11 Amazing Facts About CIA Operations in the Soviet Union

getty images
getty images

By definition, a spy’s job is to go to another country and break the law. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to break the law and not get caught. This was especially difficult in the Soviet Union, where the KGB kept close surveillance on American spies and State Department officials. In his engrossing new book, The Billion Dollar Spy, David E. Hoffman takes readers into the CIA’s Moscow station during the Cold War, telling the astonishing story of how spies recruited agents, and what happened when things went wrong. Here are 11 things Hoffman reveals about the CIA in Moscow. 

1. CIA wives were used as spies. 

In the earliest days of the Moscow station, almost all of the CIA’s case officers were male. To pull off operations convincingly, it sometimes meant an officer including his wife in the plan, if not recruiting his wife to do the job outright. If the officer needed someone to meet with an agent without arousing suspicion, he might send his wife to make contact. If the officer had to disappear and needed someone to cover his or her tracks, that, too, might fall to a spouse. 

2. Being watched? Release the Jack in the Box.

Hoffman describes a particularly difficult mission in which a CIA spy needed to meet with an agent in person. (In parlance, an agent is to the CIA what an informant is to the FBI.) To elude KGB surveillance, this involved creating a “gap”—a space in time during which the spy was out of visual contact—and springing a “Jack in the Box” to trick his watchers into believing he was still present. To set up the job, CIA officers used phones they knew to be tapped, and organized a fake birthday party for a friend in Moscow. They brought along a fake birthday cake. The KGB tailed the car to the party. When the cars were near the rendezvous point with the foreign agent, the CIA driver turned a sharp corner, creating a gap of a few seconds. At that moment, one of the officers jumped from the car and disappeared. Meanwhile, the CIA officer’s wife set the birthday cake on her husband’s seat. She pulled a handle, and a silhouette popped up from the cake where her husband had previously been sitting. When the KGB reestablished visual contact with the car, it appeared that everyone was still inside, and that nothing was amiss. 

3. Foreign surveillance can be lulled into complacency ... 

While serving in the Prague station, one CIA officer started an experiment. Everywhere he went, a member of the Czech secret police followed him. He resolved then to become incredibly boring and predictable. He drove slowly. He never deviated from his normal route, nor his normal routine. He drove the babysitter home each evening and got a haircut on the same day, at the same time each week. After six months, he discovered that for his haircut and babysitter drives, his watchers would no longer follow, so long as he reappeared at the same time as usual. The secret police had grown lazy. This created a gap, which he knew at once he could exploit for meeting with agents.

4. ... or they can be quite good. 

In the late 1970s, inspectors discovered a mysterious antenna in the U.S. embassy’s chimney. Inspectors also scrutinized embassy typewriters, but determined that nothing was amiss. They were wrong. In fact, tiny listening devices had been embedded in the typewriters, transmitting audio and keystrokes. The KGB surveillance remained undetected for eight years. 

5. Tradecraft was perfected in Berlin. 

When the Berlin Wall went, up, the CIA had to go back to the drawing board. Previously, when officers needed to meet with agents, they rendezvoused in West Berlin where they weren’t easily watched. Post-wall, however, the CIA needed to figure out how to handle agents remotely. “Dead drops” were used (in which agent and officer communicated at a predetermined location, with one leaving behind a message and the other collecting it and moving on, the two never meeting), but it became necessary to develop more daring methods of tradecraft. As a result, Berlin became a laboratory of sorts for CIA officers. What they perfected there could then be taken to Moscow and elsewhere. 

6. CIA used sleight of hand first developed by magicians. 

One sophisticated method of tradecraft perfected in Berlin was the “brush pass.” A gap was created, and during those seconds, the agent would appear, slip information to his or her CIA handler, and disappear, without ever being spotted by the KGB. The CIA learned another form of the brush pass from a professional magician. When coming in from the rain, the CIA spy would remove his or her raincoat. He or she would shake it out in a flourish with the left hand while in a single motion passing on the information with the right. 

7. The KGB could spy to the point of comedy. 

As recounted by The Billion Dollar Spy, one CIA officer new to the Soviet station was amused to sometimes reach for his coat only to find it had vanished. (Later, it would mysteriously return, now likely bugged by the KGB.) His apartment was bugged and his lines were tapped. Once, he used an unsecure line to set up dinner at a restaurant with friends. While driving to the restaurant, he figured out that the cars behind him and in front of him were KGB surveillance. At some point in the drive, he and his wife got lost, so they decided to just follow the KGB to see what would happen. The KGB took him straight to the restaurant. 

8. Cyanide capsules were real, and were used. 

More than once, Soviet agents recruited by the CIA made a specific request: a suicide pill. In the event of capture, rather than face interrogation, public hearings, and execution, agents wanted a pill that would immediately kill them. The CIA hated the L-Pill, as it was called, because of the psychological burden it placed on the carrier. The pill was hard to hide and leant itself to premature use. Not every capture is suicide worthy, but how would the detainee know? After much internal debate, the CIA would sometimes provide the pill, hidden in pens. The pill was sometimes used by agents. 

9. Washington watched the Moscow station as closely as the KGB. 

In the mid-1970s, Congressional oversight of the CIA increased, and headquarters scrutiny of CIA stations increased as well. This was especially so in Moscow, where a possible leak had been discovered. As a result, years elapsed during which the Moscow station was essentially shut down. When activities resumed, the station and case officers were tightly managed from Washington, D.C. Good leads were sometimes turned away for fear of being a Soviet plot. As Hoffman wrote, “Running a spy was undertaken with the concentration and attention to detail of a moon shot.”

10. The intelligence collected from Moscow might have saved us from nuclear annihilation. 

Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the GRU (the Soviet military intelligence division) offered his services to the United States as an agent. Penkovsky wanted to inflict damage on the Soviet Union after the KGB wrongly undermined his career. As a clandestine agent, Penkovsky gave the CIA hundreds of rolls of film and produced veritable libraries of information. According to Hoffman, intelligence Penkovsky provided on the R-12 medium range missile ”was a key ingredient in decision making as President Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.” 

11. Soviet volunteers had common traits. 

The Soviets would sometimes send “dangles” to the CIA—false informants with bad intelligence. For years, CIA counterintelligence officers feared dangles to the point of crippling the Moscow station. CIA officers conducted a comprehensive study, and realized that many Soviets turned away for fear of being dangles were, in fact, legitimate. There were patterns to would-be volunteers. The KGB never sent their own officers. They simply didn’t trust their people to be alone with CIA case officers. Also, they never used people who were strangers to the CIA officer in question. The guy you bumped into at a party once, who now wants to give you information? There’s a good chance that he’s working in the service of the KGB. The guy you’ve never seen before? He’s likely not a threat.

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Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Netflix Viewers Are Petitioning the Streaming Giant to Stop Cutting Off the End Credits

"Wait! There might be a post-credits scene."
"Wait! There might be a post-credits scene."
JESHOOTS.com, Pexels

To help us decide what to watch next as easily as possible, Netflix always serves up a few suggestions immediately after we’ve finished a program. For many viewers, it’s a little too immediate: The credits shrink to a small window, and Netflix’s recommendations take center stage.

Composer Daniel Pemberton, whose most recent scores include Netflix original films Enola Holmes (2020) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), likened it to a rushed meal at a restaurant. “The second that final spoonful goes in your mouth the waiter runs over, noisily clears the plates away and shoves a new menu under your nose, while insisting that you order the set menu immediately,” he wrote for The Guardian.

While people do often walk away or switch to another program as soon as the credits roll, plenty of others consider them an important part of the viewing experience. The music alone justifies sitting tight for a little while longer, and the credits provide the perfect opportunity to contemplate whatever you’ve just seen. They also pay homage to the hundreds of people who brought the project to life. And, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe always reminds us, not all movies actually end when the credits start to roll.

Netflix doesn’t outright prevent viewers from watching the credits. If you click on the minimized box, the credits will spring back to full screen and remain there until the very end. But if you take too long fumbling for the remote, you might miss your chance—Netflix’s autoplay feature often begins the next preview in mere seconds, in which case you’d have to go back to your home screen and restart the previous program to see the credits.

A video producer named Mark Boszko got so fed up with the arrangement that he launched a petition on Change.org. He’s not asking Netflix to get rid of its end-of-program advertisements across the board; rather, he just wants the platform to let viewers choose to have the full credits play as their default setting.

Boszko’s petition is evidence that he’s far from the only person who cares about the cause. So far, more than 10,500 people have signed it—you can do so here.

[h/t The Guardian]