Jun 02, 2011

The CIA’s Secrets

The Cold War made for strange partners — including the CIA and a well-known magician named John Mulholland. In 1953, Mulholland was hired by the C.I.A. to adapt his craft for its agents.

The documents he produced, long thought destroyed, were discovered in 2007 by two C.I.A. historians, who have recently published "The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception."

What could a magician teach spies? Much sleight of hand, apparently, that could be used for dosing drinks, passing pills and exchanging messages. And then there were the covert signals, including some that could be sent by tying your shoelaces in special patterns. The Boston Globe has illustrated some of the tricks seen here.

In an accompanying piece at the Globe, Tom Scocca writes:

In the superpower struggle for power and influence around the world, the CIA was secretly funding and engineering everything from literary journals to coups and armed rebellions. It was total warfare, but with creeping breadth in place of nuclear intensity. Both the ideas and techniques of secret war pervaded the culture — the corrosive belief in hidden conspiracy and the nifty thrill of spycraft itself, the codes and disguises and miniature cameras…

Today Mulholland’s account of real-world stagecraft amounts to an etiquette manual for a lost moment of history.

That moment is lost, as he says, because many of the methods used depended on the context of the tricks. In those days, men could be counted on to wear suit jackets, which had predictable internal and external pockets. Enough people smoked so that a matchbook could be used as a prop without attracting attention.

If there might be contemporary cognates for these — jeans, say, or Blackberries — the social context back then was different as well. Performing a trick depends upon expected behavior, and how men and women interact has changed since 1953 — in a few ways, at least.

If the tricks in this book no longer apply, exactly, they do illuminate a mysterious interlude in our country's past: When a guy who'd made his living pulling a rabbit out of a hat showed C.I.A. agents how to do their jobs.

– Carolyn Kellogg