Secret CIA 'Magic' Manual Reveals Cold War Spy Tricks

Photo: Secret C.I.A Magic Manual Shows Cold War Spy Tricks: During Cold War, American Magician Wrote Trickery and Deception Manual for C.I.A.

For decades, rumors of top-secret "magic" manuals swirled within CIA circles.

The long-lost guides were said to have been written by a prominent magician, but many officers dismissed them as myth, believing them too fantastical to be true.

But in 2007, retired CIA officer Robert Wallace unearthed an extraordinary archived file and is now making its contents available to the public for the first time.

The file contained once highly-classified manuals written in the early 1950s by American magician John Mulholland that detailed the secrets of magic that could enhance the art of espionage.

It was thought that every copy of his reports had been destroyed in 1973.

But Wallace obtained surviving copies and, with intelligence historian H. Keith Melton, combined the two manuals -- one examining sleight of hand techniques and the other on covert signaling -- into one book, recently released by publisher HarperCollins.

Complete with illustrations, "The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception" describes a wide range of Mulholland's Houdini-like tricks designed to help spies pull off a number of clandestine operations, such as slipping poison into an enemy's drink or surreptitiously removing documents.

Other magician-historians previously established Mulholland's connection to the CIA and printed portions of his reports – and one, Michael Edwards, said he received full copies of the reports from the CIA in 2003. But the authors say their book is the first to publish the historical documents in their entirety.

Mulholland's manual describes how a spy could use the friendly gesture of lighting another person's cigarette to covertly drop a pill into the person's drink.

'Magic' Manual Was Part of CIA Effort to Counter Russians

"The idea to overlap the tradecraft of espionage and the rich tradecraft of magic is very innovative and certainly established a pattern of activity and relationships that continue to make the country stronger," said Melton, a specialist in clandestine technology who has written several books on spycraft. "What we learn about is how to use deception, and how deception can be tactically employed to support the work of intelligence officers in the field."

Peter Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the CIA who now serves as executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, said though he knew that the agency consulted with individuals of varying expertise through the years, until Wallace and Melton's book, he didn't know it had worked with John Mulholland, a top American magician at the time.

"It has significance. It was very tightly held," he said. "It's an interesting piece of agency history."

Wallace said Mulholland's work was commissioned as part of a larger secret CIA project called MKULTRA. Launched in 1953, the Cold War-era program's goal was to understand and counter claims that the Russians had mastered mind control and other unorthodox interrogation and surveillance techniques.

Convinced that the Soviets employed more sophisticated tactics, the CIA charged MKULTRA officers with exploring all kinds of unconventional areas. Some projects researched LSD and other exotic chemicals; others probed the possibility of honing ESP and other paranormal skills.

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