SPYSCAPE’s special edition of True Spies is your guide to the tricks of the trade
CIA, KGB and Mossad spies share their most closely guarded espionage secrets in SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast, the first of two seasonal special editions that put listeners in the danger zone.
Listen to the heart-pounding story of Valerie Plame, a CIA operations officer whose cover was blown by the US government. Follow the covert operations as Mossad sets up a diving school on the Red Sea. And live the intrigue of Russian sleeper agent ‘Jack Barsky’ sent to spy on Americans.
Tradecraft is a combination of techniques, methods and technologies used in the field. The tools for each mission – disguises, cameras, listening devices – depend on the assignment. Intuition and a curious nature are assets, but there are no short-cuts when it comes to intelligence gathering. Spying requires meticulous work, patience and the ability to keep a secret.
The FBI ‘ghost’
FBI investigative specialist Eric O'Neill's job involved learning all of the tradecraft of every spy who might operate in the US. If he was suspicious of the target, O’Neill followed the person, hoping to catch the enemy in an act of espionage or terrorism.
O'Neill was also tasked with catching the most notorious mole in the FBI's history: double agent Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for more than 20 years. During the op, O’Neill went undercover. He was a “ghost”.
"We worked from the shadows, so we were trained in all of the traditional clandestine techniques ... disguises and how to use photography to capture a target from a long distance," O’Neill said.
True Spies reveals how O’Neill uncovered the FBI agent turned Russian mole.
Behind enemy lines
Marthe Cohn, who turned 100 in 2020, has fond memories of her time as a French spy during World War II. She infiltrated Germany pretending to be a local nurse. Cohn’s colleagues couldn’t imagine that a short, thin, blonde, blue-eyed woman was a threat and dismissed her as insubstantial. Cohn’s legend spy-speak for a cover story, helped her deliver a big victory.
Knowing Allied soldiers were advancing on the Black Forest, Cohn struck up a conversation with a German doctor while standing near an ambulance on the roadside. After chatting for a while, he mentioned the exact location of the German army in the forest. Armed with the information, Cohn ran to the nearest customs office with a message for her commanding officer.
“He could read it. It was in French, I didn’t take the time to code it. I had no time for that,” she recalled.
Mossad’s diving school
Gad Shimron was born in Tel Aviv and during a long career with Mossad he was stationed in Sudan. He helped smuggle persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1980s but it was slow going, less than 10 people a week. Mossad was getting impatient. That's when Shimron and his colleague developed a plan to ramp up the extractions.
They found an abandoned diving school on the Red Sea and scaled up covert operations to bring in operatives from Israel and smuggle out Ethiopians. Mossad paid the local government money to lease the property. Everybody was happy.
“The idea was that this diving resort will enable the Mossad to bring operatives to Sudan. It’s a good cover story,’ Shimron told True Spies.
Albrecht Dittrich was an East German sleeper agent for the KGB. He arrived in the US in 1978 with instructions to embed himself in American life. His alias was Jack Barsky and his contact with the Soviet Union was through a shortwave radio. He received his instructions in double-encrypted Morse code.
“I got a transmission about once a week on a particular day at a particular time, Thursdays at 9:15 pm,” he said. “To receive and decrypt, it would take me roughly about two-and-a-half hours.”
Outgoing messages were more laborious. Dittrich would compose a letter but also put text in secret writing. After posting it by regular mail to South America or Europe, the letter would be picked up by a KGB collaborator and forwarded in a diplomatic pouch to Moscow: “You ask a question and you get an answer three weeks later."
Valerie Plame, a covert CIA operations officer, started as an overseas case officer and ended up managing secret programs dealing with nuclear proliferation. Before her cover was blown in a game of political football, Plame learned to go "gray". She was a diplomat's wife and played the part of the devoted spouse with no career aspirations.
"All I had to say was, ‘Oh you know, I’m a consultant, I travel’. And then people, they glaze over," she said. "Many people, frankly, discount women. What could they possibly be up to, other than, say, shopping?"
Intrigued? Think you could learn the tricks of the trade? Listen to True Spies to find out more about what happened to Plame and other real-life spies.
Host Vanessa Kirby won best actress at the Venice Film Festival for her role in Pieces of a Woman (2020). She is perhaps best known for her BAFTA-winning portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown, and for her roles in Mission: Impossible and Hobbs & Shaw.
The True Spies series is produced by SPYSCAPE, the number-one rated museum and experience in New York which uses intriguing and entertaining stories and experiences based on secrets to inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things.