Secret Squirrel. Does the phrase conjure the image of a furtive squirrel, perhaps wearing a mask, clandestinely robbing the backyard birdfeeders? Maybe a cartoon image, similar to Underdog or Mighty Mouse, boldly fighting crime and injustice? But it probably does not conjure the image of a group of uniforms gathered around a safe, arguing about who will load codes and who will “shoot” the jets. Alas, the last is closest to the truth.


Here We Come to Save the Day!

A quick internet search of “secret squirrel” will return YouTube links to an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon called, oddly enough, Secret Squirrel. While it does look like a cool cartoon, and the idea of a James Bond-like squirrel appealed to kids in the 60s, in the military it means something altogether different.

In military and government vernacular, Secret Squirrel can either be a noun or an adjective. “Who’s that guy, and why isn’t he in uniform?” “Oh, that’s one of those Secret Squirrels from Langley (or Creech, or somewhere else equally mysterious) here to do some Secret Squirrel shit.” See how easily that rolls off the tongue? That phrase has probably never been uttered in real life, but you get the gist of its meaning.


The Secret Squirrel Origin Story

Searching for the origin of this phrase, mostly point to the aforementioned cartoon as the source. A SandBoxx article recounts an anecdote from a “Crusty old CW4” who told him the term originated in World War II. Supposedly, Germans have a very hard time pronouncing the word squirrel. By casually attempting to get someone to say the word, mispronunciation could lead to the discovery of German spies.

According to The Washington Post, in an editorial for the Iranian newspaper Resalat the author has some interesting things to say. According to him, Iranian intelligence officials captured 14 actual secret squirrels! Supposedly, foreign governments had captured, trained, and equipped these squirrels with “spy gear,” then released them at the country’s borders.

A long-range bombing mission, officially named Operation Senior Surprise, during the opening days of the first Gulf War, was later recognized as Operation Secret Squirrel. The clandestine mission involved seven B-52G Stratofortress from Barksdale flying a black-out mission to Iraq and back again. It was the first time GPS-guided munitions were used in combat. The operation remained classified for a year.

Operation Secret Squirrel members
Operation Secret Squirrel aircrew members next to a B-52H with a 25th-anniversary patch. Barksdale AFB, Jan. 15, 2016 (Photo credit Davidsmith2014, Wikimedia Commons)

Go to Facebook, and you can scroll through the Secret Squirrel Society‘s page. The society is interested in the care and feeding of actual squirrels, some of whom have been taken in after injuries, and others who steal from bird feeders. While the profile pic shows a squirrel in a fedora, that’s not really the point of this article.


Who Are These Secret Squirrels?

Secret Squirrels may be clandestine operators. They may be officials who have access to more classified intel than the average person. The term may describe classified documents, codes, programs, or policies. Most in the military have heard of OPSEC. How about COMSEC? EMSEC? COMPUSEC? All branches of the military use these terms, and they basically boil down to the same thing: security. Operations security, communications security, emissions security, and computer security.

OPSEC is known around the Pentagon. Everyone who is in the military, works for the military, or has access to a military installation, is expected to practice OPSEC. In the aircraft maintenance world, COMSEC is the Secret Squirrel acronym of choice. COMSEC on aircraft has to do with encrypted communications and navigation systems. Before jets fly “over the pond,” they often require classified codes to be uploaded. These codes allow for secure communications and identification with friendly forces.

Ever heard the term IFF, or identify friend or foe? Maybe Mode 4? These are Secret Squirrel systems on all military aircraft. Is the jet you’re in squawking the correct codes? If not, someone is probably watching you very closely, most likely ready to remove you from the sky. Flying toward a military installation? If those codes don’t match what the ground stations say they should be, prepare for an escort of armed fighters.


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Secret Squirrels! We’re Better Than You and We Know It!

Secret Squirrel patch
Secret Squirrel patch

Those who work in Secret Squirrel-type career fields know they’re better than the rank-and-file, but only because they get to be all hush-hush about it. Nothing like telling a supervisor you can’t mop the sidewalk right now because you have some Secret Squirrel shit to do. Telling an aircraft commander that his jet is not ready because the Secret Squirrel systems are inoperative can bring down the wrath, but there’s nothing they can do about it. Got a Secret Squirrel part from supply? Better make sure serial numbers match and the guy who gave it to you has the proper clearance. What’s that, Office of Special Investigations? Sorry, can’t talk about that; it’s Secret Squirrel stuff.

Often, the Secret Squirrel aspect means a crap-ton more paperwork. Regular training on handling and disposing of classified materials eats up a lot of time. Proper documentation in the military is standard, but Secret-Squirrel documentation comes with the added step of jail time if done incorrectly. And woe unto you if a COMSEC inspection receives a failing grade. It’s not a lot of fun standing with your supervisor, squadron commander, and group commander in front of the Wing King’s desk. Wing commanders have a lot on their plates, and they don’t ever want to hear of COMSEC at all if they can help it.


Just Another Squirrel in the Wall

Secret Squirrel sounds cool and all, but it’s simply another part of the military machine. A well-talked-about, often little understood aspect, but one that is vital to security. Those Secret Squirrel people are the ones who make sure telephones can make secure calls. They make sure spies can’t eavesdrop on us, or at least have a really hard time doing it. They ensure aircrew is safe from friendly fire, and identify those that don’t belong. Secret Squirrels are like regular squirrels. You see them out and about, and you know they’re working on something, but the results often stay in the shadows.