Secret CIA 'Magic' Manual Reveals Cold War Spy Tricks
Dec. 4, 2009
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To stealthily remove a document from a desk, Mulholland recommends dotting the bottom of a book with a special wax. When the book is lowered on top of the paper, it will affix the paper to the book and allow the spy to remove the paper without attracting attention.
CIA Convinced the Russians Employed More Sophisticated Techniques
Wallace and Melton's book describes how MKULTRA chemists attempted to develop "invisible" inks and poisons derived from shellfish and cobra venom. It even details several creative plots targeting Cuban leader Fidel Castro, including dusting his boots with a chemical that would make his beard fall off to mar his "macho" image.
Melton said that though these schemes may sound surreal, at the time the CIA believed it needed to cover all its bases and explore all possibilities, no matter how far-fetched they seemed.
"This wasn't done for fun, this wasn't done for amusement, this was activity undertaken by the leadership of this nation for its defense and protection," he said. It was "a time when the U.S. government faced a serious international threat from the spread of communism, and the government turned to the CIA to develop techniques and capabilities that could sustain world freedom."
Mulholland describes how a modified fuel tank, only partially filled with gas, could conceal a person in a special cavity.
While Mulholland's contribution wasn't the central focus of MKULTRA, Wallace said it was still significant. As scientists developed new materials that could be used in clandestine operations, officers needed equally clandestine ways to deliver them.
"Who could teach you covert ways of delivering small objects or powders?" he asked. "Magicians."
Mulholland Wanted to Establish Magic as a Fine Art
Ben Robinson, magician and author of "The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland's Secret Life," said Mulholland's manuals marked just one part of his more than 20-year involvement with the CIA.
As the CIA's "magician in residence," Mulholland was also tasked with exploring the paranormal and distinguishing real psychics from imposters, Robinson said.
But Robinson emphasized that the CIA fascinated Mulholland because "his entire life's purpose was to spread the gospel that magic was an art, like ballet or painting -- one of the fine arts."
"Consequently, his work for the intelligence world was the pinnacle of that artistic achievement because he was practicing the magician's craft in a completely hidden milieu," he said.
Knowing that his audience was composed of those mostly unfamiliar with his craft, in his manuals Mulholland described his techniques as plainly as possible.
Mulholland's advice was surprisingly simple, Wallace said, emphasizing that the conjurer's feat is accomplished with the most common objects. Unassuming items like lead No. 2 pencils and matchbooks make the difference in many a Mulholland magic trick.
But while there isn't evidence that any of Mulholland's tricks were executed by CIA officers, Wallace said the principles and techniques have been applied in field operations.
"What we do know is that many of the concealment techniques, as well as covert signals and passing of documents, were regularly used in the field," he said. "They are parallel to what he wrote in the manual."
Given both the magician and the spy's concern with secretive communication, concealment and misdirection, the authors said Mulholland's guidance had a lasting impact.