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Book Review of: Seduced by Secrets

Inside the Stasi's Spy-Tech World

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Review of Seduced by Secrets, by Kristie Macrakis (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

James Bond wasn't entirely fiction.

One of the things I try to do in any review of a nonfiction work is to determine if it's factual. That's something the reader can no longer take for granted, unfortunately.

Having no experience or training as a spy, I can't directly verify the accuracy of the work from my personal knowledge. And, because the spy world is so secretive, source information is extremely hard to come by. One of the principles of evaluating accuracy is to look for internal consistency of the work. This book passed that test with flying colors. It's also consistent with related areas of knowledge, such as basic physics (no wild claims that can't possibly work, no violations of physical laws, etc.). Adding to its aura of authenticity are original photographs and original research. Part of the original research consisted of personal interviews with subject matter experts (actual spies on both sides of the former Iron Curtain).

One missing aspect of this foray into the spy world was, thank you Ms. Macrakis, the flatulent use of acronyms. Acronymitis is an affliction common to people in technical fields, and this book's focus was on the tech aspect of the Stasi spy world. It was nice to be spared that particular torture.

Where Macrakis' writing fell short, however, was in the misuse of the word "only." She consistently used it early in her sentences, regardless of what word she actually meant to modify with it. Sometimes, I could discern her "real meaning" (instead of what she actually said) from the context and sometimes not. Misplaced modifiers make writing unclear, and should be ruthlessly ferreted out of any text.

Overall, it was a fascinating read. As a child of the Cold War, I found this topic particularly interesting. My generation was traumatized, as children, by being put through useless nuclear bomb drills in grade school (get under your desk and put a book over your head--the Commies are coming!). People on either side of the Iron Curtain were frightened over what the other side (those crazy folks!) might do to them. This fear, though founded mostly on suspicion and misinformation, was very real to millions of people.

In an effort to keep those crazy ("Communists" on one side, "Imperialists" on the other) from destroying "our way of life," each side mounted an extensive spy operation against the other. The spy agencies turned to technology to give them an edge. This book shows us what that technology was, how it worked, and why it mattered. It also shows us how badly the eastern bloc countries lagged in technology for its production sector, why this was so, and how the spies tried to remedy that by stealing technology from private sector companies in the West.

Seduced by Secrets consists of 13 chapters. It contains 32 photographs, three charts, a table, a listing of acronyms and abbreviations, exhaustive notes, and an extensive index.

The book is divided into two Parts: High-tech and Spy-tech.

Part One contains the first six chapters, and it reveals the technology struggle between the East and the West.

The first part of the strategy of the West was to foster competition among private concerns that would subsequently have the means and motivation to develop technology. The second part was to conceal that technology from the East, via trade embargoes and other restrictions.

The first part of the strategy of the East was to centrally plan things, which resulted in stifling innovation. In an effort to make up for this, the East deployed the second part of its strategy: it stole technology from the West.

The stealing involved many methods, none of which actually solved the problem of  being behind in technology. For example, getting a high-tech milling machine illegally means you have the machine but no support, training, or spare parts. Further, the central planners often selected the wrong things and made other mistakes that defeated the entire effort. I was impressed at how Macrakis showed this from many different angles. It really was a complex situation with myriad permutations. And people made many mistakes.

The book opens by giving us a close-up look at one particular spy, Hans Rehder. Through this synopsis of his spy career, we understand how he came to be a spy. This is instructive, and it helps us see that spies aren't necessarily people who wake up one day and say, "I think I'll betray my country now." In Rehder's case, he didn't even know he was working for the Stasi until he'd been doing so for two years. He thought he was providing information to the Ministry of Machine Building. After two years of committing treasonous crimes, he really had no choice but to keep working for these folks. And it didn't demotivate him that they made it worth his while financially.

Throughout the first six chapters, Macrakis examines various motivations and manipulations that made people become spies. Chapter Three begins by telling us about Peter Fischer (cover name for Werner Stiller). His story is complicated, to say the least. A published account of his sordid spy life (and his betrayal of his wife) tells one version, while hard-hitting research reveals a contradictory (and far less flattering) one.

Part One ends with Chapter Six, "The Computer Fiasco." In this chapter, Macrakis provides insight as to how the East's strategy of pirating and cloning technology always left them behind the West.

Part Two contains the last seven chapters of the book. Here, the focus is on the technology used by the spies. For every spy gadget, there were detection methods and countermeasures--some of which didn't involve technology.

Macrakis takes us back in time and moves forward as technology evolved. We begin our journey at the Technical Operations Sector campus. In addition to the technology, we get to see the bureaucracy.

To help the reader visualize how things work, Macrakis frequently makes references to Ian Fleming's characters. Specifically James Bond and Q (Q was the gadget guy). Gerhard Muller was one of the Q equivalents in the Stasi. Macrakis researched how he came to serve in that capacity--it's an interesting story.

Most of the technology consisted of containers and cameras. An example of a container would be a figurine that has a secret compartment and a secret latch. Cameras came in many forms, each having a specific set of advantages and drawbacks. The invisible ink (the stuff of spy novels) was actually used, and there were many varieties (well beyond lemon juice). Macrakis researched this and provided fascinating detail--devoting an entire chapter to the subject.

Secret radio transmissions were surprisingly complicated. The details of this aspect of spy communication hold many surprises, even for people with a high level of technical knowledge. Similarly intriguing is the coverage of electronic eavesdropping--the subject of Chapter 11. In Chapter 12 Macrakis explores "smell science." This somewhat bizarre area of spy science involves collecting smell samples. She includes a picture of jars, each containing a smell-impregnated cloth.

The final chapter discusses spy dust. It's not your ordinary dust. Most varieties were radioactive. The table mentioned earlier in this review lists the spy dust methods used in the "Cloud" program in the 1980s. Spy dust was used for such purposes as tracking people, marking money, guarding secrets, and eliminating spies.

While the book looks into the past, it provides lessons for today. In the USA, for example, we are following the central planning model that brought so much misery to communist countries (the index alone to the Code of Federal Regulations is over 65,000 pages--as is our Federal Income Tax Manual). As "our" government continues to bloat in size, power, and cost, the USA continues to fall behind other countries that have adopted freer economic models and less regulatory environments.

Even if you don't wish to draw parallels to the bureaucracy problems that put such a huge parasitic drag on the USA today, the book holds value for its historic and research value. If you lived through the time of the Berlin Wall, you can now understand the cat and mouse spy games played by both sides. It's a fascinating look into human nature, paranoia, greed, and the effects of flawed ideology during three tense decades of the modern era.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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