11 Amazing Facts About CIA Operations in the Soviet Union

getty images
getty images

By definition, a spy’s job is to go to another country and break the law. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to break the law and not get caught. This was especially difficult in the Soviet Union, where the KGB kept close surveillance on American spies and State Department officials. In his engrossing new book, The Billion Dollar Spy, David E. Hoffman takes readers into the CIA’s Moscow station during the Cold War, telling the astonishing story of how spies recruited agents, and what happened when things went wrong. Here are 11 things Hoffman reveals about the CIA in Moscow. 

1. CIA wives were used as spies. 

In the earliest days of the Moscow station, almost all of the CIA’s case officers were male. To pull off operations convincingly, it sometimes meant an officer including his wife in the plan, if not recruiting his wife to do the job outright. If the officer needed someone to meet with an agent without arousing suspicion, he might send his wife to make contact. If the officer had to disappear and needed someone to cover his or her tracks, that, too, might fall to a spouse. 

2. Being watched? Release the Jack in the Box.

Hoffman describes a particularly difficult mission in which a CIA spy needed to meet with an agent in person. (In parlance, an agent is to the CIA what an informant is to the FBI.) To elude KGB surveillance, this involved creating a “gap”—a space in time during which the spy was out of visual contact—and springing a “Jack in the Box” to trick his watchers into believing he was still present. To set up the job, CIA officers used phones they knew to be tapped, and organized a fake birthday party for a friend in Moscow. They brought along a fake birthday cake. The KGB tailed the car to the party. When the cars were near the rendezvous point with the foreign agent, the CIA driver turned a sharp corner, creating a gap of a few seconds. At that moment, one of the officers jumped from the car and disappeared. Meanwhile, the CIA officer’s wife set the birthday cake on her husband’s seat. She pulled a handle, and a silhouette popped up from the cake where her husband had previously been sitting. When the KGB reestablished visual contact with the car, it appeared that everyone was still inside, and that nothing was amiss. 

3. Foreign surveillance can be lulled into complacency ... 

While serving in the Prague station, one CIA officer started an experiment. Everywhere he went, a member of the Czech secret police followed him. He resolved then to become incredibly boring and predictable. He drove slowly. He never deviated from his normal route, nor his normal routine. He drove the babysitter home each evening and got a haircut on the same day, at the same time each week. After six months, he discovered that for his haircut and babysitter drives, his watchers would no longer follow, so long as he reappeared at the same time as usual. The secret police had grown lazy. This created a gap, which he knew at once he could exploit for meeting with agents.

4. ... or they can be quite good. 

In the late 1970s, inspectors discovered a mysterious antenna in the U.S. embassy’s chimney. Inspectors also scrutinized embassy typewriters, but determined that nothing was amiss. They were wrong. In fact, tiny listening devices had been embedded in the typewriters, transmitting audio and keystrokes. The KGB surveillance remained undetected for eight years. 

5. Tradecraft was perfected in Berlin. 

When the Berlin Wall went, up, the CIA had to go back to the drawing board. Previously, when officers needed to meet with agents, they rendezvoused in West Berlin where they weren’t easily watched. Post-wall, however, the CIA needed to figure out how to handle agents remotely. “Dead drops” were used (in which agent and officer communicated at a predetermined location, with one leaving behind a message and the other collecting it and moving on, the two never meeting), but it became necessary to develop more daring methods of tradecraft. As a result, Berlin became a laboratory of sorts for CIA officers. What they perfected there could then be taken to Moscow and elsewhere. 

6. CIA used sleight of hand first developed by magicians. 

One sophisticated method of tradecraft perfected in Berlin was the “brush pass.” A gap was created, and during those seconds, the agent would appear, slip information to his or her CIA handler, and disappear, without ever being spotted by the KGB. The CIA learned another form of the brush pass from a professional magician. When coming in from the rain, the CIA spy would remove his or her raincoat. He or she would shake it out in a flourish with the left hand while in a single motion passing on the information with the right. 

7. The KGB could spy to the point of comedy. 

As recounted by The Billion Dollar Spy, one CIA officer new to the Soviet station was amused to sometimes reach for his coat only to find it had vanished. (Later, it would mysteriously return, now likely bugged by the KGB.) His apartment was bugged and his lines were tapped. Once, he used an unsecure line to set up dinner at a restaurant with friends. While driving to the restaurant, he figured out that the cars behind him and in front of him were KGB surveillance. At some point in the drive, he and his wife got lost, so they decided to just follow the KGB to see what would happen. The KGB took him straight to the restaurant. 

8. Cyanide capsules were real, and were used. 

More than once, Soviet agents recruited by the CIA made a specific request: a suicide pill. In the event of capture, rather than face interrogation, public hearings, and execution, agents wanted a pill that would immediately kill them. The CIA hated the L-Pill, as it was called, because of the psychological burden it placed on the carrier. The pill was hard to hide and leant itself to premature use. Not every capture is suicide worthy, but how would the detainee know? After much internal debate, the CIA would sometimes provide the pill, hidden in pens. The pill was sometimes used by agents. 

9. Washington watched the Moscow station as closely as the KGB. 

In the mid-1970s, Congressional oversight of the CIA increased, and headquarters scrutiny of CIA stations increased as well. This was especially so in Moscow, where a possible leak had been discovered. As a result, years elapsed during which the Moscow station was essentially shut down. When activities resumed, the station and case officers were tightly managed from Washington, D.C. Good leads were sometimes turned away for fear of being a Soviet plot. As Hoffman wrote, “Running a spy was undertaken with the concentration and attention to detail of a moon shot.”

10. The intelligence collected from Moscow might have saved us from nuclear annihilation. 

Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the GRU (the Soviet military intelligence division) offered his services to the United States as an agent. Penkovsky wanted to inflict damage on the Soviet Union after the KGB wrongly undermined his career. As a clandestine agent, Penkovsky gave the CIA hundreds of rolls of film and produced veritable libraries of information. According to Hoffman, intelligence Penkovsky provided on the R-12 medium range missile ”was a key ingredient in decision making as President Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.” 

11. Soviet volunteers had common traits. 

The Soviets would sometimes send “dangles” to the CIA—false informants with bad intelligence. For years, CIA counterintelligence officers feared dangles to the point of crippling the Moscow station. CIA officers conducted a comprehensive study, and realized that many Soviets turned away for fear of being dangles were, in fact, legitimate. There were patterns to would-be volunteers. The KGB never sent their own officers. They simply didn’t trust their people to be alone with CIA case officers. Also, they never used people who were strangers to the CIA officer in question. The guy you bumped into at a party once, who now wants to give you information? There’s a good chance that he’s working in the service of the KGB. The guy you’ve never seen before? He’s likely not a threat.

war

8 Sequels That Received Oscar Nominations for Best Picture

Jasin Boland, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Jasin Boland, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s rare when a movie sequel manages to stand up to the original entry in a film series. Even rarer? When a sequel is so good that it nabs an Oscars nomination for Best Picture. Here are eight movies that did just that.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When Mad Max: Fury Road was released in theaters in 2015, no one thought that it would be a critical darling—or an awards contender . But when the Academy Award nominations were announced in 2016, the latest entry in George Miller’s Mad Max franchise earned a whopping 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fury Road is the fourth installment in the series and was the first to hit theaters in 30 years (since the release of 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). It’s also the first movie in the franchise to receive any recognition from the Academy.

2. Toy Story 3 (2010)

A still from 'Toy Story 3' (2010)
Disney/Pixar

In 2011, Toy Story 3 was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Animated Feature. Though The King’s Speech ended up taking the night’s top prize, Toy Story 3 (which was named Best Animated Feature) made history that night, as it was the third ever animated movie to score a Best Picture nod; 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 2009’s Up are the other two films to earn the same accolade.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Although the first two installments in The Lord of the Rings trilogy—2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring and 2002’s The Two Towers—were each nominated for Best Picture, it was the final movie that ended up winning the Academy Award in 2004. In fact, The Return of the King won 11 Oscars that year, sweeping every category in which it was nominated, and tying Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most awards received in one night.

4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

In 2003, The Two Towers won two of the six Oscars for which it was nominated, for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. Rob Marshall’s musical Chicago beat it out for Best Picture.  

5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1992, The Silence of the Lambs made a clean sweep of the “Big Five” categories: Best Picture, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, Best Actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress for Jodie Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally. Although The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a direct sequel to Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, it’s based on the sequel novel to author Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, on which Manhunter was based. It also features the character Hannibal Lecter in a major role, who was played by Brian Cox in Manhunter—before Hopkins made the role his own. Got that?

6. The Godfather: Part III (1990)

Though it’s often considered the far inferior film in The Godfather trilogy, The Godfather: Part III received seven Academy Award nominations in 1991, including Best Picture and Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola. Ultimately, it lost to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, making it the only installment in The Godfather Saga not to win a Best Picture Oscar.

7. The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Al Pacino in 'The Godfather: Part II' (1974)
Paramount Pictures

In 1975, The Godfather: Part II became the first sequel in Oscar history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It won the coveted award two years after the original film was named Best Picture. The sequel was nominated for a total of 11 Oscars, with three separate nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category alone: one for Michael Vincenzo Gazzo (who played Frankie Pentangeli) and Lee Strasberg (as Hyman Roth), and one for Robert De Niro, who took home the statuette for playing the younger version of Vito Corleone.

8. The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

Though it lost Best Picture to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend at the 1946 Oscars, The Bells of St. Mary’s is the first movie sequel to be nominated for the Academy’s biggest prize. The film is a sequel to Leo McCarey’s previous film, 1944’s Going My Way, which won the Oscar for Best Picture a year earlier. While Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s feature different stories and casts, Bing Crosby stars in both movies as Father Chuck O'Malley.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.

James Cameron Directed Entourage's Aquaman, But He Could Never Direct the Real One

Tommaso Boddi, Getty Images for AMC
Tommaso Boddi, Getty Images for AMC

Oscar-winning director James Cameron is no stranger to CGI. With movies like Avatar under his belt, you’d expect Cameron to find a particular sort of enjoyment in special effects-heavy movies like James Wan's Aquaman. But Cameron—who directed the fictional version of Aquaman featuring fictional movie star Vinnie Chase in the very real HBO series Entourage—has a little trouble with suspension of disbelief.

In a recent interview with Yahoo!, Cameron said that while he did enjoy Aquaman, he would never have been able to direct the movie itself because of its lack of realism.

"I think it’s great fun,” Cameron said. “I never could have made that film, because it requires this kind of total dreamlike disconnection from any sense of physics or reality. People just kind of zoom around underwater, because they propel themselves mentally, I guess, I don’t know. But it’s cool! You buy it on its own terms.”

"I’ve spent thousands of hours underwater," the Titanic director went on to say. "While I can enjoy that film, I don’t resonate with it because it doesn’t look real.”

While Aquaman was shot on a soundstage, Cameron will be employing state-of-the-art technology that will allow him to actually be underwater while shooting underwater scenes for his upcoming Avatar sequels.

[h/t Yahoo!]

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