The six CIA officers were sweating. It was almost noon on a June day in the Middle Eastern capital, already in the 90s outside and even hotter inside the black sedan where the five men and one woman sat jammed in together. Sat and waited.
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They had flown in two days earlier for this mission: to break into the embassy of a South Asian country, steal that country’s secret codes and get out without leaving a trace. During months of planning, they had been assured by the local CIA station that the building would be empty at this hour except for one person—a member of the embassy’s diplomatic staff working secretly for the agency.
But suddenly the driver’s hand-held radio crackled with a voice-encrypted warning: “Maintain position. Do not approach target.” It was the local CIA station, relaying a warning from the agency’s spy inside: a cleaning lady had arrived.
From the back seat Douglas Groat swore under his breath. A tall, muscular man of 43, he was the leader of the break-in team, at this point—1990—a seven-year veteran of this risky work. “We were white faces in a car in daytime,” Groat recalls, too noticeable for comfort. Still they waited, for an hour, he says, before the radio crackled again: “OK to proceed to target.” The cleaning lady had left.
Groat and the others were out of the car within seconds. The embassy staffer let them in the back door. Groat picked the lock on the code room—a small, windowless space secured for secret communications, a standard feature of most embassies—and the team swept inside. Groat opened the safe within 15 minutes, having practiced on a similar model back in the States. The woman and two other officers were trained in photography and what the CIA calls “flaps and seals”; they carefully opened and photographed the code books and one-time pads, or booklets of random numbers used to create almost unbreakable codes, and then resealed each document and replaced it in the safe exactly as it had been before. Two hours after entering the embassy, they were gone.
After dropping the break-in specialists off at their hotel, the driver took the photographs to the U.S. Embassy, where they were sent to CIA headquarters by diplomatic pouch. The next morning, the team flew out.
The CIA is not in the habit of discussing its clandestine operations, but the agency’s purpose is clear enough. As then-chief James Woolsey said in a 1994 speech to former intelligence operatives: “What we really exist for is stealing secrets.” Indeed, the agency declined to comment for this article, but over the course of more than 80 interviews, 25 people—including more than a dozen former agency officers—described the workings of a secret CIA unit that employed Groat and specialized in stealing codes, the most guarded secrets of any nation.
What Groat and his crew were doing followed in the tradition of all espionage agencies. During World War II, for example, Soviet spies stole the secrets of how the United States built the atom bomb, and the British secretly read Nazi communications after acquiring a copy of a German Enigma cipher machine from Polish intelligence. The Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, targeted the Vichy French Embassy in Washington, D.C. one night in June 1942. An operative code-named Cynthia arranged a tryst inside the embassy with her lover, who was the press attaché there. The tryst, as both knew, was a cover story—a way to explain her presence to the night watchman. After the 31-year-old, auburn-haired spy and her lover stripped in the hall outside the code room, Cynthia, naked but for her pearls and high-heeled shoes, signaled out a window to a waiting OSS safe expert, a specialist known as the “Georgia Cracker.” He soon had the safe open and the codebooks removed; an OSS team photographed the books in a hotel nearby, and Cynthia returned them to the safe before dawn. The stolen codes were said to have helped OSS undercover operations in North Africa that paved the way for the Allied invasion there six months later.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s mass terror and “cult of personality” in a speech to a closed session of the Communist Party Congress in Moscow. Khrushchev repudiated his predecessor in such stark terms that his speech weakened the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe and contributed to Moscow’s split with China. As word of his “secret speech” filtered out, the CIA fell under enormous pressure to obtain a copy. The agency’s director, Allen W. Dulles, secured one—he never disclosed how, but by most accounts his source was Israeli intelligence—and leaked it to the New York Times. He later wrote that getting the speech was “one of the major intelligence coups” of his career.
In a secret program called HTLINGUAL, the CIA screened more than 28 million first-class letters and opened 215,000 of them between 1953 and 1973, even though the Supreme Court held as far back as 1878 in Ex parte Jackson and reaffirmed in 1970 in U.S. v. Van Leeuwen that the Fourth Amendment bars third parties from opening first-class mail without a warrant. The program’s stated purpose was to obtain foreign intelligence, but it targeted domestic peace and civil rights activists as well. In a 1962 memo to the director of the CIA’s Office of Security, the deputy chief of the counterintelligence staff warned that the program could lead “to grave charges of criminal misuse of the mails” and therefore U.S. intelligence agencies must “vigorously deny” HTLINGUAL, which should be “relatively easy to ‘hush up.’ ”