Episode 36



For spies, a lot of the tradecraft that defines the make-or-break moments of their career is learned on the job in the most likely places - the weekend crossword puzzle; contacts made in unrelated jobs; even the small thrill that comes as a small child telling a white lie or maintaining a cover story. This special edition of True Spies, Part 2, hears from spies and non-spies alike for your instructional guide to the ins and outs of spycraft.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 36: Tradecraft Part 2 

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 36: Tradecraft: Part 2.

NEIL WOODS: He was asking me questions and asking my friend questions, and rephrasing the questions, and asking again. And all the time I’m getting punched and shoved around and I was coming to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting out of there in one piece. I knew what these people did.

NARRATOR: Ask any of the operatives you’ve heard on this series. They’ll tell you there are limits to the lessons that can be learned in training. For a spy, so much of the tradecraft that defines the make-or-break moments of your career is learned on the job and much of that comes from the unlikeliest of places, which is why we’re beginning the next chapter of your instructional guide to the ins and outs of spycraft - not with a spy - but out in the civilian world with a newspaper reporter.

NICK DAVIES: In some ways, what a reporter does is quite similar to what a spy working for an intelligence agency does. 

NARRATOR: As an investigative journalist at The Guardian, Nick Davies had a hand in some of the most explosive news stories of our time. And the skill set he depended on over the course of that investigation has more than a little overlap with that of the case officer.

NICK DAVIES: The intelligence agency may have access to all sorts of amazing technology which can intercept communications but over and over again, you'll hear spy chiefs say: “What we really need are human sources.” Now, a reporter who's not breaking the law doesn't have access to the technology to intercept communications. The human source is the most important part of our work.

NARRATOR: So, how about a little crash course on recruiting a source from someone whose career depended on it?

NICK DAVIES: You have to, first of all, identify the human who is in a position to have access to information. Then, most important, you've got to understand the thinking and, really important, the emotional state of that source, so that when you approach them you know what it is you need to say to find a motive that might persuade them to cooperate with you. 

NARRATOR: While that might sound perfectly possible in the abstract, the reality is that investigative journalism, much like espionage, requires you to go to dark, uncomfortable places.

NICK DAVIES: So, once upon a time I was doing a lot of investigation about child sexual abuse. So I am building a relationship with adults who were sexually abused as children. I am also building relationships with pedophiles who sexually abuse children. And I am building a relationship with the detective who catches the pedophile. Now it's as if you have to be a very different person in each of those three contexts, but you have to be able to build a relationship to sustain this connection with the person who's agreed to help you.

NARRATOR: That ability to split your personality, to cordon off your morals and do what needs to be done to establish the connection, is vital in the world of espionage, and we’ll hear more about the role that calculated schizophrenia plays in tradecraft a little later. But before that, if you’re still not convinced by the similarities between journalism and more conventional spy work don’t take my word for it.

BARRY BROMAN: This is Barry Broman speaking. I served in the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1971 to 1976.

NARRATOR: Before Barry Broman was a case officer at the CIA he was a photographer in war-torn Laos with The Associated Press. Looking back, he realizes just how much that first job prepared him for all that would follow.

BARRY BROMAN: There’s a lot of similarities. Everybody wants the story. Everybody wants to get it right. In the AP you go out, you find your source, your person that you need to get your story from. It’s the same in the CIA. You look for the people that have the intelligence that the CIA wants to know.

NARRATOR: And in fact, where the journalist must rely on empathy and charisma alone the CIA agent has another trick up his sleeve.

BARRY BROMAN: We have the advantage in the CIA of paying our informants. If you’re back in the AP you don’t pay people for the news. You get it for free.

NARRATOR: The importance of this extra resource in the case officer’s bag of tricks, that ability to make your source’s dreams come true, was pressed upon Barry early on in his career. In Episode 32 of True Spies, Barry Broman took a drive down memory lane to the month he spent on the road in the 1980s tracking down a highly valuable recruit. It was a task he undertook in collaboration with a visiting, senior MI6 officer Alex.

BARRY BROMAN: He was described to me by my supervisor as the ‘plus-perfect case officer’. In other words, the best of the best.

NARRATOR: Now, theoretically, Barry’s status as a CIA agent on home soil gave him seniority in their joint mission.

BARRY BROMAN: Since it was in the States, technically, I was in charge. Although it became clear to me that Alex was the guy that was going to make this thing work or not work. He knew what to do. He knew how to do it. And he did, and I was taking notes okay?

NARRATOR: When you’re presented with an opportunity to learn from the best of the best, what else can you do but pull up a pew?

BARRY BROMAN: Alex and I spent a lot of time talking about things and he taught me a lot. As Alex put it to me: “We’re in the dreams come true business.” Everyone has a dream and a good intelligence officer can make a target’s dreams come true. 

NARRATOR: Now, in most cases, you’ll have time to get to know your target - time you can spend getting an understanding of their hopes and ambitions.

BARRY BROMAN: I recruited dozens of people and, in every one of those cases, I knew the person personally. We were friends. They liked me. They trusted me. I knew what their dreams were and I was in a position to make them come true, and it happened.

NARRATOR: But even if your target is a complete unknown there are some broad strokes you can refer to in this Dreams Come True business.

BARRY BROMAN: Typically, let’s say Americans, their dreams... They want money. It’s more nebulous for foreigners. Some want money. Some want a better life. They see how it is in the West and they want to join that. Some want revenge - Russian cases in particular. Grandpa was killed in the gulag. Daddy died in a Stalin purge. So they want revenge on the regime.

NARRATOR: So you’ve had your crash course in recruiting a valuable asset. How about a guide to being recruited?

NAVEED JAMALI: I really felt a strong desire to prove my loyalty to this country.

NARRATOR: Naveed Jamali is a patriot in the truest sense of the word. Coupled with a lifelong obsession with spy films and an obvious career path presented itself to Naveed. He wanted to become an intelligence officer so he applied to the US Navy’s hothouse training program. But patriotism alone does not prove your credentials for espionage and the Navy rejected Naveed’s application. He was working at his parents’ book store, wondering what move to make next when fate presented Naveed with an opportunity to put a little extra-curricular experience on his next application for spy school.

NAVEED JAMALI: One day a man walked in and asked to speak to my father, and he was wearing a trench coat, and he presented himself as Alex Tomelkin from the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.

NARRATOR: If you listened to Episode 28 of True Spies, you’ll know that the man who walked through the doors that day was a Russian spy, and that after that fateful encounter Naveed effectively spent three years of his life as an amateur double agent. He wanted the GRU - Russia’s intelligence agency - to attempt to recruit him as a spy. In doing so, he could expose their operations on US soil and win brownie points with the FBI in the process.

NAVEED JAMALI: I just came up with this hair-brained idea that perhaps if I helped the FBI a little more, then I could approach them and ask them to write me a letter of recommendation.

NARRATOR: The thing was, if Naveed was going to score his little resumé builder he’d need to convince the GRU that he was the perfect candidate for recruitment: a turncoat. In other words, he had to present himself as vulnerable to the Dreams Come True pitch. So, with no formal training where do you think he took his guidance from?

NAVEED JAMALI: I came up with this character that was based on me but also based on a combination of just modern-day movies at the time, that would allow me to be this sort of young, money-driven, arrogant egotistical young kid. And honestly, it worked, and I played the role perfectly. Once I’d built a character like that the Russians were all in.

NARRATOR: No matter where you draw your inspiration from, believing in the character you’re playing is one of the fundamentals of tradecraft, and for an operative on the field it can quite literally mean the difference between life and death.

NEIL WOODS: I thought I was going to die on several occasions. I look back now and try to count them, and it seems difficult to even count how many times I came close to death.

NARRATOR: Neil Woods is another valuable resource in this little whirlwind tour of espionage - even though, like Nick Davies, he’s never technically been a spy. But Neil did spend more than a decade infiltrating criminal organizations as an undercover police officer. As he recounted in Episode 30 of True Spies, Neil’s beat was the grubby, violent world of drug-dealing rings and he was to play their customer. It was a role for which he would need to look the part.

NEIL WOODS: So, to start with, I dressed myself as what northerners would call a ‘scally’, a sort of traveling criminal type. I dressed up in a matching tracksuit and Nike Air Max trainers because sportswear just happened to be the uniform of thieves. But I quickly realized that if I dressed down and mixed with the people who were really the most vulnerable it opened up many more doors for me because the people who were using the most drugs, problematically, were people who were really on the fringes of society. People who were living in squats, or homeless, or in that kind of community. So I found that if I looked like them I could open more doors because they knew more people. They knew more drug dealers.

NARRATOR: But simply looking the part isn’t quite sufficient.

NEIL WOODS: I found that if I put my clothes in a plastic bag overnight in a warm place, the next day they would smell worse. And it was a matter of getting completely into character. I would wear dirty clothes. I would let my hair get greasy. I would just look as dirty as possible.

NARRATOR: Neil Woods is an expert in living the role that you’re assigned. That expertise would be pushed to its limit during the definitive assignment of his career in which he was tasked with infiltrating a particularly brutal ring of drug dealers known as the Burger Bar Boys, or the Brummies. His first step was to befriend two of their established customers.

NEIL WOODS: I picked this couple who were both problematic drug users. She was fabulous at selling the Big Issue and he was really good at shoplifting. I went shoplifting with him a few times, which is great fun if you know you’ve got a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’. So I got to know them. I got to really befriend them. I pretended to give them my excess stolen property and I really got them to owe me. 

NARRATOR: Step Two: exploit your connection to get closer to the target.

NEIL WOODS: Then after a few weeks of knowing them, I started to complain that all I could get were these £10 bags off poxy street dealers, poxy runners who were ripping me off, and I really needed a decent connect to get a decent weight. And how could I get in contact with these people? And eventually, they offered. They said: “Okay, we’re allowed to deal with the Brummies. We’ll introduce you to the Brummies.”

NARRATOR: Neil was already undercover but to meet the gang of six burger bar boys he had to develop yet another identity, another layer of deception. His new friend had it all worked out.

NEIL WOODS: He made me learn another cover story about how long we’d known each other, the things we’d got up to together. He said: “Because if I tell you we’ve only known each other for a few weeks, they’ll never agree. We have to have known each other for years.” So I had this peculiar situation, having already memorized and living another cover story, for someone to try and teach me another one on top, which is confusing to say the least, but I remember him testing me as we went to their headquarters.

NARRATOR: Which brings us to Step Three: know your cover - or, in this case, your covers - inside out because you never know just how vital that knowledge could be.

NEIL WOODS: He took me in there and I was instantly directed to the gents' toilets. We were waiting there just for a few seconds, and then the door burst open. A hooded figure came in. He opened one of the cubicles, shut the door, and stood on the toilet, looking over the top of the cubicle, and he said: “What’s this?” Then the door burst open again. Four more hooded figures came in and they started walking around me, circling me, slowly. Then from the cubicle, he started asking me questions. And as he did, I got headbutted in the ear, then punched in the ribs, and every so often this random violence from these circling figures would be there. 

NARRATOR: This is one of those moments that no amount of training could prepare you for. A brutal pop quiz on the fictions you have built around yourself. Would you hold up?

NEIL WOODS: And he was asking me questions and asking my friend questions, and rephrasing the questions, and asking again, and all the time I’m getting punched and shoved around. And I was coming to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting out of there in one piece. I knew what these people did. I knew that daily maiming was just part of their business.

NARRATOR: Neil took the beating and it worked. He had passed the test. They thought he was just another desperate addict wanting drugs. He came away with crack and heroin to sell. More importantly, he came away with a number to call for next time. He was in. Of course, no matter how well you account for yourself under duress there will be times when your cover is blown. And how you handle the fallout, in that eventuality, will reveal just what kind of spy you are.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I showed Vilayat, my brother, the ‘L’ pill I had been given. L stood for lethal. Cyanide. It was given in case I was captured.

NARRATOR: When Noor Inayat Khan was sent behind enemy lines during World War II she was all too aware of the risks she was taking. Her story was recounted in Episode 27 of True Spies. During her time as a spy in Paris, Noor had plenty of close calls.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I remember once I was riding the metro. I kept my head down. I had dyed my hair, changed my make-up - all of that - and I had my suitcase.

NARRATOR: A suitcase containing the clunky, heavy radio equipment that Noor used to transmit information back to intelligence services in Britain.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: And then these two men - they were both wearing uniforms - walked over to me: “What have you got in that case Mademoiselle?”

NARRATOR: For two ordinary German soldiers the idea of capturing an enemy agent red-handed must have been the stuff of fantasy. Even more so if it was a radio operator. Resistance couldn’t function without communications. A promotion could well be in the offing. Maybe even a fat SS paycheck. It was a question well worth asking.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t like lying. I was taught that it was one of the worst things you can do, but what can you do? So I said: “It’s a film projector.”

NARRATOR: The carriage was between stations. If either of the soldiers had ever even seen a picture of a film projector, Noor had nowhere to run. The soldiers squinted at the young woman. She was desperately trying to hold herself together, obviously afraid. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she was a spy. A Nazi uniform had that effect on people. But still, only one way to find out.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: They told me to open the case.

NARRATOR: The soldiers looked inside. If they knew this was a radio transmitter, they were very good at hiding it.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I thought they had no idea, so I took a risk. I said quite harshly: “Well, you can see what it is, can’t you?” Like they were annoying me. I showed them the vacuum tubes and told them they were all the little bulbs of the projector.

NARRATOR: The Germans glanced at each other and then back at Noor. Their expressions softened. They apologized and they let her go. 

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I was proud of myself, that I had kept my head because in training I got flustered easily, I could lose my words, but I gambled on that soldier’s ignorance and it was a good bluff.

NARRATOR: A little bit of on-the-job learning and it had paid off, for now. But Noor’s tenure as a radio operator in occupied France was destined to be cut short and she was eventually outed as an enemy spy when one of her contacts was flipped by Nazi counterintelligence officers.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t judge him. I know he didn’t want to do it. I don’t know what they did to him. I forgive him.

NARRATOR: When she was finally caught, just days before she was due to be extracted, Noor was held captive at Avenue Foch, the headquarters of the counterintelligence branch of the SS.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: I don’t know how long. I was there for weeks, months. 

NARRATOR: Months of interrogation at the hands of the SS. A lesser spy would have crumbled, accepting defeat. But it was during Noor’s imprisonment that she demonstrated her true colors as a spy.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The first time I tried to escape, I climbed out of the bathroom window on the fifth floor. I tried to walk along the rain gutter. I knew I would either escape or die.

NARRATOR: She was caught, that time. But Noor didn’t give up hope. There was one other way out of the house on Avenue Foch. Her cell was lit by a skylight, barred of course. Along with two other prisoners, she plotted a midnight scramble to the rooftop above.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The bars were held into the ceiling by plaster. No screws, so they couldn’t be taken away quietly. It took a few nights chipping away at the ceiling. 

NARRATOR: You’re a long way from the glitz and gadgetry of your favorite spy movies here, but the resourcefulness Noor demonstrated in her tight cell speaks volumes about her own approach to tradecraft.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: We covered the holes with the bread we were given to eat. I mixed together some of my make-up cream and powder and we painted that over the bread so it would match the rest of the ceiling.

NARRATOR: On the night of the escape Noor and her accomplices pulled themselves gingerly through their respective skylights. For a moment, they allowed themselves a flash of joy, hugging and kissing on the roof. It didn’t last. At the worst possible time, an air raid siren blared. This was bad news. During raids, the Germans checked every cell to make sure the prisoners weren’t somehow signaling to the allied pilots. That night they found three empty cells.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: We heard footsteps shouting on the roof. We tried to make ourselves small and they didn’t find us. The Germans ran straight past.

NARRATOR: Using a makeshift rope made of torn-up blankets, the three prisoners abseiled onto the fourth-floor balcony of a neighboring apartment.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: And then from there we jumped down onto another balcony below. We smashed the glass and went inside. We didn’t know if anyone lived there, if it had been taken over by the Germans or anything like that. 

NARRATOR: The trio, moving as quietly as adrenaline would allow, made their way downstairs to street level. They cracked open the front door.

NOOR INAYAT KHAN: The building that we broke into was at the end of the cul de sac. There was nowhere to go.

NARRATOR: I wish I could tell you that all of that resourcefulness paid off for Noor and her accomplices but it didn’t. They were caught, once again, by Nazi officers, and this time, there would be no more escapes. Noor Inayat Khan died at the concentration camps of Dachau, a painful reminder of the stakes at play in this world. Countless operatives lost their lives defending what they believed in during the devastation of World War II but there were some who lived to tell the tale.

PAT OWTRAM: When we started our training courses, the first thing you did was sign the Official Secrets Act, and, of course, they did emphasize that this was for life.

NARRATOR: This is Pat Owtram. During World War II both she and her sister Jean played integral roles as allied codebreakers. I’m happy to tell you they both survived.

In Episode 26 of True Spies, these spy sisters revisited their turbulent, exhilarating days at the height of the war. Jean, stationed in central Europe, worked to support British agents and local partisans fighting the Germans. Pat, back home in Britain, intercepted and deciphered enemy code in close collaboration with the legendary codebreakers of Bletchley Park. And neither knew what the other was doing on account of that pesky Official Secrets Act that they’d both signed.

PAT OWTRAM: We were always extremely close. We always wrote a lot of letters. So I sort of knew where Jean was and a good deal about the social side of the life she was having, but of course absolutely nothing of the serious side.

NARRATOR: If you’re wondering just how it came to be that two sisters, unbeknownst to them, would end up doing almost exactly the same top-secret work during the course of the war… well, all I can say is that recruitment in those days was a little bit more, shall we say, quaint than what some of our other spies had to go through. Take the job interview that Jean went through, to get her position.

JEAN OWTRAM: I had a long interview about things I was doing, interested in, and so forth, and then the interviewer said: “Do you do crossword puzzles?” And I thought: “Oh dear, they’ve run out of suitable questions. I’ve missed my chance here.”

NARRATOR: It might not be the toughest job interview question you’ve ever heard but Jean’s answer was critical, nonetheless.

JEAN OWTRAM: And I said: “Well yes I do crossword puzzles. I enjoy doing that.” And then a few more questions and then they said right, they were taking me on, and that I would come back in a week’s time and get uniformed and I would be in.

NARRATOR: Spare a thought for poor Naveed, whom you heard earlier. He had to play the GRU and the FBI against one another to land his dream job. For Jean Owtram, a demonstrable interest in the puzzle section of her Sunday broadsheet was sufficient. But the job interviewer that day was onto something. When Jean was put to work breaking enemy code during the war she discovered that she had a special aptitude for deciphering corrupt messages, or messages with mistakes in them. And she realized that her training had begun far earlier than her recruitment.

JEAN OWTRAM: We had done things as children with our parents, connected with jigsaw puzzles, with all sorts of things where you had to use your mind to try and sort out what could have gone wrong if you couldn’t get the right answer. I’d find it was very familiar - this business of trying to correct a corruption. You’d think: “What is the most likely thing? This person is working under pressure, at speed. They’ve got confused with another course. Something has happened.”

NARRATOR: Remember when I said some of the vitals of tradecraft can come from unexpected places? Well, it turns out the odd crossword and a jigsaw puzzle could be all it takes to set you up for a life of codebreaking. Of course, the language around code has changed since the days of Enigma and Alan Turing’s mob at Bletchley Park.

LIAM O’MURCHU: My name’s Liam O’Murchu and I’m a director with the security response team with Symantec.

ERIC CHIEN: My name is Eric Chien and I’m a technical director at Symantec.

NARRATOR: Liam and Eric are cyber defenders at a private computer security firm which means, once again, this next lesson in tradecraft comes from outside the world of espionage. But the toolbox they employ during their investigations into online criminality should sound familiar to any keen True Spies’ listener.

ERIC CHIEN: The best layman’s example I can give of what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. It is like we’re given some sort of package that is encrypted or encoded, and we have to come up with tools to basically decipher it and figure out what is the content inside. What is the intention of this blob of data that has been received on your machine? And it’s not written in straightforward English. It’s literally in 0s and 1s. We’re taking 0s and 1s and translating them back into, sort of, real-world behaviors.

NARRATOR: The work is digital but the skills are the same that any operative applies in the field.

LIAM O’MURCHU: Often we are tracking attackers where we’re trying to figure out where they are, where they’re located. Why are they doing this? How much money are they making? And we’re trying to do this all undercover so that they don’t know that we’re so close to them or that we’re going to catch them. 

NARRATOR: In 2010 this game of cat and mouse drew Liam and Eric into the murky waters of cyber espionage when a new, destructive computer virus caught their attention. Here, they’ll guide you through their exhilarating discovery of a different type of digital threat.

LIAM O’MURCHU: So we received this report. It had an initial analysis of what was happening and then we started to dig in and straight away red flags just went up everywhere as we analyzed the code.

NARRATOR: Eric and Liam spend all day, every day, looking at viruses. It takes something very special to capture their attention. This threat - which they dubbed ‘Stuxnet’ in reference to a couple of decipherable lines in its code - immediately piqued their interest.

ERIC CHIEN: The average threat, to be honest, we don’t even have to look at as humans. We have machines that can automate them, look at them, understand them, and create protection for them automatically. We get a million samples every day. Humans aren’t looking at everything. And even the average threat that a human has to look at takes us 10, 20 minutes, to look at, understand, create protection for, and move onto the next thing. And Stuxnet, we spent I don’t know how many hours. I mean we ultimately spent six months looking at it. So you see the order of magnitude here is extraordinary. It’s really nothing we’ve ever seen before and, since that time, nothing we’ve ever seen since.

NARRATOR: It wasn’t just the fact that this worm could spread via USB key that troubled Eric and Liam. As they began to scratch away at Stuxnet they found some troubling hints at the virus’s purpose.

ERIC CHIEN: One of the first things we do is we run something called strings, where we just try to find human, readable text inside these binary blobs, and we saw these strings that were saying things like Siemens, PLC, WinCC. You have no idea what these terms mean, but you just Google them. When you Google them you realize that it is specialized computers that are utilized for critical infrastructure: factories, power plants, all of that kind of stuff. So that immediately was like: “Wait, what is this?”

LIAM O’MURCHU: It was clear to us, from the code, that it was physical equipment that was being targeted. We had never seen this in code before and it was clear that this piece of software was going to have a real, physical damage, possibility in the real world. And that was kind of mind-blowing, to be honest with you.

NARRATOR: Take a moment here, to think about the world beyond the lines of code that are filling your screen. You’ve dealt with malware before, but this is different. You recognize in this code a new breed of threat. This virus is targeting the machinery that controls energy grids, power plants, transport hubs. Do you have any idea what that means? The worm called Stuxnet might just breach the perimeters of cyberspace and cause real destruction in the physical world. This moment was a wake-up call for two civilians who suddenly found themselves way out of their depths.

LIAM O’MURCHU: We live to solve these puzzles - that’s what makes the job interesting. So as soon as we got Stuxnet it was very, very exciting immediately. I don’t think I slept hardly at all because I was so excited to get through these puzzles and find out what was going on. And it was very shortly after that it started to sink in that this was something that had some geopolitical associations and was written, likely, by a government. It was pretty clear that we were stumbling onto something that we had never done before, and this was new territory, and we didn’t really know how things would turn out.

NARRATOR: If you want to know how things turned out, you’ll find the rest of this ominous story in Episode 33 of True Spies. Suffice to say, Eric and Liam make a compelling case against the idea that a nine-to-five behind a computer screen spells boredom and monotony. A sentiment that Sarah Carlson would likely corroborate.

SARAH M. CARLSON: That was sort of one of the most intense moments of my life. We ended up having to walk out into this bombing campaign. You could see rockets hitting the airport. We also knew that if a rocket hit our facility, we didn’t really have a defense against it.

NARRATOR: As a CIA analyst, Sarah Carlson spent most of her career behind a desk, much like Eric and Liam. And, don’t get me wrong, there was a great deal of excitement to that. I could tell you all about how she spent her days, gathering intel from the dark, hard-to-reach corners of the internet, building cases against her targets, and anticipating threats. But instead, I want to tell you about the most turbulent episode in her career… which is?

SARAH M. CARLSON: My time, serving in Libya, when we conducted the full-scale evacuation of all US personnel out of the country.

NARRATOR: After applying for a position at the US Embassy in Tripoli, Sarah Carlson found herself at the eye of the storm during the political turbulence that shook the country in 2014. As rival factions competed for power and bombs began to fall most of Sarah’s colleagues were evacuated. But Sarah?

SARAH M. CARLSON: I was designated essential and so ended up staying.

NARRATOR: The work that she carried out in the days before and after the country tumbled into a brutal civil war will serve as your final tradecraft lesson.

SARAH M. CARLSON: We decided to have everybody get ready so made sure our ‘go bags’ were ready. I slept that night with my running shoes under my bed and my weapon loaded and ready to go. So the next morning it did start. So the Civil War started on July 13th of 2014 and it was like 5:30 am. There were hundreds of rockets that were launched that day and it just didn’t stop. Until that day, there had been pauses in fighting but that was really the point at which it changed and it just didn’t stop.

NARRATOR: And neither did Sarah’s job. 

SARAH M. CARLSON: I knew I had to go into the office because I would need to send information back to CIA headquarters to let them know what was going on. Because it never stopped we ended up having to just go about our business. We wore body armor and carried our weapons but there really wasn’t a lot we could do to defend ourselves.

NARRATOR: As the situation worsened around them, the Americans left behind in Tripoli needed to come up with a plan. Would they try to stay put through the civil war or get out as soon as possible?

SARAH M. CARLSON: Once it became apparent that the fighting was not going to stop any time soon and that we were being surrounded - and that the fighting had gotten so close that we were being hit with indirect fire and some of the small arms fire - once that started happening we shifted from talking about how long we could stay to how soon we could go.

NARRATOR: But before they could evacuate Sarah would need to return to her CIA base for one last important mission.

SARAH M. CARLSON: The first thing we did was focus on the highest risk stuff that we had, that we needed to destroy.

NARRATOR: So here’s your last how-to. Let’s call this one: Office Admin, True Spies Edition.

SARAH M. CARLSON: So we pulled all the hard drives out of the laptops and we had a nail gun, and we’re driving nails through all the hard drives, then using a sledgehammer on all the computers, and then also shredding documents. We made the decision that it didn’t matter if the piece of paper was blank. We were just going to shred everything. The shredder was running basically the entire day and a half.

NARRATOR: Remember, there is a civil war raging in the streets around you so this isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill office tidy up.

SARAH M. CARLSON: It was crazy because the air was so thick from the gunpowder and the smoke from the planes. It was just this toxic, nasty air and it was gray, and you couldn’t really see. Even in the middle of the day in July it was very gray and smelled very acrid.

NARRATOR: But no matter what the conditions, you are a CIA agent and you have a job to finish, so let’s finish it with a flourish.

SARAH M. CARLSON: So then we added destruction fires, so we started these huge fires. We threw in some incendiary grenades and started this fire and it was entirely non-flammable stuff. So everything we destroyed we then took and put on the fire, making sure that things were quite destroyed.

NARRATOR: There you have it. Incendiary grenade and industrial shredder harmonizing perfectly as a Civil War erupts outside the window. A reminder that espionage will deliver you to strange, uncomfortable places, and the tradecraft you will deploy in those places owes as much to everyday life as any intelligence-training academy. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Nick Davies has worked as a documentary producer and an investigative journalist with The Guardian newspaper in London.

Barry Broman was a photographer in war-torn Laos with The Associated Press before becoming a CIA case officer.

Naveed Jamali was working in his parents’ bookshop when he spotted an opportunity that just might land him a job with the FBI.

Neil Woods is a former undercover police officer and drugs operative.

Noor Inayat Khan spied for the British government in occupied France during WWII. 

Sisters Pat and Jean Owtram were both codebreakers during WWII - although they’d signed the Official Secrets Act and neither knew what the other was doing. 

Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu were working on computer data projects for a private company, Symantec, when they stumbled across the Stuxnet virus.

CIA analyst Sarah Carlson left her job at the agency’s office in Libya in a way many wage slaves can only dream about - she shredded documents, destroyed hard drives and lobbed grenades behind her as she evacuated the office in the midst of a Civil War.

No items found.
No items found.