Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mission Accomplished: International Spy Museum - Tools of the Trade

CIA Issued Lock Pick Set
My morning at the International Spy Museum was going swimmingly.  My cover as Greta Schmidt was intact and the excitement was pulsing through me as I headed into the part of the museum dealing with Tricks of the Trade.  The picture of Maxwell Smart with his infamous shoe phone made me smile--I knew I was in for a good time!   This exhibit detailed not only what the items in the case were but which spy agencies had employed them.  Despite an admonition not to take pictures, I did click a few (with my embarrassingly clumsy camera--the contrast between it and the buttonhole cameras in the exhibit couldn't have been more striking) but my reflection in the pictures shows once again how far I have to go to become an expert spy.   I found the lock pick kit that the CIA had issued in the 1970s particularly fascinating since people in the movies and on TV are always pulling out their handy kits to break into their target's homes.  (At least this happens with great frequency in what I'm watching!)   I was a bit less thrilled to consider the CIA's rectal tool kit that was issued in the 1960s (ouch!)  There was a 1949 German-issued wristwatch camera, a 1978 KGB issued Bulgarian umbrella with a gun and a Stasi cigarette case with a secret camera.

There are many means by which spies can obtain information, including wire taps of all types.  I learned at the museum about the Berlin Tunnel, a joint operation in the 1950s between the CIA and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service.  The idea was to build a tunnel between East and West Germany that would provide access for the Allies to tap into Soviet underground phone cables.  Unfortunately, MI6 agent George Blake, one of the members of the British task force concerning the mission, was a mole working for the Russians and he immediately told the KGB about the plan.  Rather than let Blake's identity be burned, the KGB kept this information to itself and let construction of the Tunnel go forward.  The CIA and British Intelligence tapped into Soviet phone lines for two years before the KGB "inadvertently" found out about the existence of the Tunnel and caused it to be dismantled. 

Communication of the information that a spy obtains is obviously an important part of the game.  The museum has a section dedicated to codes and ciphers that was fascinating.  A code replaces words with substitute words or phrases wherein a cipher replaces letters with other letters or elements.  So for a spy to communicate that "The General is airborne" in code, you might hear "The crow is flying" while in a cipher it might be "zbys...."   Short wave radios (referred to as "pianos") were an important way to communicate information through code.  One of the world's most famous codes was developed by the Navajo Indian Code Talkers during WWII.   The idea to use Navajos as code talkers came from Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary who spoke fluent Navajo.  Realizing how impenetrable the Navajo language was, Johnston came up with the idea of using an encoded version of Navajo as a means of communicating crucial war time information.  In 1942, 29 Navajos were recruited by the Marines and developed a code book of words and phrases.  Their code was never cracked by the Japanese and the Navajo Code Talkers are given a large amount of credit for the capture of Iwo Jima by the Marines.  

Cipher Disk
While coded communications can be sent orally, information in cipher is sent in written form.   (Historically, carrier pigeons were used to deliver messages.  I learned at the museum that these pigeons were often called upon for double duty, carrying cameras as well to provide overhead surveillance of the ground they covered).  The methods of determining how to unlock these codes are varied and include use of a cipher disk.  Leon Batista Alberti is credited with constructing the first cipher disk, which consisted of two concentric circular plates mounted one on top of the other. The larger plate is called the "stationary" and the smaller one the "moveable" since the smaller one could move on top of the "stationary."   To interpret a simple cipher where one letter was substituted for another, the sender and the person receiving the messages would agree on a cipher key setting (e.g., the "G" in the regular alphabet would be positioned next to the "Q" in the cipher alphabet). The entire message would then be encoded according to this key and decoded accordingly.  One example of a cipher being broken with dire consequences for the sender can be found in Mary Queen of Scots.  Mary was jealous of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, and corresponded with Anthony Babington concerning a plot to assassinate her rival.  The correspondence was intercepted by Elizabeth's spies and cracked by Sir Francis Walsingham, her primary code breaker.  Both Mary and Babington were later found guilty of treason and hanged.

One last bit of spy craft deserves a word here--the role of the disguise.  The CIA (and, presumably, comparable agencies worldwide) has a Chief of Disguises in its employ.  Antonio Mendez was the Chief of Disguise in the 1970s and is credited with getting six American diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis by creating disguises for them as a Canadian film crew.  (As an aside, Mendez is married to Jonna Mendez, another former employee of the CIA in the disguise department.  I bet they're never at a loss for a Halloween costume!)   The museum explained the use of "spirit gum" to adhere components of a disguise such as a moustache or a bald pate.  This portion of the museum contained an interactive opportunity to identify a "spy" after donning her or her disguise.  Once again, my skills of observation were lacking--I was one for two, definitely not good enough for the world of espionage! 

Next stop:  Some tidbits about real life spies. 

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