• Supplies for spooks

    A solar-powered radiomonitoring device, disguised as a stump, that was planted outside a Soviet military base in the 1970s.
    Date:30 June 2008

    A retired CIA technician comes in from the cold to reveal how the agency designes gadgets that spies depend on.

    According to Robert Wallace, real-life spy gear isn’t anything like the showy devices we see in the movies. “The equipment is developed for clandestine use, for use that isn’t flashy, that isn’t noticed,” he says. He should know: during his 32 years at the CIA, some of them spent working undercover, Wallace served for seven as director of the Office of Technical Services (OTS), where spy gadgets are created.

    In his new book, , Wallace and co-authors H Keith Melton and Henry R Schlesinger trace the history of US spy gizmos. “The most common object can be turned into a piece of spy gear,” Wallace says. “I look at a pen and say, ‘Well, there can be a camera in there, a listening device or tablets to make secret ink. There can be a suicide pill in there – who knows?’.

    How has the CIA’s demand for spy technology changed?
    If you go back to a period in the 1950s, when the CIA was just getting started, technology was referred to as an aid. Fast-forward 60 years, and technology and human operations are so closely intertwined, you can’t speak about one without mentioning the other. You have to recruit technology just like you have to recruit agents.

    Where do spy gadgets get built?
    OTS has worked with the largest companies in the US to build special equipment, and OTS has worked with one-man shops to design a particular piece of gear. National laboratories are a resource, and the engineering departments in universities are wonderful for concepts and ideas. OTS also has craftsmen in addition to its electronic and mechanical engineers. We have plastics people, we have folks who work in fabrics, woodworkers, bookbinders – all of those kinds of professions.

    How do spies order their gear?
    Technical officers work side by side with case officers all around the world, and they see the needs at first hand. We frequently received calls from folks after they had been on an international trip and read about high-tech gadgets on the airplane. You know, put this on your phone, and you can tell if the person on the other end is lying. Well, we would get people saying, ‘Can you guys do that? We could use one of those’.”

    Who spies on us?
    The average person probably encounters more spying than they realise. Parents love spying on their kids and the babysitter by setting up a hidden camera. It’s all spying, right?

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