At the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency paid $3,000 to renowned magician John Mulholland to write a manual on misdirection, concealment, and stagecraft. All known copies of the document — and a related paper, on conveying hidden signals — were believed to be destroyed in 1973. But recently, the manuals resurfaced, and have now been published as “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.” Topics include working a clandestine partner, slipping a pill into the drink of the unsuspecting, and “surreptitious removal of objects by women.”
This wasn’t the first time a magician worked for a western government. Harry Houdini snooped on the German and the Russian militiaries for Scotland Yard. English illusionist Jasper Maskelyne is reported to created dummy submarines and fake tanks to distract Rommel’s army during World War II. Some reports even credit him with employing flashing lights to “hide” the Suez Canal.
But Mulholland’s contributions were far different, because they were part of a larger CIA effort, called MK-ULTRA, to control people’s minds. Which lead to the Agency’s infatuation with LSD, as David Hambling recounted here a few weeks ago:
In the infamous Operation Midnight Climax, unwitting clients at CIA brothels in New York and San Francisco were slipped LSD and then monitored through one-way mirrors to see how they reacted. They even killed an elephant with LSD. Colleagues were also considered fair game for secret testing, to the point where a memo was issued instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked.
The *Boston Globe has put together a great visual summary of some of Mulholland’s best tricks for the CIA: the shoelace pattern that means “follow me”; the hidden compartment to smuggle in an agent; the best ways to appear dumb and non-threatening. Because there’s no better misdirection than appearing to be a fool.
*Boston Globe Articles
Use your illusion: Among the CIA's many tricks during the Cold War, it turns out, was some actual magic. A now-declassified manual by magician John Mulholland taught American spies the arts of deceit.