The former CIA Chief of Disguise spoke with Wired for this 8.5-minute video that discusses some of the most crucial photography tools used for espionage in the Cold War. Some of what she describes sounds like myths but were actually hugely helpful in intelligence gathering operations.
During the Cold War, surveillance of Moscow was some of the most challenging that CIA operatives encountered. The agency came up with several different methods to obtain critical information, many of those methods involved photography. Jonna Mendez, the former CIA Chief of Disguise, reveals that it was more than just being in the right place at the right time, but also having access to photography tools that, at the time, were state of the art.
One such tool was the Pigeon Camera, which was a small, lightweight camera that was attached to pigeons by a harness. The camera was programmed to take photos at set intervals as the pigeons flew around their targets.
Because pigeons can be trained to return to their starting locations, spy pigeons were particularly useful for capturing aerial images of targets and rivaled, or surpassed, the quality of photos that were able to be captured by satellite at the time.
Mendez also describes a host of different concealed cameras, the most valuable of which was hidden in the body of a fountain pen: the Tropel Pen Camera. She says that this particularly impressive piece of technology was reserved for their top agents who proved to have the very best access. They were hand made and captured images through a set of stacked lenses inside the body of the pen.
According to Mendez, photography as a medium was invaluable as a resource for the CIA during the Cold War.
“Photography is sort of the indisputable truth very often,” she says. “Not that the documents can’t be wrong but over time and distance photography has been able to provide the information that the intelligence agency has been after. it’s an important tool. Even though photography has changed a lot, tradecraft hasn’t.”