The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception - H. Keith Melton, Robert Wallace (2009)
by John McLaughlin
Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence
This is a book about an extraordinary American magician and the way his life intersected with American intelligence at a pivotal moment in its early history.
John Mulholland was never a household word, like the world famous escapologist Houdini or, more recently, the illusionist David Copperfield. But among professional magicians from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was seen as the very model of what a magician should be—urbane, highly skilled, inventive, and prolific. He was very successful professionally, entertaining mostly in New York City society circles. He published widely on magic, both for the general public and for the inner circle of magicians who subscribed to the professional journal he edited for decades, The Sphinx. His impact on the art of magic was enormous.
Mulholland’s 1932 book, Quicker Than the Eye, was one of the first books I stumbled on as a magic-struck boy combing the public library in the 1950s. I fondly remember being transported by an author who seemed to have traveled the world and witnessed marvelous things I could only imagine.
That’s what fascinated me about Mulholland then. As a lifelong amateur magician who spent a career in American intelligence, what fascinates me about Mulholland today is the way the story told here resonates with something I came to conclude in the course of my professional life: that magic and espionage are really kindred arts.
The manual that Mulholland wrote for the Central Intelligence Agency and that is reproduced here sought to apply to some aspects of espionage the techniques of stealth and misdirection used by the professional conjuror.
Many may ask what these two fields have to do with each other. But a cursory look at what intelligence officers do illustrates the convergence.
Just as a magician’s methods must elude detection in front of a closely attentive audience, so an intelligence officer doing espionage work must elude close surveillance and pass messages and materiel without detection.
In another part of the profession, analysts must be as familiar as magicians with methods of deception, because analysts are almost always working with incomplete information and in circumstances where an adversary is seeking to mislead them—or in the magician’s term, misdirect them.
Counterintelligence officers—people who specialize in catching spies—work in a part of the profession so labyrinthine that it is often referred to as a “wilderness of mirrors”—a phrase, of course, with magical overtones.
Finally, there are the covert-action specialists. In any intelligence service, these are the officers who seek at the direction of their national leaders to affect events or perceptions overseas, especially during wartime. Principles of misdirection familiar to magicians were evident in many of the great British covert operations of World War II—such as deceiving Hitler into thinking the 1943 Allied invasion from North Africa would target Greece rather than its true target, Sicily. This was the conjuror’s stage management applied to a continent-sized theater.
The manual Mulholland produced for the CIA does not read the way a book for experienced magicians would read. He is clearly addressing an amateur audience and takes care to explain things in the simplest of terms. Yet he draws on the underlying principles of magic to explain how intelligence officers could avoid detection in the midst of various clandestine acts.
A case can be made that Mulholland’s instruction influenced the more mundane aspects of espionage tradecraft—how to surreptitiously acquire and conceal various materials, for example. As best we know, however, the methods he designed for more aggressive actions—clandestinely delivering pills and powders into an adversary’s drink, for example—were never actually used.
The fact that he was asked to contemplate such things is emblematic of a unique moment in American history. American leaders during the early Cold War felt the nation existentially threatened by an adversary who appeared to have no scruples. Mulholland’s writing on delivery of pills, potions, and powders was just one example of research carried out back then in fields as diverse as brainwashing and paranormal psychology. Many such efforts that seem bizarre today are understandable only in the context of those times—the formative years of the Cold War.
These were also the formative years for the American intelligence community. It is important to remember that this was a very new field for the United States. Most other countries had long before integrated espionage into the national security tool kit; the Chinese strategist Sun Tsu had written about it in sophisticated terms in the sixth century B.C., and older countries such as Britain, Russia, and France had been at it for centuries. While the United States had used intelligence episodically, it was not organized at a national-level effort until 1947, and our young country struggles still today with its proper place in our national security strategy.
I doubt many intelligence officers today would recognize John Mulholland’s name. But the essence of his contribution had little to do with notoriety or fame. It was, in effect, to help the nation’s early intelligence officers think like magicians. Given the close kinship between these two ancient arts, that was a significant contribution indeed and one that continues—in stealthy ways that Mulholland would probably admire—to this very day.