paramilitary personnel. OTR operated similar to a university, and at least some Agency employees were allowed to attend classes in their spare time, even if the material was not directly related to their work.

An example of a cold-war training base was on Saipan, in the Mariana Islands. Because of its location, the site was used to train personnel related to operations in Southeast Asia [ref 25, page 110]. Another training site was known as "The Farm", at Camp Peary, Virginia [ref 17, page 292; ref 25, page 110].

At one facility, Agency radio operators in training used to operate a daily circuit which sent endless messages to a location a few dozen miles away.  They used a Little Joe (SSTR-1) transmitter, and the traffic consisted of the front section of the Washington Post, enciphered on one-time pads.

One of the bases had a variety of communications-related personnel and equipment, including a dedicated Commo Building, and a museum of agent radio equipment from all countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The base covered a relatively large geographic area, and included housing for instructors and trainees. One retired operator mentioned that he had an RT-1B transmitter and Hammarlund SP-600 receiver in his house as a HAM station.

The base's Commo team set up a 'field test' operation, to take prototype radio equipment out on field problems and see how they performed. As a result, there was a well-equipped communications shop there, with a complete set of test equipment. The team supported the various training problems with tactical communications gear, notably the PRC-6 and PRC-8-10 radios.  A mainstay radio was the old SCR-300 backpack set with a vehicular power supply in place of the battery box, with which the whole base could be covered on 46 mHz. Other equipment included a Collins VHF AM setup for air-ground communications, TRC-7's for tactical air-ground work, a small HF station with a couple of SP-600's, a TR1B, a complete set of RTTY gear, and a Sig Tot cipher machine. One-time pads were used for realism in training problems.


A document describing a "survey" course involving short-range communication devices. The instructor was from the CIA's Technical Services Division (TSD); the student was Oscar McCollum (the authorís father) from the Office of Training (OTR).


During WWII, the primary training facility for radio operators was known as "Area C", which is currently part of the Prince William Forest Park, near Triangle, Virginia. There were several other sites in the Washington area, and Catalina Island near Los Angeles was used late in the war for commo training.


Morse code training for OSS radio operators at Area C, in a building today known as "Camp #4 Craft Shop", built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939. Image courtesy of Prince William Forest Park / National Archives.


Target practice at Area C. The pistol appears to be an M1911. Image courtesy of Prince William Forest Park / National Archives.



RS-1 Use in Operation PBSUCCESS

Transcribed here are excerpts from documents related to operation 'PBSUCCESS', which involved the overthrow of the Guatemalan dictator in 1954.

Operational Contact Report 18, 17-Feb-1954, excerpts from a meeting to discuss plans for the upcoming operation:

Re PP - main discussion centered on targets, media to be used, personnel to be used both here and there and the problem of the radio. Station site has been promised in [ ] there, a general who is a friend of RUFUS. [ ] suggested that they go to [ ] and discuss putting the radio on an isolated hacienda - he thought that they could put it in effect 30 days prior to the effective date but that would not prove to be effective.

Subject of communications and R/Os was brought up. The first requirement laid on for fulfillment on his return was to acquire 20 R/Os and have them moved to Nicaragua. We have 6 now who have experience. RS-1 will require training period of 2 - 2 1/2 months for men with experience.


         "PBSUCCESS" is a code name for this part of the operation. This type of code name is normally written in all caps, and the first 2 letters are intended to be unpronounceable in English.

         Phrases shown as [ ] were deleted before public release.

         "R/O" is radio operator.

Suggestions for Specific Operational Plan for [ ], 12-May-1954, excerpts from a plan describing details related to the communications network:

Section I: Mission

A. Definition of agent's mission: Agent's mission is to furnish a clandestine radio link in communications between SEMANTIC in Guatemala City and project headquarters, LINCOLN, and then to the Field Command Post for the period 5 May to D + 30.

B. Time table and implementation of mission.

1. 23 - 30 April

a. Agent will receive final week's commo instruction a SCRANTON. Instruction will concentrate on starage battery and internal crypto procedures and use of specific radio signal plan. MIDDLECOTT will arrive a SCRANTON on or about 1 May and give agent his final commo check-out.

b. Agent will be given LCFLUTTER examination prior to his departure from SCRANTON.

c. SHERWOOD will set up and prepare radio signal plan for agent's use; will pass plan to [ ] for pouching to Guat and subsequent passing via ESCABILLA and SEMANTIC to agent.

d. Headquarters will pouch two RS-1's and supplementary gear to Guat via LINCOLN for subsequent passing via ESCABILLA and SEMANTIC to agent.

3. 7 May

a. Briefed and equipped as per travel plan of para one above, agent will be turned over to the CALLIGERIS mechanism for black entry and establishment in agent's own home in Guatemala City. Prior to shedding his escort, the agent must have a secure contact plan via cutout with SEMANTIC.

4. D - 27 to D - 2

a. Upon arrival, the agent will survey his home surroundings and settle himself in the securest possible arrangement for "black" living. He should prepare separate places of concealment for his RS-1 and for his signal plan materials and should select a suitably secure antenna site. He should recruit a lookout, preferably a member of his own family, to keep watch and warn him in case he is interrupted while operating his equipment.

b. When the agent is fully prepared on the above matters, he should implement his contact plan with his cutout to SEMANTIC and proceed to obtain and install his equipment, which will include his RS-1 plus supplementary gear, radio signal plan and materials, one or more six-volt storage batteries, and survival kit.

d. Once contact has been established, Project Headquarters will direct agent to proceed to service traffic between SEMANTIC and the Project Headquarters (and FCP). He must abide by radio discipline at all times and will keep himself as sterile as possible.

5. D - 2

a. On D - 2, Project Headquarters will communicate a special indicator to agent which will be passed by agent to SEMANTIC without delay. Agent will not be witting of the meaning of this indicator.

6. D - Day

a. On D-day, agent will be notified by SEMANTIC cease operation and remain black for thirty days.

Section III: Communications


1. In general, agent will be equipped with:

a. a three-way commo plan allowing for regular, alternate and emergency channels of communication between himself and the net. In view of the basic limitations of agent material, agent's limited trade-craft training, and of the fact that agent must deal with other totally untrained persons, it is apparent that the simplest possible contact plans and rigid compartmentation must be used and adhered to if security is to be attained. It should constantly be born in mind that agent is witting of the content of the messages he is passing, an undesirable but unavoidable fact in the case.

b. a means of receiving special couriers.

c. his radio channel.

The following examples illustrate the exceedingly simple commo plans desired:


1. Agent's regular channel of communications will be his cutout. The agent should recruit the most trusted member of his family to act as cutout and should train the cutout in the principles of making personal contacts and preserving operational and personal security. A cutout must be used because agent is living "black" and thus has little or no freedom of movement. Similarly, the net leader, being a prominent oppositionist, must also choose a cutout. Moreover, the radio cutout must be given more protection than the net cutout in formulating contact plans since the radio agent is relatively irreplaceable. Cutouts should deal with each other on a strict need-to-know basis, and any written material passed between the two should contain no operational details of the net.


         "SEMANTIC" is possibly the code name for the CIA Station Chief in Guatemala City.

         "D" refers to a "D-day" when the coup would be initiated.

         "LCFLUTTER" is a polygraph ('lie detector') test.

         A "cutout" is a contact person between an agent and his handler or another agent. The cutout is told as little as possible about the nature of the messages that he delivers, and the identities of the persons involved.

         Living "black" refers to staying out of sight, with as few contacts with people as possible.

         The "special indicator" could be a code word/phrase, or it could be an object that the recipient will recognize.


Signal Plan Example

Following are images of an OSS agent's signal plan, from mission LEPIDUS in Austria. The actual document is two plastic-coated cards, about 2 by 3 inches, printed on both sides (the 4th side is missing).

Signal Plan page 1

Signal Plan page 2

Signal Plan page 3



Following are some thoughts related to radio transmission modes, and how the technology has been used over time. Some of the viewpoints were related to me by a CIA commo veteran.

1) In the 40's, CW was used because it was simple in the hardware, easy to copy over long distances, etc. More sophisticated modes did not exist yet in a form that was practical for clandestine work. CW was proven technology, it was reliable, it was difficult to jam, and message accuracy was easier to maintain.  Using brevity code messages a lot of information could be transmitted in a short period of time.

2) When FM and SSB became practical for portable radios, it was not desirable for clandestine agent use because over long paths radio reliability was still missing, the circuitry was more complex and therefore more complicated to repair and maintain, it was easy to jam, and voice recognition could be a security issue (Rather than send the letter R, you would have to increase transmission time by using Romeo, etc.). However, short-range FM equipment was used occasionally in urban environments, and also in many surveillance and training situations. For example, most early surveillance transmitters were low-power VHF FM, and the CIA's Office of Training used early Motorola Handie-Talkies in training exercises in the Washington D.C. area.

3) To help achieve higher security in communications, one approach was to use burst-transmission of common Morse codes. This did not require any changes to the well-used cipher systems. Practical, portable burst-transmission hardware was available in the early 60's. Some burst-transmission gear was available earlier, but the pre-1960's technology was strictly mechanical, using photo film or paper tape as the medium.

4) In fixed installations, RTTY was used beginning in the 50's. It was a more efficient way to send larger volumes of data, but RTTY was never a clandestine broadcast method - the field end took a lot of equipment and a lot of maintenance. However, RTTY was ideal for 'staff work', such as routine communications with embassies.

5) Other than for surveillance or training activities, voice transmission was generally only used in situations where 'civilians' with limited training would be using the equipment. Examples are the "Village Radios", and the Delco 5300, both used in Vietnam (see those sections for more info).

6) Eventually, voice-scrambling became practical in portable equipment, in about the late 1970's. But, burst-transmission of CW signals was still more practical in most cases. Scrambler hardware was expensive, and too easily compromised. Early spread-spectrum would have had similar disadvantages.

7) FM and SSB saw limited clandestine use; primarily in connection with military and para-military operations, where comms were needed with standard military equipment and personnel.