Episode 791: Tips From Spies

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 12:12 pm

Talking to spies is hard! You'll ask an innocuous question and they just clam up. But, after interrogating spies and a spy reporter, we teased out a few bits of advice that you might find useful.

The thing is, real spies don't like car chases and rooftop shootouts. What they want to do is fly below the radar, stay out of trouble, and always have a getaway. But pulling that off takes a lot of training and practice. It means keeping your wits when everyone is panicking, staying cool under pressure, knowing how to size up a complicated problem in a second.

On this episode we learn how to think like a spy, how to spot danger like a spy and how to drive like a spy, or at least park like a spy at the grocery store.

Music: "Hustle and Bustle" "The Hustler" and "Black Surf Duel." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts or PocketCast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Interviewing a spy is very strange.


Yes. The other day, Kenny and I were talking to John Braddock, who the CIA will not officially confirm - or deny - was a spy.

MALONE: And he was telling us this story that involved his phone.

JOHN BRADDOCK: I had my phone in my hand. I check it.

HELM: And are you looking for anything in particular?

BRADDOCK: Yeah, I'm checking for messages.

MALONE: Like, iMessages, emails or - what are you looking for?

BRADDOCK: Yeah I'm looking for - (laughter) so here we are again.

MALONE: And by here, John means the point in this story where if he told us, he would have to kill us.

HELM: To be fair, those are Kenny's words...


HELM: ...Not John Braddock's words.

MALONE: That's true.

HELM: But of course there are all kinds of spy secrets that the CIA does not want showing up in a PLANET MONEY episode.

MALONE: And so unfortunately, we can neither confirm nor deny that John Braddock went to some formal top-secret spy school.

BRADDOCK: I can't talk about training.

HELM: We cannot confirm the foreign countries John was sneaking around in.

BRADDOCK: Yeah, I'd rather not.

MALONE: We also cannot confirm the method by which the CIA delivered top-secret messages to John.

Does it get faxed to you? Do you pick up microfilm under the bench by the 7-Eleven?

BRADDOCK: Yeah, that's getting to a point I can't answer.


HELM: The best we got was a tiny detail that we can possibly, maybe seemingly confirm about what it's like to be a spy.

Does that ever involve, like, climbing a wall with a grappling hook?

BRADDOCK: (Laughter) The grappling hooks was - you know, there's a lot of things you're prepared for. I'll leave it at that.

MALONE: What? Wait.

HELM: (Laughter).

MALONE: Are you saying you may have been trained on a grappling hook?

BRADDOCK: Kenny, no training talk - we talked about this.



HELM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Helm.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. And we're going to level with you here. There's less than a month of summer left. And for just one episode, we wanted to take a vacation from the economists and the markets and the budgets and just talk about spies.

HELM: Because who doesn't love spies? But the problem is that when you ask spies the big questions, they usually cannot answer. So instead, today, we ask little questions. We have three tiny tips from spies that we found useful and fun.

MALONE: None of them are about grappling hooks, though.

HELM: Sorry.


HELM: OK, Kenny, first tip - how to think like a spy. It comes from John Braddock, who you heard from earlier. And he told us a story about when he was a case officer in the CIA.

MALONE: He was in an undisclosed country on an undisclosed date.

HELM: It was cold out. John Braddock was wearing a trenchcoat.

MALONE: Yes, for real, a trenchcoat.

HELM: No joke, a real trenchcoat. It was early in the morning.

BRADDOCK: It was around the 7 o'clock hour.

MALONE: John's on his way to meet a source. So he heads to a subway stop, gets onto a train and walks to the back of the car.

BRADDOCK: I sit down. I don't see anything to be alarmed by. I don't see anything even really to take a second look at. And that's when, you know, I pull out my phone.


MALONE: You know, maybe John Braddock has some fancy spy software that makes recordings on his cellphone at all times. But if that's true, he didn't share it. This is our own recreation.

HELM: So John's looking down at his phone. He's checking to see if his source has left a message for him. And that's when he hears it.

EDUARD SAAKASHVILI, BYLINE: (As mugger, foreign language spoken).

BRADDOCK: "Let me see your phone" - very short, very abrupt, very direct.

MALONE: John says the words were in the local language of the country. He cannot disclose. So maybe the guy actually said...

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, foreign language spoken).

MALONE: ...Or...

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, foreign language spoken).

MALONE: ...Or...

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, foreign language spoken).

MALONE: Anyway...

BRADDOCK: It was pretty clear that let me see your phone meant give me your phone.

HELM: John looks up, and there's a guy standing over him.

BRADDOCK: His clothes are shabby. He's disheveled.

MALONE: John puts the phone back into his pocket before the guy can grab it.

BRADDOCK: I stand up to face him, try to move past him. He moves to block me.

HELM: John notices the guy's hands are suddenly moving towards him.

BRADDOCK: I look down.

MALONE: And bam - the guy head-butts John.

BRADDOCK: I fall backwards. I feel sticky blood streaming down my face, and he's standing over me.

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, laughing).

BRADDOCK: He starts laughing like this crazy howl kind of laugh.

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, laughing).

MALONE: All right, so maybe what you just heard sounds like John Braddock getting caught off guard and then getting beaten up.

HELM: But there is a tip in there. If you could look inside John's head, he is actually using a structured system of thinking. John calls it the DADA loop.

MALONE: It's an acronym - starts with gathering data.

BRADDOCK: Data feeds into analysis, which feeds into a decision, which feeds into an action.

MALONE: DADA - data, analysis, decision, action, repeat - that's what makes it a loop. You do it over and over. And it's based on a similar loop invented by a famous military strategist. And it's a way to stay focused, to slow down a stressful situation and really see what's happening.

HELM: So if I were being attacked on a train, I would be thinking of some big, situation-ending actions I could take - run away, throw a punch, scream.

MALONE: But John is not thinking that way. So again, he's in that train car sitting down, pulls out his phone, and he hears that voice.

BRADDOCK: Let me see your phone.

HELM: What's your next thought?

BRADDOCK: Does he know I'm a spy?

MALONE: That would be the worst-case scenario. This is an enemy spy, an assassin even.

HELM: So John rapidly does this loop. He goes to find the things that he needs to answer that question.

MALONE: Because too much data is a bad thing. So he scans the car, and something catches his eye on the train.

BRADDOCK: There was a camera in the roof of the carriage.

MALONE: Spies hate surveillance cameras. If you're going to confront another spy, kill him, steal his phone - very unlikely you'd do it while a camera's rolling.

HELM: John also notices something about the attacker himself.

BRADDOCK: He's - his eyes are dancing a little bit. He's not focused. He doesn't look prepared for this moment.

HELM: Data collected, analysis done - this is not a spy trying to kill John and steal his phone. This is probably a mugger on drugs.

So when you realize that, are you relieved?

BRADDOCK: I don't think I had an emotional reaction. It's not really relief as much as it is, OK, this is a different situation.

HELM: It's still a very bad situation because John cannot afford to lose a cellphone that might have sensitive information on it.

MALONE: All right - so data and analysis, but John still hasn't taken an action yet. And there is sort of an obvious one he could take. John is not a small guy. He has had extensive training that may or may not have involved grappling hooks.

HELM: May or may not.

MALONE: He could probably handle a drugged-up mugger without too much trouble. But if he showed up in surveillance camera footage fighting like he is James Bond or Jason Bourne, that is very bad for the bigger game he's playing, for trying to stay undercover in a foreign country.

BRADDOCK: It's an easy thing to always think that the guy across the table from you who may pull out a gun is your greatest enemy because the threat is so immediate.

HELM: And so this is where life as a spy starts to look very different from the movies because John does not knock his attacker out. He doesn't pull out some crazy weapon, some crazy gadget. The action that his meticulous decision-making process led him to in that moment was this.

BRADDOCK: I put my phone in my pocket, and I stood up.

MALONE: He stood up.

HELM: He was sitting, and then he was not sitting.

MALONE: Does that even count as an action?

HELM: It is incredibly boring action. But in a very tiny way, it does change the situation.

BRADDOCK: And then we're face-to-face.

MALONE: He's standing, and they're face-to-face.

HELM: If you are really good at this thought loop, you can see these almost-imperceptible changes in the situation. So now John's immediately back at the start, gathering data.

MALONE: He observes the mugger's reaction to his bold move of standing up. The mugger is unfazed. Now John knows that this isn't going to intimidate the guy.

HELM: And he has another decision to make, another action to take - again, small.

BRADDOCK: I move to the side. He moves to the side to block me.

MALONE: The mugger's committed to the conflict, not going to let John run away or de-escalate.

HELM: And now John sees the mugger's hands moving towards him.

BRADDOCK: I looked down.

MALONE: The mugger head-butts John...

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, laughing).

MALONE: ...Laughs like a supervillain and walks away.

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, laughing).

MALONE: Now, John did not exactly choose to get head-butted and bleed all over his nice trenchcoat and shirt. But he did choose, over and over, not to act. Or at least not to overreact.

HELM: And eventually, a solution did present itself. For whatever reason, the mugger walked away without the phone. And in this case, that is what winning looks like. It's not some big act of courage. It's not even blocking an incoming head-butt. It's seeing what's important and sometimes losing the small game to win the big one.

MALONE: So spy tip No. 1 - when something unexpected happens and you feel yourself jumping to take a big action, remember the loop. Do the loop.

HELM: DADA - data, analysis, decision, action, repeat - helps you win the more important game.

MALONE: John high-tailed it out of the train station that day - gash on his head, blood running down his face - but phone still in his pocket.

BRADDOCK: I made it to a hospital and was all ready to explain to a doctor what happened.

MALONE: He had a fake story all cooked up about the head wound so that the hospital wouldn't make him report the mugging to the police. And John says he was also ready to refuse general anesthetic.

BRADDOCK: 'Cause you also don't want to do that in a foreign country.

MALONE: Why is that?

BRADDOCK: Well, you don't want anybody to put you under and make you incapacitated when you're a spy. (Laughter) That's bad for business.

MALONE: I guess that's true. That, we actually may have learned from the movies. You don't want to get the truth serum.


HELM: There you go - extra half tip from a spy.

MALONE: Don't go under anesthesia in a foreign country.

HELM: Bonus tip for other spies.


MALONE: Art, can you hear us? Can you hear us?

ART KELLER: I can hear you. How about a little bit louder?

HELM: OK, tiny spy tip No. 2 comes from Art Keller. This one is about how to spot danger like a spy. Art Keller is a former officer in the CIA's counterproliferation division.

KELLER: Doing things like tracking proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, trying to track down terrorists, etc.

MALONE: So Art was telling us about how when you're in the field and you're undercover and you're in a foreign country...

KELLER: You're essentially having to act like a criminal, for want of a better word, because you are trying to do something and not get caught.

HELM: So that means you've got to always be aware of your surroundings - surveillance cameras of course, foreign police officers.

KELLER: But the thing you need to look out for, even more than police, are LOPs.


HELM: It's an acronym.

MALONE: Spies apparently love acronyms.

HELM: And here's what it does not stand for. It does not stand for laser-operated projectiles.

MALONE: It does not stand for latent opioid poisons.

HELM: No, no - LOPs are far more dangerous.

KELLER: And that was the acronym for little old people.

MALONE: Little old people.

KELLER: And man, are they lethal...

MALONE: Lethal, little old people.

KELLER: ...Because LOPs have nothing to do. They sit around. They look out their window, and they look for suspicious activity in their neighborhood.

HELM: In fact, there's a famous cautionary tale about this.

KELLER: In, I want to say, 1998 in Switzerland...

HELM: Art says there was a team of alleged Israeli spies trying to break into a house and place a bug.

KELLER: And some little lady was up at 2 a.m. and just peering out their window and, you know, was like, well, what's this group of suspicious people? And they call the cops on him and, you know, then you get an international incident.

MALONE: It was bit of a thing, a bit of an international thing.

HELM: So Art says, if you are a spy, the trick is that LOPs are not to be underestimated.

MALONE: But you could also look at it another way. If you're not a spy and you're looking to buy a house or rent a home, LOPs make great neighbors.

HELM: Yeah. Art says you should let them organize your neighborhood watch.

KELLER: Because, again, they have times on their hand (ph). And, you know, they will let their fingers do their walking and make the reports.


MALONE: Our last tip comes from Mary Louise Kelly. She's not a spy. She's our colleague here at NPR, but she does cover spies. She covers the CIA. She covers the NSA. And she spends lots of time talking to intelligence officers, picking up their tricks, although...

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Sadly, they get all the cool gadgets. You'll be disappointed to know I do not stalk around D.C. in a trenchcoat or have any disguises or fake passports or all the fun stuff they get.

HELM: But she does have a tip that she picked up on the job. This past weekend, we asked her to record it.

KELLY: Just pulling in to the grocery store - in the Kroger parking lot, looking for a spot because we are out of eggs.

Oh, thank you. That was nice of you. This guy is letting me go in front of him because he thinks I'm going to pull straight in. Sorry - you're going to have to wait because I do not pull straight in.

MALONE: Mary Louise Kelly always, always backs into her parking spots.

KELLY: So that you can get out of a bad situation fast. The sad thing is I have never once been...


KELLY: ...Called on to a running getaway. But I wait for the moment.

MALONE: Do you advise other people to do that?

KELLY: I have taught our babysitters to do that, just in case.


KELLY: Yeah. It's just part of teaching them how I want them to drive our kids - and teach them how to back into the driveway.

MALONE: Like, you know, so and so likes to eat at this time and take a nap and whatever. Oh - and by the way, just, you know, just make sure you back into the parking spot. Like, how do you - I don't even understand how you tactfully bring that up.

KELLY: I have not tacked on the word getaway; put it that way. I just...

MALONE: So why do they think they're backing into the parking spot?

KELLY: Oh, you know, so they won't back into a bus when they're backing out of the driveway on the...

MALONE: Oh, that's what you told them.

KELLY: ...Other side. Yeah.

HELM: So there you go. Next time you're in a Kroger's parking lot, park like a spy.

MALONE: Just makes sense - if you've got time, back in.

KELLY: Turn that wheel - and we're in.


MALONE: Are you a spy?

HELM: Probably do not send us that information if you are undercover. But otherwise, get in touch. We are planetmoney@npr.org, and you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

MALONE: Today's episode was produced by the two of us and by our supervising producer, Alex Goldmark. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt.

HELM: John Braddock lays out his full theories on how to think like a spy in his best-selling Kindle single aptly named "A Spy's Guide To Thinking." He also has a new one that just came out. It's called "A Spy's Guide To Strategy."

MALONE: Special thanks to our intern, Eduard Saakashvili. He played the mugger in our recreation of John Braddock's mugging. He did an excellent job with that maniacal laugh on a New York City subway.

SAAKASHVILI: (As mugger, laughing).

MALONE: Terrifying.

HELM: And if you are looking for something else to listen to, you should be listening to Up First. It is NPR's morning news podcast. I listened to it this very morning. It tells you everything you need to know about what is happening in the world. Check out Up First tomorrow morning on the NPR One app or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I'm Sally Helm.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone. Thanks for listening.


HELM: It does not stand for laser-operated projectiles.

MALONE: It also does not stand for latent opioid poisons.

HELM: Or lampreys of Peru.

MALONE: Lampreys of Peru.

HELM: (Laughter) I don't know what lampreys are.

MALONE: We don't have to say lampreys of Peru.

HELM: What is a lamprey?

MALONE: It's like a terrifying little creature. Let's not include that. It's going to be so confusing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.