This Weapons Designer Was a Real Life Man of Mystery

Paris Theodore was the CIA’s ‘Q’


On Oct. 6, 1975, an individual walked into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York Field Office to make a statement. He was agreeing not to talk about the work of Paris Theodore, one particularly colorful and mysterious weapons designer.

“The undersigned agrees that he has no intention of using any information he gained through his association with Paris Theodore in any article or book,” the handwritten note explained. Censors redacted the names of the individual and the FBI special agent who witnessed the moment.

War Is Boring obtained this page — along with three administrative cover sheets — in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for details about Theodore’s work for the Bureau. Four other pages are currently being reviewed by “another agency.”

The Central Intelligence Agency is still working its way through a similar request.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise. Nearly a decade after his death, and despite several interviews during his life, this sort of secrecy and mystery continues to follow Theodore and his work. He was in many ways a real life counterpart to the famous fictional gadget maker for James Bond, the Quartermaster, more commonly known simply as Q.

Above - Paris Theodore models a holster for a MAC-10 submachine gun. 401 Films photo. At top - A Secret Service agent holds a previously concealed Uzi during the attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life in 1981. Reagan Library photo.
Above — Paris Theodore models a holster for a MAC-10 submachine gun. 401 Films photo via Wikimedia. At top — the ASP pistol. Photo via Wikimedia

Born in New York City in 1943, Theodore’s personal life would fit well in a Hollywood movie. His father John Theodore was a sculptor and art professor. His mother Nenette Charisse was a vaudevillian performer and ballet instructor.

Briefly a child actor, Theodore played the role of “Nibs” in NBC’s 1955 television production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. At the age of 19, he married dancer and choreographer Lee Becker, who would later go on to found American Dance Machine.

Somewhere along the line, the CIA recruited Theodore as a courier, according to his 2006 obituary in the New York Sun. “Stories from ensuing years link him to violent encounters in Greece, Africa and Vietnam, although nothing can be verified.”

What we do know is that Theodore opened a small company called Seventrees, Limited in New York’s garment district in 1966. Ostensibly the firm offered a wide assortment of hand made gun holsters specifically for anyone looking to carry a concealed weapon. Seventrees’ slogan was “Unseen in the Best Places.”

But the shop was actually turning out special guns for the CIA, the FBI and possibly other similar agencies. “Government documents show that he was specially exempted from all provisions of the National Firearms Act,” the New York Sun reported.

Signed into law in 1934, the National Firearms Act — generally referred to as the NFA — requires manufacturers and owners to register short-barrel rifles and shotguns, machine guns, sound suppressors and more with federal authorities. The legislation also carves out a catchall category for so-called “any-other weapons” that covers things like pen guns and other oddities.

Released from the requirements of the NFA, Theodore could build all sorts of top-secret weaponry. From a workshop hidden in a walk-in safe at Seventrees, he built a briefcase with an Uzi inside and a cigarette lighter that could fire .22 caliber bullets, his obituary claimed. The FBI reportedly ordered up a 12-shot clip board that undercover cops could use to take out hostage takers.


With so much of his job a state secret, Theodore is probably best known today for a more traditional looking gun. In 1970, he founded a new company called Armament Systems Procedures Corporation to build a super small nine-millimeter handgun.

Dubbed the ASP after the firm’s initials, the pistol was a highly modified Smith and Wesson 39. Already popular with the U.S. Navy SEALs and other elite military units, Theodore supposedly made over 200 individual changes before settling on his final design.

Where weight could be easily cut, he cut it. Where length could be quickly trimmed, he trimmed it. Theodore smoothed out its edges and coated the whole thing in Teflon to keep the gun from snagging on its holster, clothing or anything else if the shooter had to draw in hurry.

The pistols were just shy of seven inches long — about a half inch shorter than the original gun. Smith and Wesson would later make their own versions with similar dimensions. While handgun makers around the world offer compact guns today, Theodore’s weapon was uncommon at the time.

Most notably, the ASP did not have traditional sights. Instead, Theodore installed a patented metal channel he called the Guttersnipe.

The vast majority of manual “iron sights” on guns to this day require the shooter to line up a post or blade of metal at the front end of the weapon with another piece of metal or a peephole closer to their eyes. In principle, the Guttersnipe was faster and easier to use since the shooter only had to get their eyes to align the channel on the target.

“The ASP was a handgun that really was built around a whole system of close range practical shooting knowledge,” firearms expert Ian McCollum explains in a video for his website, Forgotten Weapons. “What Theodore was looking for was a gun that wasn’t going to snag on its way out, a gun that would be very quick to bring into action.”

The ASP pistol’s ‘Guttersnipe’ sights. Photo via Wikimedia

This meant Theodore wasn’t really worried about his gun being accurate over long distances. That wasn’t the point.

“The goal was to be able to shoot effectively, very fast and at very close range” McCollum noted. “That’s the sort of confrontation the gun was designed for.”

Every ASP was custom-made for the buyer. Anyone wanting one of bespoke pistols had to supply their own Smith and Wesson as the starting point.

With an exorbitant price tag for the time of $475 dollars — more than $2,000 today — Theodore’s company had trouble selling the conversions on the open market. In the 1980s, a group of private investors bought out Armament Systems Procedures and started building complete ASPs instead.

In keeping with the general image of the gun as a weapon for spies and undercover types, this new iteration of the firm offered a special edition that came inside a case hidden within a fake, hollow book. The package also came with two spare magazines for the pistol, a letter opener shaped like a lightweight dagger and a tie pin with the ASP logo.

No doubt inspired by his work on the ASP, in 1985 Theodore cooked up his own patented two-handed shooting technique called Quell. In total, he had claim to more than a dozen patents.

“He was essentially an artist,” Michael Hershman, president of the Virginia-based security company the Fairfax Group, told New York Sun. “That gave him a perspective that others didn’t have.”

Unfortunately, much of Theodore’s art apparently remains a state secret and something people have literally been sworn to secrecy over. Hopefully, as time goes on, more of his career will squeak out into the public domain.

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U.S. Army solider Lynndie England holding a leash attached to a prisoner, known to the guards as “Gus,” at the CIA-Army prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. All photos via Wikipedia

Don’t Ever Forget — the CIA Tortured Prisoners to Death

Newly-released documents detail America’s brutal treatment of detainees


On June 13, 2016, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Central Intelligence Agency released 50 documents detailing its application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a.k.a. torture — on terror suspects.

These documents offer few new revelations and are far from comprehensive in their scope. Many are heavily redacted.

But they’re still horrifying. In torturing criminal suspects, sometimes to death, the CIA — and by extension the United States — unambiguously joined the ranks of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The documents reveal an incompetent bureaucracy that made detainees wear diapers simply to humiliate them and not only water-boarded captives who were already cooperating, but allowed them to die by accident in the cold.

The documents describe the CIA glibly citing legal loopholes to justify its actions — and doing its best to hide its mistakes, and crimes, from the public.

You can read the documents yourself on the CIA’s website.

The CIA trained in and practiced “aggressive” interrogation techniques during the Vietnam War and in Latin America during the 1980s, where they were known as “human resource exploitation.” But human-rights allegations leveled at two agents led the Agency to discontinue the practice after 1984.

Therefore, when Pres. George W. Bush issued a secret directive reintroducing the techniques, the CIA had to create a new interrogation program from scratch, drawing on the advice of Bush’s legal team as well as psychologists who had taught U.S. Air Force’s survival training courses.

The CIA knew it was actually talking about torture. A legal memo written two weeks after 9/11 liberally uses the word. But there was a problem — the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which forbids torture. U.S. Title 18, Section 2340 also outlaws the practice.

The Bush administration’s workaround was multi-faceted. The convention didn’t apply to terrorist as they were not members of an army, the White House argued. The U.S. government wasn’t breaking U.S. laws if it tortured in buildings in other countries that weren’t formally owned by the U.S. government, it added. Finally, torture might be excused after the fact if it prevented an “imminent” terrorist attack.

But the main argument the administration seized upon was that torture wasn’t torture if it wasn’t intended “in good faith” to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

Prisoner Ali Shallal Al Qaisi being tortured

The torturer’s manual

According to the newly-declassified CIA documents, “standard techniques” permitted for interrogation of prisoners of war included isolation, reduced caloric intake, sleep deprivation, deprivation of reading material, playing of loud music or white noise and the use of diapers for limited periods.

The CIA proposed a set of 10 “enhanced techniques” that it claimed “didn’t cause severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” These techniques are detailed in a torture manual that is among the newly released documents.

The techniques include firmly holding a detainee’s face, a facial slap accompanied by an insult, abdominal slapping, sleep deprivation for more than 48 hours, splashing prisoners with cold water, placing detainees in uncomfortable stress positions for prolonged periods, forcing suspects to lean with their forehead on a wall, walling them in a cramped space, confinement in a box with insects and — most severely — waterboarding.

“Torture memos” rationalize that none of these constitute “severe suffering” or “lasting harm.”

Part of the argument is that the “intention” not to cause physical harm suffices to justify an act, regardless of the action’s actual effect. “All pain is subjective, not objective,” one memo claims. “It is [the Office of Medical Services’] view that based on our limited experience and the extensive experience of the military with these techniques, the program in place has effectively avoided severe physical pain and suffering, and should continue to do so.”

The CIA also suggested “mock burials” and “mock executions”—that is, tricking a detainee into thinking he was about to be executed — but decided to remove them from the list. This did not stop agents from using these methods on their own initiative.

The documents reveal that the CIA was very specific about what techniques were permitted, but that Agency interrogators and support staff frequently exceeded the rules, anyway — as an investigation into the use of intimidating “props” such as a power drill and an unloaded pistol reveals.

On multiple occasions, the CIA reprimanded agents for waterboarding “beyond the projected use of the technique” — too long, too many times and with too much water.

Other unauthorized torture techniques compelled the Agency to figuratively slap its agents on their proverbial wrists. They include applying force to pressure points until a detainee passed out, forcing a detainee to inhale smoke until he vomited and cold showers.

Threats were part of the treatment. “We’re going to kill your children,” was one popular line. “We could get your family in here,” was another. “If one child dies in America and I find out you knew something about it, I will personally cut your mother’s throat.”

“Legal has advised that threats are permissible so long as they’re ‘conditional,’” one report notes.

Lynndie England and U.S. Army soldier Charles Graner posing behind a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners

Amateurs and hotheads

Detention sites were located in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan — notably at the Salt Pits, a site in an abandoned brick factory near Bagram Air Base — and the Middle East, each housing between eight and 20 inmates. Many of the sites lacked heating or air conditioning. Staff did not “uniformly document” their detainees and their medical care; nor did the CIA itself actually track how many detainees it had.

Many communiques give the impression that agents assigned to the program were either poorly-trained, low-level employees given little choice in the matter, or rogue “veterans” — often contractors — who were ready to push the boundaries beyond regulation to get “results.”

“During the first four months of operation, individuals with no previous relevant experience, no training, no guidance often conducted the interrogations,” one review found.

One site manager was “a first tour officer.” “He had not received interrogations training and ran the facility with scant guidance from headquarters.”

A superior was “unaware … that the first site manager at REDACTED had been a junior officer. [He] stated that a first tour officer should not be running anything.”

When the CIA ordered psychologists and medical officers to torture detainees, the action inspired a number of concerned memos. “Although these guys believe that their way is the only way, there should be an effort to define roles and responsibilities before their arrogance and narcissism evolve into unproductive conflict in the field,” one cable reads.

The Office of Medical Services complained about the conflict of interest — noting that the contractors recommending more sessions of torture were paid $1,800 per day of torture, four times the regular interrogator’s pay.”

Most disturbingly, high-level officials often pushed for more torture, even against the recommendations of the interrogators — and even when the detainees were cooperating.

“Al Nashiri was not actively resisting and was responding to questions directly. Headquarters officers disagreed with REDACTED assessment because headquarters analysts though Al Nashiri was withholding imminent threat information,” one communique notes.

The agency assumed that if a detainee couldn’t answer a question, that he must be concealing something — or that if he answered too many questions, he was probably lying.

Medical officers frequently fretted over the medical care agents provided to detainees. As one complained regarding Abu Zubaydah, a so-called “high-value detainee”:

“We are currently providing absolute minimum wound care (as evidence by the steady deterioration of the wound), subject has no opportunity to practice any form of hygienic self care (he’s filthy), the physical nature of this phase dictates multiple physical stresses (his reaction to today’s activity is I believe the culprit for the superior edge separation) and nutrition is bare bones (six cans of Ensure [a liquid dietary supplement] daily).”

But the Agency dismissed the doctor’s warning. “Interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures,” one message reads.

Abu Zubaydah lost an eye under mysterious circumstances while in U.S. custody.

U.S. Army soldier Sabrina Harman poses over the corpse of Manadel Al Jamadi, after he was tortured to death in U.S. custody

Death by hypothermia

In December 2002, detainee Ghul Rahman died while chained to the floor of his unheated cell in a secret facility in Poland. He was naked from the waist down, blood leaking from his nose. A doctor ruled that it was death by hypothermia.

The ensuing investigation by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General sheds light on the nature of the Agency’s detention facilities.

“Prisoners are dressed in sweatsuits and adult diapers. The diapers are used for sanitary reasons during transportation, and as a means to humiliate the prisoner. […] When the prisoners soil a diaper, they are changed by the guards. Sometimes the guards run out of diapers and the prisoners are placed back in their cells in a handcrafted diaper secured by duct tape. If the guards don’t have any available diapers, the prisoners are rendered to their cell nude.”

Loud music played constantly. Agents rewarded good behavior with ear plugs.

Ghul Rhaman exhibited a “high-resistance posture,” which provoked agents to subject to an unauthorized technique — a “rough take-down,” during which agents shoved, slapped and dragged him along the floor. He was given a cold shower and then dressed in a sweater — but no pants.

A night guard was the last person to see him alive. He lay shivering on the floor.

The official report concludes that the “station’s reporting…contained false statements and material omissions […] obscured or minimized the circumstances of the death, the involvement of REDACTED in the mistreatment of Rahman, and the absence of adequate supervision.”

Another prisoner who had been convinced to surrender in Afghanistan was beaten to death by a CIA contractor who failed to follow the CIA’s protocols.

His punishment? His contract wasn’t renewed.

An Iraqi detainee with human excreta smeared on face and neck, chest and stomach

The wrong man

The most recent document dates back to 2007. It concerns the imprisonment of Khalid Al Masri, a German-Lebanese citizen the CIA snatched while he was on vacation in Macedonia on January 2004.

Because his name was similar to that of a known Al-Qaeda operative, the CIA interrogated Al Masri for months in Afghanistan, refusing to believe his protestations of innocence.

The agency only bothered to verify his German passport in March, after ignoring an interrogator’s report in February claiming Al Masri was probably innocent.

When the CIA realized its mistake, it held on to Al Masri for two more months. The Agency didn’t even bother to tell him he was going to be released until a week before letting him go — at which point he had become depressed and suicidal and had gone on a hunger strike.

Why the delay? The CIA didn’t want to “notify” the German government — but was told it had to. The Agency tried to make Al Masri pledge “not reveal his experiences to media or local authorities,” and claimed that any breach of the pledge “would have consequences.”

The Agency was easier on Al Masri as it transported him home. “In consideration of [the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center] request, Al Masri was not forced to wear a diaper, and he was permitted to use the toilet and drink water.”

Al Masri went on to sue the United States twice. Both times, U.S. courts rejected his claims on the grounds of “national security.”

Agency investigators inquired with the Department of Justice about filing criminal charges against CIA staff, but the Agency “declined to pursue federal prosecution in this matter.”

Al Masri’s detention was ordered “on a hunch” by an agent who went on to rise in the CIA ranks. She inspired the heroine in the film Zero Dark Thirty.

Lynndie England pulls a leash attached to the neck of a prisoner, who is forced to crawl on the floor, while U.S. Army soldier Megan Ambuhl watches

Moral misgivings

Some CIA employees had misgivings about what was going on.

“I will no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program due to serious reservation I have about the current state of affairs,” one email reads. “Instead, I will be retiring shortly. This is a train wreck waiting to happen and I intend to get the Hell off the train before it happens.”

“I believe a strong case can be made that the Agency’s authorized interrogation techniques are the kinds of action that Article 16 undertakes to prevent,” a legal review argues. “By any common understanding of the term, for example, use of the waterboard may well be ‘cruel.’ Extended detention with no clothing would be considered ‘degrading’ in most cultures, particularly Muslim.”

An email written early in the program pushes back against critics. “Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities […] be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.”

Many emails reveal that agents knew they could be prosecuted for what they were doing. One email requests “that you grant a formal declination of prosecution, in advance for any employees of the United States […] who may employ methods in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah that otherwise might subject those individuals to prosecution under Section 2340A of Title 18 […] as well as any other applicable U.S. law.”

Even the executive branch was worried about how the program might look. “The president was concerned about the image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper and forced to go to the bathroom on themselves.”

Among the most problematic witnesses to the program were the detainees themselves. What was to be done to keep them from talking? “Especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurance that subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life,” one cable remarks.

The responder assured that this would be the case.

Charles Graner punching handcuffed Iraqi prisoners

Torture doesn’t work

Many would argue that the effectiveness of torture is beside the point. “The [enhanced interrogation techniques] used by the Agency under the [counterterrorism] program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights.”

But several CIA evaluations of the program claimed it was “deemed to be a great success” which provided “over half” of all human intelligence and revealing “numerous plots.” One report lists a number of terror plans that torture might have played a role in exposing.

However, some of the CIA’s communiques cast doubt on — or flat-out contradict — these claims. “In practice, however, [Abu Zubaydah’s] cooperation did not correlate that well with his waterboard sessions. […] A psychologist/interrogator later said that waterboard use had established that [Abu Zubaydah] had no “further information on imminent threats — a creative but circular justification.

“In retrospect, [the CIA] thought [Abu Zubaydah] probably reached the point of cooperation even prior to the August institution of ‘enhanced’ measures […] In any event, there was no evidence that the waterboard produced time-perishable information which otherwise would have been unobtainable.”

As one official pointed out, the torturers were often the ones evaluating the effectiveness of their own techniques. “No professional in the field would credit their later judgements [those of independent contractor psychologists] as psychologists assessing the subjects of their enhanced [interrogation] measures.”

When the program was subject to independent review, the findings were less salutatory. “Review did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent” the Office of the Inspector General reported. “Prior to the use of [enhanced interrogation techniques], Nashiri provided information for over 100 intelligence reports.”

The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohamed 183 times over 15 sessions. The OIG’s report notes that the “waterboard was determined to be of limited effectiveness.”

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H-DM/S. Source

The CIA Probably Still Uses Some of the High Standard Spy Pistols It Bought During World War II

A suppressed .22-caliber weapon that never needed replacing


When the United States entered World War II, the Pentagon quickly bought up all the stocks it could find of .22LR target pistols — a .22-caliber handgun that fires a rifle-style cartridge—for training purposes.

But the British Special Operations Executive was already using suppressed versions of similar weapons in combat. The United States soon followed suit. And today there are probably still some of those 1940s-vintage guns in the CIA arsenal.

The British SOE’s favorite model of .22LR was the High Standard. Carl Swebilius established the The High Standard Manufacturing Company in Houston, Texas in 1932. At the same time, Swebilius also worked for Marlin and Winchester.

When war broke out in 1939, High Standard began exporting Model B pistols to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease program. These were among the first pistols ever to feature suppressors.

In 1942, the U.S. War Department purchased High Standard’s entire inventory, regardless of model. In order to meet skyrocketing demand, High Standard developed new gun that was simpler and faster to produce. The Model H-D became the most numerous — 34,000 had rolled out of factories by the end of the war in 1945.

H-D. Source

As early as 1942, the British government had modified Model B pistols with an integral suppressor that enclosed the entire barrel. In 1943, the American Office of Strategic Service requested a similar weapon.

The result was the Model H-DM(ilitary)/S(ilenced), with a suppressor from Electric Bell Laboratories. Washington code-named the H-DM/Ss as “impact testing machines” and manufactured them in complete secrecy.

The H-DM/S had a slide lock that prevented the gun from cycling and kept its action from making a sound. The ported barrel had four rows of eight — later 11 — holes. The propellant gases escaped into a zinc-plated bronze mesh that acted as a heat sink and slowed the gasses. A second chamber near the muzzle was filled with brass or bronze wire screens.

A common OSS trick was to fill the second chamber with liquids such as water, oil or shaving cream — and seal the muzzle with tape. This method maximized the efficiency of the suppressor. The only sound the pistol made when firing came from the mechanical function of the action.

The suppressor could reduce the pistols report to as little as 20 decibels. The mesh and wire screens lasted for up to 200 rounds before they needed to be replaced.

​One issue that arose was that the commercial .22LR lead ammunition the OSS initially used was not jacketed. The rules of war laid out by the Hague Convention required that combatants not use un-jacketed ammunition. Officially, the British began issuing jacketed ammunition.

However, the OSS and SOE had few qualms about using pretty much any ammunition available, Hague Convention be damned.

CIA pilot Gary Powers’ suppressed High Standard H-D on display in Moscow. Source

The SOE used its suppressed High Standards across occupied Europe, from France to Albania. The American OSS issued them to operatives throughout Western Europe and North Africa. They also saw service in the Far East and Pacific Theater.

The SOE’s training advised that, for maximum effect, the shooter should place the pistol’s muzzle against the target. But technically speaking, the weapon was effective up to 50 feet. By the end of the war, High Standard had made approximately 2,600 suppressed pistols.

At the end of the war, the OSS disbanded — but the organization’s inventory of suppressed High Standard Pistols passed to the Central Intelligence Agency when it formed in 1947.

High Standard’s suppressed pistols continued to see service throughout the Cold War. When Soviet air-defenses shot down CIA pilot Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over the USSR in 1960, Powers was allegedly carrying a suppressed H-D pistol.

The suppressed High Standard pistols again saw action during the Vietnam War in the hands of CIA operatives and U.S. Special Operations Forces including Air America pilots, Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. They were one of a range of suppressed weapons American agents used to assassinate enemy officers and Communist Chinese observers and carried during raids to capture high-ranking prisoners and missions into Laos and Cambodia.

Perhaps the most high-value victim of a High Standard pistol was a North Vietnamese People’s Minister of Mobilization, shot in a crowded square. The operative who shot him escaped undetected.

In 1967, Frankford Arsenal modified a number of newly-made pistols to use a new suppressor. These proved less efficient and more bulky than the original World War II-vintage pistols from Bell Laboratories. Officially, the suppressed High Standard H-DM/S pistols remained in CIA and SOF inventories well into the 1990s — and a number are probably still in use.

This story originally appeared at Historical Firearms.

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The Socialist Revolution monument at Mansudae Hill in North Korea. Photo via Wikipedia

How South Korea Thwarted Kim Il-sung’s Shadow War

North Korea’s late-1960s commando campaign came to a bloody halt


This is the third story in a series. Read parts one and two.

In the late spring of 1969, a 75-ton North Korean speed boat hurtled through the Yellow Sea off the western coast of South Korea on a secret mission. Its 15-man crew on board was supposed to pick up an agent operating in the South on behalf of Pyongyang’s spy services and take him back north. [1]

It was an operation similar to many others that North Korean intelligence had carried out over the past two years as it flooded its enemy, the Republic of Korea, with infiltrators.

The boat’s crew came ashore on at midnight Heuksan Island looking for its agent. Instead, they found South Korean security forces and a firefight waiting for them. [2]

All 15 were killed in the shootout. [3]

The operation’s failure was no accident. South Korean intelligence had laid what the CIA later called “a carefully prepared trap” for the exfiltration team. A month prior, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, or KCIA, had captured the agent the team was supposed to pick up, turned him into a double agent and used him as bait. [4]

Since the fall of 1966, North Korea had waged a guerrilla campaign against South Korea in an attempt to needle the South Korean and American militaries and foment popular unrest against the government of Pres. Park Chung-hee. But South Korea was getting better at finding and disrupting Pyongyang’s agents. And North Korea’s floundering war effort was coming to a close.

The remaining years of the 1960s would see more bouts of violence from North Korean forces. The 124th Army Unit which had tried to kill Park would try one last, desperate guerrilla raid inside the ROK. And North Korean forces would once again attack Americans, shooting down a Navy EC-121 spy plane.

But by the beginning of the 1970s, it was clear that Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla campaign had come to a close, having ended in failure.

The assassins North Korea sent to kill the South Korean president came perilously close to the presidential residence, but their mission was a flop. Park was still alive after the raid and the South Korean people rallied around him afterwards in revulsion at the attempt, rather than rising up against his government. [5]

In a 1970 National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA assessed that North Korea had mostly given up on the campaign of dramatic raids and terrorist attacks as means of undermining the ROK. Violence at the border had plummeted and North Korea was sending infiltrators for political espionage in the ROK rather than guerrilla warfare. [6]

South Korea had responded early to the uptick in violence from North Korea that began in the fall of 1966, beefing up its counter-infiltration capabilities. The Korean National Police grew into a 40,000-strong force in 1967 and added new resources to its coastal patrol unit designed to catch seaborne infiltrators. [7]

Later that year, President Park Chung-hee issued Presidential Instruction Number 18, which reorganized responsibilities for counter-infiltration and internal security among South Korean security agencies. United Nations Command forces provided support to ROK authorities in the funded by with $28 million in American funding. [8]

After the Blue House raid, the United States again topped up aid to the South Korean military with an additional $100 million supplemental requested by President Lyndon Johnson and approved by Congress. [9]

Cooperation from ordinary South Korean civilians was critical for the effort. Pyongyang was adept at getting spies and commandos into the ROK, but the lack of a political base for the infiltrators gave them little to work with once there. [10]

Instead, South Koreans often reported the presence of infiltrators to the police, as they had in the days before the Blue House raid. The country was deeply anti-communist at the time, but ROK officials also incentivized their cooperation with rewards for information.

Tipsters could get 200,000 won — $660 in late 1960s U.S. dollars — for information leading to the successful capture of an agent, dead or alive. They could also claim a 50-percent cut of any money agents had on them once captured. [11]

Intelligence on what was going on above the demilitarized zone, however, could be hard to come by as the North had buttoned-up in preparation for its low-intensity war with the ROK. By 1967, American spies found that “clandestine and defector reporting on North Korean military activities is greatly diminished due to tightened internal security.” [12]

The intelligence community hadn’t been paying as much attention to reconnaissance coverage of North Korea before the guerrilla campaign because the country’s hadn’t been “an overly active area” over the past few years. The result was “a growing deficit in current knowledge of the North Korean military posture,” according to the National Foreign Intelligence Board. [13]

To remedy that deficit, the United States tasked an A-12 Oxcart, the CIA’s variant of the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, to fly missions over North Korea from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan as part of the Agency’s Black Shield program. [14]

An A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance plane. The United States began flying the A-12 over North Korea in response to urgent intelligence requirements. Photo via Wikipedia


There were also changes under way back in North Korea after the dramatic opening to 1968.

North Korean officials were already showing signs of impatience with the progress of the covert campaign in the South the year before, leading Kim Il-sung to fire Yi Hyo-sun, the head of the Korean Workers’ Party Liaison Department — the agency responsible running spies in the South. [15]

But after the disastrous Blue House raid, more heads would roll. From late 1968 through early 1969, Kim shook up the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and Korean People’s Army, sacking Defense Minister Kim Chang-pong and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Choe Kwang. In their place, he put in two committed loyalists, Gen. Choe-hyon and Gen. O Chin-u. [16]

Both men had long guerrilla pedigrees.

O Chin-u had fought against the Japanese alongside Kim as a member of the 88th Sniper Brigade during and had helped churn out troops trained in guerrilla tactics as commander of the Hoeryong Cadres School before the Korean War. [17] During the conflict he commanded the 766th Independent Unit that would later serve as a model for the 124th Army Unit that carried out the Blue House raid. [18]

Choe Hyon, too, was a veteran of the 88th and the CIA described him as a “leading unconventional warfare expert” who had led the Military Liberation College, another school for the training the North’s infiltrators. [19]

There were vague hints of discontent within North Korea’s leadership towards Kim’s guerrilla policy seeping out of official media.

An oddly defensive April 1969 article appeared in state news praising Kim’s military leadership and criticizing “enemies at home and abroad” who would doubt the so-called Great Leader’s authority on foreign policy. To the CIA, it seemed as though the North Korean leader was pushing back against uncertainty about the wisdom of his guerilla campaign. [20]

But the purges came in the context of a broader reorganization of North Korean leadership and society that had been underway as Kim Il-sung tried to consolidate his hold over the country.

Since the end of the Korean War, Kim had been purging anyone who could pose a threat to his leadership of the country. North Korean officials whom he viewed as too close to the twin communist powers of China and the Soviet Union were first on the chopping block followed by South Korean communists who had taken up residence in North Korea during the Korean War. [21]

By the late 1960s, Kim started to take aim at a faction within the North Korean military dubbed the “partisan generals” whom he’d brought to power and put in charge of his covert war. The clique was comprised of veterans of the resistance against Imperial Japan during the World War II — men such as Kim Chang-pong and Gen. Choe Kwang who had fought alongside the North Korean leader in his days. [22]

As his guerilla campaign looked increasingly like a blunder, Kim began to ditch some of the partisan generals. “Kim picked out a group of people that he was already trying to get rid of. He took down scapegoats and they were held responsible” says Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership and a visiting scholar at the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. [23]

“It was also a matter of migrating control for these operations from the military and from these partisan generals to civilian intelligence people — with the giant caveat that everyone in North Korea is in the military in some form or another,” Madden adds. [24]

A U.S. Navy EC-121 spy plane, like the one North Korea shot down in 1969. Photo via Wikipedia


After the traumatic opening to 1968, South Korea enjoyed a period of calm throughout the early infiltration season as violence and guerilla activity dipped. [25]

It didn’t last.

In late Oct. 1968, 120 special operations troops from the North’s 124th Army Unit came ashore at Ulchin on the eastern coast of the ROK, landing at a spot near where the 766th Independent Unit had carried out a rear-area operation during the Korean War. [26]

CIA reporting indicated that the troops were supposed to stay for a little over a week followed by a nearly three week trek up north to cross the DMZ and return home. Pyongyang had tasked them with collecting intelligence on the ROK military, scouting for locations that could be used as bases for future operations and recruiting local intelligence sources. [27]

The soldiers divided up into teams and spread out. One of them seized the residents of a local village and carried out a communist indoctrination session, making the locals apply to be members of the Korean Workers Party. In front of the assembled crowd, the commandos picked out a man and beat him to death as an act of propaganda. [28]

In a later report, the CIA noted grimly that it was “ the first instance of armed propaganda since the Korean War.” [29]

South Korean security forces sprung into action and in the weeks that followed began hunting down the infiltrators. The hunt claimed the lives of 63 civilians but it was an even bigger disaster for the 124th. Of the 120 soldiers who had landed on Ulchin, only seven were taken alive. South Korean forces killed 110 of them and just three remained unaccounted for. [30]

After the landing, the CIA worried about the prospect of more large-scale raids. North Korea was expanding its paramilitary forces and adding winter training to their curriculum — a sign that it could be gearing up to press through the usual lull in operations that came in winter. [31]

A few months into the new year, North Korea provoked the United States again, shooting down an EC-121 spy plane flying over the Sea of Japan and killing all 31 crew members aboard. But over the course of 1969, DMZ incidents would plummet 80 percent over the previous year and the 124th wouldn’t venture south again for another daring invasion. [32]

Kim Il-sung’s war was coming to a close and the violence that had marked the tense years from 1966 to 1969 would eventually recede back to the usual rhythm of the uneasy North-South relationship.

The CIA assessed that Kim Il-sung had embarked on his guerrilla adventure in the latter half of the 1960s for a variety of reasons, many having to do with anxiety and opportunism related to the U.S. and South Korean participation in the Vietnam war.

But analysts also detected a hint of regret behind the covert push. South Korea was a political tinderbox in the early 1960s when a military coup that brought Kim’s nemesis Park to power. The Agency felt that Pyongyang’s push for revolution in the South was, at least in part, an attempt not to be caught flat-footed again. [33]

As he began building the infrastructure for his covert war in the mid 1960s, Kim reportedly lamented that if “there had been 50 hard-core Marixst-Leninsts to properly plan and direct the riots, revolution in South Korea could have been accomplished in either April 1960 or May 1961.” [34]

By the close of the decade, Kim Il-sung had sent hundreds of communist spies and commandos to the ROK. In the end, Kim found himself farther away from the dream of stirring a revolution than he was when the conflict began.


  1. “Central Intelligence Bulletin,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00975A013900090003–6, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, June 13, 1969. [Online]
  2. Document 243. June 25, 1969: Distribution of Government Memorandum on Provocative Activities of the North Korean Puppet Regime. (classification #: 729.55, record #: 3147) in James Person, Mitchell Lerner, Jong-Dae Shin, “Crisis and Confrontation on the Korean Peninsula: 1968-1969,” North Korea International Documentation Project, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. [Online]
  3. “Central Intelligence Bulletin,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00975A013900090003-6, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, June 13, 1969. [Online]
  4. Ibid.
  5. “North Korean Strategy and Tactics: An Appraisal,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP08S02113000100120001-5, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, April 1978.
  6. “The Changing Scene in South Korea,” National Intelligence Estimate No. 42-70, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Dec. 2, 1970. [Online]
  7. “North Korean Intentions and Capabilities With Respect to South Korea,” SNIE 14.2-67, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218147, Sept. 21, 1967. [Online]
  8. RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 5, POL 27 Symington Subcommittee 1970, Questions and Answers.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Confrontation in Korea,” SNIE 14.2-69, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218149, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Jan. 30, 1969. [Online]
  11. RG 59, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Korea, Subject Files 1966-1974, Box 5, POL 27 Symington Subcommittee 1970, Questions and Answers.
  12. “Reconnaissance Coverage in North Korea,” Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation, CIA-RDP75B00159R000100020056–8, Oct. 10, 1967.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Kim Il-sung’s New Military Adventurism,” Central Intelligence Agency, ESAU-39, Nov. 26, 1968. [Online]
  16. “Intelligence Memorandum: Kim Il-Sung’s Purges Probable Opponents Of His Adventurism,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP08S02113R000100050001–3, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, April 23, 1969.
  17. Interview with Michael Madden
  18. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Korean People’s Army: 766th Independent Unit, 1949-1950,” Paper Prepared for the Sept. 10–14, 2007 United Nations Command, Special Operations Forces in Korea Conference, Seoul, Korea, September 2007 and Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  19. “Central Intelligence Bulletin,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79T00975A012700090001-1, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, December 11, 1968 [online] and Interview with Michael Madden.
  20. “Intelligence Memorandum: Kim Il-Sung’s Purges Probable Opponents Of His Adventurism,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP08S02113R000100050001-3, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, April 23, 1969.
  21. Interview with Michael Madden
  22. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “DPRK Intelligence Services 1967-1971, Part 2,” KPA Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5., May 2010. [Online]
  23. Interview with Michael Madden
  24. Ibid.
  25. “Confrontation in Korea,” SNIE 14.2-69, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218149, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Jan. 30, 1969. [Online]
  26. Maj. Daniel P. Bolger, “Scenes from an Unfinished War: Low-Intensity Conflict in Korea, 1966-1969,” Leavenworth Papers, No. 19, Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, June 1, 1991 [Online] and Interview with Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
  27. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A006700070001-3, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Nov. 15, 1968.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Maj. Daniel P. Bolger, “Scenes from an Unfinished War: Low-Intensity Conflict in Korea, 1966-1969,” Leavenworth Papers, No. 19, Combat Studies Institute, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, June 1, 1991. [Online]
  31. “Weekly Summary,” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP79-00927A006800020001-7, (CREST), NARA, Dec. 13, 1968.
  32. “Confrontation in Korea,” SNIE 14.2-69, Central Intelligence Agency, 0001218149, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, Jan. 30, 1969. [Online]
  33. “North Korean Strategy and Tactics: An Appraisal,” Central Intelligence Agency, CIA-RDP08S02113000100120001-5, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), NARA, April 1978
  34. Ibid.
Next Story — How the CIA Set the Stage for Egyptian Strongmen to Last
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How the CIA Set the Stage for Egyptian Strongmen to Last

In Egyptian politics, the army is king, or more precisely, kingmaker. The Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to account for this role led to its 2013 undoing, in which the military played its familiar political part, ousting Pres. Mohammed Morsi in favor of its own Fatah Abdel El Sisi, a general.

In 2015, with El Sisi’s power consolidated, military domination of Egyptian politics remains, as does the question of why the military plays such an important role. Analysts point to the institutionalization of the military into society, the massive size of its conscription and the various political roles it covers in comparison to other militaries, even other autocratic militaries.

But investigating how the Egyptian military achieved its position reveals a different set of causal factors, unsurprising amongst them, the CIA.

Scholarship from Hazem Kandil, Owen L. Sirs, as well as personal accounts — such as from former spy Miles Copeland — illustrate the extent of American connections to the continual rise of the Egyptian military regime in the early days of modern Egypt.

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The CIA’s storied involvement in Egypt began in the context of 1950s Cold War meddling synonymous with the then “Third World” — a southern hemisphere loaded with potential communist dens. As early as 1952, CIA training assistance had begun in Egypt to counter communist influence in the Middle East.

CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt arrived in Cairo and began a military training program for young Egyptian officers. These young officers, as well as older members of the officer corps, formed a group of plotters known as the Free Officers Movement. The group overthrew Egyptian King Farouk, thus establishing the beginning of a 77-year-long pattern of military rule in Egypt.

[caption id=”attachment_10218" align=”aligncenter” width=”800"]

Two Egyptian Air Force Mirage fighter jets execute a bombing run during a Combined-Arms Live-Fire Exercise conducted as part of Exercise Bright Star 2009 in Egypt, Oct. 14. The multinational exercise is designed to improve readiness, interoperability, and strengthen the military and professional relationships among U.S., Egyptian and participating forces. Bright Star is conducted by U.S. Central Command and held every two years. Elements of the 22nd MEU are currently are participating in the multi-national exercise while serving as the theater reserve force for U.S. Central Command.

Above — Egyptian Mirage fighter jets. U.S. Marine Corps photo. At top — Pres. Fatah Abdel El Sisi. WIB photo illustration[/caption]

Maj. Gen. Muhammad Naguib was then placed into power as Egypt’s first president, as the de jure leader of a military junta named the Revolutionary Command Council. The day after the coup, the RCC invited the CIA to assist in addressing the difficulties of running post-revolutionary Egypt — the officers desired intelligence training.

Three CIA men arrived in Cairo to meet this task — James Kearn, disguised as a CBS journalist; Miles Copeland, a former Office of Strategic Services officer; and James Eichelberger, a political scientist who was the CIA’s new Chief of Station in Egypt. As many as 100 German military advisers were also brought in to assist. Some of these advisers were former Nazi SS and Gestapo.

With these arrivals, the expanding CIA presence would become a formidable supplement to the Egyptian regime’s own forces. Indeed, by some accounts, a fourth of the U.S. embassy staff in Cairo worked for the agency.

Each officer played a different role. Kearn dealt with public relations for the RCC while Eichelberger briefed the junta on reining in post-revolution contingencies. Copeland advised a Free Officer named Gamal Nasser, a prominent member of the RCC, on how to create Egypt’s new intelligence forces by consolidating the ancien regime’s political guard.

The spies cooperated with the Egyptians on several mutual security concerns, including communist dissidents, Islamist political organizations, rogue paramilitary elements, Islamist generals and potentially conspiring government ministers. Any competitors for power were now under the microscope of the American-imported intelligence expertise.

Political developments brought the CIA even closer into the fold. In 1954 Nasser exiled Naguib, cracked down on Islamist dissidents and assumed executive control of Egypt. Miles Copeland then became Nasser’s closest Western associate, and Nasser invited more CIA support.

Additional CIA training was facilitated by an Egyptian Free Officer and Nasser loyalist, Capt. Hassan al-Tohami, who supervised the new intelligence programs and the selection for CIA trainees.

[caption id=”attachment_10216" align=”aligncenter” width=”800"]

Nasser and Naguib. Photo via Wikimedia

Gamel Abdel Nasser, at left, and Muhammad Naguib. Photo via Wikimedia[/caption]

At this point in Cairo, it was hard to tell who was working for who. Al Tohami spied for both Nasser and the CIA, and the agency was also spying on both of them. An enmeshing of spy networks was inevitable. Copeland was tasked with building the General Investigations Directorate — Egypt’s intelligence branch. In line with this task, he trained police units and Nasser’s presidential body guard.

Moreover, the GID received training manuals, electronic bugs, miniature transmitters and cameras. Lastly, the CIA created a National Intelligence Estimate process for Nasser, as a structure similar to the American model of intelligence production, as to provide the Egyptian president with timely, in-depth briefs.

These years were perhaps the heyday of American spies inside Egypt. Their foundational efforts shaped the regime’s security and ascension. Indeed, according to Copeland’s book, The Game of Nations, he and other CIA operatives made Nasser the most “coup proof” leader of Africa and Asia. “We laid down a path for Nasser […] and he took it. Things might have been otherwise had he been programmed differently.”

What “otherwise” meant in Copeland’s terms was likely another regime change for Egypt. Copeland’s fondness for shadowy third world coups was uncharacteristically extreme, even for the 1950s. It was probably not a surprise to many when Copeland turned his Middle East spying experiences into a board game.

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Through money, intelligence sharing and important contacts, the CIA eventually infiltrated most levels of the Egyptian government. Unfortunately for the CIA, this extension of power became an overextension, as Nasser began to distrust the CIA in the late 1950s.

The 1960s were a time of mutual consternation by Egypt and the United States owing to the burgeoning geopolitical role of Israel and shifts in American attitudes toward the latter. Although surprisingly, many intelligence cooperation patterns continued onward, in a new context of increased fear on Nasser’s part and increased CIA meddling.

While the CIA-Egyptian relationship suffered familiar Cold War ups and downs, the shared fears of communists and Islamists, coupled with the Egyptian inexperience in intelligence methods, brought the agency into the powerful role of brokering internal political events and building Egypt’s intelligence structures.

The lasting effects were a coup-proof Egypt, and the assurance of a centrist army remaining king. That is, until the brief 2011–2013 Arab Spring interruption.

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