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In World War II, civilian spies were less James Bond and more Mr. Bean

Mr. Bean was incompetent, which makes him a perfect candidate for espionage.
Mr. Bean was incompetent, which makes him a perfect candidate for espionage.
Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

In 1944, the CIA's precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), created a manual for citizens in Germany, Italy, and Japan who might want to subvert their own governments' wartime operations. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was a user's guide for normal people who wanted to become de facto spies assisting the United States.

But rather than involving James Bond–style espionage, these sabotage attempts were all about fostering ineptitude. The manual was full of advice for how citizens in other countries (like those working in German munitions factories) could be bad at their jobs and bog down operations. Instead of being James Bond, a good spy tried to be Mr. Bean. Some of the best tricks include:

  1. Using trash and everyday tools. The best materials for citizen sabotage weren't special laser lock picks from James Bond's Q — they were simple ingredients often found in the trash. Salt, nails, candles, pebbles, and thread were all recommended as great materials for sabotage. "His arsenal is the kitchen shelf, the trash pile," the manual says.
  2. Lose stuff. Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt might require a hacker on the other end, but a citizen spy could sabotage operations simply by losing stuff. "Making a faulty decision," the manual advises, "may simply be a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another." Over time, these tiny subversions could add up to serious delays in work.
  3. Hide in the crowd. The best spies don't perch atop skyscrapers or base-jump from cliffs — they hide. "Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people could be responsible," the manual recommends. Better to blow out electrical wiring that 90 people could have screwed up rather than do something for which you could be blamed.
  4. Being incompetent is better than being wily. The best spies weren't masters of disguise or suave playboys. In fact, they probably looked like idiots. Incompetency was the easiest way to get away with sabotaging a factory, transportation hub, or communications system. When it comes to trains, for example, the manual advises tactics that wouldn't be out of place in a screwball comedy. Recommendations include writing train tickets by hand instead of printing them (so a passenger will miss their train) and assigning two people the same seat, so that they'll get in a fight over it (yes, that's actually the advice).

Many of the tips almost look absurd, like the recommendation to let cutting tools grow dull or to put too much paper into a hole puncher so it will break. But the strategies highlight two realities: both that our sense of espionage is heightened from movies and fiction, and that ordinary citizens have an extremely limited scope to exercise their power during wartime.

That may be why the best advice for sabotage is the tip that appears on page 31, item 12, section C: "Act stupid." Sometimes, it's the smartest thing you can do.

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