Friday, September 25, 2015

Libby Hellman--Today We Can All Be Spies

DEBORAH CROMBIE: What a roller coaster week! And what better to top it off than SPIES

Who else is fascinated by spy stories? Not just Bond-esque, but real life spies, those shadowy figures who risked everything to save the world--or damn it. And do you ever wonder how espionage has changed? Here's our Jungle Red friend Libby Fischer Hellman to give us the scoop.


Hi, Reds and Reds fans. It’s great to be back at the party. Thanks for having me.

I’ve been focusing on espionage recently. Which means reading as many fiction and non-fiction accounts as I can, watching a lot of espionage movies (you can imagine how hard that’s been ), and keeping up with the news. I visited the Spy Museum in Washington and Bletchley Park in the UK. The result so far is a novella called The Incidental Spy, set in the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. It’s just been published, and it’s about a German refugee who is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the University of Chicago from 1940 to 1942.

Today, though, I’d like to share my thoughts with you about the world of espionage and how it’s changed. Because it has changed. Significantly. At the same time, though, it’s brought back some tradecraft I assumed was obsolete.

World War Two at Home

Depending to whom you’re talking, Prague and/or Lisbon were the European spy capitals during the Second World War. Anyone was a potential spy, and they held the future of the world in their hands – the stakes were that high. Unfortunately, many spies were notoriously unreliable or became double agents when their marks realized they were being spied upon.
At home, though, it was a different story. America was physically untouched by the war (except for war bonds and rationing and families sending loved ones into battle). The reality was that if you were, say a farmer in the Midwest, it was possible to ignore the war and go about your business. Which made spying a little easier. Most Americans didn’t constantly look over their shoulder fearing someone was out to steal
private secrets.

Still, there were some infamous (and unreliable) spies. Take Doctor Ignatz Griebel, who served in the German Army during World War I. He emigrated to the US, became an American citizen, and eventually became the president of the Friends of the New Germany, which eventually merged into the German-American Bund. When Griebel was arrested by the FBI, he revealed the details behind a German spy ring operating in the U.S.  A Federal grand jury subpoenaed him, but in 1938 he escaped aboard the German ship Breman, taking vital intelligence with him. And in a brazen act of chutzpah, he even tried to come back to America after the war, but was arrested before disappearing into obscurity.

Dr. Ignatz Griebel
The Duquesne spy ring was a German attempt to spy on the US arms industry and their preparations for war. The network's head, Frederick 'Fritz' Joubert Duquesne, hated the Brits, fought for the Boers, and worked for German intelligence during World War I. He was determined to keep the USA neutral and out of the war.  His ring came to a rapid end, thanks to William Sebold, a freshly-naturalized US citizen who ended up working for the FBI. 33 people were tried as a result of the ring's break-up, 19 pleaded guilty and the rest were found guilty anyway. One Abwehr officer later said the ring's demise proved the 'death blow' of wartime German espionage on US shores.

Atomic Spies

When we think of the so-called Atomic spies, based in the US, UK and Canada, we, of course, think of the Rosenbergs who gave away information about the US nuclear weapons program to the Soviets. In reality, though, physicist Klaus Fuchs was probably the most notorious Communist spy—he actually worked on the Manhattan Project and had extensive access to high-level scientific data. The Venona project intercepted Soviet intelligence reports sent during and after the war, which gave US officials clues to his identity. Many believe there had to be other spies as well, perhaps even at Los Alamos. Rumors swirled about Oppenheimer
Klaus Fuchs
and David Greenglass, and their reputations were ruined forever.

The 1950s and McCarthyism

As fear of the Nazis waned, America's fear of communism grew, and our reaction to alleged spies in our midst exploded. Government official Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy. After a mistrial he was tried again in 1950, convicted of three counts of perjury, and served over three years in prison. (Thank you, Richard Nixon). Throughout his trial and after, he denied any wrongdoing.

That paved the way for McCarthyism, which kick-started an extraordinary period of Communist-driven fear in the 1950s. As you probably know, thousands of American citizens, from government workers to movie stars, were asked by a congressional panel: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?”  Their answers weren't always taken at face value and countless reputations, careers, and lives were ruined. The public seemed not to react to the horrors of the situation until Joseph Welch uttered the famous question “Have you no sense of decency sir?” at the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Edward R Murrow took him down on national TV.

Lack of Clarity Today

Today the game has changed. Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword. The motivation for espionage has changed, too. In the past it was truly a matter of life or death. Soldiers’ lives were at stake during the war; everyone was at risk during the atomic bomb scares. There was a clarity to espionage. There were good guys and bad guys, and we were always the good guys.

It’s not so simple today. While anyone could be a spy during the war, today we all can be spies all the time. All we need is a camera, perhaps a drone, a bug on a phone, a computer hacker, or a really good decryption code.

Which makes figuring out who’s spying on whom and why murky. Today governments spy on individuals. Corporations spy on competitors. Nation states spy on each other. And while espionage used to be motivated by the defense of one’s nation, we now know espionage is used for corporate advantage…manipulating election results… or stealing the latest technological advances.

Ironically, that has brought some of the old spy tradecraft back in vogue. Why write an encrypted email when you can just arrange a dead drop? Why risk being recognized on a video camera when you can disguise yourself with a wig and pair of glasses? (Don’t forget to change your shoes.) And that American flag you used last July 4th? Plant it in a flower pot to signal a meet. Who’s going to know?

Our reaction to the murkiness of espionage is equally murky, and I could go on for another three pages about it. If I do, though, the Reds will have me for lunch. Happily, I have a new Ellie Foreman book coming out next March (it’s been over 10 years since the last one), and it deals with —what else? — espionage in the post-Snowden era and our reaction to it. It’s called Jump Cut, and I’ll (hopefully) be back to talk about it next year. Meanwhile, what do you think about the current state of espionage? Or do you refuse to think about it at all? What tradecraft techniques do you admire? DId you ever want to be a spy? Why or why not?

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago
35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Twelve novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. 

DEBS: I was not only fascinated by spy stories, I played spy! My friend and I had secret drops, and codes, and I'm sure we annoyed the hell out of the neigbors by watching them with binoculars, just waiting for them to do something sinister...

What about you, REDS and readers? Any secret hankering to practice your tradecraft?

REDS ALERT: Kaye Barley, you are the winner of Peter Robinson's In the Dark Places! You know the drill:-)

And Libby, fascinating stuff. I can't wait to read The Accidental Spy. Just bought it! 


  1. I knew the stories of some of the spies you mentioned, Libby, but others I had never heard about and it seems to me that the whole McCarthy debacle was a particularly gruesome example of taking things to the extreme.

    This is all quite fascinating [thanks for sharing the stories, Libby] and although I have never had any particular inclination to be a spy, I must admit to being quite intrigued by secret codes which I think are quite amazing . . . .

    Wwhile Washington seems like a perfect place for it, I'm astounded to learn that there's actually a spy museum . . . .

  2. This is fun, Debs.

    I love this, Libby!

    I had one of those cardboard code thingies from the back of a cereal box. You cut out 2? circles with letters and numbers (I think). Then after placing the smaller one on top of the larger one? you put a fastener through the middle. Then you twisted the circles to decode a message. I think. Maybe. Something like that! Other boxes of cereal told you how to make invisible ink, had a fake moustache in the box, a tiny magnifying glass (I got one of those) ... yeah, it was a lot fun. Of course!

  3. I do remember that, Reine... think I cut out the same thing. And then there was Mad Magazine's Spy vs Spy... and yes, Joan, it's hard to find anything positive about the McCarthy era, except Edward R. Murrow.

  4. I love spy books, movies, anything. Mostly the "could that really happen?" factor. And yes, a lot of it can.

    Not really surprised that the response to high tech spying is a return to the old low-tech methods. They worked for years for a reason, right?

  5. Hi, Libby!
    I'm always so impressed by the research you do. I'd make a lousy spy since I'm terrible liar. The idea that someone might be spying on me creeps me out... Sometimes I consider putting masking tape over the camera lens on my computer. Then I think: who would care?

    Libby, I do remember Spy vs Spy!

  6. Thanks, Hallie... Research is the fun part for me. Writing is the challenge. I lose myself in the research -- I suppose it's the lingering effects of having been a journalist. But research can also drive plot. For example, when the St. Louis ship was turned away from the US and had to sail back to Europe, I figured out a way to make it personal... and part of the plot. I love that synchronicity, when history and plot cooperate..:)

  7. Wonderful essay Libby, thanks for bringing it to us. I'm like Hallie, I'd be a terrible spy--way too nervous about getting caught. I think you must need nerves of steel to pull something like that off. I had to stop watching HOMELAND because it made me too antsy:).

    But I did love the Spy Museum and recommend a visit if you go to DC. I also remember Spy VS Spy. I just looked it up--it was written by a Cuban cartoonist famous for political satire. He had to flee Cuba in 1960. He used to sign his name in Morse code.

    It's all so fascinating and you are smart to use this stuff in your writing Libby!

  8. Libby, I read Murrow's This is London when I was researching Where Memories Lie. Wonderful.

    And I'm with you on the research. I love it--in fact, I envy you yours a bit, but I'm glad you've finally written the book!

    I've always been particularly fascinated by British spies (what a surprise.) I loved Le Carre as well as the more thriller-y authors. Loved the series Spooks (shown in the US as MI5.) Wasn't Peter Firth great?

    You said you'd been reading spy fiction and non-fiction--any particular recommendations for us?

  9. Deb-- I'm with you on "Spooks" aka "MI5"...

    And yes, I've been reading (and watching) some great espionage lately. I AM PILGRIM is not to be missed. THE SWIMMER is really good too (translated from Swedish). ON TV, do NOT miss the Norwegian series, "The Saboteurs", and... less good, but still interesting is "Company X," a series about the OSS/Canadian operation where they sent spies behind enemy lines in Europe. Oh, and Olin Steinhauer's ALL THE OLD KNIVES is terrific too.

    Actually, I decided to write a trilogy of novellas about WW2... and #3 is going to be set at Bletchley Park. I'd planned for it to be #2, but then I was swept away by a story about German POWs in the US. More on that as it develops.

  10. Darn, I forgot to mention RED SPARROW... that was a unputdownable read as well. PALACE OF TREASON, by the same author, Jason Mathrews, was good too, but not quite as captivating.

    Thanks for your comment, Roberta. As you might suspect, I'm a HOMELAND junkie. Don't think I've missed any episodes. In fact, I'm a little disappointed that, apparently, they're not going to wrap up any of the loose ends from Season 4. There were several...

  11. I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't seen Homeland. My hubby watched it without me, on a binge when I was out of town somewhere, and I've never found the time to sit down and watch it on my own. And I don't think you can just dive in if you haven't seen it from the beginning, right?

    Libby, after all your research, do you find the storylines believable?

  12. Deb: Re Homeland
    Some of the plotlines are right on. And timely. Apparently, the show runners and writers meet with the CIA before they start writing the next season. Then again, once the setting and situation are set, they DO take a lot of dramatic license. But it's pretty much back on track after Season 3, which was pretty far-fetched. That's why I made the comment about loose ends in Season 4... it was very realistic. Lots of gray, rather than black and white, which made for a credible but somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

  13. Maybe this is why we aren't allowed to use drones as a rule in our real estate business yet? They think we have ulterior spy-like motives ;)


  14. I've always been fascinated by spies and loved reading spy stories from an early age. The Spy Museum in DC is definitely a must-see place; I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    One correction to Libby's comment that the US was physically untouched by the war. I would say that is not strictly true. What about all the internment camps that sprang up, mostly for Japanese-Americans but also for German-Americans. Executive Order 9066 led to physical and emotional scars on the US that have never quite healed.

    I would love to see a mystery/spy story written about this part of 9066.


  15. MI5 show and Stella Rimington's Liz Carlyle secret agent series, my top two favorite spy series. Of course this will most likely change when I start your series, Ms. Hellman. Thanks to the Reds for introducing yet another author new to me: my TBR is now officially a mountain range.

    Haven't watched Homeland yet, must correct that. As a kid, I thought I'd enjoy being a combo spy/private detective. My dad held a very high security clearance at his defense contract company and loved telling us in response to almost every question, "It's on a need to know basis and you don't need to know." Now, I just enjoy reading and watching spy series.


  16. Tricia, I've always meant to read Stella Rimington's books. She's the real deal! Nice to know you recommend them.

  17. Spies! Back in the sixties we indulged in James Bond, the Avengers, and the Man From Uncle. Such fun. Later I fell in love with Sam Neill as Reilly, Ace of Spies. Anyone remember that one? It was great. My husband and I both enjoyed reading Len Deighton's spy trilogy: Berlin Game, Mexico Set, and London Match. I also enjoy reading fiction about spies during the Napoleonic wars. As far as being a spy myself, ha! I'd get caught right off the bat.

  18. Oh, my gosh, Pat, I LOVED Reilly! I'd forgotten about that. Wonder if I can find the series. I still have a little crush on Sam Neill...

  19. Anonymous, you're absolutely right. The Japanese experience was very dramatic and deserves its own story.
    Pat, I don't remember Reilly... I'm going to have to look it up. I like Sam Neill too, Deb.
    Remember when everyone fell in love with Ilya Kuriakan?
    TFJ, thanks for your comment. Hope you enjoy the read when you get to it.

  20. Libby, thank you for a truly fascinating post! I don't know why, but if someone were to ask me if I liked spy or espionage novels, I'd probably say no. However, when someone, especially someone as knowledgeable as you, starts talking about spies, real and fictional, I become mesmerized by it all. I do think that I'm more of a WWI and WWII spy fan than James Bond or more modern versions. And, I might be more interested in the real spies, especially ones that became well-known for other endeavors later. Roald Dahl is of particular interest, and, yet, I still haven't read The Irregulars:Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington. The McCarthy circus and its devastating fallout has always been intriguing to me from the perspective of mass hysteria from fear created by those in charge.

    I've been to the Spy Museum in D.C. and found it amazing, but it takes longer than I had that day to fully explore and appreciate it. I have I Am Pilgrim on my TBR list, but with it being 600+ pages, I haven't been able to fit it in yet. The length doesn't bother me, as I read plenty of "long" books, but I've had much Bouchercon reading to do this year, so some other books have unfortunately been put on hold. Debs, how cool that you played spy as a kid. Wish I'd thought of that. I also remember Spy vs. Spy and can see the picture in my mind now of them.

    Libby, your novella series sounds captivating, so it's going on my TBR list for sure. Thanks again for a great post today!

  21. In the Antiwar Movement (Vietnam, '60s/'70s) we knew we were being spied on because one could hear the static on the phones. Also my neighbors would tell me about the men in suits asking questions. Being good neighbors, they'd send those men away after chastising them for asking about a young, single woman . . . slink away, perverts. We would make fun of their nosiness, ask if they wanted the recipe for the dinner we were discussing . . . I'm afraid we probably bored them to distraction, real life being so much tamer than fiction.

  22. Storytellermary:
    Can you say Cointelpro?

    Kathy: Thanks so much for your comments. PILGRIM is worth the read. I too don't care that much about 007. Yes, Roald Dahl would be a fascinating character to write about.. I'm sure someone has. Or will.

  23. Hey, Libby! Fascinating and so instructive--you are amazing.

    LOVED Red Sparrow, and of course one of the other best-evers, CHARM SCHOOL. (Which was completely ripped off by The Americans.

    And I adore Homeland, too. Maybe when it comes back on, we can all watch together! Or, Libby, you come back and tell us what's real!

  24. Libby, you MUST watch Reilly, Ace of Spies! In fact--JRW just ruins my budget..--I ordered the DVD of the series today. Heaven knows when I'll find time to watch it. Reilly is considered by some to have been the first "modern" spy. It's a terrific story, and Sam Neill as Reilly was riveting.

    And I'm still in love with Ilya Kuriakan--only now he goes by "Ducky." :-)

  25. Debs I know what you mean. I bought the DVD set a year or two ago and still haven't watched it. But it's comforting to know it's there when I want it. I still wonder what happened to Sidney.

  26. I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of The Incidental Spy. You all have to go read it right now! Marvelous job of combining the story of a strong woman with all that fascinating history, and today's blog has even more things I didn't realize had happened.

    Always loved spy anything. Took an aptitude test that said I was well suited for the CIA, but my sense of adventure kind of stops with books, television and movies. My kids can't believe I had a crush on Ducky ;-). Reilly was the first serious spy show I watched. A must see. And I would have been happy to see MI-5 go on forever.

  27. Hallie, the day my computer started to wake up when I entered the room, I put one of those tiny round bandaids over the lens.

    Libby, yes! Spy vs Spy!

  28. Libby, I had to look up COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram). We did know they were there, and in the YSA decided that we would simply put any infiltrators to work and not worry much because we didn't do or condone illegal activities and could always use extra hands. One reason we were adamant and notorious abstainers from illegal recreational substances was that we knew it would give an excuse for arrest. There was an incident in Texas when one agent asked a student to pass a joint to his friend, another agent, and the minute the joint was in the student's hand, they arrested him for possession. I was curious about my own record, not having had time to keep a diary during that time, but an acquaintance with FBI ties said all the YSA/SWP files were frozen and not accessible. Oh, those were the days . . .

  29. Storyteller: We should compare notes sometime.

  30. Libby,
    Thanks so much for this post, and your mention of competitive intelligence. When I tell people that I retired from the Competitive Intelligence group of an international business, they look at me funny and say "What's that?" It is actually a profession with an association. If anyone is interested, we were trained by the Academy of Competitive Intelligence in Boston by Lenny Fuld and Ben Gilad. Although our brief was to do only strictly legal research, I was convinced that some of our competitors did not get that memo. Many people working in R&D would agree. You would be surprised what you can learn from public documents, news, government databases and advertisements for products. Especially the fine print.

  31. Hi, Kathy. Thanks for that very thoughtful comment. I'm absolutely sure you can get a LOT of data from public comments. I've done it myself. I used to train corporate executives for media interviews, and they were often surprised at the information I was able to dig up with a simple Nexus/Lexus search.

    Btw, my next novel, JUMP CUT, gets into international competitive intelligence in a big way. Stay tuned. It will be out in March. Thanks again.

  32. Fascinating subject.

    I think the more secrets governments and others in power are allowed to keep, the worse they allow themselves to behave.

    In a global economy spying seems old-school, an anachronism. I feel it's becoming more and more important to collaborate openly across borders than to pull up more drawbridges.

    Since trade is international, it makes sense for compassion to be extended internationally, as well as innovations, ideas and inventions.

    Maybe, given time, the human race will ultimately get rid of countries altogether and throw away borders for good, working together as fellow humans for the first time.

  33. What an optimist you are, Kate! I hope you're right.