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11 Things You Didn’t Know About America’s Spymasters

© JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis

There’s more to being a spy than drinking martinis, talking into shoe-phones, and discarding messages that self-destruct in five seconds. Here are 11 surprising facts about America’s spymasters.

1. The CIA had a mad scientist on the payroll

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb sold Christmas trees at a roadside stand, raised goats and was an accomplished square dancer. He also made poisons for the CIA. In the 1950s, the “Company” became interested in mind control. The fear was that the Soviets could do it and America couldn’t. Project MKULTRA sought to bridge that gap with experiments involving LSD and test subjects who were unaware they were being dosed. The CIA later tasked Gottlieb with brewing toxins that would kill someone without leaving a trace. (Fidel Castro was a popular target.) From smallpox to rabbit fever, the self-described Dr. Strangelove knew his business, but the agency never quite managed to pull off an assassination. The department was exposed and shut down in 1973.

2. They have a secret museum

It’s been called “the best museum you’ll never get to see.” Housed at CIA headquarters in Langley, the 11,000-square foot museum is accessible only to members of the agency and cleared guests. New recruits receive a tour on their first day, and thousands of CIA officers walk the galleries for inspiration. Technologies used in the past, and the lessons learned from those technologies, often lead to new applications to ongoing CIA operations. The museum’s budget is classified.

3. The FBI spied on its own director

J. Edgar Hoover served as director of the FBI (and its precursor agency, the Bureau of Investigation) for an astonishing 48 years, serving under eight presidents and 16 attorneys general. No one dared fire him for fear of a public backlash, or worse, Hoover opening his files. But you don’t amass that much power without making a few enemies, so special agents from the Washington Field Office of the FBI were regularly assigned to secretly follow him around, and monitor his house at night. This was called HOOWATCH. (Hoover, of course, knew about it, but rarely spotted his observers.)

4. Nixon tried to fire Hoover—and failed

Near the end of his career, J. Edgar Hoover put a stop to FBI participation in activities that skirted the law, such as unauthorized wiretaps or surveillance. This irritated President Nixon, whose issues with the law would become famous, and later be his undoing. So in 1971, Nixon finally mustered the courage to fire Hoover in order to install a more malleable director. The two met so Nixon could deliver the news. Things didn’t go as planned: whatever was discussed, not only did Nixon lose his nerve and back down, but he actually gave Hoover new authority to expand the FBI legal attaché program in U.S. embassies abroad.

5. The CIA was saved by a guy named Beetle

When General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith took charge of the fledgling CIA in October 1950, he recognized at once the disaster he had inherited. The fourth Director of Central Intelligence in four years, he greeted his new staff by saying, "It's interesting to see all of you fellows here. It'll be even more interesting to see how many of you are here a few months from now." During World War II, Smith was indispensable to General Eisenhower, able to instill terror and get the impossible from his subordinates, while soothing tensions and allaying conflict among his peers. As noted by journalist Evan Thomas, soldiers said Smith’s "mood never changed: he was always angry."

Smith reorganized the agency, gutted the worst of its activities, and got rid of the worst of its officers. When Eisenhower was elected president, Smith was appointed undersecretary of state, expanding his authority to reshape American covert operations. Where everyone else in the administration referred to Eisenhower only as "Mr. President," Smith had no problem picking up the phone and saying, "Goddamn it Ike, I think..."

Walter Bedell Smith’s institutional reforms are still in place to this day. As Samuel Halpern, a former senior officer with the agency, would observe, “If it hadn't been for Bedell, I don't think there would be a CIA today.”

6. The NSA was initially housed in a girls' school

Before there was a National Security Agency, there was the Armed Forces Security Agency. Its headquarters was at the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, a non-profit girls' school seized by the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942 under the War Powers Act. The AFSA was largely ineffective at collecting and intercepting signals, which was a problem because that was its entire purpose. General Walter Bedell Smith, who was busy rescuing the CIA, took time to fix the AFSA while he was at it. He outlined the problems to President Truman, and set in motion events that would result in the NSA and the “panopticon” at Ft. Meade.

7. Getting money to secret agencies can be complicated

Funding secret agencies tends to involve sleight of hand. Before the National Security Agency was acknowledged as an actual organization, it was listed in budgets as the Bureau of Ships. Meanwhile, when the CIA decided to build its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a fake aircraft carrier was created on paper, and the money going to its “construction” went to the CIA.

8. NSA headquarters may be the biggest invisible city in the country

It’s hard to overstate just how massive the agency actually is. As James Bamford notes in The Shadow Factory, if NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, were incorporated, it would be one of the largest municipalities in the state. The agency employs 30,000 people who work in 7,000,000 square feet of office space. The site has 37,000 registered cars that drive on 32 miles of road and spend their off-hours on 325 acres of parking. Its police force is one of the largest in the country, with 700 cops and a SWAT team. The main building is so large the U.S. Capitol Building could fit inside of it—four times.

9. The Company has a wicked sense of humor

Following World War II, Frank Wisner helped found the Office of Policy Coordination. Officially, its mission was refugee assistance and working with the International Red Cross. Its actual mission involved covert actions against the Soviet Union. Wisner was a wily, charming, Southern aristocrat who was forever changed when he witnessed the brutal Soviet occupation of Romania. His office invested heavily in psychological warfare, which was still a relatively new concept. Ideas that came from the office included delivering American toiletries across the Iron Curtain (to demonstrate superior Western standards of comfort) and airdropping enormous condoms labeled “Medium” onto the Soviets, to demoralize them against an anatomically superior American army. (Sadly, this plan was never carried out.)

10. The NSA gave rise to the computer age

Major General Ralph Canine, the founding director of the NSA, didn’t know much about computers. But he knew a lot about intelligence, and he knew that the NSA wasn’t producing it. So when the agency’s scientists proposed a computer that would theoretically see a hundred-fold increase in processing speed over top-tier computers on the market, the director said, "Dammit, I want you fellows to get a jump on those guys! Build me a thousand-megacycle machine!”

To produce this impossible computer—named Harvest—Project Lightning was established. It was modeled after the Manhattan Project and is thought to be the largest government-supported computer research program in history. It brought together the best minds in computer science and engineering, and would help vacuum tubes give way to transistors, which would give way to magnetic cores. It produced the first magnetic thin-film content-addressed memory, fundamental materials properties, new developments in hardware fabrication, and high-speed circuitry. Lightning research into practical applications for the Josephson Junction would apply half a century later to the development of quantum computers. Harvest was so mind-bogglingly powerful that it remained in use until 1976, and even then was only discontinued because the custom, high-performance automated tape library had worn out and could not be replaced.

11. The FBI and NSA dug a tunnel under the Soviet embassy

Not all espionage involves bribery, blackmail, cloaks, and daggers. Sometimes the best tradecraft is done with a pickaxe. In the 1980s, the United States began digging a massive tunnel that led directly beneath the Soviet embassy. The goal was to better eavesdrop on its Cold War adversary. (Ironically, while American spies were chiseling away beneath the streets of Washington, the United States was bitterly accusing the Soviet Union of bugging the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.) The project cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was a joint operation between the FBI and NSA. Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent secretly spying for the Russians, compromised the program.

D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He is coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army, author of Red Planet Noir, and a correspondent for The Atlantic. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and family, and can be found at dbgrady.com.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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