6 WTF Spy Tech Plans That Somehow Worked
Million-dollar facial recognition software? NSA-spy satellites? Radioactive poisons? Hacking? Nah, it's the low-tech stuff that's most effective.
Because reckless use of corpses and psychic doodling can only get you so far, intelligence agencies of the world settle for tactics considerably more pragmatic, not all that different than the pranks you use to annoy your roommates.
Napoleon Trolled An Enemy General Into Surrendering 33,000 Soldiers With a Fake Newspaper
Karl Mack von Leiberich is only remembered today as a footnote. In 1805 it was a totally different story, Mack one of Europe's most distinguished tacticians, keeping Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armee at bay along the border.
Napoleon had something better than experience, a mole named Schulmeister. The French operative ingratiated his way into the inner circle of the Austrian high command. Approaching the commander of the Austrian army stationed along the Danube with excellent news, Schulmeister held in his hand a newspaper detailing unrest in the French military, revolt breaking out across the country as the British landed on French soil. According to the paper, Napoleon raced back to the Rhine to reinforce his crumbling empire, rioting breaking out at the city of Ulm.
The newspaper was a fabrication, rigged up by Napoleon's spymasters, the granddaddy of fake news. Mack swallowed the gag and led a sizable force to rout whatever was left and seize the town. He bumbled into an encirclement instead. Napoleon's marshals conceived it a classic retraite feinte. For everyone else, picture Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.
Napoleon and his elite Imperial Guard pulled off one of the pimpest ruses in history, as Mack surrendered his entire army -- 33,000 men, artillery pieces, and almost 20 generals.
The Secret Messages Hidden in Plain Sight
Clothing proved the ideal form of sending secrets before the rise of the internet and radio communication. No, not hidden under sweaters but as sweaters.
To any non-knitter, the patterns are of no great interest, inconsistencies quickly dismissed if even noticed. By dropping purled stitches (we have no idea what that means either) you can create a coded message. When unraveled, the yarn carries detailed communiques, concealing Morse code that can record troop transports, convoys, train schedules, and other activities. Knitting a brilliant solution to an age-old problem, especially compared with the alternatives during WWI. It was either this or duct-taping cameras to the same sketchy-ass species that blocks traffic and craps on all our statues' heads.
Encouraged during wartime, knitting was so ubiquitous that you could see knitters on every street corner, too irresistible for spies to avoid. In the UK, the Office of Censorship banned the practice of sending patterns across borders. The panic over traitorous grannies returned during WWII. The act of reconnaissance and transmission were easily accomplished by a single person, preferably an old woman selected for their innocuous appearance. A handful of near-sighted pensioners were worth more than a squadron of fighter aces.
Soviet Technicians Secured North Korean Air Space Using Only a Pair of Slippers
With conflict appearing inevitable, the Soviet Union needed to catch up with the West technologically at the dawn of the Cold War. Turbines were a new innovation, and Stalin had no time to waste. The UK firm Rolls Royce agreed to sell the Russians their jet engine with one crucial stipulation: Rolls Royce alone would retain the metallurgical secrets and license to manufacture them. Foolproof, or so it seemed to Rolls Royce.
The following story goes a long way towards explain their obssesion with protecting their hood ornaments.
This agreement ensured that the design could not be copied, guaranteeing repeat business. Without knowing the correct formula to make the part, it would take years of trial and error to get it right, with the engines shredding themselves apart. The Russians agreed, asking for a tour of the factory to look at the machining sections. Little did anyone know the fate of the Korea peninsula hung in the balance.
An ace up their sleeve, or rather under the cuff of their pants, the Soviet visitors wore soft-soled, mushy shoes. The sharp, metal shavings adhering and embedding in the sole, the Soviet delegation won the day for the USSR, sticking it to the capitalist pigs in one stroke.
Analyzed by Soviet metallurgical experts, the coup culminated in a cutting-edge jet fighter, creating the Russian MiG 15 jet era. Better than the West's current fighter, the MiG 15 arrived just in time for the Korean War, with the R&D on the cheap thanks to the Brits' lack of foresight. The tactic worked so well the KGB added it to their repertoire, ripping off Boeing's design specs in the '70s in the same manner.
The CIA's '80s-Era Moscow Spy-ring Hinged Upon Fedora-Wearing Blow-Up Dolls
Moving freely around in Cold War-era Moscow was hard enough, but it proved next to impossible for undercover American spooks. Soviet agents trailed suspected CIA officers and contacts day and night. To counter the pesky Russian tails, the CIA's Walter McIntosh decided to invest in something completely game-changing: blow-up sex dolls. And, hot damn, did the agency make good use out of them.
McIntosh's gambit was a silly but dependable way for Russian contacts to meet with CIA personnel. While the driver would put distance between himself and the trailing car, his comrade would exit discreetly. Before the following car could detect that the passenger had given them the slip, the sex doll was quickly inflated on the passenger seat, with the help of a mobile air-bag inflating device.
The CIA operated the spy ring for a couple of years with the inflatable doll nicknamed "JIB," as in "Jack in the Box," denoting the easily transportable box the doll was transported around surreptitiously. JIB wasn't able to stay a secret for long, but it did facilitate several key intelligence coups in its short life. Whether captured in the field or springing a leak, the fate of the original JIB is unknown. Considering the number of agents the PVC-spy saved and countless prototypes destroyed in the development process, Jack's sacrifice to his nation rightfully deserves a star on the wall.
The British Secret Service Crippled German Military Intelligence with Help from a Hapless Valet
Code-named "Cicero," Elyesa Bazna was a wannabe James Bond. Hired as a valet by the British diplomatic chief in Turkey at the onset of WWII, he quickly took the opportunity to break into the safe and photograph documents and top-secret plans. Banza was all about the money, British pounds to be exact, though he could have been stealing the secret ingredients for the Colonel's Original Recipe for all he cared. His Nazi contacts rewarded him well ... we'll get to that in a second.
At conflict's end, the war's highest-paid spy was allowed to shuffle quietly away, avoiding prosecution. Was Cicero a master of blackmail too? Nope. 30 years later, we found out Bazna had been set up, the diplomatic safe stocked with both real and misleading information. The Banza affair pitted German intelligence groups against each other, confusing the Gestapo and discrediting their informants and protecting future information leaks. MI6 poisoned well.
The Germans weren't wrong to doubt Banza's brains, the Albanian valet too careless to realize he was being paid off in counterfeit currency, the "master spy" screwed over by both sides simultaneously. Hollywood preferred a more formulaic version, bestowing Banza debonair flair, witty banter, and a full head of hair:
By 1944, Hitler turned on his spies, regarding all his spy agencies as incompetent and their information dubious. MI6's plan to destabilize Germany's spy network exceeded their wildest expectations. German counter-intelligence imploding, the head of the German army intelligence, was sentenced to death in a concentration camp. To say there was a crisis of confidence in Berlin is a wee bit of an understatement.
Artist Passed Defense Plans to Spymaster Half a World Away in the Form of Toilet-Reading Material
At first glance, Werner Sturzel's stint at the Puerto Rico Illustrado was uneventful. During WWI, that was arguably the most innocent job one could find. However, under the guise as a run-of-the-mill cartoonist Sturzel lived a conspicuously high-profile life in Puerto Rico, despite his modest career as an illustrator. A freelance artist not living on the precipice of poverty? Yup, we don't need to tell you there's more to this story.
The Puerto Rican periodical wasn't a serious journalistic project, nor did it have a wide readership, all the better to fly under American counter intelligence's radar, the Spanish-language paper covertly reaching spies in Barcelona, relayed to Berlin. In his most famous feat, Sturzel sneaked coded information concerning US ship traffic and coastal defenses back to Germany within the portrait of an exoticized young woman in a bizarre costume. It was titled Tipo Arabe, the Lost Generation's very own waifu material.
Sturzel's "hieroglyphics" could only be decoded by the spymasters. We're not entirely sure how the cryptogram was cracked. If you've got a magnifying glass, patience, and some free time maybe you can figure it out:
In 1918, arrested for espionage, Sturzel fessed up. Sturzel was actually stunned he was arrested, caught spending way too much money for a cartoonist working at an obscure publication in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and the embezzling didn't help his cover either. The plan perfect, if not for the Kaiser picking a man with the financial wisdom of a strip club ATM.