How The CIA Used Shoelaces To Send Secret Coded Messages

The Central Intelligence Agency is a United States government agency responsible for collecting and analyzing information from foreign countries and carrying out covert actions when directed to do so by the president, per the CIA official website. The agency was founded in 1947 when President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, establishing an independent, civilian intelligence agency housed within the executive branch of the U.S. government. In 1949, he signed the Central Intelligence Agency Act, allowing the CIA to secretly fund their operations and develop personnel procedures outside standard government practices. By 1953, the agency was an established part of the American government, and it eventually grew enough to move from Washington, D.C., and establish its own headquarters in Langley, Virginia. 

As it was often necessary for CIA operatives to secretly communicate with one another, the agency developed a variety of codes to allow agents to exchange information in public without giving anything away to the people around them. As reported by Recoil Offgrid, one method agents could use to silently exchange messages was via the pattern used to lace their shoelaces. The article quotes “The Cold War Spy Manual,” a collection of previously classified documents used by agents during the Cold War: “There are … several 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 obvious to one looking for such a signal.”

Shoelaces, buttons, and handkerchiefs are all tools of the CIA

Of course, the agents using their shoelaces to silently signal one another had to agree to the “language” of the laces ahead of time, and there weren’t standard meanings assigned to the assorted lacing patterns. Operatives could agree to look for the person with their shoes laced a certain way or decide that specific lacing patterns aligned with particular coded messages. Recoil Offgrid further quotes “The Cold War Spy Manual”: “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.'”

The Cold War Spy Manual” is full of previously secret CIA methods and operations, as is the declassified “Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.” Thrillist lists several lessons from the latter, including the use of clothing button sizes, color, and placement to send messages. Elsewhere, agents used the touching or adjusting of said buttons along with ties, shoelaces, and other accessories to indicate that messages have been received. 

Agents also sent messages via the ribbons used to tie up packages, which meant the packages’ wrapping paper had to be very plain in order to highlight the ribbons’ colors, knots, and placements — all of which had their own meanings. Other low-tech tools used by the CIA included secret pockets hidden within clothes, sleight of hand tricks to conceal documents and objects covertly changing hands, and handkerchiefs to shield objects being passed to one another. Menus, sugar bowls, and other seemingly benign props were also utilized.

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