Real-Life 007: Wristwatch Camera, Tiny Tools

Disguises, secret cameras and hidden messages aren't just for Bond.


June 6, 2008 — -- A camera so tiny it can fit in an ink pen or a watch. A speedboat in disguise. Paper that dissolves in water. While these may sound like they're pulled from the plotlines of "Goldfinger" or "Get Smart," these Bond-like gadgets are actually straight out of the backrooms and spy missions of the CIA.

In "Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda," Robert Wallace, the former head of the CIA's office of technical service, along with H. Keith Melton, explores the technical advancements and, at times, hilarious marvels of the spy industry and the office that developed it.

"The office of technical services is a group of men and women that makes all of the spy gear for agents and for offices to use in clandestine operations," Wallace told ABC News. "So if you need secret writing or if you need a listening device or perhaps you need a special communication device or you need a special weapon or you need an identity document, those are the kind of things that the office made and did."

Since the office opened in the 1950s, every disguise, audio bug and other spy doodad went through the office — even a tool kit can fit in a rectal suppository.

"The primary way the ideas were developed was on needs from field officers," Wallace said.

Technical officers served overseas with the agents they were supporting.

"As a result, they had intimate knowledge of what not only the [technical] requirements were, but also the environment that the gadgets had to work in," Wallace said. "If you have spy gear and you're using it at night, that had a different configuration than what you were using in the daytime. … If you're trying to wear your disguise in 10-degree heat, the materials must be a little different" than in warmer situations.

Disguises aren't just used for humans. One speedboat got its own disguise too — as a rickety old ship.

"The idea at the time — it was during the Vietnam War — [was] how can you get certain of your capabilities close to certain harbors without their being detected? You built the hull of a very fast boat and then around that hull you made it look like a Vietnamese boat," Wallace explained. "All of this really was designed to be instantly jettisoned or moved out at a great speed if in pursuit. It turned out to be a very effective mechanism."

Environment wasn't the only challenge facing the so-called "gadget" office.

"All of these gadgets were used for specific operations," Wallace said. "These were not commodities. These weren't issued in bulk. … One of my real challenges [was] I had to convince people to make these things."

One of the unsung heroes of CIA gadgetry was batteries, Wallace said, which large companies only wanted to make in bulk.

"Any kind of an electronic gadget, when the battery dies, the operation is over," he said.

So the CIA began to make its own.

"It became one of those economic realities," he said.

One common tool that harnessed the power of batteries was a hollowed-out brick. Although it doesn't sound high-tech, a realistic-looking brick would allow the agency to watch and listen to enemies for as long as a battery would last.

"We had the capability of building a small package that you could build in a wall or wood block," Wallace said. "It could run for a very long time collecting audio with this battery power. It just revolutionized this whole business of collection."

Another revolution of surveillance: the development of the tiny film camera. (Remember film?) The T100 (it even has a James Bond-esque name) was so small it could fit into an ink pen or a wristwatch, quite a feat in the 1970s when it was developed.

"There were no such things as a Xerox machine," Wallace said. "[We asked], 'Can we make a camera small enough that we can take an entire picture to put it into a concealment device that would be completely unalerting to security folks who are watching the agent?'"

Spies who spotted top-secret documents in an embassy, for example, could snap photos to send back to their handlers, while they appeared to be taking notes. Agents could grab between 50 and 100 frames on a piece of film that was no more than 15 centimeters.

"I characterize it as the camera that won the Cold War," Wallace said.

One of the biggest problems for spies, or agents, according to Wallace, was falling out of communication with their "case ops" or handlers, particularly in the bulky technological era of the 1970s.

To combat this, the CIA tech office created what was essentially the first form of tech messaging: BUSTER.

With the BUSTER system, agents had a keypad about the size of a few cigarette packs on which they typed a message to their handler.

"Once you get within a quarter of a mile of a receiving unit, you could push the button and then that [transmitted] the message to the receiving unit," Wallace said. "Nothing like it had ever been seen before."

BUSTER of course is no longer used and many of these gadgets could end up, if they haven't already, in the ultimate spy gadget graveyard: the CIA Museum.

Of course, not every CIA gadget got a book mention. Wallace vetted the book with the CIA to make sure he wasn't revealing any state secrets.

"Adversaries of the intelligence service will read 'Spycraft' with a great deal of interest," he said.

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