Saturday, November 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's SpyTechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda

Wallace, Robert (Author) and Melton, H. Keith (Author)
with Schlesinger, Henry R. (Author)
Foreword by George J. Tenet Former Director CIA

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / 06 Nov 2010, under the title: I Spy With My Little Eye

Some in the intelligence business have been dismayed to find that they have been using gadgets relegated to spy museums long ago. As agencies operating under the espionage banner usher in a new era of covert warfare, asking the public to admire their enterprising nature may not be wise. Getting the agencies to set aside their secrecy clause long enough to admit to their past may not be possible.

The ‘top gun of OTS’ CIA’s Office of Technical Service have been engaged in a battle of wits for half a century and their stories are worthy of attention. An insider’s look at the world of espionage especially OTS or ‘America’s Q’ and its fearsome capabilities besides being a cause for concern for rival agencies is a chance to observe ‘history in the making’ through the eyes of bit players deployed on the technological frontlines.

Ripple effects of an American intelligence failure can be felt all over the globe - ditto for intelligence manipulation. OSS (Office of Strategic Studies) even when it was lightly dismissed as the ‘bastion of aristocrats and bankers’ during WWII had its fingers in several covert pies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia; its successor has been cast in a more sinister light.

Stanley Lovell(credited with playing the role of the dreaded Professor Moriarty of the OSS) who also wrote about technical aspect of intelligence in another book ‘Spies & Stratagems’ and initially considered the idea of subversion to be un-American, would go on to oversee the creation of a clandestine arsenal for use by ‘soldiers of underground resistance movements, spies and saboteurs’.

Now Robert Wallace, a former director of OTS gives away what were once valuable trade secrets and are still deemed classified by CIA given that all but three chapters of his (originally approved) manuscript ended up on the cutting room floor so to speak. While the fast evolving capabilities may have rendered technology that was considered revolutionary for its time obsolete, spooks, being spooks are reluctant to part with expired blueprints.

Wallace, a career intelligence officer finally managed to get the document past censors (making voluntary changes) all the while insisting that this is a non inflammatory history lesson. He claims to have lifted the cloak of secrecy surrounding the CIA and its operations without demonizing the agency or the President or leaking classified information for that matter. CIA can agree to disagree here.

Devices with built in spy capability are ubiquitous now so T-100 mini camera / pen series or BUSTER the infant texting device are no longer the star attraction; but the ingenuity (and cunning) that went into perfecting tradecraft, and the bold initiatives launched under technological constraints are. This is a detailed guide to Uncle Sam’s intelligence strike force launched against communism with a few tantalizing glimpses into their efforts in the ongoing anti terror campaign against the Al-Qaeda.

The remarkable story of OTS - ‘the organization that did not just make magic, it made magic on demand’ has its share of ‘Mission Impossible’ moments with more than a few ‘Get Smart’ situations thrown in. Deciding to recruit feral cats by bugging them to spy on an Asian head of state in the mid 1960’s appears to have the stamp of Maxwell Smart (from the classic spy comedy) yet the ‘Acoustic Kitty Project’ was an all too real albeit failed experiment. But the value of intelligence provided from behind the Iron Curtain by a senior Soviet military intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Oleg Penkovsky, (featured in a book ‘the Spy who Saved the World’) that supposedly ‘led to American denying Soviets a foothold in Western hemisphere’ cannot be questioned. Nor can the Soviet’s ability to repay the favour.

It gives readers a fair idea of the Soviet paranoia, the risks CIA agents ran operating right under the ever vigilant KGB’s inquisitive nose and the challenges techs (technicians) encountered bringing in a silent technological revolution as they struggled to match (and eventually overtake) the brilliance of their counterparts. Whether it is applying the dramatic Skyhook technology recently featured in Dark Knight – the movie, equipping a helicopter with night vision capability and quiet mode or using a jack in the box head to ditch surveillance and applying covcom(covert communication) to establish links with U.S. POW prisoner of wars in North Vietnam.

The book delves into the Q’s inner sanctum sharing operational details and imagery leading readers to fully appreciate the arcane world of ‘shadow warriors’, the transformative effect of emerging technology and the role (good) intelligence plays in gaining that decisive edge over adversaries. ‘Spycraft’ takes place in a universe where the nerdy Q saves the day with a dash of bravado, a pinch of guile and a smidgen of savvy.

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