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Manual of Trickery and Deception” isn’t nearly as intriguing as its title suggests

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Rick Lax

In the 1950s, the CIA began a secret program, code-named MKULTRA, under which stage magician John Mulholland was paid $3,000 to write an essay on how the agency could exploit conjurers’ tricks for covert purposes. The document was classified as “MKULTRA Subproject Number 4.”

In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helm ordered that all MKULTRA documents, including Subproject Number 4, be destroyed. But, somehow, one copy of Mulholland’s manuscript survived. Thirty-five years later, intelligence historian H. Keith Melton and former CIA Office of Technical Service director Robert Wallace turned the document into a book, and they renamed it The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception.

By “turned the document into a book,” I mean Melton and Wallace gave Mulholland’s essay a misleading title and padded it with a lengthy introduction. That said, the introduction isn’t uninteresting; it contains a bunch of cool deception-pertinent spy facts, like the CIA fitted subminiature escape radios inside of false rubber scrotums that fit over the pilots’ testicles, and at one point the CIA seriously considered filling Fidel Castro’s cigars with LSD so he’d hallucinate during one of his televised speeches and look foolish.

Melton and Wallace’s title is misleading because Mulholland’s essay isn’t a “manual of deception”—it’s not nearly that broad. Most of Mulholland’s essay is about one thing: how to secretly drop poison into a bad guy’s drink.

The Details

The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception
Two stars
H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace
William Morrow, $25
Amazon: The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception

I’ll let you decide whether that makes the book more or less interesting.

Mulholland refers to CIA agents as “tricksters,” to covert acts as “tricks,” and to bad guys as “spectators” (e.g., “This trick, by the way, only can be done for a spectator who is a smoker.”) Presumably Mulholland did this so that if the Soviets ever got their hands on a copy of the essay, it’d be less incriminating. But this paranoia, oddly, didn’t stop Mulholland from writing incriminating sentences like this one: “As in the previously described tricks with pills and powdered solids, the purpose of the tricks to be done with liquids is to put them secretly in another person’s beverage.” Some “trick,” eh?

Mulholland’s essay contains many tips that would be useful to any beginning sleight-of-hand hobbyist, such as, “Any secret move which is performed as a part of a broader action usually can be made less obvious when done as the arm is brought back to the body,” and “A small action will not be noticed when it is done while making a broader gesture for which there is an obvious reason.” On those points, Mulholland is most certainly correct. (I know this because I’ve been performing magic for more than two decades.) But Mulholland isn’t correct about everything …

“An uncomplicated story,” says Mulholland, “no matter how distant it may be from truth, will be acceptable provided it is told with conviction.” Really? Let’s try that out: I’m making out with Holly Madison as I type this very sentence. Uncomplicated? Yes. Told with conviction? Yes. Believable? Not so much; conviction is only one element of a successful lie.

The oddest part of the book is Mulholland’s hard-to-pin-down treatment of women. Writes Mulholland, “It is to be hoped that those women who read this section will accept, in this one instance, a man’s statements as being authoritative. Trickery is a field in which men long have been active and successful … Rely on these, ladies, rather than upon your brilliant minds.” I’m pretty certain Mulholland wasn’t being sarcastic or flippant … but it sure comes off that way. And when describing how women too can use a poison-filled pencil on a bad guy, Mulholland writes: “No changes need be made in the wooden pencils except that they should be shorter than the lengths suggested for men to use … men expect a woman to carry only a stub of a pencil if she carries one at all.”

Huh? Did women carry smaller pencils than men in the ’50s? A footnote from Melton and Wallace would have been helpful here.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot more Melton and Wallace could have done. Mulholland’s document was interesting, but not book-worthy. Melton and Wallace should have worked the document into a 300-400-page book on deception in espionage. They have the expertise, resources and talent to pull this off—they’ve demonstrated this much. But in its current form, I can only recommend The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception to spy buffs, sleight-of-hand enthusiasts … and evil foreign leaders heading out to the bar.

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