“Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs From Communism to Al-Qaeda” (Dutton, 549 pages, $29.95), by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, Henry R. Schlesinger: International spying could be called a cat-and-mouse game — a frightened rodent scurrying to outwit a powerful feline. The folks at the Central Intelligence Agency have worked hard with actual dead rats and a live cat, using them in highly specialized CIA ways.
“Spycraft,” subtitled “The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs From Communism to Al-Qaeda,” describes many of those ways, some for the first time.
A foreword by George I. Tenet, who headed the agency from 1997 to 2004, complains that the human drama often obscures the important work of the techies.
“Regrettably, there have been instances where secrecy was invoked to deny knowledge of information that has long since lost sensitivity but is vital for public understanding and consideration,” he writes.
“‘Spycraft’ is a history of the CIA’s fusion of technical innovation with classic tradecraft, and, equally, a call to young men and women with similar talents to enlist in the battle against America’s new enemies.”
The authors are Robert Wallace, former director of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, historian H. Keith Melton, and Henry R. Schlesinger, contributing editor of Popular Science magazine.
An Asian head of state 40 years ago used to let cats wander freely through strategic meetings. So, to listen in, CIA techs created “Acoustic kitty.” They anesthetized a full grown gray and white female, put a mike in her ear canal, an antenna wire along her spine and wove a transmitter with power supply into her chest fur. Her equipment worked, but her American handler couldn’t control her movements well in a foreign country. The idea was dropped.
Rats — they had to be dead — were considered good for secret messages; outsiders were unlikely to pick them up.
“Some were freeze-dried and vacuum-packed in tin cans,” the book says. “Material intended for the agent was wrapped in aluminum foil and inserted inside the created cavity, and the animal stitched back together. ... Before the carcass was deployed, it might be doused in Tabasco sauce as a deterrent to hungry cats roaming the streets.”
The authors tell of personal drama, too. One episode goes back to the defeat in 2001 of Taliban forces in Afghanistan where they protected Osama bin Laden — forces now staging a dangerous resurgence.
A six-man CIA bomb disposal team arrived in Kandahar from Washington with 5,000 pounds of equipment and a duffel bag containing $1 million in cash. They were lodged in the governor’s palace, days after the allies had driven out Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden’s protector. Four hours after their arrival, team leader “Mark” got word from a local informant that the earthen roof of the palace was booby trapped.
It was the last day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Celebrations in the palace were to start at sundown, another four hours away. Counterterrorism officer “Frank,” one of the team, climbed to the roof, despite danger from snipers and the booby trap itself. He used thermal-imaging equipment to find where four holes had been dug in the earth covering the roof, with a narrow trench connecting them.
But the new Afghan commander of the palace declined to halt preparation for the festivities.
“Mark” then climbed to the roof for deeper exploration. He found detonators, ammunition and a wire connecting them just under the earthen surface. The wire led out of the palace.
“Mark left the roof just as the sun was setting,” the book says. “The end of Ramadan was announced. ... He could not suppress a smile at the thought that somewhere among the city’s celebrants was a terrorist, his finger repeatedly pushing a button in vain, wondering why in the name of Allah his best efforts had come to naught.”
An Afghan de-mining team later removed over 2,200 pounds of explosives, including 55 tank rounds and more than 100 anti-tank mines.