Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception

The The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception is an actual CIA manual written in the 1950's that is of course now declassified. I'm not quite sure how I stumbled on this book in the first place, but how could one see the title and not be at least a little interested? The library had a copy, so I rented it.

It doesn't take many pages of reading to realize that maybe they got a bit carried away with the naming of this manual. Rather than being a vast discussion on spy craft, and CIA maneuvers, it's really a guide for three activities: secretly depositing stuff (mainly pills, powders and liquids - and mostly into drinks and food), secretly withdrawing stuff (paper, widgets from a factory floor, etc.) and secretly communicating with a partner to help do these actions. It's probably this relatively narrow scope, and audacious title, that is responsible for the relatively low rating on Amazon.

Even with these shortcomings, I very much like the book.

First off, the book is a wonderful view into the world of magic. That's because the manual was authored by a famous magician, John Mulholland, with the intention of teaching CIA agents how to use magic accomplish the 3 tasks described above. Rather than emphasize specific tricks, Mulholland teaches the philosophy of the magician. His main lesson being that a trick is not about complexity or speed, but about using a perfectly natural action (say, lighting a cigarette) to mask a your hidden goal (say, dropping a pill in someone's drink). Whether or not this is considered the best way to teach magic these days or not, it was wonderfully insightful to a non-magic person like me.

Mulholland's writing is clearly from another era. Many of his examples are nonsensical now, and his specific tips outlined for how the different genders should approach a trick would no doubt land him in a sexual-harassment seminar. Though, to be fair, Mulholland never once doubt's a woman's ability to perform in the field - just that she can draw straight or explain a map (actually, his point is more frequently that a woman can't explain a map to a man, because that would not appear natural).

Mulholland's writing is wonderfully optimistic. There seems to be no act of taking or leaving an object that can't be done in a simple way. One only needs to be creative enough to see how it can be done.

The other part text that I thoroughly enjoyed was how all the techniques, especially the signaling topics, required so little technology to get their job done. Where a special device was required, instructions on how to make it from dime store parts is provided. I can just imagine a CIA agent hollowing out a pencil in his Russian hotel room for delivery of some clandestine drug. Signaling can be accomplished through the simplest of acts - wearing a lapel pin in a specific location, wrapping a rubber band a particular way around a package, adding dots to a buttons on a jacket. The list goes on, and on.

As we bulk up security at airports and train stations, I think we often forget this lesson of technical simplicity.

If you can rent the book from the library - I definitely recommend it. It's a view into the world of magic from a most interesting context.

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