Walter Kirke, British deputy head of military intelligence in France, noted in his diary in October 1915 that the chief (“C”) of the Secret Intelligence Service had come upon a solution for how to send secret messages: “Heard from C that the best invisible ink is semen,” Kirke wrote. The substance, it turned out, was hard to detect by the common revealing method of iodine vapor. The chief’s name: Mansfield Cumming.
In July 1990, one year before the collapse of the USSR, scholar Nicholas Eberstadt testified before a Senate committee about a CIA study of the Soviet economy, which showed high Soviet meat production and per-capita milk output—exceeding U.S. levels—though shortages were widely reported by tourists and Soviet citizens. “The Soviet government routinely hides many of its efforts from outside views,” Eberstadt granted. “But where, one wonders, are the hidden stockpiles and reserves of Soviet meat?”
Seventh-century Persian king Khosrow II is said to have tested the loyalty of courtiers whom he believed were becoming too close. Telling one of his decision to execute the other, he would swear the man to secrecy and then watch the friend’s behavior. If it went unchanged, he knew the first man was loyal and had kept silent; if different, he was a traitor and dealt with accordingly.
In 480 bc, with the Persian army on the cusp of defeating Greece, Athenian general Themistocles sent a trusted slave to convey a message to Persian king Xerxes; the note professed allegiance to Persia and reported many Greek ships prepared to defect. The Persians, acting hastily on this false intelligence, sailed into the Strait of Salamis, where the Greek fleet was waiting and gained a decisive victory.
A sect of violent Islamic agents founded in eleventh-century Persia to fight the Fatimid caliph in Egypt became known as the Hashshashin, which translates as “eaters of hashish”; their grand master supposedly administered the drug to demonstrate the paradise that would follow agents’ service. From the name Hashshashin, Christian Crusaders derived the word assassin.
New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson wrote in 1912 that he had heard the Philadelphia Athletics “had a spy” who stole signs and “tipped the batters by raising and lowering an awning a trifle.” In Philadelphia for the World Series the year before, Mathewson had looked for the culprit. “In the enemy’s camp, I kept watching the windows of the houses just outside the park for suspicious movements,” he wrote. “But I never discovered anything wrong.”
Union general William T. Sherman believed newspaper correspondents to be liabilities. “A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us,” Sherman wrote in an 1863 letter. “I say—in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord and discontent in an army—these men fulfill all the conditions of spies.”
When asked why he didn’t use intelligence agents, Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuq Empire in the 1060s, replied that his favored subjects would trust the spies, while his opponents would curry favor and bribe them; he’d end up hearing damaging reports about his friends and positive ones about his enemies. “Reports good and bad are like arrows,” Arslan said. “If you shoot enough of them, at least one will hit the target.”
Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, claimed while discussing the NSA’s collection of telephone-call metadata, “We kill people based on metadata,” quickly qualifying, “But that’s not what we do with this metadata.” When declining an interview about alleged U.S. cyberattacks on Iran, he sent a one-line email that read, “Don’t know what I would have to say beyond what I read in the papers.”
“Secretary Morrice did this day in the House, when they talked of intelligence, say that he was allowed but £700 a year,” wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1668, “whereas, in Cromwell’s time, he did allow £70,000 a year for it; and was confirmed therein by Colonel Birch, who said that thereby Cromwell carried the secrets of all the princes of Europe at his girdle.”
About the first spy film, made in 1898, almost nothing is known besides its name, Execution of the Spanish Spy. Made two years later, Execution of a Spy was a twenty-seven-foot reel showing a firing squad executing a spy in a military prison. In The Female Spy, from 1906, a woman is tied to a horse by her hair and dragged behind it.
Concerned about pigeons carrying military communications, German troops in occupied Belgium during World War I would shoot at overhead flocks. Such fears had not abated by World War II, when the British government ordered a systematic slaughter of pigeons throughout the UK, and inmates at British and Australian interment camps were banned from approaching birds on compound grounds.