Ex-CIA Officer Reveals How Eateries Are Key To Spycraft : The Salt : NPR

"Restaurants and cafés are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," says Amaryllis Fox in a new book. They're ideal places to clandestinely meet people with access to a government or terrorist group.

As a space that is both public and private and relatively safe, the restaurant is an unshowy but invaluable cog in what the great spy writer John le Carré so eloquently calls "the grammar of intrigue." It offers intelligence officers not only a place to exchange information (the envelope slid across the table; the briefcase switch; the taped message in the toilet tank) but a chance to evaluate their informants' habits, temperament and coolheadedness, over a meal.

But evaluation is a two-way street, and the recruitee can also assess the recruiter. As Fox, who is half-English and went to Oxford, did when a professor with the British Secret Service who had no doubt heard about her Suu Kyi interview invited her to a pub called the Fuggle & Firkin and sold her the whole help-us-make-the-world-safe spiel. It didn't work. The endless talk put her off. "I don't believe in your cloak-and-dagger stuff," she said, before walking out. "Thanks for the pint."

She is equally dismissive of the 007 brand of cloak-and-dagger daredevilry. "One street chase and my cover is blown for life," she writes wryly. Instead of the Bond business of dashing around in fast cars and ordering vodka martinis, shaken not stirred, routine espionage involves endless hours drinking coffee at cafes that are being cased and scouted for prospective meetings. But she agrees that certain aspects of restaurant protocol as depicted in spy novels are true to life.

Le Carré's 1993 novel, The Night Manager, describes one such meeting between a British intelligence officer named Burr and the eponymous night manager whom he is keen to recruit as an undercover agent: "Burr's field manners had been meticulous," writes le Carré. "He had chosen his restaurant in advance; he had inspected it the night before: an out-of-town lakeside trattoria. ... He had chosen his corner table, and for ten cautious Yorkshire francs to the head waiter, had reserved it in one of his work names, Benton."

Did Fox have a "work name"? "We often work in alias so we have to be sure we're using the name that's consistent with the op," says Fox. "And yes, back-to-the-wall is operational instinct to help with situational awareness and ensure the face of your conversation partner is turned away from onlookers in the room. Depending on the activity you have in mind, multiple entrances and exits can be helpful and private seating such as booths or hidden corners is a plus. There are also opening hours to consider, as many operational acts take place at unusual times of day. Perhaps most important of all, the presence of security cameras and the type of clientele that frequent the joint. No sense in planning a clandestine act at the local police hangout or meeting a high-profile source in a place they might be recognized."

While some espionage meetings take place in gourmet restaurants, this is not always the case. "It should be noted that while oftentimes you might have some nice elegant dinners on the U.S. government dime, there are also times where you're at some skeevy joint with unsavory characters," says Moran.

Chains like Panda Express, Panera Bread, McDonald's and Starbucks, which have a standardized layout and are open late into the night, are handy operational sites. Fox reveals how one instructor at the CIA came up with an ingenious way to use the Starbucks gift card as a signaling tool instead of the traditional chalk marks and lowered window blinds.

"He gives one [gift card] to each of his assets and tells them, 'If you need to see me, buy a coffee.' Then he checks the card numbers on a cybercafé computer each day, and if the balance on one is depleted, he knows he's got a meeting. Saves him having to drive past a whole slew of different physical signal sites each day [to check for chalk marks and lowered window blinds]. And the card numbers aren't tied to identities, so the whole thing is pretty secure."

While Fox warmed to the digital method, older instructors didn't. "We learn quickly which Cold War veterans demand chalk marks from their students and which modern warriors prefer silicon and Wi-Fi," she writes. In Shanghai, where she was sent after her training, she soon realized that the Chinese weren't especially perturbed about leaving traces. Each time she passed by them, the vendors of street food and other items, who are part of China's massive intelligence machinery, reached for their pencil and notebook to jot her comings and goings.

Restaurant meetings can sometimes lead to comical misunderstandings. Moran recalls that when she was targeting an Albanian businessman and insisted their meetings take place at a far-flung pizza joint, her choice of venue had unintended consequences. "He assumed I was insisting on a remote location so we would not be seen by his wife, and that I wanted a romantic relationship with him," she says. "Even after I repeatedly explained that was not the case, he still treated our restaurant meetings like dates, even insisting on cutting up my pizza for me."

Both Fox and Moran have moved on from the spy world. Fox lives in San Francisco with her family (she is married to Robert Kennedy III) and speaks at events around the world on dialogue and peacekeeping. Moran heads communications at the Environmental Investigation Agency[4]. "I don't get to eat out on expense meals anymore but that's OK," she says. "I am leading a simpler life but serving a greater purpose!"

Old habits, however, die hard. "My kids think I'm nuts the way that I jockey for the most operationally optimal seat in the restaurant," Moran says, laughing. "And they often beseech me to stop listening in on the conversations of other patrons or analyzing their body language and speculating about their relationships."

A few years ago, she was working peacefully on her laptop at a Polish cafe in Washington, D.C., when she heard gunfire from a drive-by shooting. Without missing a beat, and still holding her laptop, she vaulted over the back of the couch she was sitting on and fled to the kitchen.

Nina Martyris is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.[5]


  1. ^ Life Undercover: (www.amazon.com)
  2. ^ Coming of Age in the CIA (www.amazon.com)
  3. ^ Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (www.amazon.com)
  4. ^ Environmental Investigation Agency (eia-global.org)
  5. ^ Nina Martyris (ninamartyris.pressfolios.com)

title: Ex-CIA Officer Reveals How Eateries Are Key To Spycraft : The Salt : NPR
summary: "Restaurants and cafés are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," says Amaryllis Fox in a new book. They're ideal places to clandestinely meet people with access to a government or terrorist group.
category: articles
link: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/10/16/770368584/eat-drink-and-be-wary-ex-cia-officer-reveals-how-eateries-are-key-to-spycraft

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