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'Geronimo' and Osama bin Laden: What goes into a code name?

'Geronimo EKIA' is what special forces said when Osama bin Laden was killed. Code names can provide some insight into what an agency is thinking. Che Guevara had a curious one, too.

By Aaron CouchContributor / May 4, 2011

Goyathlay, better known as Geronimo, was a Chiricahua Apache leader who resisted the U.S. government policy to consolidate his people on reservations by leading a series of raids against Mexican and American settlements. This photograph was taken at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898 in Omaha, Nebraska.

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On May 1, President Obama and others in the White House situation room heard the words, “We’ve ID’d Geronimo,” and soon got the word that Osama bin Ladin had been killed: “Geronimo EKIA,” shorthand for “enemy killed in action.”

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It is not known which branch of the armed forces or intelligence community decided to use "Geronimo" as the code name for Mr. bin Laden during the Sunday raid of his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But that choice has left some Native Americans unable to fully celebrate what otherwise would be welcome news.

The issue will be discussed at a Senate Indian Affairs committee hearing Thursday. The hearing on racial stereotyping of Native Americans had been scheduled prior to bin Laden’s death.

Hours after the Geronimo code name was reported, reports suggested that White House officials had revised the story, saying Geronimo was a general name for the operation, not for bin Laden himself. Historically, code names have ranged from affectionately flippant to openly disparaging, and sometimes reflect how the government organization bestowing the name views the person.

Pope John Paul II was called "Halo" by the Secret Service. The ruddy Sen. Edward Kennedy was known as "Sunburn" during his 1980 presidential bid. Todd Palin, an oil field operator and husband of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, was dubbed "Driller" by the Secret Service.

During the Cold War, when code names for Cubans began with “AM,” Cuban President Fidel Castro was known as "AMTHUG," and fellow revolutionary Che Guevara was known as "AMQUACK." More recently, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the CIA code named a group of helpful Iraqi spies "DBROCKSTARS." Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose lies about Iraq’s weapons program gave credence to the US invasion in 2003, was code named "Curveball."

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