The hits and misses of the OSS

When the CIA opened its in-house research and development lab in 2020, the agency announced it would “perform multidisciplinary research, development, testing and engineering to address new challenges” and “adapt, improve or accelerate the production of existing solutions.”

If you’re wondering what the heck that means, the always secretive agency has offered a taste of the research: artificial intelligence, data analytics, machine learning, distributed ledger/blockchain-enabled technologies, virtual and augmented reality.

If you’re disappointed to learn that America’s leading spy service is messing around with Bitcoin and VR headsets, find some solace in historian John Lisle’s The Dirty Tricks Department, which chronicles the efforts of the CIA’s predecessor agency, the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services to develop unconventional weapons and gadgets to help America’s spies win the underground battle against the Axis powers.

In a democratic spirit, the agency has submitted hundreds of thousands of submissions from the public, including proposals to develop a “death ray” and flying cars. One proposal stood out from the rest – and garnered the support of President Roosevelt: strap napalm-filled incendiary devices to bats and unleash the winged creatures upon Imperial Japan. In 1943, the agency tested so-called bat bombs over Carlsbad, New Mexico, dropping hundreds of bats attached with incendiary pins from the backs of B-25 bombers. Most creatures chilled for transport into artificial hibernation fell to their deaths. The handful that survived then burned down part of an army barracks and control tower.

The agency was also successful elsewhere. Stanley Lovell, a Cornell-trained industrial chemist turned research and development manager, developed a silenced .22 pistol at a time when silencers had all but disappeared from the US market. To test their effectiveness, Bill Donovan, the OSS chief who successfully used FDR to found the agency in 1942, fired the gun behind the president while Roosevelt dictated a letter to a secretary in the Oval Office. Roosevelt, according to Donovan, only noticed the gun after smelling burnt gunpowder and said that the OSS chief was “the only Republican he would ever let in his office with a gun”.

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While an OSS agent never had the opportunity to fire a suppressed .22 at Adolf Hitler, Lovell devised other ways to achieve the Allies’ primary objective. After an agency analyst determined that the Führer had a “large female component” in his constitution, the spy scientist paid a Bavarian gardener to inject Hitler’s vegetables with female sex hormones. On another occasion, Lovell hatched a plan to place a flower vase filled with nitrogen mustard gas at the site of a meeting between the German Chancellor and Mussolini. (Unfortunately both plans failed: Hitler never developed breasts and the meeting was postponed.)

Like any decent spy agency, the OSS developed an umbrella gun, poison pills, and single-shot pistols disguised as fountain pens, as well as explosive cookie dough and radio-controlled boats loaded with explosives.

While it’s hard to say whether umbrella guns decided the outcome of World War II, the agency’s train explosives nearly doubled the Allies’ success rate in derailing German locomotives. Lovell, meanwhile, claimed that his lab’s “Firefly” explosive, which detonated after being placed in a vehicle’s petrol tank, secured the 1944 Allied invasion of southern France after agents disguised as French gas escorts captured two German armored divisions had turned off.

These agents’ disguises, as well as their forged documents and counterfeit cash, were also manufactured by Lovell’s research and development department, which outfitted more than 300 agents sneaking into Axis territory for covert missions. Knowing that any stop and search of a suspect German soldier could lead to a speedy execution, some agents who had grown up in occupied territories even went so far as to have cosmetic surgery to avoid detection. While such measures may seem drastic, Lisle argues that close attention to detail gave the Allies a stealthy advantage over the Nazis, who were at times more careless.

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“Several [German] Suspects were easily confused by their underwear still bearing the German manufacturer’s tags or printing,” said George Langelaan, an officer from central France who went under the knife for his permanent make-up. “A German agent was captured within 12 hours of his landing in England solely because a railway worker happened to pick up a discarded chocolate wrapper printed in German.”

Between the weapons development and Hitler’s sex-change plan, Lovell morphed from a skeptic of night-and-fog operations — he once expressed concern to Bill Donovan that a covert weapons lab was “as un-American as sin is unpopular at a revival meet” — to finally look for ways and means to end the war.

In experiments predicting the CIA’s MKUltra program, the OSS tested marijuana’s effectiveness as a truth drug, finding that THC “will kill the areas of the brain that determine a person’s discretion and caution” and thus the success of interrogations will improve.

Lovell, meanwhile, was developing biological weapons at Camp Detrick in Maryland and lobbied the US military to use chemical weapons against Japanese soldiers holed up in Iwo Jima. Roosevelt ruled against the proposal, and nearly 7,000 American soldiers died capturing the island. After the huge casualties, General George C. Marshall said he was “ready to use gas on Okinawa,” according to David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission.

Ultimately, the debate over chemical and biological weapons — and the need for covert devices — was rendered obsolete by the development of the atomic bomb, which US forces dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just six months after the Battle of Iwo Jima. Lytle Adams, a 60-year-old dentist who originally threw the bat bomb to the OSS, got wind of the Manhattan Project when he discussed his idea with a general who appeared to be confusing the two secret projects conducting tests in New Mexico.

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“We set off a sure thing like the bat bomb, something that could really win the war, and they’re jerking off with tiny little atoms,” Adams lamented to a colleague. “It makes me cry.”

It may be easy to laugh at Mr. Adams and his bat bomb now, but he was a proud American who wanted to help his country defeat its enemies. We can only hope that the same is true for the CIA scientists who test and develop to address new challenges and adapt, improve or accelerate the production of existing solutions.

The Dirty Tricks Division: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of WWII Secret Warfare
by John Lisle
St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages, $29.99

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