So, you wanna be a spy?
We can’t teach you how to fight or do any of the physical stuff, but we can get you started on the bookish bits. What you rarely see in the spy movies is the intellectual preparation work of an agent. The preparation is all. Here is a short list of books to put in your secret spy library – but hold on a second –
You can’t just leave these books lying around the house for people to see. As with all spy work, there are things inside of things inside of things…. First, you need a secret library for your secret library. You need a hidden room.
There are a lot of different ways to do this. These range from cramped little nooks to hidden rooms you can walk around in. Note that the cool ones in that link are all hidden behind bookcases. Why? Because no one would ever suspect a bookcase was actually a hidden door, unless they’d watched Scooby Doo or ever seen a movie. (You know we have a secret nook behind a bookcase at the store, right? No?! Look around next time…) If you just want to convert an existing door (and therefore the room behind it), this plan is extremely easy and cheap. With a couple tweaks, you could probably make it a bit more legit. It’s a good place to start – especially if you don’t want to do any serious carpentry. Here is one that actually slides open automatically. It is not easy to build, and requires a little coding, but if you build it, you get 007 status without actually having to kill any enemy agents. (Because building is so much harder than killing.)
Alright, once you have a hidden space, it should be safe enough to stock your spy library. Then we’ll discuss accoutrements.
Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al Queda is from Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton and Henry R. Schlesinger. Wallace was director of the CIA’s tech service – yes, Q Branch. A detailed account of real-life tech tools and their use in actual operations, this one has tons of photos and will make you hardware-savvy. You won’t fall for the old tricks: blow-up doll snipers, cigarettes that are actually listening devices, the ol’ banana-in-the-tailpipe, etc..
Spy the Lie by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero with Don Tennant will help you with the most important asset of the intelligence agent: people. A good general rule is to not trust anyone, but it is also a completely impractical rule. No one can go it alone. Period, full stop. But… you have to be skeptically minded about what people say (and do). The authors are all CIA/NSA vets, and they will teach you the skill of sorting fact from fiction, no matter the nature of your relationship with a person.
Also from these authors is Get the Truth: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Persuade Anyone to Tell All. No, this is not about violent interrogation; good guys do not do that, and you are a good guy. This is about conversational techniques that get folks to blab. Handy for a spy.
Left of Bang from Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley offers a necessary mindset for the operative. Picture a timeline. The dead center of the timeline is the “bang”, the bad thing that happens – say, your coffee cup getting knocked off the counter by your dog’s wagging tail. Right of bang is cleaning up the coffee and your favorite, now broken mug. Left of bang is before all that happens, when you still have a chance to move your precious coffee cup away from the edge and calm your dog down. This book will teach you how to develop habits of situational awareness and proactivity in more serious contexts than spilled coffee. For instance, you’re sitting in a club, and notice that two dudes are standing against a wall in bulging trench coats. Sketchy. You are left of bang, and still have a chance to deal with what could be a bad scene, before it even develops.
Undercover Disguise Methods for Investigators: Quick Change Techniques for both Men and Women will teach you how to get in and out of the jungle alive. Arabella Mazzuki, Raymond P. Siljander and Simon Mitchell give you this clinic on ways to look like someone you are not. If, like me, you are amazed at how easy it is for the CIA to zoom in on and identify Jason Bourne at the train station – like, every damn time – then here’s confirmation that he could and should do better. For instance, not walking around looking exactly like Jason Bourne. It covers both elaborate and simple disguises.
And here is Adam Savage and Peter Jackson unpacking a classic disguise kit. Be inspired to put in the work on this part of your craft.
Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information from Michael Bazzell is an acknowledgment of the inevitable. You gotta up your geek game. You don’t have to be a master of all things internet, but you damn well better not be a noob either. Bazzell worked in the FBI computer squad (not what it’s actually called). You will learn how to gather info from hidden sources, but you will also learn how to protect yourself from cyber attacks and other spooky web shit.
Speaking of which, some deep background on codes would be a good idea. The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography is from science writer Simon Singh (Fermat’s Enigma). Sharpen your brain and get familiar with everything that’s already been tried, so you can pick those hidden messages out of the newspaper.
You need to learn languages. I can’t tell you which to learn, because I don’t know where you’ll be operating — and I don’t want to know. I recommend Pimsleur for aural learning. For example, since you gotta stay in shape, obvi, while running, Pimsleur is perfectly serviceable, with its contained 30 minute lessons and no book needed. I spent some time with it and had a decent conversation with a Russian babushka looking for a restroom.
You need to blend in. I can’t tell you where you will be operating — and I still don’t want to know – but if it is a foreign country, you have to be able to operate smoothly in what to you might be a different culture. The Culture Shock! series covers many countries, each with its own book. Get the ones you need (and maybe a few extras covering possible emergency escape routes) and become an expert. Of course, your persona might be that of a “dumb, loud American” just blundering your way through things. Fine. But that should be a choice, not your only option. You never know when things are gonna go south. Be culturally malleable.
The final pieces in this small library will be whatever historical & political background you need for your area of operations. Again, I can’t recommend specific books – because, for the last time, I don’t know and don’t want to know where you’re going – don’t you see? that would compromise us both! Just don’t show up ignorant.
You know how magic tricks work? Preparation. That’s it. You are now a kind of magician, so do your prep work.
That’s your basic spy library. You will want to add these accoutrements to your hidden room:
– Set up a disguise-building station. A well-lit vanity, with some table space and a little ventilation would be good and, if possible, enough standing room to practice quick changes. There is nothing worse than getting your prosthetic nose on only to tear it right off when pulling a sweater over your head. Trust this former actor.
– A few provisions (food and water) are a good idea, in case you need to stay here for a few days. Clif Bars, jerky, water – whatever.
– Your spy library bookshelf inside this space could itself be a secret door to another super-secret cubby. Maybe this is where you keep your most incriminating material – multiple passports, compromat, etc.. If discovered, you could use your techniques of persuasion to convince folks that your secret spy room was just a fun fantasy thing. You could say it’s theming, and add some James Bond posters. To support this facade, you should also include…
– … a wet bar. Add fun things like a dart board and lava lamp to make it look like a “hangout”.
Alright agent, that’s all you need for your spy library. Good luck.
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