book reviews

Book Review: Spycraft–Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs

Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda If you’re writing about the CIA and worldwide spies, especially if it’s from the late 1900’s, this is an excellent resource.

Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda

by Robert Wallace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Spycraft: the Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda. It provides a fascinating look into the history of spywork in the United States, from the days of the Office of Strategic Services in 1942 to the turn of the century. I enjoyed hearing about the clever devices they used

  • a liquid chemical that when squirted directly on the body or clothing engulfed a person with the odor of fecal matter
  • powdered explosives that were mixed with wheat flour and safely shipped, shaped and even baked until needed for sabotage
  • a small barometer-activated device designed to sabotage airplanes by triggering an explosion when the aircraft reached 1500 feet.

You wonder at the minds that can think this stuff up! The original OSS was a group of geeky geniuses who were tasked with specific needs–nothing general. They were told a scenario and asked to find a way to defeat it with their clever devices.
Wallace has a lot of the original pictures, documentation and line drawings showing how different devices would work. He shows how the early spies would use their gadgetry, such as:

  • how they would hide a camera to take covert pictures of their subject
  • how to drive a spike into the ground as a hollow dead drop site in a park or wooded area
  • how to use the one-time pads used even today by some radical groups to communicate messages
  • how covers were created months or years in advance to allow agents to operate with impunity.

These show how spycraft was conceived and accepted as a reliable alternative to the brute force of weapons and the questionable success of negotiations. Trust but verify started long before President Ronald Reagan made that phrase infamous.

I’m a history buff, so I enjoyed the walk down memory lane, but what I really wanted from this book –and have still been unable to find–is modern spycraft. That’s what the title promised, but failed to deliver and that’s why it got a 3/5 from me. I write techno-thrillers, so I must titillate my readers with more than hiding messages in fake rocks or flying the unmanned drones made famous by their exploits in Afghanistan or using steganography to hide information in files. What do we use today, in 2011? The final chapter of the book–purportedly the most advanced devices Wallace discusses–includes an examination of a computer user’s database information to reveal trends (pretty mundane in today’s spy books).

Overall, worth reading if you’re not looking for ultra-modern devices as I was.

View all my reviews


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Spycraft–Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs

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  4. Over the last decade South African authors have blossomed, local readers looking for them instead of just the latest overseas blockbusters, and recently some good thrillers have appeared – Margie Orford, Deon Meyer among them. James McClure was writing good detective novels before the advent of democracy, using the peculiar local conditions. Nobody’s got very techno yet, probably because our police force has limited resources. But there’s a wealth of possibility in the field of spies in Africa.


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