The Dirty Tricks Department: A Review

BOOK REVIEW: The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare

by John Lisle / St. Martin’s Press

Reviewed by Robert Wallace

The Reviewer: Robert Wallace, former Director of CIA’s Office of Technical Service (1998-2002), is a retired CIA career officer and co-author of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, and a trilogy of Spy Sites covering Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. He is co-executive producer of an eight-episode Netflix series titled Spycraft.

REVIEW — Stanley Lovell may finally receive well-deserved public recognition for his role in American intelligence thanks to John Lisle’s, The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare (St. Martin’s Press, 2023). Lovell, who died at age 86 in 1976, is little known beyond the small community of intelligence historians, but his service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II laid a foundation for many of the technical successes of US intelligence in the decades that followed.  

In his first published book, Lisle, who earned a PhD in history at the University of Texas, chronicles Lovell’s leadership that oversaw production of scores of clandestine devices for OSS officers operating in Europe and Asia. As head of the OSS Research and Development Branch with its subordinate Division 19, Lovell’s position at OSS can be compared to Charles Fraser-Smith of Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), said to be the inspiration for “Q” in the James Bond movies.

Like Fraser-Smith, and two decades before From Russia with Love introduced Desmond Lewellyn as 007’s often beleaguered gadgeteer, Lovell began applying the technology of his day to OSS’ wartime operational requirements. His teams produced an array of products for communications, deception, and sabotage as well as concealments and weapons, A slightly advanced model of one of Lovell’s weapons, the “En-Pen” cigarette pistol, would appear in the Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967).

Becoming America’s Q was not Lovell’s career plan. Lisle captures Lovell’s momentary dilemma of conscience as he faced the prospect of joining OSS. When initially pitched by William Donovan to become the “Professor Moriarty of OSS,” the chemist was reluctant. He recounted that he replied with a question: “Do I look to be [such an] evil character [as to do something] as un-American as sin is unpopular at a revival meeting?” 

The accuracy of Lovell’s account of his comment has been called into question, but the response captures a general American unease with the business of spying. Yet he took the job and a few years later urged the newly formed CIA to establish a department that would continue the work of Division 19.

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What drove Lovell to become an advocate for clandestine technical capabilities used to subvert, sabotage, deceive, and kill?  Not only did he discover a personal talent for the work, Lovell also understood defeating Nazism in the 1940s and combatting Soviet aggression in the 1950s were both moral and geopolitical imperatives. Like others who joined OSS,

he relished the mission that served the nation’s interest.

At the heart of The Dirty Tricks Department are 14 chapters devoted to describing devices, weapons, disguises, forgeries, and concealments produced by OSS engineers and technicians. Little of the substance of these chapters is new and much is derived from well-known declassified reports, transcripts and books along with Lovell’s memoir, Of Spies and Stratagems (1963).  The chapters would be stronger had more descriptions of the operational effectiveness of the equipment been presented. Some re-constructed conversations between Lovell and others are entertaining but historically questionable.

Publishers value book titles that attract attention even if not wholly descriptive of the content. “Dirty Tricks” is something of a misnomer since spying is deception and “tricks” are its necessary tools. Nevertheless, Lisle’s compilation of the scope of OSS R&D activities, combined with his conversational writing style, offers a satisfying read. He avoids boring the reader with inside-baseball descriptions of Washington bureaucracy or technical minutia about the devices themselves.  The energetic and sometimes technical mayhem in Division19 as described by Lisle would not be tolerated in today’s risk-adverse, process-driven government. Readers will find the extensive bibliography and 50 pages of footnotes along with source notes useful.

The 15-page concluding chapter, “A Legacy of Lessons,” disappoints. It is reminiscent of a sermon that goes on a bit too long. The chapter’s critical perspectives of the CIA, MKULTRA, and Dr. Sidney Gottlieb is less about Lovell’s legacy than a re-hash of previously published judgments presented in H. P. Albareilli’s A Terrible Mistake (2005) and Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief (2019).

Unfortunately, the historical record of MKULTRA will always be incomplete because most of the project’s files were destroyed by order of DCI Richard Helms in 1973. The resulting information vacuum is filled with an endless recycling of conjecture and conspiracy theories. Possibly the chapter was inserted as a teaser for Lisle’s next book, reportedly about MKULTRA.  If so, a definitive, thoroughly researched and properly contextualized history of MKULTRA would be welcomed.

Seen half a century after his death, Lovell’s most significant legacy has little to do with MKULTRA, special weapons, or drugs. Lisle largely ignores Lovell’s pioneering leadership that laid a foundation for enduring private sector-government partnerships that have played a critical role in advancing America’s intelligence capabilities.  It was during Lovell’s tenure that OSS developed special, secret relationships between intelligence and US companies, such as A.D. Little, Kodak, Raytheon and dozens of other smaller, less well-known enterprises and talented tinkerers.

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Those partnerships extended through the Cold War generating devices and systems ranging from subminiature cameras and thumb-nail size electronic bugs to the high tech of the U-2 and A-12 OXCART aircraft. In the 21st century, this partnership model continues to lead America’s technical innovation in developing star-wars like satellite platforms for communications, sensor, imagery, and signals intelligence missions. Of this legacy, the self-described “dishpan chemist” from Brockton, Massachusetts, can be justly proud.

Three trench coats awarded for an engaging recounting the three years when creating unorthodox “schemes, weapons and plans which no one expected America to originate” became an enduring component of American intelligence.

The Dirty Tricks Department earns a solid three out of four trench coats.



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