Would you believe? Fictional spy stories have inspired real undercover gadgets
June 24, 2008 8:00 AM
Don Adams' shoe phone in "Get Smart" seemed outlandish, but fictional spy gadgets have often led to the real thing.
CIA agents in the 1970s sometimes used a gutted and freeze-dried rat to conceal devices for covert communications.
A lighter camera used by spies that had a 4-millimeter diameter lens. The camera was mostly used for photographing private documents.
By Kathy SaeNgian Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Aleksandr Ogorodnik lived a double life. He was a member of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a secret informant for the Central Intelligence Agency. His code name was TRIGON, and his mission was to give the U.S. government insight about the KGB in 1973.
Then things went terribly wrong, and TRIGON was caught. KGB officers raided his residence in Moscow, but before they could get him to confess, he swallowed a lethal pill that was hidden in his fountain pen. He died within seconds.
The infamous lethal pill is also a prop in "Get Smart," the cinematic remake of the 1965 sitcom that opened in theaters Friday. In the movie, Agent 86 (Steve Carell) is equipped with various spy gadgets for his mission against the crime organization KAOS. In his belt buckle is a lethal pill that he is required to ingest if interrogated.
Although TRIGON was a real CIA spy and Agent 86 is fictitious, Hollywood's early depiction of spy gadgets is not far from reality.
"It is reasonable to say that many of the devices that were initially portrayed in fictional series and movies inspired [the CIA's] Office of Technical Service officers to see if these devices were possible," said Robert Wallace, 63, a former director of that CIA department.
He and H. Keith Melton co-authored "Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda" (Dutton, $29.95). The book inventories gadgets that Mr. Melton, a technical tradecraft historian at the Interagency Training Center, collected over the past 20 years and describes their function in real CIA missions.
"Keith has the largest private collection of spy gadgets of anyone in the world," Mr. Wallace said.
Among Mr. Melton's collection is the T-50 lighter camera, which was used in TRIGON's mission in the Soviet Union. The camera had a 4-millimeter-diameter lens that was made with glass elements the size of a pinhead. The T-50 was designed specifically for photographing documents, and it could hold up to 50 exposures. It was designed to be integrated in an array of items such as pens, watches, cigarette lighters, tie pins or key fobs.
Another spy fantasy that became true is the use of concealment devices for covert communications. Listening devices were placed in anything from a gutted and freeze-dried rat to a rock on the ground, according to the book.
In 1998, the Office of Technical Service combined the use of concealed audio with tracking devices to find suspected al-Qaida members. A prime target was an al-Qaida forger who specialized in altering travel documents. He was married to a woman living in the Balkans who claimed to have no knowledge of her husband's whereabouts.
To try to locate the terrorist, a technical team sent a package to the wife. It contained a wooden wall plaque with several thousand dollars hidden in it. On the plaque was a note by an Arabic linguist: "Brother, we are with you. Hopefully this will get you by until we're able to contact you again." A tracking device also was hidden in the plaque.
The package was sent to the wife from a location in Europe where there was a known terrorist cell so it would not cause suspicion. After the tracking device identified the man's location, agents raided his house. They eventually found the terrorist hiding in a hole in a wall behind a washing machine. Although the audio and tracking device proved to be successful, several agents died in the surprise attack.
Mr. Wallace and Mr. Melton met during the 50th anniversary of the CIA in 1997, where they decided to collaborate on a book about the technological intelligence behind the CIA.
Mr. Wallace moved to Pittsburgh in 1978 and worked for the local CIA office for three years. He never caught a Russian spy in Pittsburgh but spent most of his time doing intelligence research. He retired after 32 years in the CIA and lives in Reston, Va., where he founded Artemus Consulting Group, a private national security firm that contributes to the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence. By writing the book, the two authors wanted to honor the spy gadgets that aided the CIA through the Cold War and the agents that used them without being too technical.
"There was great creativity, remarkable innovation and unprecedented accomplishment in creating these devices," Mr. Wallace said. "We just want to inform and educate the American public about the remarkable legacy that these engineers and tech folks left at the CIA."