In the recent film on Amazon Prime Video, A Call to Spy , we are told the story of how Winston Churchill approved the recruiting of amateur spies via the agency known as SOE (Special Operations Executive). Romanian-born British ‘spymistress’ Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) is placed in charge of this initiative and one of the two women she hand-picks is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a half-Indian Muslim pacifist, who also happens to be the most skilled wireless operator Atkins knows of. Despite being a Muslim woman at a time when spies were mostly white and male, Khan is chosen for a dangerous mission in the French city of Lyon, and this risky choice boils down to her skills with the radio. The real-life Khan went on to transmit reams and reams of crucial briefings from Lyon to the Allied forces, before she was captured and killed by the Nazis.
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Exploding pens and vintage cars spewing machine gun fire might be the stuff of Bond films. But real-life espial also involves a whole lot of technological knowhow, some pretty cool gadgets, and nearly endless reserves of patience and determination, as a host of recent online films and series show us.
Of codes and ciphers
The most recent among these is Netflix’s new documentary series, Spycraft . It focusses on the tools of the trade: the espial/surveillance equipment used by famous spies down the years. Through the eight-part series, we learn about codes, ciphers, weapons, poisons — basically, a spy’s complete bag of tools.
Using now-declassified reports on the major espionage circles of the 70s onwards, Spycraft is by proxy the no-longer-covert history of western espionage, beginning with World War I. During that era, gigantic microphones placed close to, but not within enemy territory, were the height of audio surveillance. The era of listening devices, or ‘bugs’, began in real earnest with the 60s and the height of the Cold War. The typical practice was to combine a miniature radio transmitter with a microphone that could also be operated with batteries.
Then and now
It is fair to say, however, that spycraft has evolved rapidly down the ages. Today, the most feared attacks are cyber-attacks. As Parrack explains in the Netflix series, “An online attack has an immediate, catastrophic impact on a nation, as opposed to actual, in-person espionage which takes time and effort and human decision-making...” Literally every single aspect of the vocation has changed — poisons used to be delivered via blow darts from a height and now there are skin-soluble or even adhesive compounds that can deliver neurotoxins with a simple handshake. Take, for instance, the case of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny who was poisoned last year with Novichok, a lethal nerve agent. Cold War-era spies had custom-made tools like a small gun hidden in a tube of lipstick or a simple spy purse with a hidden camera. Now, we have hand-held encryption devices as well as computational engines that can decrypt via brute-force methods, trying millions of combinations per second until one fits.
The final episode of Spycraft is devoted to perhaps the most infamous American espionage case of the last few decades, Ana Montes. In 2001, the former American intelligence analyst was arrested on charges of spying against her own country on behalf of the Cuban government; she pleaded guilty and, in 2002, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Looped in tech
Montes’ case also demonstrates, ironically, the limitations of hi-tech gear in espionage. As an analyst working at the Defense Intelligence Agency, she could not rely on any electronic measures of surveillance. The risk of getting caught was simply too high. Instead, what she did was old-fashioned and ingenious: according to the FBI, she memorised important details from classified documents. When she got home, she would type from memory on her laptop, copy the data on to encrypted discs and wait for her Cuban handlers to tell her how to pass on the discs to a trusted contact.
This is one strand that’s common to espionage films and shows like Netflix’s own earlier miniseries The Spy , starring Sacha Baron Cohen. No matter how advanced your technology is, some of the most crucial espionage interventions of the last 50-odd years have happened due to human ingenuity and raw courage — and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
Also, the novels of John Le Carre, the British novelist who died last month, exemplify this point — his spies are, above all, champion observers of human nature. They notice who talks, eats, and walks in a certain way, they sense what opinion is acceptable where, and they are highly skilled at blending in. This is why a typical Le Carre novel resembles not just spy stories, but also comedies of manner. A Call to Spy , Spycraft et al don’t quite capture the comedic beats of this life in the way Le Carre does, but that is not their brief. Eventually, they settle for ‘demystifying’ the likes of James Bond for the lay viewer, and that’s entertaining enough by itself.