Author David Wise explains how electronic surveillance has made all that's old new again in spycraft

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I’m Aaron Schechter and this is The World. Thanks to Edward Snowden we’re getting semi-weekly revelations about the NSA’s electronic snooping. It’s all providing a glimpse into just how much spy craft has changed through the years. You might think human intelligence has given way to satellites and computers. Not so fast.

David Weis: Our government is listening to everybody and everything. Spies are certainly aware of that and they still use a lot of old fashioned methods.

Schachter: David Weis is author of numerous books on spy craft, most of them non-fiction. His most recent is “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War With China.” I asked him what’s so great about old-school spy methods like the infamous dead-drop.

Weis: The old fashioned ways work because there’s no meeting between the spy and his recruiter or his handler. Let’s suppose, for example, that I’m the spy and you’re handling me and I want to communicate with you and say “Hey, I’ve got a hot document out of the Pentagon and I want to put it somewhere where you can pick it up but not meet with you.” Well, I can’t just pick up the phone or pick up my cell phone and call you because someone might be listening. So I probably have an arrangement to put a tape or a chalk mark on a certain lamp post or light pole that you check frequently. These are signals that would tell the opposition that, that there’s a dead drop, a hiding place, ready to be unloaded. Take the documents out and put the money that’s coming to the spy back in the dead-drop. So that’s how they exchange money for documents.

Schachter: So are spies these days also doing things like wigs and fake mustaches and…?

Weis: They’re not using shoe phones but there was, I assume, a CIA guy in [unintelligible] our embassy in Moscow who, in May of this year, fairly recent, was picked up by Russian intelligence. He had two wigs with him. One was blonde, he was wearing that one. The other was dark. He had three pairs of glasses, two knives, two envelopes with money, a flashlight, a can of mace and a compass in case he got lost in Moscow, I guess. And he had a letter with him offering a Russian intelligence officer a million dollars if he’d agree to cooperate with the United States. His names was Ryan Fogle, F-O-G-L-E, Third Secretary of the US Embassy, but he wouldn’t be running around with a blonde wig unless he was actually CIA.

Schachter: See, I heard that story and I thought that sounds so ridiculous, so oafish and old-school that it couldn’t possibly be true.

Weis: Well, yeah. It seemed like he was a young fella who was, was, outfitted with a little bit more than he needed.

Schachter: Is there any money in non-fiction spy books? You know, we know Dan Brown’s a gajillionaire from his sort of airport and beach novels.

Weis: Well, you know, I’m not complaining but I’m not a jillionaire and I’m not Dan Brown. My books have a good audience. One of my books was the number one best seller of which I was the co-author. It was called “The Invisible Government.” So, you know, some of my books have done well but I don’t recommend writing for a living as a…

Schachter: [Laughs]

Weis: it’s tough, but there is a smaller audience for type of fiction and non-fiction that I write. It’s a more specialized audience. And I have no complaints.

Schachter: Okay. Author David Weis. He is the real deal. Author of numerous books on spy craft. A real pleasure, thank you so much for your time.

Weis: Thank you, Aaron.