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Book Review: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton with Henry Robert Schlesinger

Review by Jenny Lauren Lee

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Most spy stories star a James Bond–like figure, but the tales of espionage in Spycraft feature behind-the-scenes technologists more akin to Q, Bond’s gadget guru. The authors describe how CIA scientists and engineers developed technologies that have shaped U.S. intelligence since the late 1950s.

Drawing from interviews with spies and gadget engineers, the story moves from the early Cold War spy technology to the antiterrorism efforts and cyberspies of the 21st century. Along the way, the authors describe spectacular ideas that never got off the ground, such as collapsible rubber airplanes that could lift a man out of a jungle and depilatory cigars to rid Fidel Castro of his “macho” beard.

But there were also triumphs of technology that resulted in intelligence coups, like a fountain pen camera used by a Soviet diplomat to photograph documents for the U.S. government.

Spycraft
also details battles within the CIA over technology’s role. At first, many agents did not see the value of investing in technology, the authors explain, but by the late 1960s both engineers and their gadgets had become an integral part of the spy trade.

Historical photographs — some even taken by CIA-designed cameras — and diagrams of devices supplement these exciting stories. Though the topic is technical, the engaging tales make this a fun read for anyone interested in espionage.

Plume Books, 2009, 548 p., $18.

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