Auto-didacts out in the cold!
October 5, 2010 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Tradecraft For Dummies: How can a pair of auto-didacts teach themselves the techniques and skills of the intelligence community?

As part of an ongoing quest for polymathy, a friend and I have decided that we want to gain proficiency in what entertainment and media call 'tradecraft' and spies call...well, who knows, they're spies, they probably shouldn't say.

Our specific interests include, but are not limited to:
>practical everyday cryptography/steganography
>dead & live drops
>concealment of objects (possibly related: slight of hand/palming)
>deception/deception detection
>body language/persuasion/interrogation 'interviewing'
>acute situational awareness

Essentially, we are interested in the techniques that members of the intelligence community use to accomplish tasks.

Disclaimer: We in no way intend to use any information/learning/skills to cheat/steal/be evil/whatever. This is merely a hobby/interest. The most dastardly outcome possible would be usage in practical jokes on roommates.

With that said: HIVE! Have you read any great books/articles/websites, seen any fantastic videos, or have ideas for fun ways to learn and use these skills, and practice out in the world (either on a college campus or in a city)?

We're not trying to be Jason Bourne, but walking into a building and knowing immediately where the exits are, and where one is likely to make the most effective escape? That would be pretty cool...
posted by weaponsgradecarp to Education (9 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
If you read enough John le Carré you get a look at some of the techniques, and also get a sense that the game itself is pointless.
posted by ovvl at 5:27 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's been almost a couple decades since I read it, but I remember bits of tradecraft in By Way Of Deception.

The episode I remember best: The author is walking down the street with his instructor. The instructor points at a random balcony off a random apartment highrise and says something to the effect of "I want to see you on that balcony in five minutes."
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:43 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could learn basic lockpicking from any of the how-to websites out there. You can get a set of picks (or make your own) pretty cheaply, and it's a gas to open a padlock or deadbolt in just a few seconds. Turns out that it's easier than people think, though it takes a bit of practice to get a feel for what's going on in the tumbler. Start with the classic MIT Guide, then pick up a basic set. Collect some padlocks and you're off to the races.
posted by jquinby at 6:05 PM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sauce Trough, that was from the movie Spy Game.
posted by Raichle at 2:34 AM on October 6, 2010

Sauce Trough: 'The author is walking down the street with his instructor. The instructor points at a random balcony off a random apartment highrise and says something to the effect of "I want to see you on that balcony in five minutes.' That exercise is also incorporated into the Brad Pitt/ Robert Redford movie Spy Game. In reality this exercise and similar ones mentioned in similar material (eg. The Big Breach by Richard Thomlinson) relate to social engineering. How good are you at talking your way into situations? There is clearly a moral hazard here though and playing amateur spooks is all well and good but be aware of that line.

In answer to your questions and quest for polymathy, really just expand your imagination and this is all doable to play around with. Really it just boils down to how far you want to take this and how 'authentic' you want to be. Like most things in life - you need to read around the subject and there is a world of information available at your fingertips. To point you in the right direction however i'll provide a few thoughts on the areas you mention:

practical everyday cryptography/steganography - seems to be a contradiction in terms here. 'practical everyday'? anyhow there are myriad websites dedicated to cryptography. Suggest you read up on the history of cryptography, ancient cyphers, enigma etcetera. Practice makes perfect. Try making your own sets and sending coded messages for each other to decphipher.

dead & live drops - again read up on intelligence history and even fiction (JLC as ovvl namechecked). use the coded messages to discuss dead drops and secrete prizes (or depending on how far you want to take this - 'intel') around campus to locate.

surveillance/counter-surveillance - there are many companies of ex-'security contractors' who can run you through basic surveillance / CS techniques. see back pages of Eye Spy Mag depends how deep those pockets of yours are though. Appears you are nr NYC and you can devise games to follow each other and try and lose the tail etc. All the more easy in crowded conurbations.

concealment of objects (possibly related: slight of hand/palming). again, read up on the history. Lots of books detail interesting concealments that have been used. Gun in cigarette packet, compass and cypher in sole of shoe - that sort of thing. Make your own? Practice concealment in household objects.

deception/deception detection & >body language/persuasion/interrogation 'interviewing'- into realms of physchology here but sure you can locate academic research in this area. For basics look into the Dr Paul Ekmen (character Cal Lightman is based upon in Lie to me). You can devise exercises around this easily. Attune yourself to become more aware of how people stand, hold themselves out and if there is a disconnect between verbal and physical communication. Look into sales techniques and how people use verbal jousting or conversational tics to affect direction and outcomes. interogation 'interviewing' - again lots of applicable fiction / non-fiction. Read transcripts of great trials and see how barristers are adept at eaking out information and filter said information to sort the 'wheat from the chaff.'

>acute situational awareness. - practice practice practice. get into the habit of entering a room and making mental notes of everything you sensecheck. walk out of room and write down what you saw. repeat ad nauseum. then dont use the paper. your confidence in your observational skills will increase rapidly. learn memory recall techniques and study people like daniel tammet.

'walking into a building and knowing immediately where the exits are, and where one is likely to make the most effective escape? That would be pretty cool...' well this is easy enough isnt it. Choose a building, scope it out, go to the local council and request schematics, look at city plans for renovations etc, consider use of building and 'barriers to entry' turn that on its head to consider most effective escape.

Just my $0.02 (£0.012 in my case) and I really should get back to my day job before the blue/green gets me fired.

Suggested reading: Richard Tomlinson - The Big Breach (covers initial training at Fort Moncton and related exercises to give you some ideas).

Victor Ostrovsky - By way of deception / other side of deception

Robert Baer - See no evil

John Le Carre - Backcatalogue - choose any of the 22 books to get food for thought. The Little Drummer Girl will give guidance on soft interview techniques.

Christopher Andrews - Specifically KGB - Inside Story, Mitrokhin Archive and if interested in US background check out For the Presidents Eyes Only.

Links :

Finally : The BBC made a series entitled Spy for wannabe spooks just like yourself to see how they got on with tradecraft etcetera. Covers the basics and strongly suggest your acquire a copy as will probably give you everything you are looking for (without having to do anything laborious like actually read up on the subject!)

And so on and so forth. Hope this helps. Have fun out there and memail if anything specific espoused you wand clarification on.
posted by numberstation at 2:50 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn straight from the source: The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.
posted by djb at 6:12 AM on October 6, 2010

As far as cryptography goes, an interesting book is Elonka Dunin's "Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms." Dunin's has been working with others to crack the Kryptos sculpture at the CIA headquarters for years.
posted by zoetrope at 9:14 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

onPoint Tactical "Scout, Tracker, and Survival" School offers classes such as Scout Urban Escape and Evasion, Surviving Deadly Contact, etc. Via LATimes.
posted by sharkfu at 2:55 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Typically the intelligence community is roughly split up into collection, analysis, counter-intelligence, and covert action. I'd sort your skills out based on that area. Human intelligence (HUMINT), is part of collection, and is generally part of the skills you are looking for. You couldn't go wrong with any biographical books written by ex-case officers, Robert Baer of the CIA and the By Way of Deception Mossad guy come to mind. This Amazon Listmania here and here cover a number of books in that area (author of that list Robert Steele is an ex-CIA case officer as well).

For counterintelligence stuff I'd read two books:

Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: how to be a Counterintelligence Officer by William Johnson, which covers counterintelligence tradecraft (how to run double agents, surveillance and countersurveillance).

Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: US Covert Action and Counterintelligence by Roy Godson, which is a scholarly work on the US counterintelligence and covert action communities. The covert action part covers a heap of very interesting things, like how to set up the logistics for running a proxy guerrilla war, and also covers stuff like black propaganda.

The Wikipedia intelligence pages are excellent (and were mostly written by a single guy that was eventually driven off Wikipedia, due to meddling editor asshats).

Recommended pages: Clandestine HUMINT operational techniques, and Clandestine HUMINT asset recruiting.

I'd also look into the pick-up artist (PUA) community. No matter what you think of that sub-culture, some of those PUA guys are expert social manipulators.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 9:10 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

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