Many a man has been impressed by the ingenuity of secret agent operations, and intrigued by the subterfuge, gadgets, and disguises required to pull them off. Much of what we think about when we think about spies got its start as part of the Office of Strategic Services, the American intelligence agency during World War II.
Here to unpack some of the history of the world of cloak and dagger operations is John Lisle, author of The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare. Today on the show, Lisle explains why the OSS was created and the innovations its research and development section came up with to fight the Axis powers. We talk about the most successful weapons and devices this so-called “Dirty Tricks Department” developed, as well as its more off-the-wall ideas, which included releasing bat bombs and radioactive foxes in Japan. We discuss the department’s attempt to create a truth serum, its implementation of a disinformation campaign involving “The League of Lonely War Women,” and its promotion of a no-holds-barred hand-to-hand combat fighting system. We also talk about the influence of the OSS on the establishment of the CIA and controversial projects like MKUltra.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- William “Wild Bill” Donovan
- Office of Strategic Services
- William Fairbairn
- Time pencil
- “Aunt Jemima” explosive
- Limpet mine
- The bat bomb
- John’s article on Operation Fantasia’s radioactive foxes
- AoM Article: 15 Cool Spy Concealments
- AoM Podcast #225: The Real Life James Bond
- AoM Article: The History of Invisible Ink
- AoM Article: Why Men Love the Story of the Great Escape
Connect With John Lisle
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Many a man has been impressed by the ingenuity of secret agent operations and intrigued by the subterfuge, gadgets, and disguises required to pull them off. Much of what we think about when we think about spies, got its start as a part of the Office of Strategic Services, the American intelligence agency during World War II. Here to unpack some of the history of the world of cloak-and-dagger operations is John Lisle, author of, “The Dirty Tricks Department : Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare.” Today in the show, Lisle explains why the OSS was created and the innovation its research and development section came up with to fight the Axis powers. We talk about the most successful weapons and devices that the so-called, “dirty tricks department” developed, as well as it’s more off-the-wall ideas, which included releasing bat bombs and radioactive foxes in Japan. We discuss the department’s attempt to create truth serum, its implementation of a disinformation campaign involving the League of Lonely War Women, and its promotion of a no holds barred hand-to-hand combat fighting system. We also talk about the influence of the OSS on the establishment of the CIA, and controversial projects like MKUltra. After the show’s over, check out our shownotes at aom.is/dirtytricks.
Alright. John Lisle, welcome to the show.
John Lisle: Thank you very much. I’m so glad that you have me on here, I can’t wait to talk about this exciting book, these stories. I’m really excited.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so you got a new book, it’s called, “The Dirty Tricks Department”, which is about the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and the individuals there that developed some really cool spy tech to help win the war. But your background is interesting, you’re a Historian of Science, and you also… You use that academic approach on the history of science to look at the intelligence community in the United States. How did you end up in this field? Was it just like you grew up watching James Bond movies and other spy shows and thought, “I wanna make a career researching and writing about the history of spy science”?
John Lisle: Well, I don’t think I consciously thought that when I was young. I do like spy stories and espionage. I think everyone’s kind of intrigued by that, and I certainly always have been. But I never consciously thought, “Oh, that’s what I wanna do.” I think when I got to grad school, I wrote my dissertation on a group of scientists during the cold war called, “The Science Attaches.” These were scientists who were attached to American embassies abroad. And as I was doing that research, I kind of discovered their connection to the intelligence community. And so that’s what took me from, this more history of science approach, into the intelligence community. And as I was looking at their connection to the intelligence community, I would come across the names of certain individuals who kept popping up with these really incredible stories. Stories of bat bombs, and painting foxes with radioactive paint, and secret weapons and all this stuff. And it all seemed to come back to just a couple of individuals, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I need to find out more about these people ’cause they’re the center of all these crazy stories.”
Brett McKay: So in your book, “The Dirty Tricks Department,” you take readers through a history of the development of the OSS during World War II. This is basically the predecessor of the CIA, and clearly, the technology that they developed during this time to help the Allies win the war with espionage and cloak-and-dagger stuff. And one thing you point at the beginning of the book is that before World War II, the US really didn’t have a centralized intelligence agency for espionage. So how did the US do espionage before World War II? ‘Cause I imagine the US Military did engage in espionage, so how did they manage that?
John Lisle: Yeah, several of the military branches had their own intelligence divisions. You have the army military intelligence division, the Office of Naval Intelligence, domestically, you have something like the FBI. The Postmaster General, occasionally, would make arguments that he should be the center of this intelligence ’cause all information goes through him. So there were these kind of silos of intelligence before World War II, especially. This led to several problems, one of the problems is that there was a lot of bureaucratic infighting, because each of these intelligence divisions wanted appropriations and there’s not an infinite amount of appropriations to go around, and so they’re fighting for money. Another issue with this is that you occasionally get the duplication of research. If you have one division that’s working on a certain intelligence, it might be doing the same thing or collecting the same information as another division. Well, instead of duplicating that intelligence, that work, it might be useful to have a centralized intelligence organization that can collect and analyze all that intelligence, that way you’re not duplicating research or fighting for money, there’s some centralized place. That’s the impetus behind the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, like you said, this centralized intelligence organization that’s created right around World War II.
Brett McKay: So Who came up with the idea of a centralized intelligence organization?
John Lisle: Well, one of the main people who spearheaded this idea is “Wild Bill” Donovan, William Donovan. He is a soldier, he won the Medal of Honor in World War I. He becomes a lawyer, he runs unsuccessfully for Governor of New York after Franklin Roosevelt. But he got sent by President Roosevelt, when Roosevelt becomes President, to Europe to see what’s going on in Europe, what’s the state of things in Europe during the 1930s, as tensions seemed to be on the rise. And Donovan comes back from… He went on several of those trips, and he realizes that the United States needs to stay abreast of all these developments that are happening, the tensions that, especially, seemed to be on the rise in Germany. And so he pleads to Roosevelt to please create some kind of central intelligence organization that will collect and analyze information to keep the President informed about what’s happening abroad so that the President can make the best decisions possible for the United States.
Brett McKay: And so, he got it going. But when it initially started, when the OSS initially started, it was looked down upon by those in Washington and the military. Why was that?
John Lisle: [chuckle] Yeah, for a few reasons. The joke about the OSS is that its nickname in the beginning was, “Oh, So Social”, because it recruited people from a lot of Ivy League schools, and so it was seen as a little aristocratic. And one of the reasons that that developed was because people who are hired into the OSS typically avoided being drafted into the military; if you were working with the OSS, you probably wouldn’t be drafted. So those were some of the knocks against the OSS. Another one was that military officials tended to dislike the OSS sometimes, especially because William Donovan, this man who was leading the OSS, was not into the strict hierarchy that you typically see in military organizations. He was more of a free-wheeling individual, flying by the seat of his pants. He would try anything if he thought it would work, and he wasn’t so much one for a strict structure of military discipline that typically you see in those other branches.
Brett McKay: And I imagine to the other military brass, they thought the OSS were encroaching on their turf. They’d go,”We already got our own intelligence stuff here. We don’t need you guys.”
John Lisle: Exactly, yes. Well, this is… So, one of the problems that the OSS is wanting to solve, is this idea of bureaucratic infighting, the idea being that, “We’ll collect and analyze all this information, and so we won’t have to fight over funds or anything.” What actually tends to happen is that now you just have one more horse in this race, now you just have one more organization that’s competing for the same funds. So instead of solving all of those issues that it hoped to, sometimes it contributed to them, ironically.
Brett McKay: So the OSS was developed, they were there to collect intelligence, analyze the intelligence, there’s department set up for that. But then Donovan thought, “You know what? We need a branch in the OSS that’s dedicated to destroying the enemy with subterfuge.” And so he thought, “You know what? I’m gonna start this thing where we research technology we can use to fight this clandestine war.” And he got this guy named Stanley Lovell, who is one of the main characters. Tell us about Stanley Lovell, and why did Donovan recruit him to become the Head Scientist at the research and development arm of the OSS?
John Lisle: Yes, Stanley Lovell is the main character of my book. Everything that I came across, all these interesting stories, all seem to have some connection to Stanley Lovell, so I really wanted to find more about him when I was doing research for this book. He is a Chemist from New England, he went to Cornell for school. One colleague described him with a quote that I think summarizes him pretty well, “A salty little Yankee inventor” that’s who Stanley Lovell was. He worked in the shoe and leather industry in New England for a while. During World War II, when the war broke out, he quit to go to Washington DC, and to try to aid the war effort in whatever way he could. He ended up signing on with a man named Vannevar Bush. Vannevar Bush was the main person who coordinated scientific research during World War II. Vannevar Bush was President Roosevelt’s unofficial science advisor. So Lovell, Stanley Lovell became an aide to Vannevar Bush. And Bush had some connections to the OSS, knew of the OSS, and ended up recommending that Lovell go over there and help Donovan, who was looking for a cunning chemist to join the ranks and help them create some of these devices and dirty tricks, I guess you could say, for the OSS.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting about Lovell, his development as a character in your book, is that when he first started working with the OSS, he was reluctant to develop spy weapons. Why is that and how did that change throughout his career?
John Lisle: Yeah, he did have some moral reservations about doing this. This is the main arc of the book, seeing Lovell’s transformation over the course of the war. He felt an obligation to really do no harm; this is kind of a Hippocratic obligation that he felt. But at the same time, his country was in war, and this is a country, the United States, that had let a poor kid like him, whose mother had died when he was young, whose dad had died when he was young, who was basically raised by his sister, to overcome all these obstacles and be extremely successful. So he was very patriotic. So he had this conflict of, not wanting to do harm and using his scientific expertise for good, but at the same time, wanting to defend a country and help a country that had enabled a person like him to achieve so much. He eventually had a meeting with William Donovan, the head of the OSS, in which he laid out his moral reservations about doing this job, about creating these deadly weapons. He told Donovan that he didn’t know if he felt comfortable doing this, he didn’t think the American people would be happy with him doing this. And Donovan brushed him aside and said, “Well, you need to get over it. You’re being too naive. The American people will be thankful for anyone who can think of a way to defeat the Germans and the Japanese during this war.”
Brett McKay: And also, I think his inner conflict, it highlights, I think, the tension that people have about espionage. On the one hand, I think people think it’s cool that you’re using your… You’re like Odysseus, you’re using your wiles to defeat the enemy. But at the same time, you’re like. “Man, it’s kind of weeny. Something about it seems immoral, that you destroy people, but secretly.” And I think it’s a conflict that’s existed about espionage in war for a long time.
John Lisle: Yeah, and I think that gets to one of the conflict that Lovell has about some of his work when he’s developing biological and chemical warfares. This is traditionally seen as this unconventional type of warfare, a really negative aspect of warfare, something we should not do; use biological and chemical warfare. It’s somewhat less noble than traditional warfare. Lovell, over the course of the war, starts to change his mind about this, and he starts to think that maybe biological warfare is the ethical alternative to conventional warfare. “Instead of stabbing someone,” as he said, “with a bayonet and letting it get contaminated, and they develop some kind of infection and eventually die, well, what if you could spare a soldier, the wound. Maybe they’re gonna die from an infection anyway if you use biological warfare, but it doesn’t involve the barbarous stabbing them with a bayonet or something.” So he has this strange development where he goes from being reluctant to even help the OSS develop these weapons, to being someone who is encouraging the use of biological and chemical weapons during the war.
Brett McKay: The, “You’re killing them anyway, so why does it matter how you kill them?”
John Lisle: Yeah, well, that’s his idea and that’s his… Of course, there are objections to this, but Lovell’s idea was that, “Well, we want this war to end as soon as possible. If we want to stop as much suffering as we can, we should use everything available to us to stop that suffering. Yeah, it’s gonna be barbarous, it’s gonna be different than what we’re used to, but if that’s what ends the war, then let’s do it.”
Brett McKay: We’re gonna talk about some of these specific gadgets and technology the OSS developed during this time in World War II. But before you do that, I think you do a good job in the book of talking about the scientific process, how they came up with their ideas. So let’s talk about it, I think it’s really interesting. So what was the approach in the OSS, with Lovell’s department, on generating ideas, prototyping? Was it a move fast and break things? Was it more methodical? Describe that process for us.
John Lisle: The process within this dirty tricks department in this research and development branch was really kinda, “Throw things against the wall and we’ll see what sticks.” [chuckle] They’d summarize, I guess, with a popular phrase, “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission,” that was General Donovan’s MO in general. To do things, do what you can, see what sticks, and then see what works and continue doing that, and then discard the stuff that doesn’t. This can be good, especially in a war time, and in something like World War II, it was very helpful to not have all of that bureaucratic red tape around Lovell, where he could develop these weapons. So some context may be more permissible of these things than others. But yeah, it really was, “Let’s try out everything we can, and we’ll see what we come up with.”
Brett McKay: Well, there’s the lack of bureaucratic red tape around the OSS and Lovell. It was kind of interesting how you talk about, with some of this stuff, the President, Roosevelt, was told about some of the stuff they’re developing, but it was done in a way that he could have plausible deniability. So if it ever came up that the US ended up using chemical warfare, the President could go, “Well, I didn’t know about it.” But he did know about it.
John Lisle: Well, this is something that you see not just with the OSS, this is something throughout the intelligence community and the Executive branch, going throughout the Cold War, especially. There are different committees, the express purpose of them is to provide the President with some plausible deniability. When you’re talking about the intelligence community in general, there’s what I think of as a vicious cycle that sometimes plays out. The vicious cycle would be, secrecy, that’s inherent within the intelligence community. Secrecy enables plausible deniability. Plausible deniability enables risky behavior, risky behavior leads to embarrassment because it gets exposed. And then embarrassment leads to more secrecy. So it’s just this cycle that keeps going.
Brett McKay: Okay, start by some of the specific gadgets that Lovell and his department developed, and let’s talk about the weapons and the secret weapons they developed to kill people. So what were some of the ones that were the most successful that came out of this department?
John Lisle: Some of the longest lasting ones… Well, the longest lasting one is probably the silenced.22 pistol… Silent, flash-less. This was used after World War II, there are some reports of it even being used during the Vietnam War. So that was probably the longest lasting weapon that the R&D branch had a hand in developing. There are a lot of… Sometimes the simplest weapons are the most useful ones. Within the R&D branch, one of the most useful secret weapons they devised, was what’s called a time pencil. A time pencil is just a small device, it looks like a pencil, but it has some mechanism for delaying a detonation. So depending on the kind of wire that’s used, and acid might eat through the wire more fastly or more slowly. And then when the wire is completely eaten through, the time pencil might explode, which can set off a larger detonation, something like that. So those were used in conjunction with all kinds of explosives. One of the most common ones was what’s called a limpet. A limpet was an explosive charge that could be attached to the bottom of a ship. And the idea was that you would set your time pencil in your limpet, you would attach it to the ship, and then you would row away. And however long later, 30 minutes, an hour, the limpet would go off, it would blow a hole into the side of the ship and the ship would sink. So those are some of the most useful weapons that the R&D branch had a hand in developing.
One of the most famous ones is called “Aunt Jemima.” Aunt Jemima, is basically a pancake mix. This is something you could bake and eat, but it was a pancake mix that was laced with some high explosive. And so, although it was safe to consume, you could actually set a charge to it, and then you could blow it up. The reason for developing Aunt Jemima was that it would allow you to sneak this explosive into other territories pretty easily, because nobody’s gonna suspect that a pancake mix is serving as some kind of explosive.
Brett McKay: So a lot of these devices, made to kill, but also a lot of was made to sabotage, it sounds like.
John Lisle: Yes, sabotage is the name of the game, especially with the OSS. The military is handling the main fighting that’s going on during this war. The OSS, one of the main things that it’s doing, it’s helping to supply resistance forces in occupied Europe with these weapons to sabotage the German military. One big thing, especially, was to sabotage German trains, because then you can’t get supplies wherever it’s going. So one device that the R&D branch develops was called, “The Mole.” This was Stanley Lovell’s, it might have been his favorite device. The Mole was this device, that a saboteur would secretly place on the wheel well of a German train. And then The Mole was capable of determining whether it was light or dark. And so when the train entered a tunnel, The Mole would detonate, and it would, hopefully, ideally, cause the train to derail. And so not only would that ruin that train, it would also plug up the tunnel so no other trains could go through it. So a sabotage within the OSS, especially in conjunction with these resistance movements, was definitely the name of the game.
Brett McKay: Alright. So we talked about some of the more successful ideas. What were some of the zaniest ideas that this research and development department came up with?
John Lisle: [chuckle] Well, I mentioned that the R&D branch is just throwing things and seeing what sticks, and so you have a lot of stuff that doesn’t stick. [chuckle] One of the more interesting ones, probably one of the most famous things just because of how odd it is that came out of the OSS, and specifically, the R&D branch, is called The Bat Bomb. The Bat Bomb is the idea that bats will tend to roost in buildings. So if you release a bunch of bats, say, over Japan, they will naturally seek to roost in a bunch of Japanese buildings. And The Bat Bomb was the idea that, “What if we attach small, little, incendiary devices to bats, and then we release them over Japan. The bats will go and roost in these buildings, the incendiaries will explode, and they’ll cause a bunch of fires and it can burn a city down.” “Instead of having to drop bombs on Japan that might not hit buildings, we can almost guarantee with these bats, that they’re going to roost in places that the Japanese don’t want to be caught on fire.” So that’s the overall bat bomb idea, which was somewhat strange. [chuckle]
One of the other strange ideas in the book is called “Operation Fantasia.” Operation Fantasia was a psychological warfare scheme. The idea with this, it was targeting Japan, the idea with this is that within the Shinto religion, there are these portents of doom in the shape of a fox. And so this might signal that something bad is going to happen if this fox figure appears. The idea of Operation Fantasia was to make Japanese civilians think that they were seeing these portents of doom in the shape of foxes, and then maybe they would decide to lay down their arms, maybe they would quit fighting. The way that the OSS, specifically the R&D branch, tried to accomplish this, was by capturing live foxes and painting them with a radioactive paint. And this radioactive paint would glow in the dark, and so there would be these ghostly fox apparitions that you could release in Japan, that would supposedly make the Japanese scared of continuing to fight, and maybe that would resort in peace. That was, probably, the most outlandish [chuckle] idea that went anywhere within the OSS.
Brett McKay: Well, they tested it out. And I think Washington DC released these foxes in the park and there were people seeing it, and there were people freaking out. They’re like, “What is that? It’s a glowing dog, running around in the park.”
John Lisle: Yeah, they tested this in a few different ways. So one of the tests that they wanted to do was to see even if this radioactive paint would stick to a fox. Because the idea would be that you have to throw these foxes onto the coast of Japan, so you release them along the coast in the water and they would swim to shore. Well, if you did that, would the paint even stay on the foxes? Could foxes even swim? In order to determine this, the OSS had some people get some foxes, paint them, tow them out into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and throw them overboard just to see what would happen. It turns out the foxes did swim to shore, but by the time they had reached the shore, they had lost most of that paint that made them glow in the dark. And then, as you mentioned, in this other test of Operation Fantasia, there were several foxes that were released into Rock Creek Park, right by Washington DC. And there were newspaper reports afterwards that said that the people who observed these foxes had, what they called, “the screaming jeemies” they were really scared of these apparitions. And so the idea was that, “Well, if it scared Americans, surely it’s going to scare the Japanese even more.”
Brett McKay: But they never did actually move forward with the… Releasing the ghost foxes in Japan. The bat bomb, that never got put into practice either. A lot of these ideas you talk about, they were just brainstorming and experimenting. They were just… But they never actually used them in the war.
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And now back to the show. So mostly the technology they developed was for sabotage, but the OSS did think about assassination. And so they developed technology or weapons to assassinate targeted individuals in a way so that it didn’t look like an assassination. So tell us about some of this research and development here.
John Lisle: Yeah, within the R&D branch, there was one specific project called “Natural Causes,” and that’s kind of self-explanatory, “We wanna produce something that makes it look as if somebody had died by natural causes.” One of the methods of doing this was to create a capsule that was filled with some kind of sodium metal. And then if somebody eats, or if you slip this into their food somehow, and they would eat the sodium metal, it would cause them to die, but then the sodium metal would dissolve into salt. And so you wouldn’t really be able to trace what had happened to them. Other ways of potentially killing someone that the OSS was spit-balling with Natural Causes, was to artificially raise their body temperature for a prolonged period of time somehow… They don’t really lay out too clearly how they planned to do this, but this is just the idea that they had that could possibly work. Or, somehow injecting an air embolism into somebody’s vein and killing them that way. Those are a few ways that they plotted, or at least, attempted to think of ways to produce an assassination that looked like it could have been by any means.
Brett McKay: So they thought about it, they actually never implemented, put it into the practice?
John Lisle: Not these, not these. Not that I know of. Yeah, not with these. There are other methods of killing someone that were used, for instance, L pills. L pills are lethal pills, cyanide pills or, just generally suicide pills. These weren’t really given to other people, more so they were given to OSS agents themselves so that when they went abroad, if they got caught, they might take their L pill and kill themselves, basically, before they were captured or interrogated and could divulge any sensitive information.
Brett McKay: Did those ever get used?
John Lisle: Those did get used. Yeah, those did get used.
Brett McKay: Wow.
John Lisle: Not just by the United States, either. L pills were developed by several different countries. So they were used, not just by the US, but others as well. Yeah, William Donovan, when he’s… He’s traveling right after D-Day, he has an L pill on him and he almost uses it on one occasion. There are stories of OSS agents who used their L pill and it didn’t quite work as advertised, and they’re writhing on the ground for about 30 minutes. Ideally, it’s supposed to kill you within a minute or two, but sometimes they didn’t quite work as advertised.
Brett McKay: So in mid-century spy movies, truth serums are often used to get intelligence from enemy prisoners. Did the OSS develop any truth serums?
John Lisle: They tried. [chuckle] They certainly tried. One of the truth serums that they try to develop, or something that they try to use, is THC acetate, this is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. This was experimented with pretty extensively during World War II within the OSS, to determine whether you can get someone to tell the truth. The idea with some of these drugs, is that maybe you can prevent a person’s part of the brain that invents lies, maybe you can prevent that part of the brain from operating. And if you can do that, well, they’re incapable of telling a lie so they have to tell the truth, that they’ll say anything. This didn’t really work out in practice. If you gave someone a supposed truth drug like THC acetate, or even alcohol is used. Alcohol has been known to get people to talk for a long time, you actually can get people to talk. The OSS did several experiments on its own personnel, but also on random people. It did experiments on some criminals, gangsters in New York, Augusto Del Gracio was one of them… And by giving them these drugs, these people actually did tend to talk more.
The problem, however, is that you can’t guarantee that what they’re saying is the truth. You can lower someone’s inhibitions, but how do you know what they’re saying is actually the truth? That’s the difficulty. It’s almost like torture. If you torture someone, they’re probably going to talk to you. They’re gonna say anything to make the pain stop. But that’s why it doesn’t quite work. If you are going to say anything to make the pain stop, then you can never trust what they say.
Brett McKay: Well, that was interesting. The guy… One of the guys who was heading up the Truth Serum work, experimenting with marijuana, he was actually… The guy who is… Am I right that he was actually in charge of the narcotics?
John Lisle: Yes.
Brett McKay: He enforced narcotics law, but when he worked at the OSS, he was actually giving gangsters narcotics.
John Lisle: Exactly. He was trying to clean the streets of drugs by day, and at the night, he was doling out drugs to people, surreptitiously, to see if they actually worked as truth drugs. I think the guy you’re referring to is George White. He is a narcotics officer for the Bureau of Narcotics. His job is to get drugs off the street. But Stanley Lovell, when he’s trying to figure out who he’s gonna test these truth drugs on, he has no connections to drugs, or he doesn’t know who he can try them out on. And so he basically hires George White to help him. So Lovell gives these drugs to George White, and then George White uses these drugs on his criminal informants to see if they will talk about incriminating stuff. If the informants do, well that means that maybe the drugs worked and he can report back to Stanley Lovell that this is a good truth drug.
Brett McKay: Isn’t that illegal?
John Lisle: Probably, yeah.
Brett McKay: So yeah, and that was the of the interesting thing with the OSS with some of the stuff they were developing. A lot of the stuff they would… They throw in an idea and someone would say, “Well, that’s illegal.” I think there was one instance where they were working on counterfeit documents, creating phoney money, and someone was like, “No, you can’t do that, that’s illegal.” And they’re like, “Well, we’re gonna do it anyways.” And they did it.
John Lisle: Yeah, this is one of the things I come back to at the end of the book, thinking about… In war time especially, war time seems to justify otherwise criminal things. People seem to be more forgiving of doing certain actions in war time than any other time, because it just comes back to the idea that when you’re under distress, it’s in your best interest to defend yourself, to do anything you can to get out of that distress. So war justifies these criminal acts, or seems to, it’s used as the justification for these criminal acts. This is going to lead to a lot of trouble after World War II, because some of these same things that we’re talking about, are going to continue into the CIA. And they’re not gonna have that same kind of justification, or at least, people aren’t gonna view it the same way, and it’s gonna lead to a lot of abuses of power.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll talk about that. So any other mind control technology that the OSS tried to experiment with during World War II?
John Lisle: The main thing, I guess, would be the truth drugs. There’s something that ties into that, I guess, are these disinformation campaigns, trying to convince people of believing certain things that aren’t necessarily true. One of the most prominent disinformation campaigns, or at least, kind of the popular ones nowadays, that happened during World War II from the OSS is called “The Lonely League of War Women.” The idea is that the OSS would drop pamphlets over Germany or German troops, and these pamphlets would basically say, “There is a League of Lonely War Women in Germany, and they are going to sleep with any German soldier who is wearing a specific pin on their lapel.”
Now, on the face of it, this seems like, “Why would the OSS invent this idea that there are women who are wanting to sleep with the German soldiers? That doesn’t really make sense.” The idea though, is to make the German soldiers think, “Well, who are these War Women in Germany? Who are these women in Germany who are willing to sleep with all these soldiers?” And obviously the German soldiers might start to think to themselves, “Well, could it be my wife? Could it be my girlfriend who’s being recruited to join this League of Lonely War Women to sleep with all these soldiers?” And it might discourage the German soldiers because they’re gonna think of their girlfriends sleeping with someone else, and they’ll wanna go back home and not really fight. [chuckle] So that was one attempt to manipulate ideas in Germany at the time.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned, they did some counterfeiting. So forgeries were an important part of the OSS’ work. Why was that important in their espionage work?
John Lisle: One of the main things that the OSS does is send undercover agents abroad, to either gather information, or to train resistance groups that are operating in Europe. And so if you’re sending an undercover agent abroad, they better have a good cover story, they better have a good disguise. And papers are necessary, completely necessary, for that disguise. You’re gonna need a fake passport, you’re gonna need fake ration tickets, fake train tickets, fake money. All kind of… Not necessarily fake, but forgeries that look real. And so that’s why these forgery operations are really important. Again, the R&D branch sponsors one of these forgery operations called the Documents Division, and that’s its whole job, is to produce passports that look real, to produce money, to produce ration tickets. All kinds of things that these undercover agents are going to need when they go into Europe.
Brett McKay: This reminded me of The Great Escape, where they had a documents department to create all the… Give the papers to the escaping prisoners so that once they were in France or wherever, they could get to safety.
John Lisle: [chuckle] Yeah, it’s really, really impressive, the amount of detail that goes into producing these documents. In order to… It’s not just enough to give someone a fake document that looks real, at least on the surface, you have to make sure that the exact kind of paper is being used, the exact kind of ink is being used. There are reports of these forgers roughing up the edges of the paper with sand paper to make it look like it’s a little bit worn. There are cases of them throwing it on the floor of the office and walking over it to make it look worn. You have to get the specific stamps from the specific region, so you have to have an artist who can recreate specific stamps from wherever this document is supposedly coming from. If you’re taking pictures, you better make sure that you’re taking the picture in the same kind of style that the picture is supposed to be in. For German passports, you weren’t supposed to show one of your ears. And so if you didn’t know that, you might show someone on a passport, take a picture where they have both their ears in the photo. But then that would be an obvious forgery, because that’s not supposed to be there.
Brett McKay: Well, the other thing too, the agents, a lot of them got training on how to forge signatures or forge handwriting.
John Lisle: Yeah. This is one of my favorite parts of the book is talking about who these forgers are, and how they’re training people. In some circumstances, the OSS would hire criminals to help train people how to forge things, criminals who had forged US government money, because they had some good training. They were good at forging signatures and all kinds of things. One of these criminals is referred to as, “Jim the Penman.” He supposedly could look at someone’s name, pick out a suitable pen or quill, and recreate their signature up and down the page, and he would bet someone $5 that they couldn’t pick out their original one. And so he was hired, basically, to teach some of these agents how to do forgeries, how to study someone’s handwriting and the movements of the wrist in order to recreate exactly how they write.
Brett McKay: Did the OSS develop any Mission Impossible disguise technology?
John Lisle: Well, there are several different ways that the OSS disguised people. The best ones actually tend to be fairly simple. If you wanna disguise someone, you can put iodine on their teeth to make their teeth a little yellow. You might put some whitener on their temples to make them look a little older. You might put charcoal pencil in their wrinkles to make their wrinkles deeper and make them look older. Put some newspaper in their shoes to make them taller. Stuff their cheeks with cotton in order to change the shape of their face. But there are instances, really dramatic changes happening. There are a few people who undergo facial reconstruction surgery to change the shape of their chin in order so that they would not be recognized in somewhere that they otherwise might have been. And there are ways of altering your appearance to also help you on your undercover mission. Not just changing your physical appearance, but also changing the things that you carry with you.
So, for instance, the OSS, this R&D branch, developed all kinds of things with message chambers in them, like a pencil that had holes drilled into it where you could stuff a carefully rolled up paper, a belt that had a secret message chamber in there where you could stuff messages, shoes that had false bottoms where you could put things in. There are accounts of buttons that the OSS created, these buttons would screw on the opposite way that a typical screw thread goes, so that you could put something in the button, screw it on in the opposite way that you would typically do, and then if someone was suspicious of this button, they might try to unscrew it, but they probably would… By unscrewing it, they would actually screw it in because the threads were wound the opposite way. One of the most ingenious ways to deliver messages secretly was by melting lipstick. And then you would put a message in the lipstick, you would re-cast it, and then give it to some woman who would then take it somewhere, and it’s within the lipstick, so it’s really easily concealed.
Brett McKay: So besides developing spy gadgets, the OSS also developed innovative hand-to-hand combat styles. And they brought in a guy named William Fairbairn. So tell us about this guy and his Shanghai street-fighting style that he taught OSS agents.
John Lisle: Yeah, this is one of the most odd characters of the entire book, William Fairbairn. He was a former British Royal Marine. He had been stationed in Shanghai, deterring criminal gangs, monitoring red light districts, that kind of thing. And while he was in Shanghai… This is before World War II… He had been in a number of street fights and he had been beaten up by gangs and almost dead. And one time after he was beaten up by a gang, he woke up in a hospital and he started thinking to himself that he needs to develop the fighting skills in order to protect himself. So he starts taking Jujutsu classes, and he eventually devises his own system of fighting called gutter fighting. Gutter fighting is basically… There are no rules, that is gutter fighting. There are no rules. Gouge out somebody’s eyes, throw sand in their eyes, jab their chin, do anything that you can in order to, basically, incapacitate someone who’s trying to incapacitate you first. So he develops this before World War II. And then when the war breaks out, he’s hired by the OSS and he works with the British equivalent as well, to train these agents in how to fight.
And again, some of the most common techniques within gutter fighting would be like the chin jab; you thrust your hand into someone’s chin. He commonly refers to grabbing someone’s testicles… Just doing anything you can to incapacitate someone.
Brett McKay: Yeah, just like… It’s just cheap. [chuckle] It’s just…
John Lisle: Yeah, yeah, it’s very cheap.
Brett McKay: Yeah, very cheap fighting. And yeah, he drew a crowd. People liked to come watch demonstrations he’d put on, and he was kind of… He was a big draw, he’s a crowd pleaser.
John Lisle: He definitely was. And in fact, he was taken to see President Roosevelt before, and he demonstrated some of his fighting techniques. And people were really impressed by what he was doing. He would put on demonstrations for the OSS hierarchy, and he would ask some of his recruits, some of the really large recruits, to come at him and try to throw him off the stage. And before they knew what had hit them, basically, they had found themselves falling on the front rows of the audience and he was standing at the front of the stage, the star of the show. So yeah, he was definitely something else. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: So what was the track record of the OSS, the dirty tricks department? How big of a role did they play in the war effort?
John Lisle: Their biggest role, especially the R&D branch, is really helping these resistance forces, supplying them with things like The Mole, or other ways to sabotage trains. That’s probably the most effective thing that this R&D branch specifically did. As far as the OSS in general, it was really important that the United States had good intelligence from abroad. That’s probably the most important thing the OSS did, is gather intelligence and have analysts back home who could analyze that intelligence and figure out, “Where are German troops moving? Where are they stationed? How many people do they have?” So that’s probably the most important thing the OSS did. But as far as the R&D branch specifically, helping the resistance forces in Europe sabotage the German military, is probably its most important contribution to the war effort.
Brett McKay: And what happened to the OSS after the war ended?
John Lisle: Once the war ended, the OSS pretty much dissolved. It had been effective during the war, but after the war, there were a few reports that came out, specifically, one report, the Park Report. And it was written by someone who was affiliated with military intelligence, so there’s this kind of bureaucratic rivalry. And they just lambasted the OSS, saying that it didn’t do anything, it was ineffective. And so the OSS eventually gets… Basically dissolves after World War II. A few components of it do survive… Or did survive. The research and analysis branch which was analyzing intelligence that was coming in from abroad, that moved to the State Department. But otherwise, most of the OSS is pretty much liquidated.
Brett McKay: And then eventually, a couple of years later, the CIA formed. How did the ethos of the dirty tricks department carry over to the CIA?
John Lisle: Yeah, in a few ways. So a lot of the people who have been involved with the OSS eventually joined with the CIA, so a similar kind of culture develops there. The CIA is created in 1947 by the National Security Act, and the main head of the CIA, pretty quickly after that, is Allen Dulles. He’s gonna be the longest serving Director of Central Intelligence. He starts wondering what kind of branches he should create with the CIA, and he actually talks with Stanley Lovell, the head of this R&D branch. And he asks him, “Do you think I should create a branch within the CIA that does something similar to what your R&D branch did during World War II?” And Lovell says, “I think you should.” And so the CIA eventually develops a branch called the TSS, the Technical Services Staff. And it does a lot of similar things to what the R&D branch did during World War II. Another really important consequence or influence that the OSS has on the CIA, is that a lot of the people within the CIA get inspired by what happens within the OSS, and particularly, what was going on within that R&D branch.
John Lisle: So Lovell, Stanley Lovell, had been experimenting with truth drugs, and building gadgets, and thinking about assassinations, these same kind of ideas get taken up by specific people within the CIA.
Brett McKay: And then how did that play out in the CIA? And how did that eventually lead to some controversy?
John Lisle: Yeah, one of the main things this is going to lead to is that in 1953, the CIA creates a program to investigate mind control, “Is mind control possible? And if so, how might we achieve it?” This program is called MKUltra, a notorious program that the CIA has. The head of this program was a man named Sidney Gottlieb. Sidney Gottlieb, like Stanley Lovell, was a chemist. And he was the head of MKUltra, this mind control program. And when he first started this program, he was asking himself… He didn’t really know how to study mind control, he hadn’t been involved in this kind of thing before. And so he starts looking at historical records, trying to figure out what things he should do, what should he investigate. Well, he actually comes across the OSS files of the R&D branch, and in those files, he’s inspired to do a lot of things that the R&D branch had done. Except, this time, he’s not doing it during war time, he’s doing it during peace time. It’s Cold War, but peace time. And so Sidney Gottlieb is pretty directly inspired by Stanley Lovell to conduct a lot of these experiments that happen under MKUltra, especially, drug experiments, like truth drug experiments.
Brett McKay: And some of those experiments, they were basically giving LSD to people, right?
John Lisle: Yes, yeah. Well, okay, so here’s another connection. The OSS, remember when it’s conducting these drug experiments? Lovell had hired this narcotics officer named George White to conduct those THC experiments? Who does Sidney Gottlieb hire for MKUltra to slip LSD to people? George White. The same exact George White, the same person. So there’s a really direct connection between these two branches and programs.
Brett McKay: And again, that’s the point you make, is that the stuff that the CIA did during peace time, it was… People kinda looked to give a blind eye during war times, “Well, it’s war. We gotta do what we gotta do” In peace time, things change.
John Lisle: Yes, yes. This is one of the concluding things in the book. Sidney Gottlieb and MKUltra are doing things that are pretty similar to all the things that the R&D branch was up to during World War II.
Brett McKay: Well John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
John Lisle: Thank you so much. Yeah, your questions were really well thought out. So I think that really contributed to a great conversation. If someone wants to know more, the best place probably to learn more about this, or to at least keep up with my work, is on Twitter. I’m on Twitter, @johnlisle, J-O-H-N, L-I-S-L-E. So I post occasionally, pictures from the archives. If I come across interesting documents, Twitter is mostly where I post interesting things like that. And, I guess, if anyone wants to, you can visit my website, johnlislehistorian.com. And that doesn’t have too much, but it’s just kind of the summary of some of the things that I’ve been interested in, the future work that I’m going to be doing. And, yeah, so those are probably the two best places.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, John Lisle, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Lisle: Yeah, thank you so much. This has been great.
Brett McKay: My guest here is John Lisle. He’s the author of the book, “The Dirty Tricks Department.” It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, johnlislehistorian.com. Also, check out our shownotes at aom.is/dirtytricks, where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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