11 Amazing Facts About CIA Operations in the Soviet Union

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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.

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New Jersey's Anthony Bourdain Food Trail Has Opened

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Before Anthony Bourdain was a world-famous chef, author, or food and travel documentarian, he was just another kid growing up in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Food & Wine reported that Bourdain's home state would honor the late television personality with a food trail tracing his favorite restaurants. And that trail is now open.

Bourdain was born in New York City in 1956, and spent most of childhood living in Leonia, New Jersey. He often revisited the Garden State in his books and television shows, highlighting the state's classic diners and delis and the seafood shacks of the Jersey shore.

Immediately following Bourdain's tragic death on June 8, 2018, New Jersey assemblyman Paul Moriarty proposed an official food trail featuring some of his favorite eateries. The trail draws from the New Jersey episode from season 5 of the CNN series Parts Unknown. In it, Bourdain traveled to several towns throughout the state, including Camden, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park, and sampled fare like cheesesteaks, salt water taffy, oysters, and deep-fried hot dogs.

The food trail was approved following a unanimous vote in January, and the trail was officially inaugurated last week. Among the stops included on the trail:

  1. Frank's Deli // Asbury Park
  1. Knife and Fork Inn // Atlantic City
  1. Dock's Oyster House // Atlantic City
  1. Tony's Baltimore Grill // Atlantic City
  1. James' Salt Water Taffy // Atlantic City
  1. Lucille's Country Cooking // Barnegat
  1. Tony & Ruth Steaks // Camden
  1. Donkey's Place // Camden
  2. Hiram's Roadstand // Fort Lee

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

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