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James Bond, Sydney Bristow, Johnny Fedora... how accurate are these fictional representations of secret agents? On today's episode of Misconceptions, we're diving into the sexy, secretive world of spies.

Who do spies spy on? How long have spies been around? And is espionage always... effective?

Host Justin Dodd (@juddtoday) breaks down some common myths and misconceptions about espionage.

Take a look at this dragonfly. Pretty average  insect, huh. Nothing special about it at all. Ha! You fool! You absolute fool!

Hidden inside  this high-tech bug is a tiny microphone meant to eavesdrop on unsuspecting baddies. This spy  gadget, known hilariously as the Insectothopter, was designed by the CIA in the ‘70s and  could fly via remote control up to 650 feet. A flying bug disguised as a bug?

Brilliant. While the Insectothopter was never actually  deployed, it is one of many real-life gadgets and gizmos that were designed to be used by spies. A pipe with a radio hidden inside, a camera inside of a cigarette pack, a secret transmitter that  looks like a dog turd.

They’re all real. But, unfortunately, they represent a somewhat bygone  era of espionage that was a *little* closer to the spy-fiction most of us think of. Today, most  spies have turned in their radio pipes for a boring old computer, and maybe a wiretap or two.

Hi, I'm Justin Dodd. On today’s episode of Misconceptions, we’re talking about the sexy, secret world of espionage. Spoiler alert: it’s not as sexy or secretive as you might think.

Let’s get started. Yeah, they bought it, gathering intel now. Spies spy on bad guys.

That’s like, the number one rule of spying, according to the  book I got at the Scholastic book fair 22 years ago. If the goal is  to painstakingly obtain important intel about a foreign group, military, or government… it  seems like it would be the best use of all those resources and money if that intel involved  a potentially dangerous country. Not like, you know, one of our closest allies.

That hasn’t always been the case, though, and it’s not for lack of diplomatic maneuvering. Following the end of World War II, the UKUSA Agreement marked a new era of intelligence  operations comradeship. The agreement currently involves Australia, Canada, New Zealand,  The United Kingdom, and the United States, who are collectively known as The Five Eyes, which  is undeniably pretty cool.

Basically, these five powers agreed to share their sensitive intelligence,  and in turn, probably not spy on each other. This agreement was kept so secret that it wasn’t  made public until 2010, almost 60 years after its founding. But for that whole time, these five  nations, and specifically the UK and the U.

S., have worked together and shared their intel for  the “greater good.” So, really, why would we ever spy on allies when we’re all just openly  gossiping in our little cliques anyway? Well, I hate to break it to ya, but even the  strongest of friendships come with a healthy dose of paranoia. Countries spy on their allies  all the time, and so do humans when you have a sneaking suspicion they’re all hanging out without  you.

This has been a practice since the dawn of espionage, and it’s never been more relevant than  it is today. Intelligence operations are always most concerned with the safety of their own nation  first, so if it’s in their best interest to spy on a country that’s technically their ally, so be it. The world was outraged when the U.

S. was accused of bugging the German chancellor’s phone less  than 10 years ago. But then it was later revealed that German Intelligence had “accidentally”  eavesdropped on the U. S.’s Secretary of State.

Oops! Charles Kupchan, professor of International  Affairs at Georgetown, put it simply: And even the unbreakable bonds of the Five  Eyes are not exempt from this practice. It was revealed in 2013 that the members of the  UKUSA Agreement very well might spy on each other, but not necessarily out of mistrust.

Since there  are many laws prohibiting governments from spying on their own citizens, some countries have used  shady workarounds to gather such intel. Max Boot, a writer for Commentary, said, “this intelligence  sharing allows them to do an end-run around prohibitions on domestic surveillance: the Brits  can spy on our citizens, we can spy on theirs, and then we can share the results.” In 2013, the  National Security Agency denied these accusations, saying "Any allegation that NSA relies on  its foreign partners to circumvent U. S. law is absolutely false.

NSA does not ask its  foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U. S. government would be  legally prohibited from undertaking itself.” And as we discussed in our episode on The  Cold War, even in instances of spying on enemy governments, it was not always entirely  devious or violent. In fact, the other team’s spies were a welcome part of the not-quite-war.

A series of agreements between Western countries and the Soviets allowed for what was essentially  legal spying on both sides of the conflict. These so-called Military liaison missions were meant  to alleviate tensions between the opposing powers by bringing some of the clandestine activities  of the Cold War out into the relative open. So if your perception of covert operatives only  involves secret missions to evil enemy countries during wartime, you might be giving intelligence  agencies more credit than they’re due.

Okay, you probably realize that spycraft didn’t start with Sydney Bristow. But I do think  that most people, when hearing the word spy, imagine a distinctly modern agent. This could  be either the heavily fictionalized James Bond or the image of a stereotypical Cold War-era spy,  trench coats and all.

But even limiting ourselves to the world of literature, this timeline is  far off: One of the first examples of modern spy fiction is a book called, appropriately, The  Spy, written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1821. But American history buffs and fans of the Broadway  musical Hamilton know that spies were CRUCIAL much earlier than that, during the Revolutionary  War—George Washington’s Culper Ring helped thwart British surprise attacks and capture enemy  spies, among other things. So it must be the 18th century that espionage began!

Well, I’ll  spare you and stop this guessing game now, because we still have a few thousand years before  we reach the first instance of espionage. We know spies have been around for quite some  time, because stories about them appeared in, of all places, The Bible! In The Book of Numbers,  for example, there’s the story of the Twelve Spies, where Israelite chieftains travel to  Canaan to obtain information for Moses.

Many attribute the first use of  espionage to the ancient Egyptians. Pharaohs employed spies to acquire intelligence  and protect themselves from foreign enemies. They’re even credited with using many of the same  tactics spies are associated with today, such as coded messages, clothing with hidden  compartments, and disappearing ink.

Many other groups, such as the  Hittites in the 13th century BCE, developed their own espionage networks, sometimes  in direct response to Egypt’s growing spy network. The Greeks and Romans each developed their own  spy tactics, which included secret and efficient communication between city-states, the creation  of alliances, and planning surprise attacks. In 4th century BCE India, the royal  advisor Chanakya wrote Arthashastra, a statecraft  manual.

It detailed the important processes of intelligence collection by and for powerful  states, with passages giving hilariously specific details on possible spies, for example:  Feudal Japan used shinobi to spy on  their enemies. Shinobi were ninjas, but the mythical lore surrounding this popular  archetype is, additionally, full of many more Misconceptions. Queen Elizabeth I’s principal secretary Francis Walsingham became known as her spymaster,  employing espionage tactics that would take other powerful nations years to begin implementing, such  as the use of double agents and misinformation.

Over the next few centuries, spies were no longer  a mysterious or rare occurrence in government, they were a given. It was downright irresponsible  to not have at least a couple people on payroll keeping an eye on your enemies. Or, your allies.

Industrial and corporate espionage are two very active forms of intelligence gathering,  because believe it or not, money is a pretty big motivator to commit crimes. These types of  espionage are conducted for commercial purposes instead of national security, and can  include stealing trade secrets, snooping around for info on industrial manufacturing  techniques, nabbing customer datasets, getting a peek into research and development,  finding out about prospective deals, etc. While industrial espionage has really become  rampant in the last few decades thanks to advances in technology and the nearly universal reliance  on the internet and computers, it actually dates back a few hundred years.

Some people claim  the first industrial spy was Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles (dawn-truh-call), a Jesuit  missionary who was sent from France to China on a special mission around the year 1700. While it  was, to local observers, a typical mission trip, his superiors were also intensely curious about  the Chinese process of making porcelain. The missionary/spy spent over two decades in China’s  porcelain-making capital, sleuthing and learning all he could about the manufacturing process and  secrets.

According to historian Robert Finlay, the letters containing all of his gathered information  Nowadays, industrial espionage is mostly found in  the tech world. Given the huge monetary value of intellectual property like algorithms and other  software, Silicon Valley is a popular target. You better watch out when that curious new mustachioed  janitor comes in to wipe down your desk: He might be stealing all of your company’s  data at the request of your biggest competitor.

Or he might just be doing his job, calm down. So if we’ve established that spying is an oft-used ancient practice with thousands of years  of experience under our belts, it’s safe to say that it’s a surefire and sophisticated government  operation. I mean, even Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, wrote about the importance of such a  critical group of people over 2000 years ago:   “ … to fail to know the conditions of opponents  because of reluctance to give rewards for intelligence is extremely … uncharacteristic  of a true military leader … Therefore no one in the armed forces is treated as  familiarly as are spies, no one is given rewards as rich as those given to spies, and  no matter is more secret than espionage.” But the reality is, professional espionage is not  without its failures.

History is littered with very unintelligent uses of intelligence. During  World War I, Room 40, the British decrypting center, acquired useful intel about the enemy  fleet during the Battle of Jutland. The intel was promptly ignored, and the battle, which could  have been handily won, came to a costly draw.

In 1941, Russian spy Richard Sorge gained intel  about an approaching German invasion of Russia while sleuthing in Germany’s Embassy in Japan. Stalin rebuked the information, even going so far as to threaten anyone who believed it. This decision cost an untold number of lives.

There’s even a wild tale from 1914 of  French government officials using their decryption office, the cabinet noir, as a way  to embarrass one another for political gain, and in turn preventing the intelligence  officers from doing their actual job—you know, preventing foreign attacks. The whole thing  culminated with the former Prime Minister’s wife, Madame Henriette Caillaux, walking  into the office of Gaston Calmette, the editor of a newspaper, who was believed  to have decrypted messages that threatened her husband. She promptly drew a revolver and  shot him dead.

Her claim was that the newspaper was going to publish scandalous love letters  between her and her husband while he was still married to his first wife, but the real threat  was a series of intercepted German telegrams. It’s all so complicated and silly, it’s like  every cut scene from a Metal Gear Solid game. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described the  paradoxical nature of intelligence like this: And if we’re talking about spy flubs, I have to mention one of my favorite stories,  Operation Acoustic Kitty.

We talked in detail about this feline mishap in our List Show  episode about weird weapons from history, but I’ll give you the short version. In the  ‘60s, the CIA developed a radio transmitter that could be surgically implanted in cats to spy  on the Kremlin. Yeah.

This is real. And it gets… so much worse. In the first test mission, the cat  reportedly ran across the street (with the intent of eavesdropping on two men standing outside a  building) and was promptly run over by a taxi.

Though CIA sources dispute the dead feline portion  of the story, the project was scrapped soon after. Thank you for your service, Spy Cat. Thanks for watching Misconceptions.

The sexy world of espionage isn’t exactly  like a James Bond movie. Or, better yet, a Johnny Fedora novel, which is a real  character I just found out about and am obsessed with. Johnny Fedora.

Incredible. Make  sure to subscribe, and I’ll see you next time.