What did you say? Spycraft Betters the World?

Jack Patterson's picture
spy craft

As I’ve been delving into more researching in preparation for writing the upcoming Cold War spy thriller series that will release this fall, the ingenuity of gathering information has intrigued me like nothing else. In popular culture,  James Bond always sported the coolest of gadgets, though some of them were purely fictional and unconventional. But in reality, spy tools made for a better world—and I’m not talking about the intelligence gathered.

In Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton’s book, “Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda,” they share several fascinating anecdotes from the Office of Technical Services (OTS) regarding general improvements in everyday products berthed out of a desire to make a spy tool more secret. From message decoders to listening devices, the OTS stopped at nothing to make their devices as high of quality as possible without sacrificing detectability.

One of my favorite stories in the book was about a project that failed in the espionage sense but led to an innovation in hearing aids. As CIA operatives were spying on Soviet diplomats working out of an embassy in a Central American capital city and noticed how two high-ranking Soviet officials often met and discussed certain issues in a courtyard on a bench underneath a tree. CIA officials wanted to hear what was being discussed in these conversations, things that were apparently too risky to talk about within the confines of their offices. So the OTS set out to create a “bullet bug”.

The thought behind the bullet bug was to shoot a bullet far enough into the tree so that it wouldn’t be noticed but not so far that the antennae couldn’t pick up the conversation. Due to battery life limitations, the bullet bug had to be shot when the men were there and not left for days upon end to monitor.

However, several problems arose. The size and durability of the listening device being one of them as well as object from which to launch the bug. OTS scientists approached a hearing aid manufacturer to see if they would be willing to help. Ultimately, the hearing aid company developed a smaller and more durable device, which they were later able to patent and use in the manufacturing of their own aids.

Unfortunately, the creative idea never came to fruition because of issues with the delivery method. The only gun OTS determined could shoot the bug was a musket (but only after technological innovations in the bullet itself led to more precise targeting), which was far too loud for the city. They later proposed that they could create a motorcycle backfiring at the same time that would mask the sound. But in the end, the idea went onto the scrap heap, though not before a breakthrough in hearing aid technology was made.

It’s these types of stories that fascinate me while reading about the world of espionage—and they’re the kind of subplots and secondary stories that I plan to work into the writing of this Cold War spy series.