This week is Gizmodo's salute to CIA spy technology. What's the occasion? The May 29th release of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda, by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton (with Henry R. Schlesinger). While we don't typically review books, this one happens to be the best we've ever seen on the subject of old-school spyware, a book the CIA itself held up for many many months before just barely deeming it safe for public consumption, a book that pretty much proves that all the freaky spy gadgetry you've seen in movies—and some that you haven't—is ALL TOTALLY REAL.
No offense to Steve Carell, but I'm not talking about goofy Maxwell Smart crap—I'm talking about serious Bond-grade hardware: Inflatable getaway airplanes, remote-controlled spying insects, cigarettes that fire .22 rounds, hallucinogenic cigars, about 100 other tobacco-related instruments of deception and an ingeniously camouflaged speedboat or two, not to mention digital audio recorders and CCD-based digicams developed decades before their commercial appearance. They've all been built by CIA engineers and used successfully, at least in the test phase.
The extensively researched book chronicles the gear and the people behind the gear, operatives still shrouded in pseudonym (or even anonym) who went around Moscow on cold winter days planting listening devices in hotel rooms or dead-dropping microfiche in the middle of public parks. It's about the nerds in the labs who were asked to make debris-free drills and didn't balk, guys who were asked to mount blow-up sex dolls as pop-up in-car decoys and didn't laugh. (OK, some probably laughed.) In short, it's an incredible page turner, mostly because none of it was dreamed up by Sir Ian Fleming or any of his thousand copycats.
The book is so good because it's written by two of the only guys who could write it. Bob Wallace was a CIA agent for 32 years and the director of the CIA's Office of Technical Services (that is, "office of covert badass spy gear") from 1998 to 2002. A guy who chose spy work over journalism after leaving the University of Kansas, he did his first 20 years the hard way, in field ops. He admits that many of his own early exploits can never be written down.
Keith Melton is an espionage historian, something of an international man of mystery if I ever met one, whose most authoritative claim on this project is that he has the largest collection of espionage devices the world has ever (not) seen. You know that Palm III that features heavily in the 2007 spy thriller Breach, about late Cold War Soviet turncoat Robert Hanssen? Yeah, Melton owns that Palm III—Hanssen's original, complete with stolen state secrets. I asked Melton how he got it, and he just said vaguely that he has his ways. "Let's leave it at that."
Too Many Secrets
I asked both of the authors how they were allowed to release a book filled with spy secrets, and they admitted it had not been easy. By Wallace's account, the CIA tied it up for 18 months. Melton says it's more like two years, and that at one point the CIA deemed the work "the most damaging book on espionage ever to be published," and "a virtual primer on espionage." As you can tell, the CIA eventually consented to the book's publication, more or less intact.
"At one time, all this material would have been classified secret or higher," Wallace says. "But given the change in technology that has occurred, the time that has passed and the fact that the primary target, the Soviet Union, no longer existed, these stories could be written down to fill a major void in American intelligence literature."
In truth, the reason it can be declassified is that espionage involves totally different kinds of machines now, mainly laptops and BlackBerrys, and instead of needing microphones and cameras, agents need software to "listen" to chatter in the ether.
CIA's Secret Gadget Rooms
I asked Wallace if there was a secret room at CIA headquarters where all the gadgets hung from the wall, his answer was even better: there are multiple rooms, one for each department: the guys who did disguises and forged documents had one, the guys who did secret listening devices had one. "It was like going on a Hollywood tour," he says, only as OTS director, he was the guy giving the tours, to visiting congressmen and other senior Washington staff.
"I don't know that I ever had a bad visit with a congressman. You would put things in their hands to touch and feel, to operate and manipulate, and then you'd tell them the operational story that went behind the object: what it was used for, and the product that came from it," says Wallace, adding wistfully, "It was a dream job."
End of Spy Gear?
Melton says that Wallace may be the last OTS director to give those tours, or to bring a briefcase of neat-o hardware to his closed congressional hearings. In the future, directors would be "more likely to come and show you a printout or algorithm, something that could do more than 1,000 spies." Melton explains, "The gadgets are the spies, while the humans are support, now more than ever." How's that for making you feel sad and Matrix-y all at the same time?
If the age of the crazy cool spy gear has come to an end, all the more reason we should celebrate it. For the next several days, I will be posting spy hardware from Wallace and Melton's book with a "CIA Spytech" tag, stuff that will make you laugh, cry or just hide under your dresser for a while. It's amazing, chilling stuff and again, it's ALL TOTALLY REAL. Stay tuned! [Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda]