The Exploding Envelope Series: Beware the honey pot

Came across this gem courtesy of the International Spy Museum. It’s WWI-era from the Naval Historical Center.

Leading up to the release of Take the Bai Road, and the re-release of Bai Tide, I’ve started a blog series about various espionage terms. Today’s installment? The nefarious Honey Pot!

A Honey Pot is one of the oldest, and, I would argue, most successful, espionage tools in existence. Essentially, it’s an attractive woman whose job is to seduce people into giving up information or access they would otherwise not part with.

In any industry, and especially in Intelligence, operational security and nondisclosure are a major concern. “Loose lips sink ships,” is true, because they have. Executives and key personnel in major corporations receive training to keep them from inadvertently giving away trade secrets, and nondisclosure agreements are standard once you get to a certain level.

This goes double (triple? quadruple?) for Intelligence work. Literal lives are at stake in this arena, which means the information alphabet people (what I’m calling CIA, FBI, NSA, DOJ, HS, DEA, ATF, etc. employees) are working with can be used to directly harm people. This fact is drilled into their heads each and every day of training, and is likely re-emphasized on a regular basis throughout the year.

Okay, so now we know why alphabet people need to keep their mouths shut. Now imagine you’re an enemy operative who’s been sent to trawl for information (this also works for American operatives working in foreign countries). How’re you going to get it?

You could wait for some random government worker to walk into your country’s Embassy and offer to spill his/her guts, but that could take awhile and your superiors are likely to get impatient. Plus, you’re likely to get bored.

So what do you do? Well, if you’re a hot woman, you work what your mama gave you and use liquor and lust to get a man who knows better to make a mistake. This strategy is the Honey Pot, and it’s effective. If the guy is married, so much the better because now you have influence and leverage.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, this also works the other way around. Men can be used as Honey Pots, too. Lonely women who work too much and don’t get hit on very often make excellent targets.

And just in case this seems like a nostalgic throwback to Cold War-era spy tactics, the former head of the CIA’s National Resources Division claimed that China in particular was focusing very aggressive spying efforts on the U.S. Chinese spies are mostly after specific pieces of intellectual property, and you better believe a good number of these operatives are using feminine wiles on unsuspecting white-coats and developers.

The former head of the House Intelligence Committee stated last year that there are currently more foreign intelligence operatives in the U.S. than there have been at any point in American history, including the Cold War (reference).

According to a retired senior CIA operative, there are thousands of Russian operatives at work in America. Each operative’s chance of success is so small, Russia is improving their chances of success by sending as many people as they can to try to ferret out as much information as they can about anything they can.

Espionage is alive and well, my friends. Operatives are taught how to leverage vulnerable people into giving them what they want. It’s dangerous out there, which is why posters like the one above were used as helpful reminders of one simple fact: Beware of inquisitive women and prying men!

Did you enjoy this post? If so, be sure to order a copy of one of my books for more in-depth looks at the fascinating world of espionage!

The Exploding Envelope Series: What’s in a name?

Leading up to the release of Take the Bai Road, and the re-release of Bai Tide, I’ve started a blog series about various espionage terms. Today’s installment? Uncovering the all-important Cover Identity!

If you’re a fan of spy fiction (in either written or film form), you’re familiar with the outset of a mission. Your favorite undercover operative receives a thick dossier of materials, one of which is a shiny new forged passport with a different name on it. A fake name, or cover identity, is absolutely critical for a field operative, not just for their own protection, but for the safety of their friends and loved ones as well.

The Clandestine branch of the CIA employs the officers who are responsible for recruiting sources (a.k.a. agents), performing covert missions, and collecting intelligence.

These employees are typically assigned to overseas posts with what is known as “official cover.” Official cover is a legitimate job that justifies their presence on foreign soil and grants them diplomatic immunity. In some cases, these posts are fairly public and the officer becomes well-known in local diplomatic circles. Others, usually in a subordinate role, avoid attention as much as possible while they cultivate assets and collect information.

As you can imagine, any area with information worth collecting will be rife with people trying to collect it. Spies on top of spies on top of spies (sometimes literally, wink wink). This means the best protection for an operative is a fake name with a fake background, a sham identity that will hold up under casual scrutiny and keep the operative’s true name (and employer) a secret.

Why? Well, imagine you’re a very powerful government and you’ve just caught someone snooping in your backyard, trying to drum up information they can use to cripple and/or hinder your aims. What is the first thing you do? Figure out who sent the snoop, and what they want. You can’t just ask the spy (they lie for a living), so you try to look them up.

If they won’t talk, all you have is a suspected nationality and a fake name. If, somehow, you had the person’s real name, imagine what you could do with it. If you were a ruthless sort of person, it wouldn’t be difficult to apply pressure to said snoop by threatening friends, family members, pets, former teachers, etc.

If, however, you end up capturing someone with diplomatic immunity who’s there with the permission of your own government and has a perfectly legitimate reason for being there? Well, you’re kind of out of luck. The best you can do is politely insist they leave.

There are four levels of cover:

  1. No cover. Publicly acknowledged employees of the CIA. Think upper management, recruiters, and government liaisons.
  2. Light cover. Their friends and family might know who they really work for, but for anyone else the answer is vague at best and usually given as a harmless division of the government. This kind of cover requires no work, and will not stand up after even the most casual digging. Think analysts, scientists, and other headquarters-based employees.
  3. Official cover. See above. Essential for all overseas employees. To “out” someone’s official cover is actually a felony so, um, don’t do it. (Bai utilizes this kind of cover in Bai Tide, and in Blood Money).
  4. Nonofficial cover. Dangerous stuff. NOCs (pronounced like knocks) are the most covert operatives. These spies operate without diplomatic immunity, which means, if caught, they risk disownment by their own government and are left at the mercy of their captors. Inciting insurrections, recruiting guerilla fighters, breaking laws on foreign soil to get the job done, etc. would all be performed by NOCs. (Bai will have be a NOC in Take the Bai Road and, yes, it’s really freaking dangerous).

So when James Bond goes brooding around bars telling everyone his real name because he’s cool like that and just doesn’t give a damn? Well, in reality he’d be doing his brooding while posing as an Embassy liaision or something, with a perfectly ordinary name like Charles Montgomery.

“Montgomery. Charles Montgomery,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though, does it?

Pick up Bai Tide today to find out what ridiculous name Bai picked as his cover name for his supposedly easy assignment…

Did you enjoy this post? If so, be sure to order a copy of one of my books for more in-depth looks at the fascinating world of espionage!

The Exploding Envelope Series: Agents vs Spies

Image courtesy of seanmciny.

Leading up to the release of Take the Bai Road, and the re-release of Bai Tide, I’ve started a blog series about various espionage terms. Today’s installment? Discussing the difference between an agent and a spy.

This post is near and dear to me because this is one aspect of the spy world that almost everyone gets wrong. Laypeople, movies, TV shows, books, etc. all make this same mistake, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before the definitions of these words is changed to accommodate the popular understanding of them, but still. For now, y’all are wrong but if you keep reading, you’ll soon be right.

You’ve all heard the term “Secret Agent,” correct? James Bond is a secret agent, Austin Powers is a secret agent, Jason Bourne is a secret agent, right? WRONG.

In espionage, an agent is actually a source of information! So yes, there really are secret agents, but they’re not who you think they are. They’re the informants, not the rakish spies in tuxes. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

The International Spy Museum has a really cool list of spy terminology and defines agent as, “A person unofficially employed by an intelligence service, often as a source of information.”

So what do we call those roguishly charming operatives who steal secrets and woo vulnerable and lonely people of importance? A case officer. A case officer is the trained operative who’s out in the field cultivating and managing agents, running operations, and reporting everything back to their station chief.

Granted, agent sounds a lot cooler than case officer. When you’re talking espionage, though, the devil is in the details (sometimes literally) and it’s important to get it right.

Fun fact: There are agents working for America, in the FBI, ATF, DEA, Homeland Security, etc. So we do have agents, just not collecting information for the CIA.

For an example, in Blood Money (remember my first book from waaaaaaay back in 2013?) CIA case officer Bai Hsu was stationed at the American Embassy in London under diplomatic cover. He was the case officer, and his job was to manage CIA agent Azzam Abdullah, who was informing on his boss, the terrorism financier. Make sense?

Now that you know, you can’t not see this error crop up all over popular media. You’re welcome?

Bonus fun fact #2: When my brother and I were little, we LOVED watching Austin Powers movies. For the longest time, my brother thought the “Secret Agent Man” song was, “Secret Asian Man.” Maybe that’s why my main hero is Chinese-American. Discuss.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, be sure to order a copy of one of my books for more in-depth looks at the fascinating world of espionage!

The Exploding Envelope Series: CIA Headquarters

Leading up to the release of Take the Bai Road, and the re-release of Bai Tide, I’ve started a blog series about various espionage terms. Today’s installment? An exploration of CIA Headquarters, which are actually pretty cool.

You know what’s annoying? The CIA won’t give authors a tour of their building. Wait. Scratch that. They will, if you’re a major headline-type author (I happen to know that several of the instructors at the 2014 ThrillerFest I went to got to go on a tour after the conference), but regular schmoes need not apply. I’ve asked the CIA’s entertainment liaison, just to confirm I’m not a big enough deal, yet. That’s a good goal, right, guys? To be a big enough deal as a writer to merit a tour of CIA Headquarters?

Anyway, the CIA’s Headquarters in Langley, Virginia are pretty cool. Not much of Bai Tide takes place there, but parts of Blood Money do, as do parts of Take the Bai Road. Here’s what you need to know about one of the more secretive workplaces in the country.

This is the Old Headquarters Building (or OHB for those in the know). It’s a feat of 1950’s architecture, the designers of which worked off DCI Allen Dulles’ vision of a college-like campus for officers to work in. It contains a whopping 1,400,000 square feet of space.

I’ve had to use a little creative license to imagine how that space is utilized. The CIA is understandably cagey about the layout of their building, but they do share some aspects of it. Like this awesome tile inlay on the lobby floor:

This seal is made of granite and measures sixteen feet across. The symbology of the seal is as follows: Eagle (Our national bird, it stands for strength and alertness) Sixteen-point star (Represents the convergence of intelligence data from around the world that all meets at a central point) Shield (Defense)

This is the Memorial Wall, which is on the north wall of the OHB lobby. Each of the 125 stars represents an intelligence officer who gave his or her life in service of the U.S., The criteria for inclusion on the wall is strict: “Inclusion on the Memorial Wall is awarded posthumously to employees who lose their lives while serving their country in the field of intelligence. Death may occur in the foreign field or in the United States. Death must be of an inspirational or heroic character while in the performance of duty; or as the result of an act of terrorism while in the performance of duty; or as an act of premeditated violence targeted against an employee, motivated solely by that employee’s Agency affiliation; or in the performance of duty while serving in areas of hostilities or other exceptionally hazardous conditions where the death is a direct result of such hostilities or hazards.”

That book you see in the middle of the Memorial Wall? It’s the CIA Book of Honor. It lists the names of 91 officers who died in service, and 34 stars to represent the lives of those whose identities must, even in death, remain a secret. Can you imagine passing this every day on your way in to work?

Also in the OHB is the CIA Library. It’s extensive, and makes a prominent appearance in Take the Bai Road. Imagine every research tool you’d need to understand or investigate something from a different part of the world and you’ll find it in there.

The OHB is also home to several thoughtful memorials, a portrait gallery of directors past, a gallery of U.S. presidents, a museum filled with important items from the CIA’s storied past, and an art collection. It’s massive, and from what I’ve read, each new employee gets a tour their first day.

Now this is the New Headquarters Building, or NHB. By the 1980’s the CIA was bursting at the seams so they built this. It is two six-story office towers built into a hillside behind the OHB and the entrance is actually on the fourth floor.

They weren’t kidding about the college campus. The entire Headquarters property occupies 258 acres of land, and much of it is landscaped like this.

This is just one of many art installations on the CIA campus. It’s called Kryptos. Found at the entrance of the NHB, it contains complicated codes that apparently still have not fully been cracked.

Believe it or not, there actually is a Starbucks in CIA Headquarters. The first chapter of Take the Bai Road takes place there, as a matter of fact. Don’t believe me? Read this article on “Store Number 1.”

If you want more, the CIA’s website has a photo tour of their headquarters that’s a lot of fun. Feel free to take a look and let me know what captured your interest!

Did you enjoy this post? If so, be sure to order a copy of one of my books for more in-depth looks at the fascinating world of espionage!

The Exploding Envelope Series: My Favorite Spy Gadgets

Leading up to the release of Take the Bai Road, and the re-release of Bai Tide, I’ve started a blog series about various espionage terms. Today’s installment? A list of my favorite spy gadgets (which, let’s be honest, are a large part of the reason I got into writing spy fiction in the first place).

I want you to picture me rubbing my hands together in glee, because this will probably be my favorite post to write. Spy gadgets are SO COOL, because they’re so CREATIVE. The innovation and creativity that go into these blow my mind on a constant basis, and I have nothing but admiration for the devious minds who thought around corners to build these. Let’s jump in!

Although there are no confirmed kills from this beauty, it was developed by the KGB to deliver one 4.5mm shot should a female operative (or cross-dressing male operative) find herself in need of a quick escape.

This was the real-life spy gadget that made me fall in love with espionage. It’s so clever, so subtle, so covert, and SO PRACTICAL. It’s a functional umbrella with a pressure-loaded tip that can inject the operative’s victim with a poison pellet quick as a flash. This is actually the method that was used to assassinate Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident writer, in 1978. One minute he was standing at a bus stop, the next? He felt a sting on the back of his leg. He was dead three days later.

These are pretty clever! Capture and interrogation are the worst possible outcomes for a covert operative, because they almost certainly involve torture, and any information an operative reveals can and will be used to hurt other people and compromise the safety of the operative’s nation. To plan ahead for this and provide covert operatives on dangerous assignments, these glasses have a cyanide capsule hidden in the tip of the glasses. If captured, all the operative has to do is chew on the end of his or her glasses and take the final escape hatch of all. Pretty sobering to realize the courage of these people, who would rather take cyanide (which isn’t a pleasant way to die) than betray their country. (There’s actually a cyanide capsule scene in Take the Bai Road, but I won’t tell you more than that because SPOILERS!)

This is a CIA-issue dead drop spike. An informant can slip information or film into the spike, then seal it and embed it in the dirt somewhere, where his or her handler can retrieve it later. I’ve always loved the idea of dead drops. It’s so elegant.

THINGS IN SHOES!!! Oh man, this is good. This shoe transmitter was used by the Romanians in the 1960’s and 70’s to spy on American diplomats. When the diplomats would order shoes from their cobblers back home, Romanian spies would intercept the shoes at the post office, plant these little beauties, and enjoy listening in on whichever conversations the ambassadors happened to be wearing shoes for.

This Dragonfly Insectothopter is an early model of an unmanned aerial vehicle from the 1970’s. This was the CIA’s first foray into intelligence collection via tiny remote-controlled devices. From what I understand, their intelligence collection methods are a lot more sophisticated now, with devices that are UV-powered and truly tiny, but this one is pretty darn cool. An operator would fly this device through an open window or even just land it surreptitiously on top of a bookshelf or something, thereby planting a literal bug.

If you’re interested in learning more about these gadgets, check out these two Wired posts  (here and here) for more.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, be sure to order a copy of one of my books for more in-depth looks at the fascinating world of espionage!