Sneaky Secrets From the CIA Spy Manual of Trickery and Deception

Among the many tricks hidden up the CIA’s sleeve during the Cold War was a top-secret manual of deception written by American magician John Mulholland. The Agency paid Mulholland $3,000 to write a how-to guide that would educate CIA spies on how to exploit conjurers’ tricks for covert operations. (See Mulholland’s 10 Tips below.)

Mulholland advised officers on how they might send messages with their shoelaces, thwart communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, or smuggle an agent out of a hostile country.

The guide is divided into sections on how to perform tricks with pills, liquids, and small objects. Other chapters deal with how to make people ‘disappear’ and ‘reappear’.

MKUltra

The manual was part of the top-secret MKUltra project, a CIA program that investigated mind control. 

Mulholland’s 1953 guide - classified as MKUltra Subproject Number 4 - was supposed to be destroyed in the 1970s but an archived copy reappeared, as if by magic, decades later.

Retired CIA officer Robert Wallace and Navel intelligence historian Keith Melton republished the manual as The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, adding illustrations and a history of the broader MKUltra project.

Stranger Things on Netflix
MKUltra is a subplot in the Netflix series Stranger Things


Sleight of hand

For spies new to the dark arts, magician John Mulholland describes sleight-of-hand tricks: “A small action will not be noticed when it is done while making a broader gesture for which there is an obvious reason.”

In another section, Mulholland describes how to put a dab of wax on the side of a briefcase to surreptitiously pick up papers on a flat surface or desk.

Mulholland’s Houdini-like advice also included tips on how to smuggle an agent out of a dangerous place using a secret compartment in a vehicle.


Mulholland’s magic


Mulholland was well known to the US government. Some 100,000 copies of his earlier book, The Art of Illusion: Magic for Men To Do, were distributed to US soldiers during WWII.

The Chicago-born magician was also popular worldwide having traveled with his show to more than 40 countries, written 10 books, and performed multiple times at the White House.


John Mulholland, magician
The CIA paid Mulholland $3,000 for his deception guide


During the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, Mulholland shut down his prestigious magic magazine, The Sphinx, on the pretense of ill health, and began his collaboration with the Agency in 1953.

He died in New York City in 1970 and his books, papers, and magic collection are now owned by David Copperfield.

Sneaky Secrets From the CIA Spy Manual of Trickery and Deception

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Among the many tricks hidden up the CIA’s sleeve during the Cold War was a top-secret manual of deception written by American magician John Mulholland. The Agency paid Mulholland $3,000 to write a how-to guide that would educate CIA spies on how to exploit conjurers’ tricks for covert operations. (See Mulholland’s 10 Tips below.)

Mulholland advised officers on how they might send messages with their shoelaces, thwart communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, or smuggle an agent out of a hostile country.

The guide is divided into sections on how to perform tricks with pills, liquids, and small objects. Other chapters deal with how to make people ‘disappear’ and ‘reappear’.

MKUltra

The manual was part of the top-secret MKUltra project, a CIA program that investigated mind control. 

Mulholland’s 1953 guide - classified as MKUltra Subproject Number 4 - was supposed to be destroyed in the 1970s but an archived copy reappeared, as if by magic, decades later.

Retired CIA officer Robert Wallace and Navel intelligence historian Keith Melton republished the manual as The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, adding illustrations and a history of the broader MKUltra project.

Stranger Things on Netflix
MKUltra is a subplot in the Netflix series Stranger Things


Sleight of hand

For spies new to the dark arts, magician John Mulholland describes sleight-of-hand tricks: “A small action will not be noticed when it is done while making a broader gesture for which there is an obvious reason.”

In another section, Mulholland describes how to put a dab of wax on the side of a briefcase to surreptitiously pick up papers on a flat surface or desk.

Mulholland’s Houdini-like advice also included tips on how to smuggle an agent out of a dangerous place using a secret compartment in a vehicle.


Mulholland’s magic


Mulholland was well known to the US government. Some 100,000 copies of his earlier book, The Art of Illusion: Magic for Men To Do, were distributed to US soldiers during WWII.

The Chicago-born magician was also popular worldwide having traveled with his show to more than 40 countries, written 10 books, and performed multiple times at the White House.


John Mulholland, magician
The CIA paid Mulholland $3,000 for his deception guide


During the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, Mulholland shut down his prestigious magic magazine, The Sphinx, on the pretense of ill health, and began his collaboration with the Agency in 1953.

He died in New York City in 1970 and his books, papers, and magic collection are now owned by David Copperfield.

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Top 10 Takeaways from The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception


1. When in doubt, look a bit dopey and disheveled. People suspect less from someone who isn’t paying attention to their appearance.

Look Dopey if you are in danger

2. Clothing can easily be used as a signal, whether it is a shoelace tied in a certain way or an adjusted tie clip.


3. Hidden trouser pockets are useful for hiding weapons or documents. 


Fold documents before passing them

4. Folding a document four times will reduce it to one-sixteenth of its original size, allowing you to hold it in your hand and pass it over surreptitiously. 


Toothpast


5.
Toothpaste can be an ideal place to hide a .22 bullet or other secrets.

6. Use everyday objects to hide intelligence. A cigarette package, for example, is unlikely to attract attention.

7. Matchbooks are useful for hiding small objects such as pills that can be dropped into an opponent’s coffee or whiskey. 

presents can be spy signals


8. When accepting or handing over a package, note the color of the ribbon, the way the knot is tied, and be on the lookout for any other covert signs. 

9. Escapes can be made by using everyday objects such as packing crates.

Smuggle out agents in crates



10. A hollowed-out coin can be used to hide notes or pills. The coin is opened by pressing on the edge.

Hollowed out coin

Bonus tip: Remember to practice sleight of hand at home. You never know when it will come in handy.

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