-The Washington Times
"This is a story I thought could never be told."
-James M. Olson, former chief of CIA counterintelligence
"The first comprehensive look at the technical achievements of American espionage from the 1940s to the present."
AN UNPRECEDENTED HISTORY OF THE CIA’S SECRET AND AMAZING GADGETRY BEHIND THE ART OF ESPIONAGE
In this look at the CIA’s most secretive operations and the devices that made them possible, Spycraft tells gripping life-and-death stories about a group of spytechs—much of it never previously revealed and with images never before seen by the public.
The CIA’s Office of Technical Service is the ultrasecret department that grappled with challenges such as:
What does it take to build a quiet helicopter?
How does one embed a listening device in a cat?
What is an invisible photo used for?
These amazingly inventive devices were created and employed against a backdrop of geopolitical tensions—including the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and continuing terrorist threats. Written by Robert Wallace, the former director of the Office of Technical Service, and internationally renowned intelligence historian Keith Melton, Spycraft is both a fantastic encyclopedia of gadgetry and a revealing primer on the fundamentals of high-tech espionage.
“The first comprehensive look at the technical achievements of American espionage from the 1940s to the present.” —WIRED
“Reveals more concrete information about CIA tradecraft than any book.” —THE WASHINGTON TIMES
“This is a story I thought could never be told.” —JAMES M. OLSON, former chief of CIA counterintelligence
"This is a story I thought could never be told."
-James M. Olson, former chief of CIA counterintelligence
"The first comprehensive look at the technical achievements of American espionage from the 1940s to the present."
SECTION I: AT THE BEGINNING
Chapter 1: My Hair Stood on End
The weapons of secrecy have no place in an ideal world.
—Sir William Stephenson, A Man Called Intrepid
On a quiet autumn evening in 1942, as World War II raged across Europe and Asia, two men sat in one of Washington’s most stately homes discussing a type of warfare very different from that of high-altitude bombers and infantry assaults. The host, Colonel William J. Donovan, known as “Wild Bill” since his days as an officer during World War I, was close to sixty. A war hero whose valor had earned him the Medal of Honor, Donovan was now back in uniform. Donovan responded to the call to duty and put aside a successful Wall Street law practice to become Director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and America’s first spymaster.
Donovan’s guest, for whom he graciously poured sherry, was Stanley Platt Lovell. A New Englander in his early fifties, Lovell was an American success story. Orphaned at an early age, he worked his way through Cornell University to ascend the ranks of business and science by sheer determination and ingenuity. As president of the Lovell Chemical Company, he held more than seventy patents, though still described himself as a “sauce pan chemist.”
Donovan understood that the fight against the Axis powers required effective intelligence operations along with a new style of clandestine warfare. Just as important, he appreciated the role men like Lovell could play in those operations. “I need every subtle device and every underhanded trick to use against the Germans and the Japanese—by our own people—but especially by the underground in the occupied countries,” he had told Lovell a few days earlier. “You’ll have to invent them all… because you’re going to be my man.”
The wartime job offered to the mild-mannered chemist was to head the Research and Development (R&D) Branch of the OSS, a role Donovan compared to that of Professor Moriarty, the criminal mastermind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Lovell, although initially intrigued by the offer, was now having doubts and came to Donovan’s Georgetown home to express those reservations. He had been in government service since that spring at a civilian agency called the National Development and Research Committee (NDRC). Created by President Roosevelt at the urging of a group of prominent scientists and engineers, the NDRC’s mission was to look into new weapons for what seemed to be America’s inevitable entry into the war. Lovell had joined the NDRC to act as liaison—a bridge—between the military, academics, and business. But what Donovan proposed now was something altogether different.
The mantle of Professor Moriarty was, at best, a dubious distinction. An undisputed genius, the fictional Moriarty earned the grudging respect of Holmes by secretly ruling a vast criminal empire of London’s underworld with brutal efficiency and ingenuity. In his role as Professor Moriarty of the OSS, Lovell would oversee the creation of a clandestine arsenal that would include everything from satchel concealments to carry secret documents and subminiature spy cameras to specialized weapons and explosives. These were the weapons to be used in a war fought not by American troops in uniform, but by soldiers of underground resistance movements, spies, and saboteurs.
Spying and sabotage were unfamiliar territory for both America and Lovell, who had made his fortune developing chemicals for shoe and clothing manufacturers. America, Lovell believed, did not resort to the subterfuge of espionage or the mayhem of sabotage. When the United States looked into the mirror of its own mythology, it did not see spies skulking in the shadows of back alleys; instead, it saw men like Donovan, who faced the enemy in combat on the front lines.
“The American people are a nation of extroverts. We tell everything and rather glory in it,” he explained to Donovan. “A Professor Moriarty is as un-American as sin is unpopular at a revival meeting. I’d relish the assignment, Colonel, but dirty tricks are simply not tolerated in the American code of ethics.”
Donovan, as Lovell would later write, answered succinctly. “Don’t be so goddamn naïve, Lovell. The American public may profess to think as you say they do, but the one thing they expect of their leaders is that we be smart,” the colonel lectured. “Don’t kid yourself. P. T. Barnum is still a basic hero because he fooled so many people. They will applaud someone who can outfox the Nazis and the Japs… Outside the orthodox warfare system is a great area of schemes, weapons, and plans which no one who knows America really expects us to originate because they are so un-American, but once it’s done, an American will vicariously glory in it. That is your area, Lovell, and if you think America won’t rise in applause to what is so easily called ‘un-American’ you’re not my man.”
Lovell took the job. Donovan knew what he wanted, but even more important, he knew what was needed. He had toured the secret labs of Great Britain that created just such devices. He also maintained close ties with the British Security Coordination (BSC), England’s secretive intelligence organization in North America, through which the United States was already funneling weapons to assist in the war effort. Even the mention of Sherlock Holmes’s ruthless criminal adversary may not have been a chance literary allusion. Two years earlier, in 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed into existence the Special Operations Executive (SOE) with the instructions “Now go out and set Europe ablaze!” SOE’s mandate was unconventional warfare, including the arming of resistance fighters in the war against Germany. Its London headquarters was an undistinguished office building on Baker Street, the same street as Sherlock Holmes’s fictional address.
Although Donovan eventually persuaded Lovell to join the OSS, the chemist’s initial assessment of the American public’s dim view toward espionage was not unfounded. From the beginning, the idea of an American intelligence service was controversial. One senator proclaimed, “Mr. Donovan is now head of the Gestapo in the United States.” In the best tradition of Washington’s bureaucratic infighting, the person in charge of the State Department’s Passport Office, Mrs. Ruth Shipley, insisted on stamping “OSS” on the passports of Donovan’s personnel traveling overseas, making them perhaps the most well-documented secret agents in the history of espionage. To remedy the situation, which had reached a deadlock between the OSS and the State Department, FDR himself had to intervene on the young agency’s behalf with the stubborn Mrs. Shipley.
The media of the day was no more charitable, often treating the OSS dismissively. The Washington columnist Drew Pearson called the nascent spy agency “one of the fanciest groups of dilettante diplomats, Wall Street bankers, and amateur detectives ever seen in Washington.” More colorful phrases were penned by Washington’s Times-Herald society columnist, Austine Cassini, who breathlessly wrote:
If you should by chance wander in the labyrinth of the OSS you’d behold ex–polo players, millionaires, Russian princes, society gambol boys, scientists and dilettante detectives. All of them are now at the OSS, where they used to be allocated between New York, Palm Beach, Long Island, Newport and other Meccas frequented by the blue bloods of democracy. And the girls! The prettiest, best-born, snappiest girls who used to graduate from debutantedom to boredom now bend their blonde and brunette locks, or their colorful hats, over work in the OSS, the super-ultra-intelligence-counter-espionage outfit that is headed by brilliant “Wild Bill” Donovan.
Cassini made it all sound like good clean fun. A bastion of pampered blue bloods, the OSS seemed no more dangerous than a country club cotillion. But at a time when less privileged sons and husbands were fighting and dying in the South Pacific and North Africa, the levity in the words “gambol boys” and “dilettante detectives” was almost assuredly bitter reading for many. Not surprisingly, the organization’s acronym was soon transformed into the less than flattering “Oh So Social” by career military officers and draftees alike. The fact that an early OSS training facility was based at the plush Congressional Country Club, located just outside Washington, only served to reinforce the notion of privilege and elitism.
If OSS seemed a bastion of aristocrats and bankers, it was not without reason. Donovan worked on Wall Street in the days leading up to World War II. When he became Coordinator of Information (COI), an OSS predecessor, in 1941, Donovan staffed the organization from circles with which he was familiar—the New York legal, business, and financial worlds—along with graduates from the nation’s finest universities. However, there was more to this than simply establishing an “Old Boys’ Club” of espionage. Prior to World War II, travel opportunities for abroad and learning foreign languages were largely limited to the privileged. As a result many of those recruited came with intimate knowledge of the European landscape, including the cities and towns of France, Germany, and Italy, from past travels. Others had done business in Europe before the war and could re-establish contacts.
Less visible than the privileged blue bloods were the refugees, those recent immigrants and first-generation native-born Americans (many of them academics) who also joined the ranks of the OSS. Unlike the Wall Street bankers and ex-polo players, these recruits brought day-to-day knowledge of foreign cultures, along with clothing, identity papers, and language skills.
Even as it became the target of Washington infighting and attracted the derision of newspaper columnists, Donovan’s organization expanded rapidly. If the United States was going to enter what Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game” of international espionage Donovan needed to move quickly. Spurred on by the urgency of war, the OSS would share clandestine responsibilities with the Allies. The London Agreements, negotiated in 1942 and 1943, established a protocol for clandestine cooperation between OSS and the SOE, defining each side’s role, down to the development of weaponry and financial responsibilities. Theaters of secret operations were divided between the United States and Great Britain. OSS had responsibility for China, Manchu-ria, Korea, Australia, the Atlantic Islands, and Finland, while SOE covered India, East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Western Europe would remain primarily British, with U.S. representation.
As “junior partner” in this joint wartime venture, Donovan needed to build not only America’s first spy agency, but one capable of waging a global intelligence war. This was no easy task. Whatever espionage legacy remained from previous wars was largely out of date or forgotten. He would have to assemble the organization from the ground up with assistance from the British. The United States provided technology while Britain offered experience and counsel, training Americans in the craft of intelligence.
The blue bloods, so easily dismissed by the society columnists as frivolous playboys and genteel sports-men, learned quickly from their British tutors.
“Ah, those first OSS arrivals in London!” wrote veteran British intelligence officer Malcolm Muggeridge. “How well I remember them arriving like jeune filles en fleur straight from a finishing school, all fresh and innocent to start work in our frowsty old intelligence brothel. All too soon they were ravished and corrupted, becoming indistinguishable from seasoned pros who had been in the game for a quarter century or more.”
As the British schooled that first generation of American spies, American ingenuity was about to trans-form espionage. Lovell’s new R&D unit was officially established on October 17, 1942. General Order No. 9 in early 1943 described its mission as the invention, development, and testing of “all secret and special devices, material and equipment for special operations, and the provision of laboratory facilities.” R&D was divided into four divisions: Technical, Documentation, Special Assistance, and Camouflage. Each would work closely with Division 19 (originally codenamed Sandman Club) of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which served as their link with contractors in the private sector. Division 19 maintained its own testing laboratory at the Maryland Research Laboratory (MRL), located on the site of the Congressional Country Club.
At the time Donovan and Lovell were sipping sherry in Georgetown, the OSS in its infancy was already showing evidence of American character, differing from its SOE cousin in subtle but significant ways. While the British had kept SOE separate from the country’s traditional intelligence-gathering arm, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the OSS combined espionage and unconventional warfare into a single organization. Whereas the SIS was a civilian agency, OSS was a military organization, functioning with relative independence under the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The new agency also differed from its British counterpart in the way it acquired its clandestine technology. Great Britain created government laboratories for the scientific and technical work in espionage, scattering them throughout the country. These highly secretive “Stations,” as they were called, operated largely independently and with defined responsibilities. Station VIIa, for instance, responsible for covert radio production, was located in Bontex Knitting Mills in Wembley, while a part of the camouflage section, Station XVa, was housed in the Natural History Museum in London. England’s best scientific and engineering minds had been recruited to work at these top-secret government labs and used whatever limited wartime resources they could muster.
By contrast, Lovell, rather than recruit engineers and scientists into government service and build laboratories from the ground up, sought out private companies with the technical expertise and manufacturing capabilities to produce the needed gear, either from all original designs or by modifying existing consumer products for clandestine work. Traditionally clever artisans turned out one custom-made clandestine device at a time. Under Lovell’s leadership the new generation of spy gear would be engineered and produced using modern manufacturing techniques.
American industry and Lovell were particularly well suited for the mission. The advances in science and engineering since World War I were broadly integrated into the nation’s manufacturing and technical infrastructure and Lovell offered OSS far more than just management and technical expertise. As a scientist and businessman of the post–World War I generation, he arrived at his task with a lifetime of business and research contacts. These personal relationships with executives and scientists would prove invaluable for OSS.
Producing clandestine devices required a mind-set on the part of the designer and motivation on the part of the manufacturer quite different from other wartime industries. Work on spy gear was highly secretive, specialized, and the dollar value of the production runs relatively small. Compared to wartime contracts for millions of canteens or boots, the OSS might require only a few hundred clandestine radios or few thousand explosive devices. To recruit contractors and their technical talent, Lovell would need to appeal to an owner’s patriotism and personal history, more than profit.
In the months following his meeting with Donovan, Lovell and his OSS/R&D branch developed an arsenal of special weapons and devices with which to “raise merry hell,” along with increasingly inventive schemes. Time-delay fuses for explosives were needed, so agents or saboteurs could safely leave the area be-fore detonation. Building on the work of the British SOE, Lovell’s engineers developed the Time Delay Pencil, a copper tube containing a glass ampoule of corrosive liquid and copper wire connected to a spring-loaded firing pin, which could also be used to ignite incendiary devices. Small and reliable, the Pencils were color-coded to indicate different timing intervals. A pocketable cylinder called a Firefly, developed by Lovell’s team, mated a small explosive incendiary device with a self-contained time-delay fuse for a saboteur to drop into a car’s gas tank.
Another explosive device called a Limpet, named after the mollusk that fastens itself to rocks, was specifically designed to attach to the sides of ships beneath the waterline and blow a twenty-five-square-foot hole through either steel plates. The Limpet featured an delay detonator that could be set for hours or days or rigged to set off multiple detonations sympathetically with the concussion of one timed explosion triggering the others nearly simultaneously.
The Limpet’s delay relied on acetone to eat away a celluloid disk and trigger the detonation. While the timing of the explosion varied with the water temperature, it still offered a marked improvement over a British version that used aniseed balls—a traditional British hard candy—dissolving in water as a fuse.
Several Lovell-inspired devices relied on the environment or the target’s natural function to set them off. The Anerometer, a small barometer-activated device designed to sabotage airplanes, triggered an explosion when the aircraft reached an altitude of 1,500 feet above its starting elevation. A sabotage tool intended for trains featured an early version of a photosensitive “eye.” Called the Casey Jones or Mole, the eye reacted to the sudden absence of light. When attached to the undercarriage of a train, it ignored gradual light changes, but exploded in dark tunnels, derailing the train. Clearing a train wreck from within a tunnel com-pounded the effectiveness of the sabotage. Explosives were also disguised as coal for sabotaging a locomotive’s firebox or a power plant. Since the enemy often left stocks of coal unprotected the disguised explosive coal was simply tossed onto the pile.
In one exceptional example of camouflage, Lovell’s engineers began work in November of 1942 on a new type of high explosive disguised as flour. Eventually, DuPont produced fifteen tons of the granular explosive, nicknamed Aunt Jemima, for use by OSS in China. Designed to match the gray color of Chinese wheat flour, Aunt Jemima could be safely used to bake pancakes or biscuits indistinguishable from the real thing in appearance and taste, other than a slightly gritty texture. With the proper detonator attached, how-ever, the biscuit contained sufficient explosives to become a small bomb.
Other devices provided by Lovell and his men were less subtle. The Liberator pistol fired a single .45 caliber bullet. General Motors mass-produced this inexpensive but deadly weapon from sheet metal in its Guide Lamp Division. For airdrop to resistance forces behind enemy lines, the Liberator’s packaging included ten rounds of ammunition, pictorial firing instructions, and a stick to poke out the empty shell casing after firing. With an effective range of twenty-five yards, but wildly inaccurate beyond six feet, the Liberator was “the gun to get a gun.” Due to its low cost and Spartan design, the firearm soon acquired the unflattering nickname “Woolworth Gun.”
A more substantial weapon was the silenced .22 caliber automatic pistol Lovell’s team created by modifying the commercially available Hi-Standard pistol to add a silencer and special bullets. The silencer reduced ninety percent of the weapon’s noise, so its gunshot would be drowned out by traffic noises, closing doors, and other activities of everyday life. It was ideal for use inside closed rooms or when eliminating sentries.
A third weapon, the Stinger, was a small single-shot disposable .22 caliber pistol about the same size as a cigarette and intended for use at close range. Inexpensive to produce in large quantities, the Stinger was concealable and could be fired from the palm of a hand at a person sitting in a room or passing in a crowd.
Lovell’s wartime efforts also included spy gear and gadgets for agents to conduct conventional espionage. When unable to obtain Minox subminiature cameras in sufficient numbers, OSS joined forces with Kodak to develop America’s first spy camera. Small enough to fit into a penny matchbox, the tiny Match Box Camera or Camera-X held two feet of 16mm film, enough for thirty-four exposures. The lens design allowed agents to capture distant images of enemy installations, while documents could be photographed with a special attachment. Easily concealed, the camera was operable with one hand and could be requisitioned with a choice of camouflaged matchboxes that included Swedish or Japanese origins.
OSS printers counterfeited currency and reproduced identity documents with “official” seals and forged signatures. Beginning in 1943, they issued hundreds of virtually perfect German stamps, pay books, identity papers, ration cards, and even Gestapo orders. OSS tailors created clothing so flawless the stitching resembled the genuine article from the country of supposed manufacture.
No idea seemed too far-fetched for Donovan, whose motto became “Go ahead and try it.” The R&D lab created a soft metal tube with a screw cap that projected a thin stream of liquid chemical with a repulsive and lasting odor as a psychological harassing agent. When squirted directly on the body or clothing of a person, it engulfed them with the odor of fecal matter. The plan called for Chinese children in occupied cities to squirt the liquid at Japanese officers. Lovell dubbed it “Who Me?”.
When a civilian dentist suggested to President Roosevelt that one million bats with tiny incendiary de-vices attached to them could be released over Japan to ignite a firestorm among houses constructed almost entirely of wood and paper, experiments leading to what would become known as BAT or Project X-ray were undertaken. Bats were clandestinely collected from Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and trans-ported to an OSS test site. Developers designed a parachute container to house the bats during their descent from a highflying airplane, while Division 19 engineers produced tiny (15 grams) incendiary and Time De-lay Pencil devices. The initial testing at Carlsbad Air Base was both a high and low point for the project. The armed bats successfully, but accidentally, burned down a hangar after crawling into the rafters of the newly constructed building.
For a brief time the plan seemed to have potential. In large quantities, the price of the incendiary device and time-delay fuses were less than four cents per unit and the bats could be obtained at no cost during their hibernation cycle. The separate elements necessary for the project to work were all in place and tested, but military planners would not authorize a bat operation, declaring insufficient data existed about the processes needed to arm and transport one million bats for an air strike. The project was cancelled in March of 1944.
Additional experiments were undertaken to use a larger animal, the common Norwegian rat, to deliver bigger payloads than the tiny bats. Tests showed that a rat could carry up to seventy-five grams of explosives attached to its tail. The rats, which normally live in buildings, factories, and warehouses, were thought to pro-vide a way of introducing explosives into guarded installations. But, like the bat attack, this project also floundered in military planning.
Another unconventional project that failed, although it had been supported by the Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee, was the Cat Guided Bomb. The idea was to harness a cat to the underside of a bomb in such a way that the feline’s movements would steer the explosive to its target. In theory, when a cat was dropped over open water with a ship in sight, it would steer itself, and the bomb, toward the safety of the ship’s deck. Initial tests proved cats were ineffective and the concept died as quickly as the first test subjects. Another failed idea included plans to poison Hitler with female hormones by injecting them into the vegetarian Fuhrer’s vegetables.
Some programs that approached the edge of America’s ethical standards were accepted as the price for winning an unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan. Botulism and toxins were toyed with, along with the possibility of using germs and nerve gas, although such projects never represented a major effort by the OSS.
There were also some experiments with truth drugs and hypnosis but these never progressed very far. The idea of a truth serum was not new. Law enforcement had been searching for such a magic elixir for years with little success. Nevertheless, Lovell budgeted a modest $5,000 for the project but it turned up nothing substantial. “As was to be expected, the project was considered fantastic by the realists, unethical by the moralists, and downright ludicrous by the physicians,” Lovell wrote in a preliminary report.
In May 1943, after less than a year on the job, Lovell visited David Bruce, the OSS chief of station in London, where the New England chemist captured Bruce’s attention. The day after the meeting, Bruce wrote to General Donovan: “Stanley Lovell arrived yesterday, and he and I have just had a long talk at lunch, in the course of which he made my hair stand on end with his tales of the new scientific developments on which he has been working.” Clearly taken by Lovell’s ideas, Bruce continued: “His [Lovell’s] arrival has been anxiously awaited and I have put him in touch immediately with various people [at SOE] who are engaged in similar work.”
One of the most forward thinking projects undertaken by Lovell’s team was Javaman, a remote-controlled weapon consisting of a boat packed with four tons of explosives. Using early television technology, a camera mounted on the boat’s bow broadcast images to a plane circling fifty miles away where a crew member watching a monitor guided the boat to its destination, then triggered the explosives by remote control. Despite encouraging tests, the project was eventually dropped. According to Lovell, the Navy abandoned the idea be-cause it judged the explosive load as too dangerous to carry either by ship or submarine.
By the summer of 1944, with bases of operations established throughout the world, OSS printed a Sears and Roebuck–style catalog of espionage and sabotage devices, listing the specifications of each piece of equipment along with pictures. Station chiefs could peruse the catalog and choose whatever device they required. At war’s end in 1945, OSS had produced—in less than thirty-six months after its creation—more than twenty-five special weapons and dozens of sabotage devices, along with scores of other gadgets, including concealments, radios, and escape and evasion tools.
Mirroring the accelerated wartime production schedules that turned out ships, canteens, boots, and bombs in record time, it was a remarkable achievement. With initial guidance from the British, the OSS progressed in two years from offering a handful of basic tools of the spy trade to the design, manufacture, and deployment of an astonishing array of devices. The OSS officer corps developed at a similar frenetic pace, establishing intelligence networks throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Yet, in the autumn of 1945, the fruits of America’s dramatic entry into the international spy game were nearly lost in the wake of America’s rapid military demobilization.
"Reveals more concrete information about CIA tradecraft than any book... [Deserves] a five cloak-and-dagger rating."
-The Washington Times
Robert Wallace is the former director of the CIA's Office of Technical Service and lives in Virginia. A recipient of the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit, Wallace founded the Artemus Consulting Group in 2004, providing management and intelligence counsel to corporate and government clients. He is also a contributor to the oral history program of CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence.
H. Keith Melton is an internationally recognized author, historian, and expert on clandestine devices and technology. He is the technical tradecraft historian at the Interagency Training Center in Washington, D.C. He has assembled the world's largest collection of espionage devices and lectures widely throughout the U.S. intelligence community and abroad. He resides in Florida.
Henry Robert Schlesinger is an author and journalist who has covered intelligence technologies, counterterrorism, and law enforcement. His work has appeared in Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Technology Review, and Smithsonian magazine. He lives in New York City.
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