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kottke.org posts about espionage

Trailer for Errol Morris's The Pigeon Tunnel

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2023

Oh yay, I had been wondering just the other day what Errol Morris has been up to and it turns out to be a project with Apple TV+ called The Pigeon Tunnel, which is billed as the final interview with espionage novelist John le Carré (born David Cornwell).

It's terribly difficult to recruit for a secret service. You're looking for somebody who's a bit bad, but at the same time, loyal. There's a type. And I fit it perfectly.

The movie has the same title and covers some of the same ground as le Carré's 2016 memoir, probably with more of an emphasis on Morris's general obsession with what constitutes truth. More info on the film from the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie is premiering on Sept 11:

Cornwell once worked for the British spy agencies MI5 and MI6. He sparingly gave interviews, but accepted Morris' invitation because he saw it "as something definitive." He had already begun a process of opening up in his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life.

Crucial to the narrative is the author's relationship to his father Ronnie, an inveterate gambler and con artist. Cornwell's mother disappeared when he was five, so his main frame of reference was the world of his father, who was endlessly on the run from the mob or the police. The title The Pigeon Tunnel comes from Cornwell's experience as a child going to Monte Carlo with Ronnie. Imprinted on his memory was a shooting range on the top of a cliff. Beneath the grass was a tunnel from which trapped pigeons were ejected over the sea as targets.

The Pigeon Tunnel will be out on Apple TV+ on Oct 20, 2023.

The Secret Lives of MI6's Top Female Spies

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2022

Helen Warrell's piece in the Financial Times about women who work for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) is fascinating throughout. Warrell talked to three women who occupy three of the four directors-general positions in the agency, as well as women who used to work for the agency. It's tough to find a single paragraph to excerpt in articles like this, but this passage is representative:

Recruiting and managing agents overseas was not always easy, especially when the template for the role was cartoonishly male. "Early in my career, it felt as if there were particular ways of behaving and getting things done which felt challenging," says Kathy. "There was definitely some machismo around the idea of the lone operator." Then, as now, bonding methods that worked in male-to-male relationships didn't in female-to-male ones. "I would not necessarily sit up drinking whiskey all night with an agent," she says, explaining that she had to make things work on her own terms, such as inviting people to her home, which immediately establishes a degree of trust. At one point, she took up golf in an attempt to build rapport with a prospective agent who was obsessed with the sport. It did not go well. "My golf teacher, on lesson three, just said, 'This is not your game.'"

Kathy argues that, counter-intuitively, it is in the most conservative countries that women sometimes have the upper hand. "When you're playing into a culture which is particularly male-dominated, women tend to be underestimated and therefore perceived as less threatening," she says. "That's been an advantage for me, because sometimes those individuals won't necessarily see you coming. And it's about their perceptions of SIS. They're not necessarily expecting a younger woman to bowl up to them." This element of surprise, she says, "can definitely be a secret sauce".

An Interview with a Contemporary Russian Spy

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 01, 2019

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Deniss Metsavas served for many years with the Estonian Defense Forces and was, at the same time, a Russian spy. In this video for The Atlantic, Metsavas describes how he was recruited by Russian intelligence using kompromat (compromising material).

For years, Metsavas navigated his disparate allegiances. He got married and started a family. But as he grew in prominence in the Estonian Defense Forces, his Russian handlers began to demand highly classified information on Estonia's involvement with the United States and NATO, specifically with regard to weapons. Metsavas tried to extricate himself, only to find that his handlers would stop at nothing to obtain the intel-including ensnaring a family member in the increasingly dangerous situation.

Watching the video and reading the accompanying article, you get the sense that maybe the Cold War never ended...

TV & Movie Spy Scene Breakdowns from the Former CIA Chief of Disguise

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2019

For Wired's series Technique Critique, former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez looks at several TV shows and movies to rate how good their spy scenes are.

Mendez gives high marks to characters from Alias and The Americans for effective use of disguises and low marks to The Bourne Identity and Homeland. In relation to Philip's disguises on The Americans, she discusses the concept of the little gray man, the CIA's goal for its agents to look like harmless middle-aged men, something she also mentioned in this Washington Post piece:

Rhys makes the case, however, for disappearing under nothing more than a knit cap and a pair of glasses, a scruffy mustache and a messy wig. He becomes the consummate little gray man, invisible, the one nobody can remember was even on the elevator.

Mendez also talks about the three cover identities that CIA agents were not allowed to use: clergy, media figures, and Peace Corps volunteer. She previously did this video with Wired about how the CIA used disguises.

The Former Chief of Disguise of the CIA Explains How Spies Use Disguises

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

In this video, Jonna Mendez, the former Chief of Disguise of the CIA, explains how disgu — Wait, wait, wait...Chief of Disguise!! That is an actual job title!?! WHAT! Ok, back to the post... — explains how disguises are used in the CIA.

With women, you have a broader range of what you can do. You also have one extra step: you can turn a woman into a man. I would mention that it's almost impossible to turn a man into a woman. What we do is always additive — we can make you taller, we can make you heavier, we can make you older — we can't go the other direction. You want to be the person that gets on the elevator and then gets off and nobody even remembers that you were really there. That is a design goal at the disguise labs at CIA.

Interesting throughout. As a fan of the disguises on The Americans and as someone who got to wear some bitchin' makeup for a short extra appearance on Halt and Catch Fire, I really enjoyed this video, but now I'm wondering what my "dead giveaway" mannerisms are. Friends, any thoughts?

Peter Paul Rubens, the painting spy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 04, 2011

My vacation reading: Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster.

Peter Paul Rubens gives us a lot to think about in his canvasses of rushing color, action, and puckered flesh, so it's not surprising that his work as a diplomat and spy has been neglected. One of my goals in writing Master of Shadows was to fill that gap in the record. Here, after all, is an actual Old Master using actual secret codes, dodging assassination, plotting the overthrow of foreign governments, and secretly negotiating for world peace.

Certainly, a biographer could not ask for a more compelling subject. Rubens was a charismatic man of extraordinary learning, fluent in six languages, who made a fortune from his art. He never fit the paradigm of the artist as a self-destructive figure at odds with convention. More than one of his contemporaries actually thought his skill as a statesman surpassed his unmatched talent before an easel.

Art history page-turner? Yep.

Russian spies caught in United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2010

What is this, 1982? A Tom Clancy novel?

Criminal complaints filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday read like an old-fashioned cold war thriller: Spies swapping identical orange bags as they brushed past one another in a train station stairway. An identity borrowed from a dead Canadian, forged passports, messages sent by shortwave burst transmission or in invisible ink. A money cache buried for years in a field in upstate New York.

But the network of so-called illegals — spies operating under false names outside of diplomatic cover — also used cyber-age technology, according to the charges. They embedded coded texts in ordinary-looking images posted on the Internet, and they communicated by having two agents with laptops containing special software pass casually as messages flashed between them.

Ooh, cyber-age!

Operation Mincemeat

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell tells us about Operation Mincemeat, a caper undertaken by British intelligence to fool the Hitler and the Nazis into thinking the Allied invasion of mainland Europe would come from through Greece and not Sicily.

It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelope's seals. What the officer discovered was astounding. Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nye's letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: "The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others."

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2003

Rhodes' followup to The Making of the Atomic Bomb (for which he won a Pulitzer), while not as tight a narrative as its predecessor, was more interesting to me because I was less familiar with the story. In particular, the Soviet espionage effort during WWII was fascinating.