Which US Spy Agency Does What to Whom?

Bayard & Holmes

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

One of the most common mistakes in fiction is confusing which intelligence agencies have the power to do what to whom and where they have the authority to do it. Today, we want to clear up that confusion.

Wiki 2015 March US_Intelligence_Community_Logo_blue

While there are numerous military and civilian intelligence agencies, we’ll focus on four of the biggest branches, which are also the ones most commonly assigned imaginative extracurricular activities books and movies – the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA” or “Company”), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), and the National Security Agency/Central Security Service (“NSA/CSS” or “NSA”). 


Wiki 2015 Mar CIA Logo

Central Intelligence Agency


To collect, assess, and disseminate foreign intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency is and always was what Congress thought it was creating for the first time with the DHS.

Where the CIA operates:

Exclusively on foreign soil.

Entire novel and TV series are premised on the notion that the CIA conducts elaborate surveillance and investigations of American citizens on American soil. (i.e. Homeland and Burn Notice). No. Even in the case of an internal investigation, such as the investigation of traitor Aldrich Ames, the agency must contact the FBI and/or the DHS—depending on the foreigner’s activities—as soon as surveillance on American soil is involved.

What the CIA is authorized to do:

The CIA is authorized to gather intelligence on foreign countries and foreign individuals outside of the US. It has its own employees, but it can also employ contractors and foreigners. Any combination of employees (a.k.a. blue badgers), contractors (a.k.a. green badgers), or foreign agents can be involved in an operation.

Power to arrest:

The CIA does not have the authority to arrest anyone. They do at times detain foreigners in the process of covert actions, but you didn’t hear that from us. The CIA never arrests people for the purpose of prosecution.

To arrest someone on foreign soil for the purpose of prosecution, the CIA cooperates with the FBI, who must in turn cooperate with the host country.


Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured. Image by US govt., public domain.

Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured.
Image by US govt., public domain.


An example of this interaction is the arrest of the first World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, in Islamabad, Pakistan. A US State Department employee found the relevant lead by passing out thousands of matchbooks with a modest reward offer printed on the covers. He turned over the information to the CIA, which located Yousef and kept him under surveillance until an FBI team could arrive in Pakistan. The FBI executed a raid while the Islamabad Police waited outside the building. When the FBI brought Yousef out, the Islamabad Police performed the arrest and immediately turned him back to the FBI team to be escorted to New York for formal prosecution.


The CIA reports to the National Intelligence Director, who reports to the president. The agency is overseen by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. As much as Congress and the president disavow their knowledge of CIA activities at times, the CIA has never operated without oversight from Congress and the White House.


Wiki 2015 Mar FBI Logo


Federal Bureau of Investigation


The FBI was originally the federal government’s investigative agency. Now, the FBI investigates both criminal and terrorist activities and has offices in several overseas US embassies.

Official priorities listed at the FBI website:

  1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack
  2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage
  3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes
  4. Combat public corruption at all levels
  5. Protect civil rights
  6. Combat transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises
  7. Combat major white-collar crime
  8. Combat significant violent crime
  9. Support federal, state, local and international partners
  10. Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission

Unofficially, the FBI is tasked with keeping suit manufacturers in business.


Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.

Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.


Where the FBI operates:

The FBI operates inside the US as both an investigative and a law enforcement agency. Outside of the US, the FBI assists foreign governments in investigations and conducts investigations of crimes against Americans and American installations. It also acts as a liaison to foreign law enforcement agencies.

What the FBI is authorized to do:

The FBI is authorized to conduct law enforcement and surveillance inside the US. Outside the US, it relies on the CIA for surveillance and must obtain the permission and cooperation of foreign governments for any US law enforcement activities on their territory.

Power to arrest:

The FBI arrests people inside America and, with the cooperation of foreign governments, takes criminals abroad into custody.


The FBI answers to the Department of Justice. The president can and does speak directly to the bureau, and the attorney general and various congressional committees provide oversight.


Wiki 2015 Mar DHS Logo


Department of Homeland Security


We’re not sure they know, and if they do know, they’re not admitting it.

Law prevented the FBI and CIA from operating effectively to avert terrorism in the US in that the bureau and the agency weren’t allowed to share most of their information with each other. This could have been fixed with a few changes in law.

However, Congress, never one to do for a dollar what could be done for $38 billion dollars, created the DHS. Their intent in establishing the DHS was to set up an agency that could work with itself in order to prevent the next 9/11. Its original core mission was counter-intelligence in order to ensure a homeland that is safe and secure, whatever that means.

The DHS is still creating itself and being created by outside forces such as Congress and any given president. Since its inception, the department has grown to include FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, ICE, Border Patrol, TSA, and more.


TSA agents in Boston. Image by DHS, public domain.

TSA agents in Boston.
Image by DHS, public domain.


Where the DHS operates:

DHS operates both inside the US and outside the US, supposedly with the cooperation of the CIA. That boundary is a grey area that has never quite been defined.

What the DHS can do:

The DHS can order surveillance on anyone inside the US for virtually any reason under the Patriot Act and its legal progeny. To spy on people outside the US, it relies on the NSA, the CIA, and other agencies.

Power to arrest:

Like the FBI, the DHS can arrest people in the US or abroad if it obtains the cooperation of the foreign country. Those arrested by the DHS in the US have all the rights they would have if arrested by any other US police body. If the DHS nabs someone overseas, that person will show up in the US judicial system.


DHS has full department status, unlike the FBI or the CIA. They have their own department head. It is a cabinet position that reports straight to the president and only nominally to the National Director of Intelligence.


Wiki 2015 Mar NSA Logo

National Security Agency/Central Security Service


Cryptology is at the core of the NSA/CSS. It’s the agency’s job to break foreign codes and set codes for the entire US government. It also listens to and stores foreign and domestic signals, including computer signals.

The NSA is very stingy at sharing what it gathers with other sectors of the intelligence community. Other intelligence organizations view the NSA as a black hole where information and money go in, and nothing comes out. In fact, it is undoubtedly the source of astronomers’ models of cosmological black holes.

Where the NSA operates:

Most NSA employees reside and operate inside the US, though they might travel to US embassies or foreign bases. Anywhere there are secured communications, the NSA has the authority to show up and investigate to make sure that security procedures are in place.

The NSA neither confirms nor denies having any facilities for gathering signals outside of the US.

What the NSA can do:

The NSA’s foreign and domestic intelligence gathering operations are not discussed, however, we would refer you to Piper’s PRISM articles listed below. Everyone in the NSA leadership serves at the pleasure of the president. As with the CIA, the president likes to pretend that he forgot that the NSA does what he tells it to do.


President Obama addressing NSA about mass surveillance on Jan 17, 2014, pretending he forgot that he ordered the mass surveillance in the first place. Image by US govt., public domain.

President Obama addressing NSA about mass surveillance on Jan 17, 2014, pretending he forgot that he ordered the mass surveillance in the first place.
Image by US govt., public domain.


Power to arrest:

The NSA doesn’t arrest anyone. Not ever. If someone shows up flashing an NSA badge, feel free to shoot them. They are a Hollywood crew and not NSA employees.


The question of NSA oversight has been afloat for many decades. They are supposed to report to the National Director of Intelligence and the CIA, but the CIA has never been satisfied with the NSA’s sharing of information.

Have you ever spotted fantastical activities on the part of the CIA, FBI, or NSA in fiction? Do you have any question about who gets to do what to whom in the real world?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

PRISM Surveillance on Americans—What Price Convenience?

PRISM—We Can’t Stop the Signal

Why PRISM Matters

Spooks Without Boundaries

NSA: Hoarders, Cheaters, Dr. Phil, or Jerry Springer?

America Is Not a Location–The Ultimate Price of Citizen Surveillance

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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Intelligence Fail: How Mussolini’s Ego Saved the Soviet Union

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In previous articles, we examined the intelligence failures around Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 German invasion of the USSR, from both the German and the Soviet points of view. An important side of the equation that is usually ignored, however, is the Italian contribution to the eventual Soviet success.


Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum public domain

Allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler
Image from the US Holocaust Memorial Mueum
public domain


In the fall of 1936, Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini and German Dictator Adolf Hitler announced a military treaty between their respective nations. From the beginning of this alliance, Hitler was convinced that Italy, a junior partner, could at best be most useful in countering British naval power in the Mediterranean and possibly in threatening Great Britain’s hold on the Suez Canal. From Mussolini’s point of view, the alliance with Nazi Germany entitled Italy to be treated as an equal partner. Mussolini expected the alliance to offer Italy opportunities to develop a Mediterranean empire that would stretch across northwest Africa and westward from Italy across the Adriatic.

In March of 1938, without any prior consultation with its Italian ally, Germany entered Austria and managed a coup that is remembered as “bloodless.”

The annexation of Austria was not actually bloodless, but Austrian resistance collapsed quickly, and Nazi propaganda efforts were somewhat successful in convincing the world that Germany was welcomed by the Austrian people. Mussolini was stunned both that Hitler had succeeded so easily in Austria and that Hitler had not consulted, or even forewarned him, of the invasion.

On September 29, 1938, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany signed the now infamous Munich Agreement, which granted the Western portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany. While in this case Mussolini was consulted, his role was limited to helping bolster the feeble notion that the Munich Agreement was legitimate, given the fact that the Czechs were not consulted at all about how their country would be carved up.

In March of 1939, Hitler again surprised Mussolini by granting independence to the Slovakian areas of Czechoslovakia and annexing the remaining portion of that country. By this point, Mussolini was beginning to understand that Hitler had no intention of treating him as an equal partner in their alliance.

Mussolini felt that he had to do something to improve his prestige. Without consulting Germany, Italy invaded Albania in April of 1939.


Italian Troops in Albania public domain

Italian Troops in Albania
public domain


Albania had a poorly trained and minimally equipped army of 15,000 men. It was further impeded by the fact that it was already in a state of political turmoil due to tensions between communist, royalist, and democratic nationalist factions.

The 100,000 Italian invaders managed a rare Italian victory, installed a puppet government, and declared that Albania was now part of Italy.

Hitler saw the Italian annexation of Albania as being a sensible move and was likely informed in advance by his intelligence agencies. From Germany’s point of view, having Italy in control of the entrance of the Adriatic Sea from the Mediterranean supported its long-term strategy for the coming war.

In August of 1939, again without consulting his Italian ally, Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR. Mussolini was angered and embarrassed at having been left out. He would likely have been far angrier if he had known that the pact included a secret agreement for a postwar division of Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.

The following month, Germany and the USSR invaded and divided Poland. France and Great Britain then declared war against Germany.

In April of 1940, Hitler once again went on the warpath and unleashed his army on Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell in a day, and Norway managed to resist until June.

Hitler was quite pleased with himself, while Mussolini was feeling more and more like Hitler’s weaker little brother.

Mussolini decided he had to do something to prove that Italy was a modern military powerhouse. He confided to his generals that “to sit at the peace table you have to make war.” This was his way of voicing concern about post war division of spoils between Germany and Italy after what he expected would be a quick war.

In September of 1940, Mussolini made his “big move.” He attacked British-occupied Egypt. He did so after prior consultation with Hitler. Unfortunately for Mussolini and Italy, things did not go quite as they expected.


Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk public domain

Royal Air Force preparing to raid Italian positions at Tobruk
public domain


The British in Egypt were badly outnumbered both in men and aircraft, but their planes, tanks, and equipment were vastly superior to what the Italians had. The Italian attack on Egypt, which should have been a quick success for Italy, turned into an embarrassing failure.

In February of 1941, Hitler had to send German divisions and aircraft to help Italy try to invade Egypt. By the time Germany was able to send adequate reinforcements to North Africa, Great Britain had also reinforced Egypt. In spite of the best efforts of Hitler’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, his German Africa Corps, and three full corps of Italian troops, Rommel never reached the Suez Canal.

When compared to the immense scale of operations on the Eastern Front, the Axis defeat in North Africa might seem less important, but their failed North Africa campaign denied the Germans the use of several of their best divisions, along with considerable resources of the overtaxed German Luftwaffe.

In October of 1940, having achieved no success in North Africa, Mussolini did a huge favor for the USSR. He invaded Greece.


Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940 public domain

Greek Forces in Korce, November 1940
public domain


Mussolini was certain of a rapid victory over the smaller Greek Army. The Greeks were not convinced. The Italian invasion turned into an Italian retreat, and the Italians were in danger of being forced out of Albania by the Greek Army and Greek partisans.

Hitler was taken completely by surprise. He and his General Staff were focused on preparing Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR. They had not informed their ally Italy of their intentions.

The UK and the US suspected the planned German invasion of the USSR. The Soviet Army expected the German invasion but could not convince Stalin. In fact, everyone except Stalin and Mussolini expected a German invasion of the USSR. Even when Germany moved massive amounts of men, equipment, and supplies to Poland, the Italian diplomatic and intelligence communities managed to miss what should have been obvious to them. This ignorance of Germany’s planned April 1941 invasion of the USSR, was instrumental to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece.

It was an intelligence failure that sank Mussolini’s military into dire trouble.

Hitler was furious. He refused to see that he had helped Mussolini stumble into this terrible mistake by not informing him of his Operation Barbarossa. Italy plunged head first into an ill-timed operation in Greece instead of concentrating on the far more crucial campaign in North Africa.

Hitler considered leaving the Italians to suffer their growing disaster in Greece on their own. However, as the Italian debacle dragged on towards the spring of 1941, Hitler decided that he had to save his Italian ally from complete defeat – not because Italy was his ally, but because Greece was no longer neutral and was now accepting aid from the UK. This meant that Greece had to be defeated, because if the British RAF was allowed to operate air bases in that country, their bombers would be within range of the oilfields of Romania. Without Romanian oil, the German Army would have ground to a halt in the USSR.


Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940 Image from Imperial War Museums public domain

Royal Air Force Operations Over Albania and Greece, 1940
Image from Imperial War Museums
public domain


In April of 1941, Germany and Bulgaria invaded Greece. By early June, Greece was defeated. So, all well that ends well? No. It ended well, but it ended too late.

By June, the German Army should have been halfway to Moscow with trucks of supplies following it on mostly dry, passable roads. The Russian road network was primitive, and the Germans could not afford to have their Army’s logistics further strangled by nearly impassable muddy roads.

By the time Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, it was two months behind schedule, thanks to Mussolini’s decision to invade Greece. It was also without valuable troops and equipment that now had to occupy the previously neutral Greece. Before the German Army got close to Moscow and Stalingrad, supply problems on bad roads were limiting their armored operations. When it did get to the gates of Moscow, snow began to fall, and the German Army was without winter clothing and equipment.

In the end, the vastly numerically superior Soviet Army and Soviet production defeated Hitler on the Eastern Front. However, if Operation Barbarossa had started on time, Stalin might have lost Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. He could conceivably have decided to conclude a peace treaty with Germany, and an early departure by the USSR would have been disastrous for the Western Allies.

The great intelligence lesson to be learned from Italy’s failure to anticipate Operation Barbarossa: No nation should take for granted their ally’s intentions. Even friends need to watch each other.

In our next installment, we will consider a great American intelligence failure in WWII.

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Related Articles in the Intelligence Fail Series:

Hitler and a Most Important Intelligence Lesson

Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet View


Intelligence Fail — Hitler and a Most Important Intelligence Lesson

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Prostitution may be the oldest profession, but spying is the second oldest. While no one knows when the first intelligence operative conveyed information to his government, historians can safely agree that spying dates as far back as the Iron Age. With such a long history, there are bound to be some fantastic successes and some dismal failures.


Woman Spying on Male Lovers Qing Dynasty, Chinese Sexual Culture Museum, Shanghai Image public domain

Woman Spying on Male Lovers
Qing Dynasty, Chinese Sexual Culture Museum, Shanghai
Image public domain


Considering past intelligence operations and their impacts can help us all to be better consumers of intelligence estimates. In any democracy, the stated purpose of funding intelligence activities is to make us—the voters and taxpayers—safer and less burdened by the astronomical costs associated with national defense. Taxpayers are the CIA’s customers.

While considering cases of successful intelligence estimates can be useful, for two important reasons, I will start this overall series with a sub-series of the worst cases.

First, I have a tendency to want to deal with the ugliest and dirtiest problems up front. A lifetime of living in the Great Hall of Mirrors tends to do that to old spooks like myself. The greatest and ugliest problems are easiest to identify in the present, and, therefore, if we tackle them first, we can be certain that we are not throwing bundles of cash and human lives into a meaningless inferno of activity. This likely contributes to the “kill, cripple, or steal the biggest monsters first” mentality of much of the world’s intelligence communities.

My second reason to begin by looking at intelligence failures is also personal. On the day that I decided to undertake this series, I was thinking about General Douglas MacArthur and his ineffective staff. Naturally, that left me pondering horrible intelligence estimates. While there are hundreds of annoying cases to review, rest assured that we will only consider a few of the more glaring and informative cases before we move on to the happy contemplation of intelligence successes.

Let us first consider some limitations inherent to any conversations on intelligence history.

As of 2015, we are still learning more from previously classified or buried information that goes as far back as World War One. For example, I spent five hours today scratching at the surface of newly released materials about US intelligence estimates in the 1960s.

Another factor to consider is that a great deal of misinformation is often left in files that are well situated between any researcher and certain classified information.

Also, old spies lie. They do it well, and worse yet, they do it neatly and effectively in concert with each other. In fact, on some level, most spies with field experience were paid by the taxpayers of their respective nations to learn to lie convincingly. While spies may not be liars in their personal lives, they lie to protect others who were involved in past intelligence operations and to protect any creative tradecraft they might have employed.

Not that I would ever be a spy myself. Spying is a disgusting activity that is conducted by loathsome creatures. My cohorts and I are nothing like that. We are nice people, and we have simply done a bit of necessary intelligence work against dangerous enemies—the aforementioned loathsome creatures. To be fair, I should mention that the loathsome creatures often take the opposite view as to who is loathsome, and who is a patriot. But then again, they are loathsome, so why would you take their word for it anyway?

Spying is almost always a controversial issue, so let’s start with the case of a culprit that nearly everyone can despise. (No, not the president from whichever political party that you don’t vote for.) Let’s start with a German. A German that few modern Germans would defend—Adolf Hitler.



As the NAZI dictator of Germany, Hitler inherited an efficient and effective intelligence apparatus that was run by the German military establishment. So why then did he make so many crucial errors based on bad intelligence estimates?

The answer is one of the most important lessons for managing intelligence efforts in democratic nations.

Let us consider two of Hitler’s many asinine miscalculations during World War Two.

By the time that Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, he had already committed some glaring miscalculations based on faulty intelligence estimates. The invasion of Poland took Hitler to new heights of miscalculation.

Hitler made a secret pact with his archenemy, Joseph Stalin, for the partition of Poland, and he did it without the advice of his military leaders, his intelligence service, or his best diplomats. It is difficult to imagine that Hitler had any “good diplomats,” but he did. Unfortunately, the German Foreign Office had been taken over by a pathological low life named Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop was a dedicated NAZI and had no regard for logic or reason. He was also capable of tremendous self-delusion.


German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of NAZI-Soviet non-agression, Poland, 1939. Image public domain, wikimedia commons.

German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of NAZI-Soviet non-agression, Poland, 1939.
Image public domain, wikimedia commons.


One result of Ribbentrop’s colossal stupidity was that the many well-educated, dedicated, and intelligent employees of the German Foreign ministry no longer mattered. Their assessments that invading Poland would likely force France, Belgium, and England into war with Germany fell on deaf ears.

Hitler found himself fighting the war he had not planned – a general war on his Western front. Germany’s easy conquest of a numerically superior, but poorly prepared, Western Europe encouraged Hitler’s increasing faith in his own propaganda. Unreasonably, he became more convinced that he alone had a clear vision of the geopolitical realities of Europe.

With much of her army spread across the globe, Great Britain was badly defeated on the fields of France, but her Air Force and Navy were still largely intact. At the same time, Great Britain’s Army, with material support from the US, was rapidly rebuilding and expanding. Rather than admitting that his own military wisdom was inferior to that of the entire German military establishment’s, Hitler became less willing to listen to his best generals and admirals.

This led him to his next great miscalculation, Operation Barbarossa.

With Great Britain undefeated and rapidly growing closer with the US, the German military was forced to maintain large garrisons of troops in the occupied countries from Poland to France. The responsibility for controlling these nations was made more difficult by Hitler’s infamous SS Divisions and his secret police, the Gestapo.

While consuming military equipment and other resources, the barbaric SS and their ruthless Gestapo counterparts inspired intense hatred for Germany in the occupied nations. This made it impossible for Great Britain to seriously consider any peace agreement with Germany, and it made the German Army’s massive occupation duties much more expensive in equipment and manpower.

In those circumstances, no reasonable man would have invaded the numerically superior and materially wealthier Soviet Union. Unfortunately for all concerned, Hitler was nothing like a reasonable man. His military intelligence apparatus and his General Staff accurately assessed that while Germany’s well trained and well equipped Army could take advantage of Stalin’s gross mismanagement of the USSR, they could not completely defeat the USSR while still in a conflict with Great Britain. Hitler ignored their well-reasoned, intelligence assessments, and in doing so, led Germany to ruin, albeit after inflicting millions of casualties in the USSR.

The great lesson to be learned from Hitler’s invasion of Poland and from Operation Barbarossa is one that, unfortunately, not all leaders have learned – that the most accurate intelligence estimates are useless when decision makers ignore them.

In our next episode, we will look at how Stalin managed to commit some very similar mistakes to Hitler’s with similar costs.

5th Annual Spook Appreciation Day–The Untalented Bank Clerk

By Jay Holmes

Every year at Halloween, Bayard & Holmes honor one of the unsung heroes of the intelligence community with our Annual Spook Appreciation Day. This year, we recognize British spook Eric Arthur Roberts, an “untalented” bank clerk in the UK who conducted valuable work against Nazi Germany’s Gestapo during World War Two. His identity was one of MI-5’s tightly guarded secrets until only last week.


Eric Roberts posing as a bank clerk. Click on picture for a link to the copyrighted photo of this master spy.

Eric Roberts posing as a bank clerk.
Click on picture for a link to the copyrighted photo of this master spy.


Before and during World War Two, Germany had a well-trained professional intelligence service, the Abwehr, which was operated by well-trained German military personnel. Nazi party membership was not required to work in the Abwehr. However, there was a predominance of well-educated personnel in the service, which likely contributed to the organization’s lack of enthusiasm for Hitler and the Nazi party.

The Nazi party was aware of the Abwehr’s lack of Nazi devotion, so Hitler relied heavily on his secret police organization known as the Gestapo, which was led by Heinrich Himmler. Hitler also counted on the SD, which was the intelligence branch of the Nazi Party’s Waffen-SS, a.k.a. the Storm Troopers. Eventually, Himmler took control of the entire German SS, along with the secret police.

Himmler used his secret police authority against his political opponents within the Nazi Party with great success, and he tried to convince Hitler to let him take command of all German intelligence resources. However, it seems that Hitler was well aware of his senior minions’ machinations against each other, and he skillfully encouraged it as a way to keep himself safe from any “second-in-command” that might become too powerful.



We now know that the Nazi’s distrust of the Abwehr was well founded. After the war ended, as more secret information was slowly released to the public, it became apparent to historians that Admiral Canaris and many of his top deputies in the Abwehr not only lacked enthusiasm for the Nazi party, but they actually actively plotted against it, including involvement in multiple assassination attempts against Hitler.

Based on their lack of trust in the Abwehr, the Gestapo and the SD branch of the SS invested heavily in intelligence operations against the UK and the allies.

While understanding the structure and organization of German intelligence operations must have been an ongoing nightmare for a well-established and tradition-bound organization like MI-5, MI-5 never allowed that to slow them down in their secret war against Axis intelligence operations.

Any study of MI-5’s wartime operations leads to various interpretations, depending on the student. One conclusion that would be difficult for any serious student of espionage to miss would be the fact that, while MI-5 was remarkably ineffective in combating Soviet espionage, they were remarkably efficient in dealing with the massive intelligence efforts conducted by the Nazis against Great Britain.

MI-5 could never be certain which German organization was running which intelligence operation against the UK, but they were certain that all German intelligence operations needed to be defeated. On Friday, October 24, 2014 we learned precisely how the Gestapo and SD espionage operations were so successfully defeated.

In large measure, it was due to a bank clerk, or at least he appeared to be a bank clerk.

This particular spook was so successful in maintaining his cover as a bank employee that when the British War Office requested that his bank employers release him from his work for war service, the bank management resisted. They claimed that their employee clearly lacked any special talent that would make him particularly useful for the war effort. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The bank’s seemingly untalented clerk, Eric Arthur Roberts, was in fact a master spy and had been since before World War Two even started.

Someone in MI-5 leadership understood that countering the German Abwehr would not be enough. They had the foresight to realize that not only would the Nazi SS SD conduct operations against Great Britain, but also that Himmler might use his Gestapo personnel to conduct his own operations against the allies. In an example of excellent judgment, MI-5 selected Eric Roberts to run an operation against the Nazi’s.

So how does one bank clerk with nothing more than a suspicion that Germany would recruit more spies in the UK manage to foil the Gestapo? It occurred to our seemingly dull bank clerk that the best way to locate any disloyal, Gestapo-inclined British citizens was to recruit them first.

Roberts set up a system that any pyramid scheme con man would envy.

He posed as an undercover Gestapo agent and recruited the would-be traitors. They thought they were working for the Gestapo. Rather than arrest them, MI-5 trained them and used them to recruit their own networks of “Nazi” spies.

Roberts’s operation dried up the pools of Nazi sympathizers and kept them occupied, hindering the Nazi efforts to find real British traitors to work for them. Meanwhile, MI-5 and MI-6 both fed a healthy diet of double agents to the Abwehr, the SS SD, and the Gestapo. These double agents presented the Germans with various case files of imaginary agents, producing tons of delightful and delicious, but usually fake, information. They fed the Germans enough real information to keep them happy, but that real information was just late enough for it to not quite be useful.

Eric Roberts’s operations against the Gestapo, along with similar operations by MI-5 and MI-6 against the Abwehr and SS SD, explain why Hitler was so certain that the allied D-Day invasion would land at Calais rather than at Normandy. Hitler held stubbornly to that conviction against the advice of his General Staff and the advice of his Army Headquarters Staff.

After World War Two, Eric Roberts and his family moved to Salt Spring Island in Canada.


Salt Spring Island, Canada Image by Paperandglue, public domain.

Salt Spring Island, Canada
Image by Paperandglue, public domain.


There, he pursued a quiet rural life on the Canadian Pacific. Roberts took up writing and, not surprisingly, he was popular with the local inhabitants. Clearly, the man had a great talent for establishing friendships.

Eric Arthur Roberts passed away in 1972 with no recognition for his fantastic work against the Nazis. Like so many intelligence service personnel, he took his secrets to the grave with him. We now know that this seemingly insignificant bank clerk played an important role in defeating the Nazi plague.

Piper and I offer our humble but sincere salute to Eric Arthur Roberts and his cohorts, both known and unknown, on this 5th Annual Spook Appreciation Day.

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Spy Truth & Fiction–Are Silencers Silent?

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Movies and books would convince us that any firearm can be silenced down to a tiny pfftzing sound when fired. Not so!


From top: IMI Uzi with Companion Shooting Supplies (Vector Arms) Model 2000, 9mm. RRA AR-15 with Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) Omni, .223. HK USP Tactical with AAC Evolution-45. Beretta 92FS with AAC Evolution-9. SIG Mosquito with AAC Pilot, .22. image by Cortland, public domain, wikimedia commons

From top:
IMI Uzi with Companion Shooting Supplies (Vector Arms) Model 2000, 9mm.
RRA AR-15 with Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) Omni, .223.
HK USP Tactical with AAC Evolution-45.
Beretta 92FS with AAC Evolution-9.
SIG Mosquito with AAC Pilot, .22.
image by Cortland, public domain, wikimedia commons


For simplicity’s sake, we will use the terms “suppressor” and “silencer” interchangeably.

The purpose of most silencers is not to achieve complete silence, but to reduce the noise of a shot enough to prevent potential witnesses from recognizing that they heard a gunshot. 

In most cases, the shooter doesn’t care if someone hears the shot as long as they don’t recognize it as a shot and then dial up 911, scream for help, or return fire. People will normally ignore noises that they hear but don’t associate with gunshots or other dangers. Because of this human tendency, the level of “silencing” needed depends on the situation. If the shooter intends to walk into a steel mill and shoot someone, he doesn’t need much. On the other hand, if the shooter wants to shoot someone in a library without being noticed, he had better have a high degree of silencing.

The .380 semi-automatic pistol is a very popular weapon to use with a suppressor. (See Spy Truth & Fiction—Automatics, Semi-Automatics, and Revolvers.) The cartridge provides enough energy for close up assassination, but it is relatively easy and inexpensive to effectively silence a weapon that uses the .380 ammunition. James Bond’s Walther PPK is the most famous example of one of these weapons.

Something fiction rarely addresses is the fact that, with each shot, an unlocked semi-automatic slide cycles and ejects a brass shell.

It is impossible to silence the noise of an unlocked semi-automatic slide. It is also impossible to silence the sound of falling brass unless the weapon is equipped with a brass catcher. However, in the movies, a shooter frequently fires two or three shots in close succession from a “silenced” weapon without any noise being made by the cycling slide or the falling brass. Such scenes are complete and utter fiction.

The .380 semi-automatic is available in “straight blowback” design weapons. (Larger auto-loading pistols use “delayed blowback” designs.) A straight blowback design pistol can be modified to manually lock the slide in a closed position so that the weapon can fire without causing the cartridges to jam. The locked slide prevents the noise of the slide operation along with the noise that escapes the ejection port when the pistol cycles. When a “locked” pistol is used with a suppressor attached to its mussel, the combination allows for the highest level of “suppression,” hence the least noise.

Unlike the movies, to fire successive shots in real life, a shooter must manually unlock the slide, cycle out the cartridge, and then relock the slide before taking a second shot. Locking and unlocking is accomplished with a small lever that would resemble the safety lever on a slide. With a bit of practice it can be operated quickly without much effort.

The Makarov .380 is the most powerful mass produced auto-loading pistol that can be effectively silenced with ease and at low cost.

It is basically a knockoff of James Bond’s Walther .380 on steroids. With a bullet slightly wider and heavier than that of the standard .380, the Makarov has the maximum energy of any sub-sonic cartridge that the Soviet firearms specialists could put into a straight blowback semi-automatic design. The term “sub sonic” is important when discussing silencers or suppressors because a bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound makes a loud noise. Sub-sonic cartridges are, therefore, more practical for silenced firearms.

While a pistol with a manual slide lock does not allow for the quickest successive shots, it can be very quiet and thus ideal for some situations. If, for example, the shooter intended to assassinate an individual who was walking home on his usual route after work, she could easily get a close up headshot on a side street. The noise would be low enough that someone walking twenty yards ahead of the victim would not notice it. Another example is if the shooter could gain access to the target when the target was alone in his hotel room, home, or office. In such circumstances, a trained shooter could easily take the time to deliver a second “insurance” shot on a high value target without a hotel maid in the hallway or people in the next room hearing anything.

.380s without manual slide locks installed are also popular to use with modern liquid filled suppressors.

Such arrangements make more noise than a locked Makarov or locked .380 but still far less noise than a .22 short cartridge fired from a .22 rifle. If the shooter were alone with the target inside a closed hotel room, office, home etc., the noise level would still be acceptable. A pedestrian twenty yards away on a quiet street might recognize the sound as a gunshot, but a pedestrian standing or walking around the corner of a city block would not notice the sound of this type of suppressed weapon.

With precision machining and greater expense, larger handguns can be suppressed, but not to the same degree as the .380 or the .380 Makarov.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular handguns in movies was the attractive Colt Python .357 magnum revolver. We often saw scenes with “silenced” Pythons being fired with more than a mild pfftz sound being generated. The revolver mechanics somehow made no noise at all. Magically, the gas that escaped from between the cylinder and the barrel made no noise, either. That only happens in movies. Suppressors can be used on revolvers, but with much less effect than can be achieved with an auto-loading pistol with a locked slide.

Currently the most popular suppressed handguns in the movies are the 9mm autoloader and the .45 ACP autoloader. With modern suppressors, they can be partially silenced. When a shooter doesn’t want to wake up people in a neighboring apartment or alert police on the next block, those weapons are effective, but unlike in the movies, a guard standing 10 yards away is definitely going to notice the sound of the pistol—not to mention the sound of the falling body. Nonetheless, if a shooter ever had to fire an unsuppressed 9mm or similar pistol from inside of a car, his first thought would be, “Ouch, my ears really hurt.” His second thought would be, “I wish I had a suppressor on this thing.”

Another popular “silenced” weapon is Hollywood is the high power sniper rifle.

We love seeing “silenced” 30-06 rifles in movies. We wish we had one that works like they do. In real life, a suppressor can partially reduce the noise made by a high-powered rifle, but as long as that rifle is firing a supersonic bullet, it’s not going to be anything like “quiet.” Less noisy? Yes. Unnoticed downrange? Not likely. The only advantage in suppressing a high power rifle that fires supersonic bullets is that the shots would alert people over a smaller radius than if a suppressor were not used.

But there’s good news for Hollywood and for snipers.

In recent years, high power cartridges have been developed to fire heavier bullets at subsonic velocities. One example would be the .300 Whisper. These cartridges lack the flatter trajectories of supersonic bullets, but they also lack the loud sonic “crack” generated by supersonic bullets.

So the next time you hear a massive Dirty Harry revolver or an auto-loading pistol silenced down to a pfftz on the screen? The next time you see a shooter take successive shots with a silenced weapon without manually cycling the slide? Label it fiction.

Thank you to Julie Glover for this week’s question about silencers. What are your Spy Truth & Fiction questions?

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Limited Time Edition Now Available for Pre-Order!

Bayard & Holmes debut novella, THE SPY BRIDE, in this multi-genre

bestsellers’ collection.

The Spy Bride Risky Brides Boxed Set final Cover

8 Risky Brides — 8 Novels & Novellas

Looking for your next must-read author? You’ll find him or her in this limited-time-only collection. USA Today Bestsellers, (Vicki Hinze, Rita Herron, Donna Fletcher, Peggy Webb, Kathy Carmichael) veteran authors, (Kimberly Llewellyn and Tara Randel) and dynamic newcomers, (Bayard & Holmes)—all share their unique take on what it means to be a risky bride.

Spy Truth & Fiction — Automatics, Semi-Automatics, and Revolvers

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

There are basically three types of handguns—the revolver, the semi-automatic, and the automatic. All three are commonly misnamed or misrepresented in fiction.


Gunner's Mate 1st Class Montrell Dorsey with M240B automatic weapon Image by US Navy, public domain

Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Montrell Dorsey with
M240B automatic weapon
Image by US Navy, public domain


With an automatic weapon, the cartridges load into a removable magazine. It’s called automatic because when you pull the trigger, it automatically fires repeated bullets until you take your finger off of the trigger. As the shooter fires, the brass shells of the cartridges are ejected from the weapon.


Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 semi-automatic Image by Avicennasis, wikimedia commons.

Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 semi-automatic
Image by Avicennasis, wikimedia commons.


A semi-automatic also has cartridges that load into a removable magazine, which, in a pistol such as this one, fits into the handle of the gun. However, one trigger pull equals one shot, and the brass shell from each cartridge is automatically ejected. The weapon does not automatically keep firing.

It’s very common for a semi-automatic to be inaccurately referred to throughout media, movies, and TV as an “automatic” weapon. No matter how hot the journalist, movie star, or soap opera star might be, don’t believe it just because they say it.


Piper in the remake of Dirty Harry

Piper in the remake of Dirty Harry


A revolver is so called because the cartirdges reside in a revolving cylinder. Like the semi-automatic, one trigger pull equals one shot. However, the brass shells are not ejected automatically. A shooter must open the cylinder and eject all of the shells simultaneously.

Not to knock one of Piper’s favorites, The Walking Dead, but if you listen closely when Rick fires his Colt Python .357, you will sometimes hear the sound of ejected brass hitting the floor with each shot—something only semi-automatics and automatics do. Total audio fiction.

Now it’s your turn. What Spy Truth & Fiction questions do you have for us?


*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *


Limited Time Edition Now Available for Pre-Order!

Bayard & Holmes debut novella, THE SPY BRIDE, in this multi-genre

bestsellers’ collection.

The Spy Bride Risky Brides Boxed Set final Cover

8 Risky Brides — 8 Novels & Novellas

Looking for your next must-read author? You’ll find him or her in this limited-time-only collection. USA Today Bestsellers, (Vicki Hinze, Rita Herron, Donna Fletcher, Peggy Webb, Kathy Carmichael) veteran authors, (Kimberly Llewellyn and Tara Randel) and dynamic newcomers, (Bayard & Holmes)—all share their unique take on what it means to be a risky bride.

Spy Truth & Fiction — The Equalizer Gets Some Things Right

By Piper Bayard

The Equalizer is a thriller film by Antoine Fuqua in which an ex-CIA operative must defeat the Russian mob to save his friend. Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a widower who has left his former life of intelligence fieldwork. He keeps a simple life as a supervisor at Home Mart in Boston. Each night, his insomnia drives him to a corner diner with a classic book, where he chats with Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who is pimped out by the Russian mob. When Alina is brutally beaten and hospitalized by the Russians, McCall determines he will prevent her keepers from ever hurting her again. His decision triggers a series of events that lead to Moscow and to one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.


The Equalizer Movie Poster

The Equalizer Movie Poster


Though this movie is not intended to be a documentary, it gets several Truth & Fiction aspects right.

One: Robert McCall is a former CIA operative.

Intelligence operatives get to resign or retire if they want to. There is a grand myth in some spy fiction that intelligence organizations are like the mafia—that once you’re in, there’s only one way to leave, as in to die. Unlike James Bond, who will outlive all other intelligence operatives on the planet, CIA operatives, active or past, actually do eventually all die of the same causes that afflict the rest of the human population. However, the Company does not put out a hit on operatives who decides to strike out in other directions, regardless of how many secrets they may know.

Two: Robert McCall is a man who wears jeans and plain button up shirts.

While some former intelligence operatives might wear leather clothing and ride motorcycles, it is not required. In fact, most people who are confident that they can kill you with their pinkies prefer to appear as innocuous as possible. Life is just more comfortable for everyone that way.


Robert McCall, a.k.a. The Equalizer Image from The Equalizer

Robert McCall, a.k.a. The Equalizer
Image from The Equalizer


Three: Robert McCall works as a supervisor at “Home Mart.”

Except for congressmen, no one gets rich by working for the government. That includes intelligence operatives. As a result, when they leave, most of them must find other gainful employment, and that might be anything from selling used cars to teaching high school to assisting people with their lumber purchases at a home improvement store.

Four: Robert McCall does not rely entirely on firearms to kill the bad guys.

One of the best parts of this movie is the creative way McCall kills off his opponents. A large showdown takes place inside a home improvement center. While our hero unrealistically passes on the obvious opportunity to pick up a few heavy firearms from the skumbags he kills, his creativity in killing with common store items is worth the price of admission. Through the entire movie, he lays out approximately two dozen bad guys, but he only shoots one of them with a firearm.


Robert McCall and Alina Image from The Equalizer

Robert McCall and Alina
Image from The Equalizer


Five:  Robert McCall is in control.

Operatives certainly have their bad days, and sometimes they end up in situations that are beyond their control. But, as Holmes says, “If you’re in a fair fight, you’re using poor tactics.” In every situation, our hero in The Equalizer has the upper hand.

It’s worth noting that this control is actually a negative when it comes to sustaining tension. At no time is the viewer genuinely worried that McCall won’t survive an encounter in order to collect his paycheck and do another movie. However, he is so creative in how he maintains control that this doesn’t sink the film.

Six:  Robert McCall dedicates himself to his chosen mission simply because he believes it is the right thing to do.

As a general rule, American intelligence operatives are an idealistic lot who devote themselves to their professions because they want to make the world a better place for innocent people to reside. No one does it for the money.


Robert McCall, a.k.a. The Equalizer Image from The Equalizer

Robert McCall, a.k.a. The Equalizer
Image from The Equalizer


 Seven:  The evil kingpin behaves like an evil kingpin when cornered.

The Russian mobster at the top of the international crime food chain is aptly named Vladimir Pushkin. (All similarities to any living Russian oligarch are, no doubt, purely coincidental.) We see very little of Putin Pushkin, but where we do see him, he is behaving realistically, exhibiting disbelief that anyone would actually kill him, combined with the confidence that he can buy his way out of the situation.


Overall, The Equalizer is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that impressed me with its creativity. Denzel Washington is excellent in his role as the man people turn to when they have nowhere else to go. Chloë Grace Moretz does a great job breaking out of her Kick Ass role to show a bit more diversity. And of course, who doesn’t want to see a Russian mobster named Vladimir Pushkin get what’s coming to him? If you enjoy thrillers and justice movies, you will likely enjoy this one.

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We are pleased to announce that our first Bayard & Holmes spy thriller novella, THE SPY BRIDE, will be released in the RISKY BRIDES bestsellers’ collection on October 21 from Magnolia Press.

The Spy Bride Risky Brides Front Cover via Hightail