Quick Book Review: Spycraft – The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda

Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda (official site) caught my eye on the ‘new book’ shelf at the local library a few weeks ago. It’s not small at 548+ pages. The book largely consists of two general themes interspersed throughout: gadgets/technology and tales of operational derring-do. ;-)

The story of gadgets was then further divided into two sub-groups: those that were adapted from commercial products or technology, and those that were built from the ground-up to CIA requirements. The book begins with a description of espionage in WWII

Spycraft was written with approval of the CIA (some items left out or intentionally vague as necessary), as opposed to unapproved critical books such as the one from Philip Agee.

A few things of note:
1. It looks like the CIA gadget/tech team created the first SMS/text messaging system. But from what I can tell none of the officers or the agents used ‘OMG’ or ‘bff.’ ;-)

‘BUSTER’ was a small hardware device (6 x 3 x 1 inches, 1/2 pound) carried by an agent. He/she would key-in (VERY rudimentary keyboard and display) their secret message, then walk within say 50 yards of a CIA listening station. Once in range the agent would discretely press a ‘send’ button (device hidden in coat pocket) and the message would be encrypted and sent to the CIA receiver device in a burst mode over a few seconds. The receiver was larger at 8.5 x 11 x 5 inches and usually left near a windowsill or inside a parked car. One the spy[s message was a received, the officer’s device would reply with an acknowledgment and updated message for the spy.

2. Three CIA operatives were arrested when working in Cuba in preparation for the semi-aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. They spent three years in a horrific Cuban prison for political prisoners. Interestingly, the prison was on an island just off Cuba called the Isle of Pines; it was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

3. The T-100 was an early spy camera that was purpose-built, not a commercial product. Made by hand with a delicate lens assembly. It was one-sixth the size (4mm diameter lens) of the earlier Minox spy cameras. Small and cylindrical, it was hidden inside fountain pens, watches, and cigarette lighters. Followed-up by the T-50 spy camera.

4. The development of audio/listening device technology in the 1960s and 1970s dramatically changed the nature of operations that were possible. Bugs could be and were placed in nearly anything.

5. Battery availability and limitations were constant problems. On some occasions devices were wired into municipal electrical systems, avoiding the problem.

6. Dead-drops and very subtle signals (e.g. parked cars, lipstick mark on a phone pole, window left open, light on) were used to exchange items and communicate between case officers and spies.

7. Remember the Theremin musical instrument? It was invented by Lev Sergeyevich Theremin, a Russia who was also covertly working for Soviet intelligence. Under duress in a Siberian prison camp Theremin developed ‘The Thing,’ a very advanced listening device for the time.

The gadgets and operations complemented and enabled each other. Operational requirements were generally the catalyst for research into new gadgets. On occasion a new technology enabled operations that weren’t previously feasible.

Yes, the legendary Skyhook was/is real, and was actually used a few times. Even tested on a pig that in turned attacked the plane’s crew after the pig was recovered. There was an inflatable rescue plane, a speedboat disguised as a junk, exploding cigars, dead rats, a myriad of spy cameras, suicide pills (carried by some agents as well as U2 pilots), and much, much more.

There is a great deal more in this book and I found it hard to put down. Some of the tales of individuals are little short of amazing. And it makes one wonder what technology is being used now that we aren’t even aware of. Definitely grab the book if you’re interested in the topic.

Misc. Links:
Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs at Amazon
Spycraft Book: Official Overview
Cia Spytech: 5 Reasons to Check Out the CIA Spycraft Book
Book Review – SPYCRAFT: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda
CIA Spy Gadgets Revealed: Q Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Langley
Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda (Amazon)

  • Mik

    This is the sort of book I’d enjoy reading, read similar, but these seems a lot more complex and detailed.