Secret agents are spilling the beans on ‘I Spy’

Society & Culture November 30, 2021
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Foreign Policy’s “I Spy” promptly disregards the foremost, unspoken rule of the craft to uncover truths, strong-arming spies to willingly spill their secrets in candid conversations. Hosted by Margo Martindale, this podcast provides fascinating insight into what the spy job description entails, and the dangerous lengths they go to complete their missions.

How do spies navigate dicey situations where they must kill adversaries to survive? Do spies ever accidentally blow their double agent cover? Episodes focus on these sorts of questions and speak with spies to delve into one harrowing operation at a time. The ins and outs of these cases are incredible to hear about, especially since many of these spies unpack the psychological warfare deployed in their missions.

In an interesting episode, Margo speaks with a literal hell-raiser. Special agent Jay Dobyns worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. As part of “Operation Black Biscuit,” Jay managed to infiltrate the Hells Angels biker gang. The gang was suspected of many crimes, running the gamut of drug trafficking and stealing to murder. In over two years of nerve-wracking, undercover surveillance, Jay had a front row seat to witness and confirm the allegations. Jay was fully prepared for this operation, since he’d already completed 15 years worth of undercover experience.

With enough street cred to complete the ruse, Jay jumped through the gang’s hoops to test his devotion, performing mundane tasks (such as dropping everything to serve a gang member a milkshake) to the extremes (assisting in murder). Jay gained the gang’s trust, and over time, collected enough incriminating information to open a criminal investigation.

In the third season of “I Spy,” we’ll hear from an FBI agent working in Al-Qaeda investigations, both pre- and post-9/11. In Frank Snepp’s episode, he shares his CIA analyst experience in Saigon. This occurred during the Vietnam War. Frank was provided with break-through information regarding a Communist attack on Saigon, but his supervisors did not believe him. Lo and behold, the attacks started a few weeks after Frank’s intel.

FBI special agent George Piro is interviewed about 2004’s interrogation with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As one of the FBI’s 12 native Arabic speakers at that time, and with his portfolio of extensive experience, George was the best for the job. Before flying to Iraq, George studied Saddam, reviewing both classified and unclassified documents to prepare. George thinks his first meeting set the proper tone for building a foundation of trust with Saddam. Saddam was seeking medical treatment, so George raced to his facility. The rush did not allow him to overthink the first meeting.

Right away, Saddam knew George was of Lebanese descent due to his accent. Saddam guessed that George practiced Christianity and said this would not be an issue. George allowed Saddam to have outdoor exercise time and used the rapport-based approach in interrogation to find a commonality. Both bonded over their love for their moms. George said Saddam struggled with the communal setup of prison due to his germaphobia. George provided small amounts of baby wipes, and Saddam was appreciative. This was part of the process of getting Saddam to ask George for things, gaining control over their subject and whittling down Saddam’s defenses.

George learned about Saddam’s bedouin poetry writings in prison and used this as an opportunity to segue the interrogation into his speeches and grisly details of his dictatorship. George asked Saddam to read his work and praised his poetic voice. Apparently, flattery worked well with Saddam, as he began to share more information.

In addition, all clocks were removed from Saddam’s detention center, and George was the only person who wore a watch. This technique made Saddam ask what time it was, a passive form of compliance to demonstrate the FBI’s authority. George visited Saddam on his birthday. George brought tea and cookies from a care package his mom sent him. For the first time in prison, Saddam was allowed to see video clips of news and newspapers which reported on not having to celebrate his birthday as a holiday. This news psychologically affected him. Listeners will learn how this leads up to Saddam’s execution.

Tune in to “I Spy” to hear more about spies and clandestine operations. Nearly all episodes run under 30 minutes in length.

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