Wesley Britton’s Books, Interviews,
and Media Appearances ~
“Spy fact meets spy
By Giles Wilson
The discovery of a fake rock in Moscow, allegedly a British surveillance
device, seems to be the very definition of cloak and dagger. But if it feels
like it should really be in a B-rate movie, that should come as no surprise.
The worlds of espionage and entertainment are no strangers.
Spying is fertile ground for authors, TV producers and film-makers.
Eavesdropping, surveillance, disguise, deceit, danger and diplomacy all
make for good plots and sub-plots – everything from Dick Tracy
and Dick Barton, through Mission Impossible and George Smiley, all the
way to Spooks.
Not forgetting, of course, the granddaddy of them all, James Bond.
Eyebrows have been raised as to what might be the full story of the
Moscow rock. Defector Oleg Gordievsky says it is a KGB stunt, while
others wonder what its purpose might have been if it was a British device.
Whatever the truth, it would not have been out of place in fiction –
gadgets have consistently fired the imagination. But they are not all
Bond creator Ian Fleming’s most direct lift from the real world
was perhaps the human torpedo that features in the 1965 Bond film
Thunderball. Fleming, who worked in naval intelligence
during World War II, was said to have been inspired by an Italian plan
to destroy British ships in the waters off Gibraltar.
The Italians used torpedoes piloted by frogmen, destroying 14
merchant vessels in three years. The two-man devices could be launched
from a submarine or a beach, and once the target had been reached,
the frogmen would leave the detachable warheads before heading for
the Spanish shore. In true Bond-style they would then peel off their
wetsuits and blend in with the crowds.
The work of the Italian saboteurs was well known to David Scherr,
who headed the British Security Intelligence Department during the
When Scherr’s files were declassified last year they
revealed a host of other real-life devices that appeared to owe more
to the world of make-believe.
“But now we know that during the Cold War, Western
diplomats had bugs implanted in the heels of their shoes by Romanian
“Don't forget, good shoes were difficult to get hold of in
Eastern Bloc countries at the time, so embassy staff would have them
sent from home. These were intercepted on the way, and a bug fitted
in the heel, before being delivered.”
In the realms of Cold War espionage even the manipulation of
children was not beyond the KGB. In 1946, Soviet school children
presented a two-foot wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United
States to America’s man in Moscow, Averell Harriman.
Mr. Harriman hung the seal in his office in Spaso House, the
ambassador’s residence, and departed from Moscow shortly
afterwards. But there was more to this adornment than met the eye,
“During George F. Kennan’s ambassadorship in
1952, a routine security check discovered that the seal contained a
microphone and a resonant cavity which could be stimulated from an
outside radio signal.”
The inventing process still goes on, says military historian Peter
Caddick-Adams. There remains a world of largely desk-based
intelligence officers sifting through whacky ideas sent in by members
of the public or academics. “The job has always been to reject
nothing and consider everything,” he says. “A lot never
come to anything, but they’re never quite rejected.”
Bright ideas might well be picked up. “There are still
battles going on. We now refer not to battlefields but to spaces –
one of those battle spaces is the internet.” This means that
odd geeky ideas – something like a spell checker which could
act as an Islamic faith veracity checker, perhaps – could be
taken up. “I have absolutely no doubt about that,” he
Sometimes, says author Wesley Britton, an expert on the links
between spying fact and fiction, it would become a case of life imitating
art. “The CIA would watch Mission: Impossible and
then the phone calls would go round saying: ‘Can we do that?
Can we do that?’ They actually consulted with Hollywood
special effects wizards.”
One of these, he says, was John Chambers, who made the masks
for Planet of the Apes, who helped make disguises for spies
working in Laos. Indeed, Antonio Mendez, the CIA’s former
chief of disguise, was recruited through an advertisement to work as
And that could work equally for the other side – Gordievsky
claimed that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party
instructed him, when KGB chief in London, to secure copies of any
new Bond film, and to obtain the devices used.
Where a big difference does open between fact and fiction,
Britton says, is in ways to kill people. Despite some notable examples,
such as an exploding cigar the US supposedly tried to kill Fidel
Castro with, and the poison-tipped umbrella used to kill Georgi Markov
in London in 1978, the vast majority of real-life technology was used
for eavesdropping and surveillance rather than killing.
Many things seen on screen are now commercially available.
Michael Marks, of London surveillance shop Spymaster, says many
of the Bond inventions were based on technology which existed but
which had not been perfected. As time goes by, more of the fiction
has indeed become fact, he says.
Armoured cars – with Bond’s rear windscreen
shield – can be bought as can a range of other devices 007
would be familiar with. “We sell underwater breathing devices,
and have done for three or four years now,” he says.
“They only give you 50 or so breaths, but they are an emergency
device. They have a mouthpiece with a small sylinder each side, each
one about the size of a finger.”
Rolex watches with rotating saws, a la Live and Let Die,
remain in the world of fiction although the International Spy Museum
does have a German wristwatch from 1949 with a miniature camera.
Tiny recording devices are now easily available. “We have a
pocket device, called a docupen, that you scroll over an entire
document which it will store in its memory for downloading later. It can
copy up to 100 A4 pages.”
And the process which started with the CIA watching Mission:
Impossible continues, even if only for the purposes of selling
gadgets. “Nowadays electronics are so sophisticated and
capable that it can actually be difficult to think things up to use the
technology for,” Mr. Marks says. “The Bond films can
actually spark off ideas on how to use them.”
But aside from all the action and gadgets, there is a feature of one
writer – John Le Carre – which Britton says has a
particular ring for many spies. And that is that it can be very slow
work, desk-based, involving lots of talking and reading. “99.9%
of the craft is analysis,” he says. “The biggest part of
espionage is very dull and dreary. Even in the Bond books, it’s
clear that for three-quarters of the year, Bond is very bored.”
News on-line – January 24, 2006.
Copyright © Giles Wilson. All Rights Reserved.