Recognition Signals - The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception - H. Keith Melton, Robert Wallace

The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception - H. Keith Melton, Robert Wallace (2009)

Recognition Signals

The problem is that A and B, who have to work together, do not know or have descriptions for recognizing one another. A variation of the problem is that only one knows the other.

The problem is involved because of the many conditions which must be considered. It is possible that A and B may be able to meet and converse. It also is quite possible that it is advisable never to meet. A may be of a totally different social stratum (by role or fact), so that there would be few places both A and B could go. It might be that because of the job of one (such as a waiter), it would be either easy or impossible to have the meeting or identification take place at the job locale. Many jobs would materially limit the hours during which the worker could absent himself so as to be at another location.

Other conditions also must be considered. Were A to arrive at an airport, train, or bus station, it might be necessary for B to be able at a distance, and instantly, to recognize A. This would require some sign or signal visible at a distance and yet not noticeable to the uninformed. Almost the same conditions would apply were A and B to pass one another on the street or in a square or public park.

Other signs and signals might be better were the contact to be made in a lobby of a business building, in a museum, gallery, or library. Still other means of identification might serve were the meeting in a restaurant, bar, or store. Of course, no clothing variations could be used were the meeting between two bathers at a public beach.

In each of these situations, and others which may come to mind, it will be remembered that while A must recognize B, it also is necessary for B to identify A. And each must have a way of knowing that the other has made the identification.

Because the problem has so many variations, it is obvious that there must be different means of identification available to meet the different conditions.

The most obvious signaling device may be called “The Chrysanthemum in the Buttonhole Technique.” Naturally, such a boutonniere would rarely be suitable, but it exemplifies the qualifications such a signaling device should have. First, a flower in the buttonhole is not an unusual practice of men everywhere. Second, it can be seen instantly. Third, it has color and color attracts attention. An alternate to color is differentiation in size. (A chrysanthemum certainly is larger than any flower normally worn.) Fourth, of itself the wearing of a flower is meaningless. (However, in the case of flowers, any specific flower lacks the basic qualification of availability anywhere and at any season of the year.)

It would seem best to divide methods for signaling into two classifications: those to be used at a distance and those for close-up use. Whereas every method which occurs to this writer for distance might also be used for close-up as well, there are a number of close-up methods which have a subtlety that makes them admirable for this purpose and they could serve a wider range of uses than most distance methods.

For distance signaling (other than manual) are variations in attire. These must be both permissible so as not to attract attention and yet clearly visible at a distance to the knowing observer. A varicolored feather in a hatband is such a device. Such feathers are generally worn and the visible, but not noticeable, distinction would be in the combination of colors used. A necktie made of material of a particular shade, or having a combination of unusual colors, might be used. Tying a tie (either four-in-hand or bow) with an unusual knot cannot be seen at a distance but can be used closeup. A twist in a knot is easily seen by anyone looking for it and is unlikely to be observed by anyone else. Even when it is noticed, it is ascribed to error rather than intent. Variations in the bow of a hatband also are easy to make and will pass unnoticed by anyone not especially looking for it. Here again, however, the change in the bow cannot be seen at a great distance.


Variations of ribbons and bows on a package become covert recognition signals.
Phil Franke

Carrying a parcel which is, to use the retail store’s term, “gift wrapped” can be seen at a distance. The special paper and/or the color of the ribbon or string can be seen at an amazing distance. Naturally, the situation would have to be such that carrying a gift would be natural and there would have to be a gift in the package on the chance that it would be opened. Instead of gift wrapping the parcel, ordinary paper could be used and the paper held closed by several wide colored rubber bands. Or the rubber bands could be put around the package in a prescribed manner. Instead of a package, a book might be used and held closed by the rubber bands. Another way of using a book would be to have it covered with a protective paper, as is commonly done with schoolbooks.

Ink (invisible except when special colored glasses are used) on packages, book wrappers, or baggage labels can be seen at a distance. The special value of such ink is that added information can be given by writing a large code letter or number.

Court plaster, surgeon’s tape, Band-Aids, or any similar covering for cuts makes an excellent signaling device. It may be used on the face at any spot where one might cut himself shaving, or on almost any part of the hands, or, when in swimming, on an ankle or foot. The location of the tape, its size, and its shape all may be used to modify the signal, or to make it more definite that it is a signal. In some instances, it may well be necessary to have the tape cover an actual cut in the flesh. Except for that one point, the method has every advantage possible and is useful at a distance and close up.

While some of the following signals also can be used for considerable distance, most are for nearby use.

It might be well to point out that the absence of something often is as usable a signal as can be found. A missing vest or sleeve button, a shoelace missing in a workingman’s shoe, or dissimilar laces, the absence of a bow on the ribbon of a hat, a strap at only one end of a suitcase, are examples of missing things which do not attract attention but are most apparently absent to anyone looking for such discrepancy. Care must be taken to eliminate only such objects as coincidence would be most unlikely to find unintentionally missing in another person’s apparel or equipment.

Cutting an eraser on the end of a pencil into either a wedge shape or a point is a good middle distance signal. The pencil, point down, would be stuck in the breast pocket of the coat or shirt.

Another middle-distance signal would be the colored thread marking of a handkerchief left protruding from the breast pocket. Such threads are commonly used in many parts of the world by laundries as identification. A colored monogram in a handkerchief can be noticed easily. In either instance, the color used would be the important factor.


Phil Franke

Organization lapel buttons, because of their variations in shape, design, and color, are quickly and easily identified. Of course they rarely, if ever, could be used for the purpose under consideration, but the general idea can be followed with pen and pencil clips. The tip of the clip which goes outside the pocket is altered so as to be identifiable. This may be done by filing the clip to change its shape, drilling one or more holes in it, or coloring it with enamel—paint or colored sealing wax. Naturally a specially designed clip is even better, for its distinctive pattern may be so subtle. On another page are suggested designs for altering standard-type clips.

Clips also can be made from a variety of easily obtainable metal objects. For example. a “blackhead ejector” sold in drugstores may be made into a clip by heating and bending. The hole is filled with colored sealing wax. The cost—ten cents for the tool.

In such instances where A and B can get within fifteen feet or so of one another, shoelaces make an excellent signaling device. There are several ways in which laces can be used and no one of them ever will be noticed provided the laces are treated identically in both shoes.

The first suggestion is to have the shoelace run as a double strand through the eyelets nearest the instep, i.e., toward the toes. First, the shoestring is cut in half. Then the tip of one lace is pushed from the inside of the shoe up through one hole, across the instep, and down through the opposite hole. The tip of the other half is treated in the same way but is started from the opposite side. While the cut ends still are outside the shoe, each is tied, with a slipknot, around the other lace. The tips of the laces then are drawn so as to have the two knots inside the shoe and each by one of the eyelets. (See illustration.) The shoe then is laced in the normal way. For one who is looking for such a possibility, the double lace is easy to distinguish. It will never be seen by one not particularly looking for it. Though it will not be noticed, it is without reason except to mend a broken lace were the shoes to be examined.

Because shoelaces are inserted in shoes in three standard ways, any deviation in these ways becomes useful for signaling. On other pages are illustrations of the standard ways of lacing shoes and several ways in which shoes could be laced but never are. None of these alternate ways will attract attention, yet each is very obvious to one looking for such a signal.

Using one of these shoelacing patterns is an excellent way to identify a person. Because there are several such patterns, added information could be given by the choice of pattern used. “I have information for you.” “I’ll follow your instruction.” “I have brought another person.” What need be said is not for this writer to suggest—merely the means to say it.

Alteration of design (such as with the shoelaces) is almost as much of an attention attractor to the person looking for it as is color. Another design variant is using one different button on a shirt or vest. While the buttons so used may be unlike the other visible buttons in several acceptable ways, the use of a button of a different size is probably the best variation and, generally speaking, such a button is easier to obtain. The button should be but a little larger (or smaller) than the other buttons. When on a shirt, and a tie is worn, the tie must be one which does not cover at least two buttons. The difference in size is known by comparison. Were an outsider to notice an odd-size button—which is most unlikely—he would think that the wearer merely did not have a matching button to replace one he had lost.


Variations of tying a shoelace can be used for signaling.
Phil Franke

Just as the trousers, as many men wear them, would be of a length to hide the shoelaces when the person is standing, so can the occupational use of an apron hide vest buttons. Neither of these signs can be used on all occasions but both are very good at such times as they can be used.

Another similar clothing variation is the use of one grommet in one buckle hole of a belt which does not have such metal protection in any of the other holes.

The old schoolboy stunt of sticking a thumbtack in the heel of a shoe might also be useful on some occasions. It is something which could be acquired accidentally and to avoid the possibility of an inadvertent thumbtack being in the heel of the wrong person, the tack used for the signal should be stuck in a specified location on the right heel. To find a tack in a particular spot, in the right heel, and on a particular day, and at a certain place and time, of a second person would be asking too much of coincidence.

A method of attracting attention, and done for that obvious purpose, is yelling. “Hi, Pete,” or “Aya, Pedro,” or any such call is done for the obvious purpose of getting the attention of the one called. If the caller stands three-quarter view to the person whose attention he actually wishes to attract, rather than the imaginary Pete, the yell will serve its purpose and without connecting the two people. Naturally, as soon as the call is made the caller should wave a greeting to the imaginary Pete, and naturally, there have to be several men in that direction, so no one can know of Pete’s nonexistence. This means of attracting attention only is possible where there is a crowd, such as at a railway station, but if the crowd were large enough, it could be the only quick way. The name used should be one found in some form in all languages and in a way be something like the “Hey Rube” call circus people use for emergencies.

Acknowledgment of recognition is most important, for otherwise neither person could be certain of the other having noticed his signal. Further, it would be safest were the acknowledgment of recognition also acknowledged. Were this done, each person would be certain of the other’s awareness of his presence.

At a distance, the act of rubbing the back of the neck under the collar can be seen easily. It appears to be a most natural act and does not attract attention, yet it is one which almost never is done. Note that it is not scratching the back of the neck but rubbing it with the balls of the fingers and with the fingers straight.

At a short distance the smoking signals, or drinking signals, might well be used for acknowledgment. It might be best to signal a designated number if such signals are used.

Where the contact is between waiter and patron, or clerk and customer, the acknowledgment could be by the patron asking for something unusual but not too odd. Or the waiter-clerk could offer a service or item that would be the signal of acknowledgment. In each instance, the signal would be verbal but would be without special meaning except to the persons listening for it.

The acknowledgment could be touching the special button, clip, shoelace, etc. by the one who has the original signal. Acknowledgment can use a larger variety of natural methods than would be feasible for the original signals. All that is required is that they be simple, quick, and natural.

A common type of button is made with an eye, affixed to a shank, which protrudes from the back of the button. Such buttons always are used for uniforms, and, frequently, on overcoats and other clothing. These buttons usually are made of plastic.


A coat button could be easily marked to convey a signal.
Phil Franke

Such a button can be used at the buttonhole of the coat lapel. A cord is tied to the button and the cord runs down to the breast pocket of the coat. On the other end of the cord should be fastened a watch, key, glasses case, or any other object which should be easy to get at and would be a disadvantage to its owner were it lost. Such a button is not unlike those made commercially for just such use.

A button, such as one of these, can be seen at a fair distance and is therefore useful for identification purposes. By filing or drilling one of these buttons, added information may be given. (See sketch.)

Metal buttons can be left with the finish (usually brass or chrome) given them at the factory or they can be colored with an enamel paint. Wooden buttons may be left as natural wood, or they can be stained or painted. Plastic buttons can be purchased in a fairly wide variety of colors.

The size of the button, its color, and its design all can be used for eye-catching purposes for the one looking.

Such buttons, too, can be used by women for identification purposes. One method would be to wear the button as an ornament—a piece of ribbon could be pulled through the eye and the entire “button and bow” pinned from the other side of the cloth with a safety pin. In material with a loose weave, the threads of the cloth can be pushed apart far enough for the eye to go through the cloth without doing any damage. Again, the button (this time minus ribbon) would be held in place with a safety pin. The button, either of shiny metal or of a suitable color, can be an attractive piece of costume ornament. The button also can be pushed through a hole made in a handbag and used with a string holding a door key—the button would be on the outside of the bag.

Ribbon bows (without the button) can be used for purposes of ornamentation (as well as identification) by women. Bows often are worn at the neckline, or, like a flower, just below the shoulder. For this special purpose, the bow should be of ribbon of certain color, or colors, and tied in an observably different way. (See sketches of two such ways to tie ribbon.) A wristband of ribbon also may be used. Here, too, the color or colors of the ribbon and the way the knot is made are the means of identification. Great care must be taken when ribbon identification is used by a woman so that the man knows what he is looking for. If this were a woman-to-woman meeting, this difficulty does not exist. Men do not visualize a double bow (or any other kind) from a woman’s description. Nor do most men have any idea of colors from the names of the colors by which women identify them. The knowledge of men generally concerning colors is limited largely to the colors of traffic lights, their school colors, and those they don’t like. So ladies, help us.

Wide rubber bands around a small wrapped parcel, or around a book, can be seen at a distance of fifty feet. The pattern made by the number of bands and the way they are put around the object can give additional information. (See sketches.) It should be noted that the book used is unwrapped and cannot be of so dark a color or complicated a design that the rubber bands become invisible.


Rubber bands around a wrapped package were useful for signaling.
Phil Franke

This type of package may also be carried by a man, though with a man it might, though it is unlikely, be noticed because it is a somewhat elaborate way to do up a package.

The court plaster and surgeon’s tape suggested for use by men can be used by women by making adaptations. A Band-Aid can be used on a finger or back of hand. Instead of tape on the face, a woman can use beauty spots. If beauty spots be used, there must be a definite understanding of their (or its) location. It might be well also to have a specific size and design decided upon. The design might be an oval rather than a circle. It should not be a butterfly, or heart, or other pattern which because of its design would attract attention.

A number of the ideas suggested for use by men also can be used by women. Many cannot. No woman would be certain of being unnoticed were she to rub the back of her neck. A man could push his hat to the back of his head to acknowledge having received a signal. And such action with a man would pass unnoticed, for it is quite natural. For a woman to push her hat to the back of her head would be so fantastic an act that everyone would look.

Toying with a necklace or bracelet, on the other hand, is for a woman similar to the way a man plays with a watch chain. Usually, for the things a man will do naturally, there are actions-counterparts which a woman may naturally do. But it has to be kept in mind, few of these actions are identical.

No attempt should be made to know and look for all the various signals and codes suggested in these pages. What have been set down are only suggestions. Some may be thought to be unusable as given, some may be adapted and made of use, and some may be of use solely as starting a trend of thought toward usable methods. The point is that whatever is used must be decided upon long before it ever is needed. Every detail then has to be studied, and fully understood, by everyone who ever may be called upon to use the method. Any material which is successful is good. Success will depend upon people, and when one of the elements is a person, there can be no certainty of success unless that person has full knowledge and understanding. No one can be assured he has such knowledge and understanding until he has actually tried out the method to his satisfaction and under calm circumstances. In actual use there are too many distractions to try to recall unmemorized details.