Episode 35



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. These stories and more are available on Tradecraft Part 1.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 35, Tradecraft Part I

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 your first installment of True Spies. Tradecraft - you’re about to peer inside a folder of espionage industry secrets with some of the world’s most qualified agents. Are you ready?

JONNA MENDEZ: It was as close to Mission Impossible or Q as you could get and not be in Hollywood.

NARRATOR: You’ve seen it in movies and you’ve read about it in books. A gifted, bright young thing is swept away from the path they thought they were heading down and recruited into a life of secrets, danger, deception. Their tools? That will depend on the assignment but one thing that each and every operative from across the spectrum of intelligence work brings with them, into whatever mission awaits, is a foundation of skills and intuition - some of it innate; some of it very much learned. It’s this the spies are referring to when they talk about tradecraft.

ERIC O’NEILL: We had to learn all of the tradecraft of all of the spies who might operate in the United States so that we could determine whether they were targets, and follow those targets and catch them in the acts of espionage or terrorism when they went to do their bad act. We worked from the shadows, so we were trained in all of the traditional clandestine techniques: disguises, how to use photography to capture a target from a long distance.

NARRATOR: This is FBI investigative specialist Eric O’Neill. In Episode 2 of True Spies - he was tasked with catching the most notorious mole in the history of the Bureau: Robert Hanssen. There’s a word in this business for investigative specialists like Eric O’Neill. The word is ‘ghost’.

ERIC O’NEILL: I think that when people imagine a spy hunter they’re not thinking of an FBI special agent. They’re thinking of a ghost.

NARRATOR: So, before we immerse ourselves in the skills and technology used by some of the most gifted spies in the world. A little crash course in some of the basics of tradecraft. Let’s call this ‘Ghosting 101’. First up: know your target.

ERIC O’NEILL: Whether they like coffee or tea, whether they’re going to go into a fast-food restaurant, or whether they like the high-end places. You need to know enough about them to know where they might go when you’re following them.

NARRATOR: Second: you need to know your environment.

ERIC O’NEILL: Are you dressed correctly? You don’t dress in jeans and a ratty T-shirt if you’re downtown in the middle of corporate DC. But you might if you’re walking across a college campus.

NARRATOR: And third: you need to know how to be gray.

ERIC O’NEILL: If you are gray, you are unseen. That doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t look and you’re standing there and they notice you. That means that when they notice you their eyes just slide right by because you’re nondescript, you’re non-threatening, you’re non-interesting, you’re non-memorable. That means that you have to have the right disguise, wear the right clothing, act a particular way, not look like someone that stands out. And that is a skill that is extremely hard to teach. So the best field operatives who move around, following a target on foot, have to know the art of being gray.

NARRATOR: Got all that? Maybe there’s a tendency to think of spies as larger-than-life characters, people who wear an appetite for danger on their sleeves, risk-takers. Would you be able to spot one of those characters amongst your ranks? I wouldn’t be so certain.

VALERIE PLAME: My name is Valerie Plame. I was a covert CIA operations officer. My first job overseas was as a case officer. My last job was as a manager of some extremely compartmented secret program that dealt with nuclear proliferation, essentially making sure that bad guys - whether they are terrorists, black marketeers, rogue states - did not acquire nuclear capacity. And I loved what I did. 

NARRATOR: In her long career in the CIA, before she was fed to the media hounds in a game of political football and her cover was blown, Valerie Plame learned a thing or two about being ‘gray’. She had to, you see. For one thing, she was married to a highly visible American diplomat: Joseph Wilson. Surely, their friends in Washington were curious about what she was getting up to while Joe was at work?

VALERIE PLAME: All the attention was on Joe, right? When you’re in Washington, if you’re just a ‘spouse’ no one pays you any mind. So all I had to say was: ‘Oh you know, I’m a consultant, I travel.’ And then people, they glaze over. You don’t have your own car and driver. You don’t have an important position. It’s very much driven by your access to power and so forth, because whether it’s in Washington or so many places in the world many people, frankly, discount women. What could they possibly be up to, other than say shopping? No one knew where I worked except my parents and my husband.

NARRATOR: So staying unnoticed, living in the shadows, being gray. Perhaps not so tricky after all when you’re a woman. Valerie would, however, be expected to put her gender to good use if push came to shove, as she rightly intuited at one memorable CIA job interview.

VALERIE PLAME: So the woman who that day happened to be interviewing me was a very proper older woman. I think she had a twin set on, a set of pearls, gray hair, very nice bob. And she asked me the following: ‘Okay what would you do, Valerie, if you are in an operational meeting with an asset, a man. You’re in a seedy hotel room. He’s passing you very secret papers and then all of a sudden you’re in the middle of the meeting and you hear a pounding at the door, and you hear: Police. Open up! What would you do?’ 

NARRATOR: Well? What would you do? Careful now. Your entire future in the world of espionage hinges on this answer.

VALERIE PLAME: I wasn’t very worldly in many ways but I realized the only good reason that a man and a woman would be together in a hotel room… well, there’s only one good reason. So I said: ‘Everyone takes off their clothes real fast and jumps into bed.’

NARRATOR: It goes without saying, by this point, that Valerie got the job. And in so doing walked a path that was pioneered by another woman who knows a thing or two about being underestimated.

MARTHE COHN: My name is Marthe Cohn. C.O.H.N. I am 100 years old. I was a French spy during World War II who infiltrated Germany by pretending I was a German nurse.

NARRATOR: If you heard Marthe Cohn’s story in an earlier episode of True Spies you’ll know that this formidable spy - a bilingual Jew who fearlessly risked her life in aid of the allied forces - was about as devoted to the cause as an agent can be. Still, that didn’t stop her colleagues, and almost every officer she encountered, from overlooking her.

MARTHE COHN: I was 4 foot 11 inches. I was very thin. I was very blonde with blue eyes, and a very light skin. They felt that I had no substance whatsoever so they didn’t trust me and they never accepted me.

NARRATOR: In the end, though, it was precisely this assumption - that someone as ‘insubstantial’ as Marthe Cohn could never prove a threat - that delivered her biggest victory as a spy in the dying days of World War II.

MARTHE COHN: I stopped along the road... a group of German military ambulances, and the colonel was a physician. I saw by his uniform immediately that he was a physician. He was standing there with all his entourage near the ambulances, so I stopped to enquire what was going on. When you see something unusual you have to stop and know what’s going on. The colonel told me that that night, they would drive into Switzerland, which was very close, and from there to Austria to prevent becoming prisoners of war. They knew that Freiburg was occupied already by the Allied armies. They didn’t know which one. I did, but they didn’t. He asked me from where I was coming and I told him that I had just escaped from Freiburg because I was terrorized by the French army. I complained, too, that the German army was not defending us anymore as much as they should and, after a while, the colonel said to me, ‘Don’t be so desperate. The war [has] not ended.’

NARRATOR: Then, a gift. The kind of intelligence only a spy on the ground behind enemy lines could get.

MARTHE COHN: He told me exactly where the remnant of the German army was hidden in an ambush in the Black Forest.

NARRATOR: The lives of Allied soldiers advancing on the Black Forest were in Marthe’s hands. She wrote it in a letter and ran as fast as she could to the nearest customs office so the message could be delivered to her commanding officer.

MARTHE COHN: It arrived on time and Colonel Reinard read it because it was not coded so he could read it. It was in French. I didn’t take the time to code it. I had no time for that.

NARRATOR: Intelligence received. The Allied leaders were warned. In those last days of the war, no Allied troops died in a Black Forest ambush thanks to Marthe. She had saved countless lives.

MARTHE COHN: And that’s why I got all these medals.

NARRATOR: A little well-earned recognition then, for some exemplary espionage. And a welcome reminder that sometimes the best disguise is nothing more than the skin you live in. There are other times, though, where your skin alone won’t quite cut it.

JAMES OLSON: It’s difficult because you’re operating against some very sophisticated and professional KGB surveillance teams. They are very good at what they do.

NARRATOR: In Episode 21 of True Spies, an undercover CIA officer by the name of James Olson shared his hair-raising story of being sent on a mission alongside his fellow CIA officer wife, Meredith behind the Iron Curtain, to Moscow.

JAMES OLSON: We were briefed on this incredible space-age project that was being contemplated. It was to tap an underground cable in Moscow, an underground cable we believed would have extremely valuable intelligence information for us if we could succeed.

NARRATOR: For all three decades of his career with the CIA Jim worked undercover. But being sent to the center of Soviet power at the height of the Cold War? That required some special skills.

JAMES OLSON: The tradecraft used in Moscow is extremely specialized, very very demanding, so Meredith and I had to master all of that as well as continue our Russian language training. Part of the training was to recreate a Moscow environment so Meredith and I were put in a special, bugged apartment. We were put under surveillance, trying to recreate what we would encounter in Moscow to make certain that we could first of all operate under those conditions successfully, using our tradecraft, and then secondly whether we could withstand that kind of constant pressure and lack of privacy. Whether we individually could withstand it but also maybe just as importantly whether our marriage could withstand that kind of stress.

NARRATOR: Once James and Meredith were in place, undercover in Moscow, they were watched unceasingly, so when it came time to carry out their assignment - to somehow slip through the net of KGB surveillance and wiretap a pipeline containing the secrets of Russia’s nuclear capability… that would require some advanced tradecraft. Never mind ‘gray’. This would mean going ‘black’.

JAMES OLSON: Black is our terminology for getting free of surveillance. I was being smothered by KGB surveillance. This was part of the pipeline for Meredith and me, involving some very sophisticated space-age techniques, and one of these is what I used to get free of surveillance on this particular day. 

NARRATOR: A devoted family man, it would make sense that James would take his wife and children out to one of the many parks and forests that surround Moscow. James used one such outing in the forest to slip away, while Meredith held the attention of the KGB surveillance team.

JAMES OLSON: Well she was a decoy and I can’t be too specific but we’re under surveillance as a couple. They see me go off somewhere for some purpose, who knows, maybe go into the bushes to a restroom, maybe to find a wayward child who’s run loose. Something. They see me temporarily disappear, and I don’t come back in due course. So Meredith is a decoy. She’s holding them there.

NARRATOR: While Meredith kept the KGB surveillance focused on what may or may not be a perfectly normal picnic, James sprang into action. Back in training James had been briefed on an experimental new disguise technique. Combining Hollywood special effects and some creative tailoring, the ‘Disguise on the Run’ program was the ultimate in identity-bending technology. Now it was time to put it into action.

JAMES OLSON: You are under observation in one identity in one location, and there is an opportunity for you to change that identity very very quickly on the move while you are temporarily out of sight and then instantly reappear in a different identity and walk back through your surveillance without being detected, without being picked up.

NARRATOR: As James stalked toward his target using the park’s natural foliage as cover, he applied his disguise in fluid expert movements, first a semi-animated mask - SAM for short - designed by John Chambers, the legendary prosthetics artist behind the original Planet of the Apes movies. The SAM allowed its wearer to eat, drink, speak and even smoke in relative comfort. Unlike the time-consuming designs used on Hollywood productions, the mask would be applied in a matter of seconds, allowing any operative to convincingly change their appearance on a whim. With this technology even ethnicity and gender were superficial traits. A spy with a SAM in their armory could become anyone, any time. Just like that the clean-cut American diplomat had become a working-class Muscovite. As he took a winding path toward the highway, James checked and double-checked his surroundings. The KGB was nowhere to be seen. He was black.

JAMES OLSON: I look like a Russian worker, complete with the physical features of a Russian. I have Slavic features. I get on a bus that’s heading out [on] this highway. I get out past the manhole cover about a mile. You’re free on the streets of Moscow and you have a mission to perform. I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s indescribable.

NARRATOR: So you’ve heard about being gray. You know what it takes to give the KGB the slip, under the most intense of scrutiny or to go black. How about purple? Where does that fit into Tradecraft 101?

MICHAEL McGOWAN: There were five undercover agents: myself, a female undercover, and three other undercovers. We’re in a 30-story condo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a beautiful condominium. It just screams money, and so we’re all preparing for this meeting.

NARRATOR: This is Special Agent Michael McGowan in Episode 11 of True Spies. He served in the FBI for 30 years, mostly as an undercover agent, and the meeting that he’s about to describe? It was a key turning point in his years-long effort to bring down the notorious Mexican drug lord, El Chapo, an effort that saw him go undercover as the head of a Sicilian crime family and deal directly with El Chapo’s cousin, Manuel.

MICHAEL McGOWAN: So we’re all preparing for this meeting, which is critical, because you know Washington headquarters is… this was a big big deal at the time, to be able to work a case against the Sinaloa Cartel. So as the team leader I noticed all of our guys were very nervous, which was expected, but everybody in that room had 20 years of experience. I had worked with everybody in that room many times and I could just tell that they were a little bit anxious about what was going to happen.

NARRATOR: Put yourself in Michael’s shoes. This is a huge opportunity for the Bureau. The scene is set to perfection, but you know that the Sinaloa Cartel is acutely aware that law enforcement officers are always on their tail. Any nerves on the part of your team could reveal that this is all a set up. Your target is going to arrive at any minute. You need to calm everyone down quickly. What are you going to do? Whatever you’re thinking, I’ll wager it isn’t anywhere close to what Michael actually did.

MICHAEL McGOWAN: Without any thought, I went in to use the men’s room. I was dressed in a very expensive suit, dressed as a Sicilian crime boss would look. And I went in there, and in the bathroom I found a purple velour bathrobe behind the door, and I don’t really know why to this day I did it but I took off my expensive suit, and my jewelry, etc, and I put on this bathrobe, this hideous bathrobe. And I walked out before Manuel arrived, into our crowd, and it immediately broke the ice. Everyone started laughing. They were rolling on the floor. It really kind of cut the tension. It was just a technique I used to try and put everybody at ease. They thought I was going to go back and change. Well I didn’t. I stayed for this meeting. So when Manuel came I eventually came out of the backroom in a velour bathrobe, which, they’re not gonna think you’re an FBI agent if you’re dressed in a purple bathrobe. And we later learned - we have a recorded conversation where Manuel went back and told Chapo that the El Jefe was so unconcerned that he didn’t even get dressed for the meeting. He was walking around in his bathrobe. So again, you do these little nuances to get them to think that you’re anything but an FBI agent and, in this case, it seemed to have worked.

NARRATOR: A valuable lesson, there, on thinking like the enemy and committing to your cover. Another vital aspect of tradecraft. Not that it always has to be quite so adrenalized.

GAD SHIMRON: The first months of 1982 were probably the most serene and quiet of my life.

NARRATOR: Hang on a second. Those aren’t words you’d expect from a former Mossad operative describing one of the most dangerous assignments of his career.

GAD SHIMRON: My name is Gad Shimron. Born in Tel Aviv, Jafa, Israel, February 26, 1950.

NARRATOR: In his long Mossad career, Gad Shimron had to commit to many cover stories but the one he’s remembering now in Episode 1 of True Spies saw him stationed in Sudan attempting to smuggle persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1980s.

GAD SHIMRON: The problem was it was very small numbers. Say 5, 6, 10 every week. The Mossad understood they needed another cover story in order to be able to get big numbers of Jews every time, not a family here, a family there. And so they went looking around and 40 kilometers north of the big port city of Port Sudan they found a deserted diving resort, built 40 years ago.

NARRATOR: In an abandoned Italian diving school, perched on the shores of the Red Sea, Gad’s colleagues in Mossad saw an opportunity to scale up their rescue operation.

GAD SHIMRON: Danny found this place deserted, as it is, and he came up with this idea that we, the Mossad, will take over the place. We’ll pay the Sudanese government, the Sudanese tourist corporation, some money every year - kind of a land-lease deal - and the idea was that this diving resort will enable the Mossad to bring operatives to Sudan. It’s a good cover story.

NARRATOR: Indeed it is, one of the best. And so they build a high-end, high-class diving operation from the ground up. This is a remarkable feat as the infrastructure is, let’s say, limited.

GAD SHIMRON: There was not one single gasoline station on the way, not one single normal hotel, not one single garage. Maintenance is a word. Nobody knew what it [was]. 

NARRATOR: But despite those limitations, by 1982 renovation of the Red Sea Diving School was well underway. And the Mossad agents in charge? They were wholeheartedly committing to their cover.

GAD SHIMRON: You know, we were two Mossad operatives in a deserted diving resort in the process of being built, with five or six Sudanese employees, and we really had the time of our lives. I remember Rubi lying on the beach. He spread his fingers in order to let the sun reach every centimeter of his skin. I took one of the locals and taught him how to drive a rubber dinghy, a Zodiac, and we would go in the lagoon and he would tow me - water skiing in the name of the security of Israel - which is very nice, if you think about it. And whenever we were hungry we would take one of the boats we had there and go out to the most beautiful blue seas of the world and just pick up a nice grouper and catch him and bring him for lunch, or a lobster or two. 

NARRATOR: If only all assignments were so luxurious.

JACK BARSKY: Here I am, brand new to the United States. I have no frame of reference. I get into the hotel and the reception desk was protected by Plexiglass. I thought maybe most hotels would be that way.

NARRATOR: When Jack Barsky - or should I call him Albrecht Dittrich? - arrived in the United States in the late 1970s, he had two goals: to embed himself in American life and to wait. He was a KGB sleeper agent, cut off from the world he’d left behind the Iron Curtain. And back in those days his only means of communication were, by today’s standards, a little complicated. Communication with the center was the most awkward and, at one point, most annoying part of the whole spying business because it was... 

JACK BARSKY: Labor intense. It took a lot of time, and the amount of information that could be transmitted back and forth was not enough really to in many cases make sense. I never met a Soviet agent on the territory of the United States for the purposes of direct communication. So I got my instructions through a shortwave radio that was 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. And if you think of maybe a half-page of typewritten material, it would take me, to receive and decrypt, it would take me roughly about two and a half hours. Sometimes I spent the whole night into early morning if there was a very lengthy radiogram. 

NARRATOR: And what about if Jack had information to send back home? Or a question about an upcoming assignment? Surely there had to be a simpler way in an emergency?

JACK BARSKY: For me to transmit information to the center was even more awkward because it was via secret writing through the regular mail. I would compose a letter as if I was writing to somebody, and then on top of the open text, I would put a text in secret writing and that letter was then mailed to what we would call a convenience address, say in South America or in Europe, to a person who was collaborating with the KGB, who would then had it to a local KGB agent. It would then go into a diplomatic pouch sent to Moscow and over there would be developed. So when you think, was there a conversation possible? You ask a question and you get an answer three weeks later. So it was awkward and fundamentally insufficient.

NARRATOR: This spy game… it turns out it’s not all lobsters and waterskiing after all. But Jack Barsky’s stroll down KGB memory lane in Episode 4 of True Spies serves as a good reminder of the nitty-gritty of espionage. Arduous as they may be these practices were essential in protecting assets during the Cold War, whichever side you happened to be fighting for.

JONNA MENDEZ: The thing that kept me there was the idea that, from my point of view, almost everything we were doing was protecting the foreign officers that were working with the American case officers, and in many cases keeping them from getting arrested - and in Moscow keeping them from being executed.

NARRATOR: Even in the, shall we say, eclectic world of espionage Jonna Mendez’s CV might strike you as particularly varied. Before she became the head of disguise for the entire CIA she worked in an entirely different field, as she explains in Episode 7 of True Spies.

JONNA MENDEZ: The beginning of my career was not in disguise. It was the photography that pulled me in.

NARRATOR: As part of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, Jonna Mendez provided countless agents with the technology they would require for their assignments.

JONNA MENDEZ: We were the gadget people of the CIA. We were the technical officers who provided anything technical you needed for your operation. You would come to see us if you wanted a subminiature camera that would fit in a writing pen, if you wanted a disguise, if you needed false documents. It was unbelievable the kind of resources we had.

NARRATOR: And her specialty during the height of the Cold War?

JONNA MENDEZ: It was in using really small cameras, subminiature cameras we called them, our own unique cameras that only we had. One of our cameras was called a Tropel. It was so small that you could put it in a fountain pen or a key fob. You could take 100 pictures. Inside of the camera was a film cassette and on that film cassette were a hundred black dots and each dot was a page of text. And loading that film and developing that film and printing that film was an art, but as a tool during the Cold War, those cameras stood shoulder-to-shoulder with any satellite system we had overhead. 

NARRATOR: Yet it wasn’t so much the technology itself that impressed Jonna. It was the stakes at play for the agents out in the field who depended on it.

JONNA MENDEZ: You are reminding yourself when you’re developing this film that comes in from a foreign agent, for instance, you’re reminding yourself in the darkroom that the man who took these photographs took an enormous risk to himself, to his family, maybe, to get that information and to get it to you because once he’s photographed the secret documents that’s only the beginning. Now he has to communicate it to you, and that’s where a lot of the danger lies, in passing that information from him to us. In this instance, he’s giving us, say, a roll of film But he can’t just walk up to us and hand it to us. He has to somehow conceal the film. Maybe he puts it somewhere. Maybe he puts it behind the toilet tank in a pub and then the American case officer knows where it’s going to be, and goes in and picks it up. Every bit of that is fraught with danger. It was reducing that danger and keeping everybody safe that was the constant challenge.

NARRATOR: And therein lies a valuable reminder for any spy-tech enthusiast. Behind the shiny, eye-catching gadgetry lies one very simple principle: protect your asset at all costs. Of course, not every player is out in the field putting their neck on the line to uncover secrets. In fact, sometimes the most important figures in intelligence operations of international proportions are far removed from the action and aren’t even, strictly speaking. spies at all.

CHRISTO GROZEV: We’re not linked to any intelligence service. We don’t get tips. We don’t get clues. We’re not even an old-fashioned journalist organization, a media organization that has its network of sources that leak. So all we can do is wait for some shred of evidence to appear publicly and then we take it from there.

NARRATOR: As a key member of Bellingcat, an investigative hothouse that specializes in open-source intelligence, Christo Grozev admits in Episode 16 of True Spies that he has more in common with a journalist than an undercover agent. But that didn’t stop him from playing a decisive role in one of the biggest stories of espionage of the 21st century: the poisoning of Russian former double-agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil.

CHRISTO GROZEV: Committing a crime like this in the United Kingdom is probably the worst idea on earth because it’s completely littered with security cameras.

NARRATOR: An open-source analyst like Christo feeds off the kind of intel that is theoretically available to all - no espionage required should you know where to look for it. In the days after the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, two men were quickly identified by CCTV footage as key suspects: Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. According to an interview they gave on Russia Today they were completely innocent. Nothing more than two ordinary citizens taking in the sights of picturesque Salisbury. Christo Grozev wasn’t buying it, so he began the arduous task of uncovering their true identities and the skill set he employed - well, let’s just say that any spy could learn a thing or two from this piece of tradecraft.

CHRISTO GROZEV: There were a couple of schools, or institutes as they called them, that prepared elite spies with good training in foreign languages and a grasp of understanding how the West works, and one of them was the Far Eastern Military Institute in Khabarovsk. 

NARRATOR: This is where Christo started looking, digitally, of course. 

CHRISTO GROZEV: We actually spent a few nights looking at Facebook photographs of its graduates, looking for a glimpse of a younger version of Boshirov to hopefully see him there. We did that with our good friends from the Insider. We had allocated the sort of yearbook photos by year, so we spent a good three nights going through thousands of photos, also photos posted on the social media groups of the school graduates and alumni.

NARRATOR: This painstaking digital legwork eventually bore fruit: a picture of a man bearing a resemblance to Boshirov obviously on military assignment in a war zone. 

CHRISTO GROZEV: It was against the background of a mountain in a place that looked like the… it was a group of five or six people in military attire. We were told this was most likely Chechnya, one of the mountains in Chechnya, where there had been two long-running wars and the time of the photograph was given to us as somewhere between 2001 and 2004.

NARRATOR: It was a start. They could narrow their search. Someone who had graduated from the military academy in Khabarovsk who had then served in Chechnya.

CHRISTO GROZEV: And we found by sheer luck a reference in a military magazine, a reference to a ‘Hero of Russia’ who had graduated the Far Eastern Military Institute who had fought on three assignments, three different times in Chechnya, was wounded there and was one of the graduates that the Institute was most proud of.

NARRATOR: Being a Hero of Russia is a big deal. It’s the highest award available to any Russian citizen conferred by the president of Russia himself. More importantly for Bellingcat, this particular Hero of Russia had a name: Anatoliy Chepiga. Could this be their man?

CHRISTO GROZEV: The hardest evidence we were hoping to get was a copy of a passport file under the name Anatoliy Chepiga that would have the identical photograph that we had seen in the passport file of Boshirov. 

NARRATOR: It took a few more days to find someone who could get them a copy of that passport file. It was worth the wait. This was the moment when all of that trawling through thousands of pictures paid off. 

CHRISTO GROZEV: We got a file in the name of Anatoliy Chepiga and it had the photograph of a younger version of the person we had seen in the Russia Today interview. 

NARRATOR: Bingo. There you have it: all the proof you need to show that the innocent sightseer in Salisbury and the elite, decorated Russian spy are one and the same person. A key turning point in this international espionage whodunnit and a valuable entry point to the world of open-source intelligence gathering. It’s a world that Gina Bennett knows well.

GINA BENNETT: My name is Gina Bennett and what I do is a very complicated question.

NARRATOR: As we discover in Episode 22 of True Spies, Gina is a legendary CIA analyst. Like Christo, she spends her days trawling through data and documents joining the dots, piecing together a narrative, looking for the answers that hide in plain sight. 

GINA BENNETT: Well our role is to look where everybody else isn’t looking and to be aware and warn where other people aren’t seeing the problems.

NARRATOR: Is this something you could do? Do you have the patience, the resilience, the attention to detail, the confidence that somewhere in that haystack there really is a needle.

GINA BENNETT: I used to just draw things on massive big pieces of paper - where we saw something here, where we saw something there. It’s like these tiny little pieces of a puzzle and you don’t really have the picture yet but you just have a sense that you’re picking up on pieces that you really need to pay attention to and not lose sight of.

NARRATOR: If Gina sounds a little obsessive - like someone using pieces of string to link clues on a corkboard - well, it’s because she is. And for good reason. There’s a lot at stake, in this line of work. Unlike Christo, who was trying to untangle a tragedy that had already happened, it’s Gina’s job to peer into the future and prevent the next incident from taking place altogether. And in 2001, after a couple of years of troubling activity from a terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda, she felt a terrible sense of foreboding. 

GINA BENNETT: We had told the world, including the US, that the system was blinking red in 1999 and nothing happened. The same time we’re seeing this system blinking red. From what we’re seeing this system blinking red is saying: ‘There’s going to be an attack in the United States.’

NARRATOR: On September 9th, 2001, a politician and military commander called Ahmad Shah Massoud is assassinated in Afghanistan and Gina is convinced something big is about to happen.

GINA BENNETT: There’s no question we had a sense of doom because of that. It was hard for us to believe that was a random thing. In other words, we believed al-Qaeda had successfully committed an assassination against one of the key former party members of the Afghan Mujahideen who also happened to be our closest working partner in Afghanistan. So it was really hard not to feel like the other shoe was about to drop. 

NARRATOR: And when the other shoe did drop it was beyond the powers of Gina and her colleagues to do anything but stop in their tracks and watch.

GINA BENNETT: So, it’s a beautiful day in Virginia and the first thing you do as a warning analyst when you get into work is start reading everything that has happened in the 12 hours that you’ve been gone. So the morning is just taking in information and trying to sort out which of it you have to pay attention to in the next hour, or day, or whatever.

NARRATOR: Then shortly before 9 am in the morning, there are reports of an aircraft flying into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

GINA BENNETT: Now at the time it was like everyone knows, it was considered a collision. There was no indication at the moment that it was intentional. So we are all trying to figure out how that could possibly happen.

NARRATOR: Then the next plane hits the south tower just 17 minutes later and Gina understands immediately what’s happening

GINA BENNETT: You can’t see that and think it’s a coincidence. It’s just not possible. So it’s in that moment when we see the other plane hit that we realize exactly what this is. There’s nobody in the counterterrorism center at that moment who didn’t know what this was. This was the plot. This was the system blinking red. This was the attack. I mean, I did not see the first plane hit because I was at my desk already going through my material for the day, but when the second plane flies straight into that building… there was just no way there was any other explanation than this is what they have wanted. This is what they’ve been trying to do since 1993. 

NARRATOR: Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all in this whirlwind tour of tradecraft: no matter how well you’ve been trained, no matter how good your instincts, no matter what resources are available to you, there will always be scenarios beyond your control - crises that you cannot contain, catastrophes that shake the very foundations of your life as an operative. But it’s the moments after everything goes wrong that will define you.

GINA BENNETT: So we immediately go to what we have to do. We know what we have to do. Nobody has to ask us. We know immediately. You’ve got to figure out who else, where else, what’s next? Start building the case of who it was, how they did it. It’s just: gather, gather, gather again those dots, those fragments of information, because you know from our perspective it’s not about whodunnit, it’s about what’s next? And how do we stop it?

NARRATOR: After all, a spy’s work is never done.

I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us every week for more tradecraft tips courtesy of True Spies. You can also discover your own spy skills with the help of our experts. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

TRADECRAFT PART 1 reveals the stories of 10 men and women who worked in dangerous circumstances, often undercover: FBI investigative specialist Eric O’Neill; covert CIA operations officer Valerie Plame; French WWII spy Marthe Cohn; undercover CIA officer James Olson; FBI undercover agent Michael McGowan; Mossad spy Gad Shimron; Russian sleeper agent Jack Albrecht Dittrich (aka Jack Barsky); CIA head of disguise Jonna Mendez; Bellingcat's Christo Grozev; and CIA analyst Gina Bennett.

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