11 Amazing Facts About CIA Operations in the Soviet Union

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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.

war

HBO Is Offering Nearly 500 Hours of Free Content, From The Sopranos to Succession

Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun talk business and omelettes in Succession.
Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun talk business and omelettes in Succession.
Peter Kramer/HBO

If shelter-in-place orders have you burning through your streaming service selections, HBO might be able to help. The premium network has just announced nearly 500 hours of content will be made available for free beginning Friday, April 3. In a press release, the channel said that content would be unlocked via HBO NOW and HBO GO without a subscription. Viewers can expect a mix of HBO’s original series as well as documentaries and catalog movie titles. For original series, viewers can select these nine shows:

  1. Ballers
  2. Barry
  3. Silicon Valley
  4. Six Feet Under
  5. The Sopranos
  6. Succession
  7. True Blood
  8. Veep
  9. The Wire

Documentary and Docuseries titles include:

  1. The Apollo
  2. The Case Against Adnan Syed
  3. Elvis Presley: The Searcher
  4. I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
  5. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
  6. Jane Fonda in Five Acts
  7. McMillion$
  8. True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality
  9. United Skates
  10. We Are the Dream: The Kids of the MLK Oakland Oratorical Fest

Movies are from the Warner Bros. library and, unlike The Sopranos, are mostly family-friendly. They include:

  1. Arthur
  2. Arthur 2: On the Rocks
  3. Blinded By the Light
  4. The Bridges of Madison County
  5. Crazy, Stupid, Love
  6. Empire of the Sun
  7. Forget Paris
  8. Happy Feet Two
  9. Isn't It Romantic?
  10. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
  11. Midnight Special
  12. My Dog Skip
  13. Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase
  14. Pan
  15. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
  16. Red Riding Hood
  17. Smallfoot
  18. Storks
  19. Sucker Punch
  20. Unknown Title To Be Announced

The shows can be viewed directly without a sign-in on the HBO GO and HBO NOW websites or via their apps. (The services are nearly identical, but HBO GO is typically included with a cable subscription; HBO NOW is a standalone streaming service.) If you’d like to sample the full range of HBO series like Game of Thrones, The Outsider, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, the channel is offering a seven-day free trial.

According to the press release, the programming will be available to watch without subscribing through the end of April.

Which Fictional Character Are You? This Online Quiz Might Give You an Eerily Accurate Answer

Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister is the unofficial king of witty side comments. Are you, too?
Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister is the unofficial king of witty side comments. Are you, too?
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

While watching a TV show or movie, you might find yourself trying to draw parallels between you and a certain character you’d want to be. If you’re like many viewers, it’s probably one of the heroic ones—the handsome private investigator with a tortured past and an unerring moral compass or the fearless queen who builds her kingdom from nothing and defends it to the death, etc.

But which character would you actually be? Openpsychometrics.org, a site that develops personality tests, has a new online quiz that might give you an uncannily accurate answer. You’ll be confronted with a series of 28 questions that ask you to pinpoint where you fall between two traits on a percentage-based spectrum. For example, if you’re more playful than serious, slide the bar toward the word playful until you’ve reached your desired ratio. The ratio could be anything from 51 percent playful and 49 percent serious, to a full 100 percent playful and not a single iota of seriousness at all. Other spectrums include artistic versus scientific, dominant versus submissive, spiritual versus skeptical, and more.

Once you’ve completed the quiz, you’ll find out which fictional character your personality most closely matches from a database of around 500 television and film characters. To pinpoint the personalities of the characters themselves, the quiz creators asked survey participants to rate them on a series of traits, and those collective results are then compared to your own self-ratings.

If you scroll down below your top result, you’ll see an option to show your full match list, which will give you a much more comprehensive picture of what kind of character you’d be. My top two results—which, ironically, were the same as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy’s—were The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg and Joey Lucas, suggesting that we both have a no-nonsense attitude, a perfectionist streak, and an apparent aptitude for national politics that (at least in our cases) will likely go unfulfilled.

The fictional twin of managing editor Jenn Wood, on the other hand, is Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister, unofficial king of witty side comments and all-around fan favorite. This was not surprising. As runner-up, Jenn got her personal hero, Elizabeth Bennet, which, in her words “makes me feel better about myself.” (Jenn has Pride and Prejudice-themed “writing gloves,” which seems important to mention.)

Take the quiz here to find out just how much you have in common with your own personal (fictional) hero.

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