Q is exasperated. “Pay attention, 007,” he says, while Ian Fleming’s iconic British spy James Bond fiddles with the master designer’s gadgetry. For the generations who have delighted in these and other spy thriller movies, the clandestine devices seem the stuff of science fiction. They are not. The evolution of spy gadgetry has brought espionage to a level that Q could not have imagined. The goals of spy craft, however, have remained unchanged for centuries—gather information, transmit it to your handlers, and disrupt the other side’s operations.
One of the earliest recorded spy devices was the skytale (rhymes with Italy). An encryption device, the skytale was a rod wrapped with a long narrow strip of leather or papyrus. The sender wrote his message lengthwise across the wrapper. When unwrapped from the rod, the message was unreadable to anyone who did not have a rod of the same diameter. A messenger carried the encoded strip, perhaps wearing it as a belt, to his destination.
Spies were at work on both sides of the American Revolution. Dr. Edward Bancroft was the personal secretary for Benjamin Franklin at his post as ambassador to France. Unbeknownst to Franklin (although some think Franklin knew and fed him misinformation), Bancroft was a British spy who concealed his intelligence information by writing in invisible ink between the lines of other correspondence. The messages he wrote were placed in bottles and deposited in a dead drop—a hole under a specified tree—for a confederate to pick up.
George Washington had his spy ring, too. Called the Culper Ring after two members who were code-named Culper Sr. and Culper Jr., the spies gathered information about British troops occupying New York City and transmitted it to Washington, who was in upstate New York at the time. The process involved multiple carriers, at least one dead drop in a cow pasture, and a lady who hung laundry on a clothesline to signal that it was safe to deliver the information.
How to encode and deliver clandestine information has been at the heart of the spy business for centuries. The first cipher machine was the brainchild of Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century. As encryption machines have become more complex over the intervening centuries, alternative means of encoding messages have been developed. One very simple device, the “One Time Pad,” has been in use since World War II. Letters in a message are assigned numerical values and are modified with random numbers from a page of the One Time Pad. Both the sender and the receiver know the random numbers. Since a page is destroyed after it is used only once, the code is unbreakable.
The concept of a dead drop is virtually unchanged from long ago, but dead drops have become more creative to thwart increasingly sophisticated surveillance. One CIA dead drop was a hollow brick in which to hide messages, a camera, or film. So exacting was the agency that the hollowed space was offset with weights to give the brick the right “feel” should an unsuspecting worker pick it up. A dead drop used by Col. Oleg Penkovsky in 1962 was a matchbox hung by a wire behind a radiator in the hallway of a Moscow apartment building. The CIA agent who attempted the pickup was arrested and expelled from the country; Penkovsky, after years of providing secrets to the CIA, was arrested, tried, and executed. An alternative dead drop, used to contact Russian spy Adolf Tolkachev in 1977, was a worn, dirty mitten stuffed with espionage supplies and dropped with precise carelessness at a prearranged location.
A very effective dead drop device was a hollow spike that could be filled with goodies, stomped into the ground, and covered with dirt, hiding it from all but those who knew where to look. That was not a problem with the vermin: Operatives once gutted a dead rat and freeze-dried it to prevent decomposition. The cavity, which was sealed with Velcro, was an ideal hiding place for anything that a handler wished to pass on. During the Vietnam War era thermos bottles were used to conceal documents. Switching the inner glass bottle from a smaller thermos into a larger one created a sizable space for carrying papers. By using water-soluble paper, evidence could be destroyed if necessary by dropping and breaking the thermos.
No period in our nation’s history witnessed the development of more spy gadgets than the years of World War II. When Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan tapped Dr. Stanley Lovell to be the director of research and development of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA—he turned loose a creative genius. Lovell’s organization produced an assortment of practical, bizarre, and improbable devices for Americans and resistance fighters to use in the European and Pacific theaters. One of the first was a silent, no-flash pistol. Donovan demonstrated the weapon to Franklin D. Roosevelt by firing 10 rounds into a sandbag in the president’s presence without FDR’s knowledge.
Golden age of gadgets
Other innovations followed. “Aunt Jemima” was a powdered explosive that resembled wheat flour. In fact, it could be molded into a loaf and baked to look like bread and still retain its explosive capabilities. The “Firefly” was a small incendiary that was dropped into the gas tank of a vehicle. A timing device insured that the car, truck, or tank was well down the road before the gas tank exploded. Some explosives were made to look like lumps of coal; resistance fighters tossed them into the fuel supplies for locomotives. Later, when they were shoveled into the fire boxes, the resulting explosion disabled the locomotives.
A device worthy of James Bond was the “Stinger,” a pistol disguised as a cigarette. Properly handled, the cigarette fired one .22 caliber bullet. Since there was a recoil, the person firing had to be careful not to hold the cigarette directly in front of him. One of the simplest gadgets developed by the OSS was a small, four-pointed spike called the “Caltrop” that would blow out the tire of any vehicle that drove over it. So effective was the device that the Germans automatically considered a person possessing one to be a spy who was summarily executed.
There were counterfeit documents and currency, cameras disguised as matchboxes, buttons that could be unscrewed to reveal a compass, maps hidden in playing cards, and more. Sometimes the Germans discovered them. When the Germans found the hidden button compasses, the OSS reversed the threads. The Germans never discovered that the buttons were then opened with a clockwise twist.
Some ideas did not work. “Beano” was a round hand gren-ade. Because Americans were more used to throwing a baseball than the pineapple-shaped gren-ade, the OSS developed a baseball-sized grenade that was activated in flight. Beano was discarded after a civilian engineer tossed one in the air and caught it, blowing himself up. Another idea that failed was the Bat Project. Hundreds of bats were collected from Carlsbad Caverns and strapped with tiny bombs. The idea was that when they were turned loose over an enemy installation, they would seek shelter and set off hundreds of small explosions. Happily for the bats, the idea was abandoned.
Cold War innovations
One of the most innovative and, perhaps, damaging bugs was the one planted within the replica of the Great Seal of the United States in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Presented as a friendship gift by the Young Pioneers in 1945, the seal hung on the wall behind the ambassador’s desk until 1952 when the bug was discovered. Unlike most bugs which require a battery-powered transmitter that must be replaced periodically, this one needed no power. The bug was simply a diaphragm covering a small cavity hidden in the nostril of the eagle. When a radio signal from across the street was directed at the seal, it was reflected back to a receiver. The sound of voices in the ambassador’s office could be extracted from the reflected signal. Four ambassadors served during the time that the bug was operational.
In the post-war years miniaturization and other technological advances have led to new and more creative spying devices. One such gadget, the “Insectothopter,” was built in the 1970s. This CIA bug was just that—an aerial device that was designed to look like a dragonfly. Capable of flying, the bug had video and audio capabilities.
Cameras have figured prominently in modern-era espionage. The OSS cameras could fit in a matchbox. By the 1970s an even smaller camera, the “T-100” was so small (1½ inches by ³⁄8 inch) that it could be hidden in a pen. In spite of its diminutive dimensions, it could take 100 exposures and capture enough detail to be used to photograph documents. The camera was so intricate, however, that initially only one man was capable of assembling it. Knowing that a sole source
for such a powerful tool was not a good idea, the CIA took the specifications to others to build the camera. The experts they consulted, however, told them that the camera would not work.
One problem that agents and spies have encountered was how to account for a missing person when one had to leap quickly from a car. A KGB tail would certainly notice one less occupant. The CIA’s first attempt at a solution was to use inflatable dolls from an adult novelty store. While they provided the proper silhouette when inflated, they could neither be inflated nor deflated quickly enough, often blowing up at the seams. A more mundane solution was the “Jack-in-a-Box,” a popup two-dimensional silhouette that could be carried in an attaché case and was adequate for use at night. Ironically, Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA agent who was selling secrets to the Soviets, used a makeshift Jack-in-a-Box to evade pursuers and escaped to Moscow in 1983.
Some spying devices have had a decidedly macabre aura. Consider the Acoustic Kitty. The CIA experimented in 1967 by surgically implanting a microphone, transmitter, and a control device into a live cat. The cat was let out of a van to eavesdrop on a conversation between two men sitting on a nearby park bench. Before any results could be determined, however, the creature was run over by a taxi. The experiment was abandoned. A CIA memo released under the Freedom of Information Act concluded, “Our final examination of trained cats [deleted] for [deleted] use in the [deleted] convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.”
The Internet has changed the espionage business in ways that could not have been imagined just a couple of decades ago. It is now easy to encode and transmit information. Spies and terrorists can communicate with ease, but the old ways die hard. According to Peter Earnest, 35-year veteran with the CIA and executive director of the International Spy Museum, “Even with the Internet the old methods are still in use. Some of the most high-profile cases in recent years were using dead drops and chalk marks. Robert Hannsen who was spying for the KGB wanted to use an upgraded PDA, but the Russians were concerned about interception and insisted on dead drops.”
There will always be a place for spy gadgets. And the Internet has opened the world of spy craft to us all through websites selling gadgets that were once the domain of the professional.
Tom and Gena Metcalf wrote about the legendary pirate Blackbeard in the November/December 2005 issue of the magazine.
International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C.
The only museum in the world that gives a global perspective on the espionage field. Visitors can explore the history of spying from ancient times to the present with interactive exhibits that feature individual spies. In addition to the permanent exhibits, there are special programs and lectures throughout the year. The website—spymuseum.org—provides information on the museum and its programs.
CIA Museum, Langley, Va.
An extensive collection of spy gadgetry but, located within the agency’s headquarters, it is closed to the public. However, the CIA maintains a virtual museum where curious web-surfers can see a selection of their exhibits and learn about the OSS and the history of the CIA. Visit the museum at cia.gov/about-cia/cia-museum/index.html.
National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Md.
Operated by the National Security Agency and open to the public. Because cryptography is the primary emphasis of the museum, exhibits focus on ciphers, code books, and related spying devices. The museum’s website, nsa.gov/museum, features some of the exhibits and provides visitor information.—TM