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Book Review: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, with Henry Robert Schlesinger

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Spycraft is a fairly detailed history of CIA’s Office of Technical Service, the outfit that makes all the neat James Bond toys used — or not used — in espionage since the creation of the first OTS during World War Two. The first OTS was called R&D, Research and Development, when it was first created in 1942. (I use the phrase “fairly detailed history” since much of what OTS did or does is still highly classified.)

Past credits include observation planes, the most famous of which was the U-2. Heirs to the U-2 include Oxcart, A-12, SR-71, and AURORA, although you won’t find much information about AURORA, since it’s still being used. Satellites have, of course been around since the late 1950s, and it wasn’t long after the first one that many more were launched. When the program became too big, a separate agency was spun off and created. Again, not much is made public, except for instances such as the Jonathan Pollard case, when the agency was known as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), now called the National Geo-Spatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The most enjoyable parts of the book are the first five sections, which are described as stories of “ingenuity, skill and courage.” Section VI of the book is a treatise on clandestine tradecraft, including the revolutionary changes digital technology has brought. It also gives the five essential elements of clandestine operations used by every intelligence service in the world. I find it interesting that this section can be read first, to give yourself a primer or refresher on the business of spying, or after the first 15 chapters.

Some of the more ingenious and effective toys include an audio transmitter that can fit into the spine of a book and remain unnoticed; an electrical plug that doubles as a transmitter; “dead drops” disguised as everyday items such as ordinary bricks used in construction, and in such things as dead rats, pinecones, and much more; dental prosthetics to alter the shape and dental structure of a person’s face; a high speed launch disguised with a breakaway shell of an Oriental junk, used in Vietnam; a rubber airplane that could be deflated, compacted and airdropped into a hostile area, and used for exfiltration. Other more common items include camera pens, camera lighters, eavesdropping pens, cigarette pack cameras, and a “rollover” pen which copied documents as the tip of the pen is rolled over the document. All of these items were, of course, perfectly usable as the items they represented.

In addition to the meat of Spycraft, the appendices give organizational genealogy, a chronology, a list of OTS directors, “Trailblazers from OTS,” pseudonyms of CIA officers, and a glossary. Additionally, instructions for use of a simple encryption/decryption scheme are given, along with a demonstration.

It’s a shame that history is considered by many students to be a “dead” or “loser” subject to study. It isn’t considered “sexy” or even necessary by many. However, history is the brain, and the very soul, of an organization such as CIA. Realistically, there isn’t much in the line of the tradecraft of spying that is truly new. Sure, the gadgets and technology are often new, but the procedures, processes, and practices are all simply repetitions for the most part, sometimes with small variations or adjustments.

Another slant on the importance of history is in cases where a “dangle” is used by one side or the other. A dangle is an intelligence operative who is “offered” to a rival country’s clandestine service, bait “dangled” to the other country. “Is s/he real, or is s/he a dangle?” Knowing the history and genealogy of a certain spy agency or a particular operation is the very bedrock of debriefing all dangles. For that matter, this knowledge is vital to debriefing all prospective agents, whether dangles or turncoats.

History is also critical to planning new intelligence operations. “This worked before, so it should work again, as long as the opposition doesn’t pick up that it’s a repetition.” Or, “this worked before, but it was only a few years ago, so the collective memory of the organization will most likely recognize it.”

Cicero said over two thousand years ago, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of life unless it is woven into the lives of our ancestors by the records of history.”

More recently, G.K. Chesterton said, “In not knowing the past we do not know the present.”

In today’s work world, you certainly won’t last very long if you’re repeating the past mistakes of your predecessors. That not only goes for spies, but it’s equally critical for just about any hard science, including mathematics.

Robert Wallace is a former director of CIA’s OTS. H. Keith Melton is an internationally recognized author, historian and expert on clandestine devices and technology, and has the world’s largest collection of espionage devices. He is a frequent lecturer throughout the US intelligence community and abroad, as well.

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