When the CIA launched its in-house R&D lab in 2020, the agency announced it would conduct “multidisciplinary research, development, testing, and engineering to address new challenges” and “adapt, improve, or accelerate the production of existing solutions.”
If you’re wondering what the hell that means, the ever-secretive agency offered a sample of the research: artificial intelligence, data analytics, machine learning, distributed ledger/blockchain-enabled technologies, virtual and augmented reality.
If you’re disappointed to learn that America’s premier spy service is diddling about with Bitcoin and VR headsets, you’ll find some consolation in historian John Lisle’s The Dirty Tricks Department, which chronicles the effort by the CIA’s predecessor agency, the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, to develop unconventional weapons and gadgets to help America’s spies win the underground battle against the Axis powers.
In a democratic spirit, the agency fielded hundreds of thousands of submissions from the public, including suggestions to develop a “death ray” and flying cars. One proposal stood out from the rest—and received the backing of President Roosevelt: strapping napalm-filled incendiaries to bats and unleashing the winged creatures on Imperial Japan. In 1943, the agency tested the so-called bat bombs over Carlsbad, New Mexico, dumping hundreds of incendiary-strapped bats out the back of B-25 bombers. Most of the creatures, refrigerated into an artificial hibernation for transportation, fell to their deaths. The handful that survived then burned down part of an Army barracks and control tower.
The agency still enjoyed success elsewhere. Stanley Lovell, a Cornell-educated industrial chemist turned R&D chief, developed a silenced .22 pistol at a time when silencers had all but disappeared from the U.S. market. To test its efficacy, Bill Donovan, the OSS chief who successfully lobbied FDR to create the intelligence agency in 1942, fired the weapon behind the president while Roosevelt was dictating a letter to a secretary in the Oval Office. Roosevelt, in Donovan’s telling, only noticed the weapon after smelling burnt gunpowder and cracked wise that the OSS chief “was the only Republican whom he would ever allow in his office with a gun.”
While an OSS agent never got the chance to unload a silenced .22 into Adolf Hitler, Lovell devised other ways to get at the Allies’ top target. After an agency analyst determined that the Führer had a “large feminine component” to his constitution, the spy scientist paid a Bavarian gardener to inject female sex hormones into Hitler’s vegetables. On another occasion, Lovell concocted a plan to place a flower vase containing nitrogen mustard gas in the location of a meeting between the German chancellor and Mussolini. (Unfortunately, both plots failed: Hitler never developed breasts and the meeting was relocated.)
Like any self-respecting spy agency, the OSS also developed an umbrella gun, poison pills, and single-shot pistols disguised as fountain pens, as well as explosive cookie dough and radio-controlled boats loaded with explosives.
While it’s hard to say whether umbrella guns decided the outcome of World War II, the agency’s train explosives nearly doubled the Allies’ success rate in derailing German locomotives. Lovell, meanwhile, claimed that his lab’s “Firefly” explosives, which detonated after being placed in a vehicle’s gas tank, secured the Allied forces’ invasion of southern France in 1944 after agents disguised as French gas attendants took out two German tank divisions.
Those agents’ disguises, as well as their forged documents and counterfeit cash, were also created by Lovell’s R&D branch, which outfitted more than 300 agents who slipped into Axis territory for covert missions. Knowing any stop and search from a suspicious German soldier could result in a swift execution, some agents who grew up in occupied territory went as far as undergoing plastic surgery to avoid detection. While such measures may seem drastic, Lisle argues that the close attention to detail gave the Allies a clandestine advantage over the Nazis, who were at times more careless.
“Several [German] suspects were easily confounded by their underwear which still bore the tabs or imprint of the German manufacturer,” said George Langelaan, an officer from central France who went under the knife for his permanent make-up. “One German agent was captured within 12 hours of his landing in England simply because a railwayman happened to pick up a chocolate wrapper which he had thrown away and which was printed in German.”
Between the weapons development and Hitler sex-change scheme, Lovell transformed from being a skeptic of cloak-and-dagger operations—he once expressed concern to Bill Donovan that a covert weapons lab was “as un-American as sin is unpopular at a revival meeting”—to eventually exploring any means to bring an end to the war.
In experiments that presaged the CIA’s MKUltra program, the OSS tested marijuana’s effectiveness as a truth drug, finding that THC will “deaden the areas of the brain which govern an individual’s discretion and caution” and thus improve the success of interrogations.
Lovell, meanwhile, developed biological weapons at Maryland’s Camp Detrick and lobbied the U.S. military to deploy chemical weapons on the Japanese soldiers holed up in Iwo Jima. Roosevelt ruled against the proposal, and nearly 7,000 American soldiers died capturing the island. Following the tremendous losses, General George C. Marshall said he was “prepared to use gas at Okinawa,” according to David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
Ultimately, the debate over chemical and biological weapons—as well as the need for covert gadgets—was rendered moot by the development of the atomic bomb, which U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just six months after the Battle of Iwo Jima. Lytle Adams, a 60-year-old dentist who originally pitched the bat bomb to the OSS, caught wind of the Manhattan Project while discussing his idea with a general, who apparently confused the two secret projects conducting tests in New Mexico.
“We got a sure thing like the bat bomb going, something that could really win the war, and they’re jerking off with tiny little atoms,” Adams lamented to a colleague. “It makes me want to cry.”
It might be easy to laugh at Mr. Adams and his bat bomb now, but he was a proud American who wanted to help his country prevail over her enemies. We can only hope the same is true for the CIA scientists testing and engineering to address new challenges and adapting, improving, or accelerating the production of existing solutions.
The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare
by John Lisle
St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp., $29.99
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