A Short Course in The Secret War

Title:                      A Short Course in The Secret War

Author:                  Christopher Felix (pseudonym for James McCargar)

Felix, Christopher (1992). A Short Course in The Secret War, 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Madison Books

LCCN:    91045815

E743.5.F36 A3 1992

Date Updated:  August 25, 2016

This book is a textbook of basic espionage techniques, tradecraft, and day-to day operations in the world of spies.

Few North Americans ever had to think about secret politics. The US role in the secret war—the secret war itself—came as news to most citizens with the U-2 affair in 1960 and the Bay of Pigs in 1961. (White House lies surrounding these events started the breakdown of America’s political system, according to one view.) This “short course” appeared two years later, while JFK was still alive. It hs as subsequently been updated and is in its fourth edition.

Newspaper people like the book. One says it is suavely well-written. Another pronounced it a brilliant work, without equal as a discussion of tradecraft. The “trade,” an ancient one, is that of the spy. James McCargar (Christopher Felix’s real name) worked as a reporter in 1941, after graduation that year from Stanford. In 1942 he joined the US Department of State, developed skills in the Russian language, and served as vice consul in Vladivostok and Moscow. State furloughed him in 1944 for military duties. He became a case officer in secret operations—a spymaster—first with OSS (Office of Strategic Services) then with the CIA Office of Policy Coordination (clandestine warfare).

Part I of the book explains fundamentals and forms of action. Its nine chapters include “The Power of Secret Knowing,” “The Art of Cover,” and “Political Operations.” Part II is a case history in seven chapters. McCargar recounts 18 months in Hungary starting July 1946. His network of eight field agents helped 75 people escape the Soviet orbit. The author knows how to disarm: “…the very human desire for self-justification…is not absent from this account” (p 182).

Throughout history, the informer—the secret agent—has inspired fear. He is a key to rulers’ power over the ruled. “Every American municipal police force [depends] in large measure on informers. The FBI…adds to its files, both criminal and political, [using] informers” (p 39).

McCargar argues that in competition and conflict, for information to be power it must be secret. He regards the secret agent as part artist (who sees through society’s myths about itself) and part criminal (who betrays social relations, protected by legal authority). International spies initiate their own recruitment as often as not, says the author. He ranks six motives of secret agents, the most dependable first: duty (nationalism), political support (conscious conviction), ambition (career), personal gain (enrichment, social position), compulsion (blackmail, hostage), and money (used only as last resort or ad hoc).

The book illustrates the use of cover in two historic secret operations of the US. In 1777, a wealthy Frenchman founded Hortalez and Company, a Paris firm active in North American trade. One of its principals was Silas Deane, an agent of the Continental Congress. The treasury and arsenals of France quietly opened to Hortalez and Company. It sent “…to America vast and decisive quantities of arms, munitions, textiles—and money…[including] nine-tenths of the arms and munitions used…at the Battle of Saratoga” (p 90).

The second secret operation “…encompassed the Panamanian Revolution, which produced both Panama and the Panama Canal, and for which the …Congress…paid an indemnity of $8 million to Colombia, the Revolution having been managed by the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell under a fee from the US Government…” (p 99). McCargar omits that Allen Dulles, the CIA’s first director, worked at the same firm.

There seems to be a lapse in contrasting Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. The US had broken Japanese codes. They knew a carrier task force was at sea “…operating under radio silence—with the results known to history” (p 123). Silence had paid off for the Japanese in 1941. Yet six months later, Japanese radio traffic exposed two of its striking fleets, enabling the US to concentrate defence and to triumph at Midway. Why did the Japanese abandon a successful strategy?

In Budapest, the author inherited an elite group of field agents. Its makeup was too unbalanced, he knew. All were members of the former ruling upper class who had resisted Nazi occupation. The network included a government minister, leader in the main political party, foreign office diplomat, economist, banker. Only one, a woman, knew the identity of any of the others. McCargar would have liked to recruit agents inside the political police, the Catholic church, organized labour, the Communist Party, the press, etc., to widen his network’s scope of intelligence and vary its slant. Political events moved too swiftly.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[1]

A retired intelligence operations specialist discusses some of the fundamentals of counterespionage and security. Counterespionage, he believes is an operational activity, conceived with intimate, controlled, and purposeful contact with the “enemy,” for the primary purpose of penetrating the opposition’s own secret operations apparatus with the objective of eventual deception. Security, on the other hand, is protective and defensive, and seeks to sever all contact with the “enemy” as being too dangerous.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[2]

The author, who was for many years a case officer directing important U.S. intelligence operations, reveals the reasons and methods used by nations in obtaining intelligence information by undercover means. This is one of the few books in the field which treats its subject analytically. It is a valuable adjunct to clandestine training manuals in its treatment of the recruiting and handling of agents. The chapters on the art of using cover are especially valuable. See also Felix’s “The Unknowcble CIA,” Reporter,(6, April 1967, pp. 20-24), defending the CIA against its many critics.

[1] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 76

[2] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 140



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4 Responses to A Short Course in The Secret War

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