Dumb spies like us

From propaganda catapults to exploding seashells, why do “intelligence” services come up with so many bad, and often absurd, ideas?

Once again, the British spy agency MI5 has declassified a whole pile of its once-secret papers, giving us a window into the world of covert analysis and operations. And, once again, there’s at least one resounding conclusion to be drawn: people come up with a lot of idiotic stuff behind closed doors.

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In the 1950s, for example, American authorities contacted MI5, according to the papers, terribly concerned that Charlie Chaplin was actually a Russian Jew named Israel Thornstein. At the American request, MI5 looked into the matter, admitting finally that the actor’s origins were unclear. Though, as the then-head of MIF’s counter subversion branch wrote, according to The Telegraph, “I scarcely think that this is of any security significance.”

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels thought translations of Nostradamus would be “marvellously useful for our propaganda abroad.” It’s not clear exactly what he had in mind; perhaps print-outs of Nostradamus translations being flung from giant catapults. Less than two months later, Goebbels wrote in his diary enthusiastically that he had observed the testing of “new propaganda weapons” like a “projectile-thrower” that could “launch leaflets over 500 metres” and “an artificial smokescreen, onto which propaganda films can be projected on a huge scale.” Let’s not forget an earlier declassified bunch of MI5 documents, too, which revealed that Nazi agents had been trying to outfit themselves with killer swastika belt buckles.

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