The destination for history

The secret language of espionage


In the world of intelligence-gathering, jargon acts as a much needed veil of secrecy. Nigel West reveals some of the professional techniques employed in the international espionage business.


A particularly skilled bomb-maker will often be referred to by his adversaries as an engineer, a title that refers back to Northern Ireland where a former television repairman, Dessie Ellis, became highly experienced at constructing ingenious explosive devices which often included sophisticated anti-handling booby traps designed to kill anyone seeking to disarm them. He and another bomb-maker, Danny McNamee, wreaked havoc across England and Ireland in the 1980s.

Born and educated in Dublin, Dessie Ellis was regarded by the British authorities as an exceptionally talented opponent responsible for dozens of deaths. Arrested in July 1981 at his home in Finglas for possession of bomb-making equipment, he jumped bail and fled to Canada but was detained in Buffalo, New York, in February 1982. He was extradited to Eire to be sentenced in April 1983 to ten years’ imprisonment at Portlaoise. In November 1990, shortly before he was due to be released, he was extradited to London to face more charges, but after a year on remand in Brixton he was acquitted in November 1991 at the Old Bailey and deported.

Devices made by Ellis killed some fifty people in Northern Ireland and England, and they were characterised by their sophisticated electronics and detonation by remote-controlled, hand-held transmitters intended for use with toys. The charges Ellis faced in 1991 related to the accidental discovery in October 1983 of an arms cache in the woods on the Harwick Estate around Whitchurch, near Pangbourne in Berkshire when 112 pounds of explosive, equipment ready to assemble radio-controlled bombs, command-wire-operated detonators, anti-disturbance devices, and long-time-delay devices were recovered, some of them bearing Ellis’s fingerprints.

Fingerprints had also identified Ellis as the creator of several other bombs, including one that had been concealed in the laundry van which exploded in Ebury Bridge Road, near Chelsea Barracks, in October 1981, and on the bomb which detonated in an Oxford Street Wimpy Bar later the same month as it was being disarmed by Ken Howarth. Another of his bombs was defused in the Debenhams department store.A fifth exploded outside the Wimbledon home of Attorney General Sir Michael Havers in November 1981.


The personnel responsible for making illicit entries into sensitive premises, often diplomatic or consular offices, are known in the vernacular as ‘second-storey men’.

Between 1942 and July 1966 the FBI conducted such operations through a dedicated unit at the Special Investigative Division at the Washington, DC, headquarters headed by Special Agent Ed Tickell, who was responsible for developing a high-speed, portable photocopier, concealed in a small suitcase, which was used to copy documents on site.

Because of the illegal nature of the source, the resulting information could never be used in prosecutions, but was referred to generally within the Bureau as ‘a highly reliable confidential source whose identity cannot be disclosed’.

The issue of the Bureau’s surreptitious entries became public in July 1975 when Newsweek revealed that the FBI broke into an average of one embassy a month, and in recent years had conducted 1,500 burglaries of premises occupied by organised crime or extremist organisations such as the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan.

Some crypto equipment burglaries are known as ‘smoking-bolt’ operations where an entire device, such as a cipher machine, is removed, leaving behind only the mechanisms designed to secure the hardware.

Some of the FBI’s entries were to plant listening devices, and between January 1957 and March 1975 the attorney general approved 172 of these operations.


Casual items, such as keys, photos, wallets and ticket-stubs which are intended to convey a false impression, or offer support to an alias, are often referred to as pocket litter. A classic example is the case of ‘Major William Martin’, an entirely bogus British officer whose body was placed in the sea off the Spanish coast near Huelva in April 1943 as part of an ingenious MI5 deception operation code-named MINCEMEAT. The cadaver was actually that of a homeless Welsh alcoholic, Glyndwr Michael, but the plan called for him to be dressed as a British courier entrusted with sensitive documents.

Confident that the body would be searched by the Spanish authorities MI5 officers went to elaborate lengths to fabricate Major Martin’s personality and private life by preparing the appropriate pocket litter, which revealed the existence of a fiancee, an overdraft with Lloyds Bank, a St Christopher medallion to indicate that he was a Roman Catholic, a receipt for the purchase of an extravagant engagement ring from a Bond Street jeweller, and the ticket stub of a London bus. The objective was to create a plausible life for a non-existent person, and the ruse succeeded. When the body was found in the sea by fishermen the Spanish alerted the Abwehr and provided access to the briefcase chained to Martin’s wrist. Although Abwehr analysts expressed some doubts about the authenticity of the documents in the case, the identity of Major Martin was not challenged, and he was buried in a local cemetery under that name.


The small group of 22nd Special Air Service regiment sabre squadron personnel who have undergone ‘incremental training’ to work with the Secret Intelligence Service are known as the Increment. They are considered qualified to act as bodyguards and undertake other roles in support of SIS missions, such as the operation in April 2011 to open a back-channel and negotiate with Libya’s breakaway National Transitional Council. The SIS officer and communicator were accompanied by seven protection staff from the Increment, but they were surrounded and detained by a group of anti-Gadaffi rebels. The SIS team, which had just landed from a pair of Chinook helicopters, was finally released after the intervention of the British ambassador, and returned to Malta aboard HMS Cumberland.


Any act of a professional nature by an intelligence officer is known as an operational act, and is an indicator of their true role. Suspects under surveillance may compromise their mission by manifesting behaviour that identifies their authentic calling.


Intelligence personnel and their agents who do not operate under alias and use their genuine profession as a cover for their clandestine activities are said to be working under ‘natural cover’.

The first American intelligence agency to deploy personnel overseas undercover was the FBI’s Special Intelligence Service which in 1942 posted 300 special agents under commercial cover to South America. One of the first, Kenneth Crosby, was a qualified stockbroker based at a Merrill Lynch office in Buenos Aires, but other legitimate firms among them General Motors, Republic Steel, Guaranty Trust, Sterling Products, and the Republic National Bank of New York, were approached to provide cover.

The CIA’s Clandestine Service was assigned the task of recruiting and managing personnel operating under non-official cover through the Office of External Development, an organisation shrouded in additional layers of secrecy. The only limits on the recruitment field are clerics, American journalists and current members of the Peace Corps.


Introduced to the CIA by Director of Central Intelligence Admiral Stansfield Turner who had expressed doubt about the performance of sources run by the Directorate of Operations (DO), Agent Audit was a mandatory assessment of individual agents intended to weed out those considered unproductive.

Turner, a teetotal Christian Scientist who headed the CIA between March 1977 and January 1981 and never disguised his preference for technical intelligence, undertook an unprecedented review of the DO’s staff in 1977 which became known as the Halloween Massacre and resulted in the premature retirement of 820 staff, some of whom were the most experienced case officers of the era.

Morale at the CIA plummeted as the Agency was cut to 14,000 personnel and the annual budget reduced to $6 billion. Bob Gates, who was Turner’s executive assistant, recalled that, ‘with the people fired, driven out or lured into retirement, half our analysts had less than five years’ experience. And our analysis wasn’t all that sharp, forward-looking or relevant. Our paramilitary capability was clinically dead. What covert action we did carry out was super-cautious and lacked any imagination.’

The problem with Agent Audit was that sometimes a human source would lose access to the required information, but experienced handlers knew that such individuals often regained access, or could find a replacement, and in any event were always grateful for continued support during a difficult period. Any loyalty demonstrated was often repaid with dividends, while termination, though a short-term expedient, would create resentment.

When, in November 1979, sixty-six Americans, among them the CIA station chief Tom Ahern and three of his subordinates, were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the DO was left with virtually no agent network in Iran, and not a single DO officer fluent in Farsi. As a consequence, the CIA was obliged to rehire a retiree to head its Iranian Task Force.


The tactic of making a covert offer to a suspected intelligence officer as they leave their host country is known as a gangplank pitch. The term originates in the practice, widely deployed during the Cold War, when a fellow professional might be discreetly slipped a note disclosing the instructions that should be followed if they wished to take up an offer of recruitment. Usually the pitch would give an address in a neutral country to which an innocent postcard could be mailed in order to signal acceptance of the terms, or meal-ticket, which would also be itemised.

The technique had three objectives: firstly, to confirm to the target that their true occupation has been compromised, or their cover.  Secondly, to offer an opportunity for the target to respond to an authentic offer which the recipient could be sure had been conveyed by someone, such as a uniformed customs or immigration officer, who could not possibly be an agent provocateur. Thirdly the gangplank pitch, as a counterintelligence instrument, had the benefit of disrupting an adversary’s operations by presenting the target with a dilemma about how to declare, as was required by duty, the offer to colleagues who might suspect that the offer was an indication of a sophisticated operational game.


The clandestine removal of an individual from hazardous territory is known as an exfiltration (the direct opposite of infiltration), and successful methods are rarely disclosed in the hope of repeating them.

In 1980 the CIA managed the escape of six Americans from Tehran by equipping them with Canadian passports and having them take on the roles of a location scouting party for a Hollywood movie production company. The Technical Services Division went to elaborate lengths to backstop the charade and establish a studio office in Los Angeles.

In 1980 a senior KGB officer, Victor Sheymov, was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in a CIA car, and five years later his colleague Oleg Gordievsky was exfiltrated from Moscow by SIS in the back of a Ford Sierra by British embassy staff over the Vygo frontier crossing into Finland in an operation code-named PIMLICO.

By Nigel West

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