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

10 Clever Moments of TV Foreshadowing You Might Have Missed

Gene Page, AMC
Gene Page, AMC

Spoiler alert! Sometimes TV shows shock their audiences with mind-blowing twists and surprises, but the writers are often clever enough to foreshadow these events with very subtle references. Here are 10 of them.

**Many spoilers ahead.**

1. The Walking Dead

During season five of The Walking Dead, Glenn (Steven Yeun) picks up a baseball bat a few times in the Alexandria Safe-Zone. He was also almost killed by one at Terminus at the beginning of the season. Two seasons later, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) brutally kills Glenn with his barbed-wire baseball bat (a.k.a. Lucille) during the season seven premiere.

2. Breaking Bad

In Breaking Bad's second season finale, a Boeing 737 crashes over Albuquerque, New Mexico. While the event was hinted at throughout the season during the black-and-white teasers at the beginning of each episode, the titles of certain episodes predicted the crash altogether. The titles “Seven Thirty-Seven,” “Down,” “Over,” and “ABQ” spell out the phrase “737 Down Over ABQ,” which is the airport code for the Albuquerque International Sunport.

3. Game Of Thrones

In “The Mountain and the Viper,” a season 4 episode of Game of Thrones, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) tells his stepson, Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli), “People die at their dinner tables. They die in their beds. They die squatting over their chamber pots. Everybody dies sooner or later. And don’t worry about your death. Worry about your life. Take charge of your life for as long as it lasts.”

Throughout that same season, viewers see King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) die at a dinner table during his wedding and watch Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) strangle his former lover, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), in bed, before killing his father, Tywin (Charles Dance), while he’s sitting on a toilet.

4. Arrested Development

Throughout seasons 1 and 2 of Arrested Development, there are a number of references that foretell Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) losing his hand. In “Out on a Limb,” Buster is sitting on a bus stop bench with an ad for Army Officers, but the way he’s sitting hides most of the ad, so it reads “Arm Off” instead. Earlier in season 2, Buster says “Wow, I never thought I’d miss a hand so much,” when he sees his long lost hand-shaped chair in his housekeeper’s home.

5. Buffy The Vampire Slayer

In season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) comes out as gay and begins a relationship with Tara (Amber Benson). However, in the episode “Doppelgangland” in season 3, a vampire version of Willow appears after a spell is accidentally cast. After Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) capture the vampire Willow, the real Willow takes a look at her vampire-self and comments, "That's me as a vampire? I'm so evil and skanky. And I think I'm kinda gay!"

6. Futurama

In the very first episode of Futurama, "Space Pilot 3000," Fry (Billy West) is accidentally frozen and wakes up 1000 years later. Just before he falls into the cryotube, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, you can see a small shadowy figure under a desk in the Applied Cryogenics office. In the season four episode “The Why of Fry,” it was revealed that Nibbler (Frank Welker) was hiding in the shadows. He planned to freeze Fry in the past, so that he could save the universe in the future. According to co-creator Matt Groening, “What we tried to do is we tried to lay in a lot of little secrets in this episode that would pay off later.”

7. American Horror Story: Coven

American Horror Story: Coven follows a coven of witches in Salem, Massachusetts. When Fiona (Jessica Lange), the leader of the witches, is stricken with cancer, she believes a new witch who can wield the Seven Powers will come and take her place. Fiona then begins to kill every witch she believes will take her place until the new Supreme reveals herself.

During the opening credits of each episode in season 3, Sarah Paulson’s title card appears with the Mexican female deity Santa Muerte (Holy Death), the Lady of the Seven Wonders. And as it turned out, Paulson’s character, Cordelia, became the new Supreme witch at the end of the season.

8. Mad Men

At the end of Mad Men's fifth season, ad agency partner Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) committed suicide by hanging himself in his office. While it was a shock to the audience, the show's writers hinted at his death throughout the entire season.

In the season 5 premiere, Lane jokes "I'll be here for the rest of my life!" while he’s on the telephone in his office. Later, in episode five, Don Draper doodles a noose during a meeting, while Lane wears a scarf around his neck in a bar to support his soccer club. Early in episode 12, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) mentions that the agency’s life insurance policy still pays out, even in the event of a suicide.

9. How I Met Your Mother

In How I Met Your Mother's season 6 episode, “Bad News,” Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) are waiting for test results that will tell them whether or not they can have children. While we’re led to believe the title of the episode reflects their test results, it actually refers to the news that Marshall’s father, Marvin Eriksen Sr. (Bill Fagerbakke), had passed away after suffering a heart attack.

Keen-eyed viewers knew this news already because the writers of How I Met Your Mother foreshadowed the death two seasons earlier in the episode “The Fight.” At the beginning of the episode, Marshall said that lightsaber technology is real and will be on the market in about three to five years from now. By the end of the episode, a flash forward reveals what Thanksgiving looks like at the Eriksen family’s home in Minnesota; Marshall’s father is not shown or referenced during the holiday meal.

10. True Detective

During season 1 of True Detective, detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are trying to solve a murder investigation, as they try to identify the mysterious “Yellow King.” The color yellow is used when the detectives are on the right track, but the detectives already met the killer in episode three, "The Locked Room."

When the pair went to the Light of the Way Academy, posted on the school’s sign was a very clever hidden message that read “Notice King,” which pointed to the school's groundskeeper as the killer.

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Surprising Facts About David Tennant

Colin Hutton, BBC America
Colin Hutton, BBC America

Though he’s most often linked to his role as the Tenth Doctor on the legendary sci-fi series Doctor Who, David Tennant is much more than that, as audiences around the world are beginning to discover. Born David John McDonald in West Lothian, Scotland on April 18, 1971, the man who would become David Tennant has spent the past 30-plus years carving out a very particular niche for himself—both on the stage and screen in England and, increasingly more, as a Hollywood staple. To celebrate the Good Omens's star's birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about David Tennant.

1. He took his name from the Pet Shop Boys.

As a teenager, the budding actor learned that because there was already a David McDonald in the actors’ union, he needed to come up with an alternate moniker to pursue a professional acting career. Right around the same time, he read an interview in Smash Hits with Neil Tennant, lead vocalist for the Pet Shop Boys, and "David Tennant" was born.

Today, he legally is David Tennant. “I am now actually Tennant—have been for a few years,” he said in 2013. “It was an issue with the Screen Actors' Guild in the U.S., who wouldn't let me keep my stage name unless it was my legal name. Faced with the prospect of working under two different names on either side of the globe, I had to take the plunge and rename myself! So although I always liked the name, I'm now more intimately associated with it than I had ever imagined. Thank you, Neil Tennant.”

2. He became an actor with the specific goal of starring in Doctor Who.

While a lot of young kids dream of growing up to become astronauts or professional athletes, Tennant set his own career goal at the tender age of three: to star on Doctor Who. It was Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor in particular that inspired Tennant to become an actor. He carried around a Doctor Who doll and wrote Who-inspired essays at school. "Doctor Who was a massive influence," Tennant told Rolling Stone. "I think it was for everyone in my generation; growing up, it was just part of the cultural furniture in Britain in the '70s and '80s.”

On April 16, 2004, just two days before his 34th birthday, Tennant achieved that goal when he was officially named The Tenth Doctor, taking over for Christopher Eccleston. “I am delighted, excited, and honored to be the Tenth Doctor,” Tennant said at the time. “I grew up loving Doctor Who and it has been a lifelong dream to get my very own TARDIS.”

3. Though becoming The Doctor was a lifelong dream, there was some trepidation.

Though landing the lead in Doctor Who was a lifelong dream come true for Tennant, the initial excitement was followed by a little trepidation. When asked by The Scotsman whether he worried about being typecast, Tennant admitted: “I did remember being thrilled to bits when I got asked and then a few days later thinking, ‘Oh, is this a terrible idea?’ … But that didn't last very long. Time will tell. The only option is you don't take these jobs when they come up. You've got to just roll with the punches.”

4. He made his professional debut in a PSA.

While most actors have some early roles they’d prefer to forget, Tennant’s first professional gig didn’t come in some otherwise forgettable movie, TV series, or play. When he was 16 years old, he booked a role in an anti-smoking PSA for the Glasgow Health Board, which played on television and was shown in schools. Thanks to the power of the internet, you can watch his performance above.

5. He married the Fifth Doctor's daughter, who once played the Tenth Doctor's daughter.

Confused? In 2011, Tennant married Georgia Moffett, who played his artificially created daughter, Jenny, in the 2008 Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In real life, Moffett really is The Doctor’s daughter; her father is Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor from 1981 to 1984.

6. His first movie role had him acting opposite Christopher Eccleston.

In 1996, Tennant landed his first movie role in Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, where he played the very descriptive “Drunk Undergraduate.” His big scene had him acting opposite Christopher Eccleston—the man who, less than a decade later, would hand over the keys to the TARDIS to Tennant.

7. He avoids reading reviews of his work.

While it’s hard to imagine that Tennant has ever had to deal with too many scathing reviews, it doesn’t really matter to the actor: good or bad, he avoids reading them. When asked during a livechat with The Guardian about one particularly negative review, and whether he reads and reacts to them, Tennant replied: “The bad review to which you refer was actually for a German expressionist piece about the Round Table called Merlin. It was the first extensive review I'd ever had, and it was absolutely appalling. Not that it's scarred into my memory in any way whatsoever. I try not to read them, these days. Reviews aren't really for the people who are performing, and—good or bad—they don't help. You always get a sense if something you're in has been well received or not, that's unavoidable. But beyond that, details are best avoided.”

8. He hosted Masterpiece Theatre.

In 2007, Masterpiece Theatre reinvented itself. In addition to dropping the “Theatre” from its title, the series announced that it was splintering into three different seasons—Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary. Unlike the days of the past, when Alistair Cooke held court, each of the new series had its own host, Tennant among them. (He was in charge of Masterpiece Contemporary.)

9. He got a lot of younger audiences interested in Shakespeare.

Tennant has logged a lot of hours with the Royal Shakespeare Company over the years. In 2008, while still starring in Doctor Who, he took on the role that every actor wants in the RSC’s production of Hamlet, which ended up being one of London’s hottest (and hardest to get) tickets. The Guardian reported that hundreds of people were lined up to buy tickets, with some even camping out overnight outside the West End theater. Within three hours of the tickets going on sale, all 6000 of them were sold out.

Hamlet is a very popular play,” a RSC spokesperson said at the time. “It's the most famous. But obviously there's the factor that David Tennant is in it and the good news is that he's bringing a lot of younger audiences to Shakespeare."

10. He was on a Royal Stamp.

In 2011, the Royal Mail paid tribute to Royal Shakespeare Company’s 50th anniversary with a series of stamps featuring images from a handful of the RSC’s productions, including Tennant as Hamlet.

11. He almost played Hannibal Lecter.

Though it’s easy to see why Bryan Fuller cast Mads Mikkelsen in the title role of his television adaptation of Hannibal, Tennant came pretty close to playing the fava bean-and-chianti-loving, flesh-eating serial killer at the heart of Thomas Harris’s novels. Fuller was so impressed with Tennant’s dark side that he tried to make a guest appearance happen during the series’ run.

“I’m a huge fan of David Tennant, and we’ve been trying to get him on the show for quite some time,” Fuller said. “He’s such a spectacular actor. He brings such an effervescence to every performance. I would love to have David on the show. Or just write for David! I would kill and eat somebody to work with David! He’s my favorite Doctor.”

12. He is Jodie Whittaker's favorite Doctor.

David Tennant stars in 'Doctor Who'
Adrian Rogers, BBC

Fuller isn’t the only one who puts Tennant at the top of their Favorite Doctor list. Jodie Whittaker, who recently made her debut as the Thirteenth Doctor—and is the first woman to take on the role—told The Sunday Times that “David [is my favorite Doctor] of course, because I know him.” (The two spent three seasons co-starring in the British crime drama Broadchurch.)

When asked about Whittaker’s casting at the New Orleans Wizard World Comic Con, and whether he had given her any words of advice, Tennant said that, “We had a wee chat, yes. It is quite a unique job, because it's a show that has so much history to it. And it has a reach that's quite unlike other things. It's a bit of a kind of cultural thing—Who's going to be the Doctor?—it's a news story, really. So to find yourself in the middle of that is a bit overwhelming. I think inevitably, you sort of look to people who'd been there before to go, 'What is this like? What is this madness I entered into?' And that's certainly been the case with Matt and Peter, and now with Jodie. I know that Jodie's talked to Peter, and she's talked to Matt. You just for a little support group. You go, 'What is this madness? Tell me about it.' And of course, you know, she's a little trepidatious, but she's basically really excited. She's such a fantastic choice for it. You see it in just those 30 seconds that she did at the end of the last episode. You just go, 'Oh my god, she's all over it. Brilliant. It's great.’”

13. He's dying to work with Aaron Sorkin.

When asked by Collider if there’s ever been a television show he’s watched and wished he was a part of, Tennant copped to being a huge fan of The West Wing.

The West Wing is finished now [but] that’s the one that I would have loved to have been part of," he said. "I’d love to work with Aaron Sorkin on something. Just the way he writes, he has no fear in writing people that are fiercely intelligent, and I love that. I love the speed of his stuff, and the way people free-associate and interact. That kind of writing is very exciting. It’s hard to have that kind of clarity of voice, especially in a world where there’s a million executives listening to everything you do and having an opinion and trying to drive everything towards the lowest common denominator because that’s what happens when things are made by committee. So, to have someone who’s got a strong individual voice that is allowed to be heard is quite increasingly rare. These people need to be cherished.”

14. He has earned a lot of fan accolades, including "Coolest Man on TV."

David Tennant in 'Jessica Jones'
Linda Kallerus, Netflix

In addition to his many professional acting accolades—including a couple of BAFTAs and a Daytime Emmy and an Olivier Award nomination—Tennant has earned a number of less official “awards” over the years. In 2007, a Radio Times survey named him the Coolest Man on TV. The National Television Awards named him Most Popular Actor of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. In 2008, he was one of Cosmopolitan’s Sexiest Men in the World. In 2012, British GQ readers named him the third Best Dressed Man (behind Tom Hiddleston and Robert Pattinson).

15. the royal shakespeare company sold his pants.

On April 17, 2018, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stitch in Time fundraiser, the organization auctioned off more than 50 original costumes worn during RSC performances. Among the items they had on offer? The black trousers Tennant wore in Hamlet, and the white robe he wore in Richard II.

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