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Tom Secker is a British based writer, researcher and filmmaker who specialises in terrorism, the security services and declassified history. He has been writing on the philosophy and politics of fear since 2008. He also periodically contributes here on SmellsLikeHumanSpirit.com, and previously appeared on the Podcast in Episodes 12, 45, and 78. Below is his latest article, ‘MI5 and the Magicians’:
The story of the relationship between intelligence agencies and illusionists in the entertainment industry is a long one. It goes back at least to the beginning of the century, and the friendship between the escapologist Harry Houdini and the man who would help found MI5, William Melville
The story goes: in June 1900 Melville introduced the young performer to theatre magnate C Dundas Slater and helped launch his stage career in London. As legend has it, Melville effectively auditioned Houdini, handcuffing him to a pillar inside Scotland Yard and telling Slater ‘here’s how we fasten the Yankee criminals who come over here and get into trouble’. Melville then told Houdini that he and Slater were going out to lunch and ‘we will be back for you in a couple of hours’. Houdini cried out ‘Wait! I’ll go with you. Here’s the way Yankees open the handcuffs’, before picking the cuffs almost instantly and letting them slip to the floor.
Houdini was rewarded for his impressive demonstration with his first theatre contract in London and, at least according to the book The Secret Life of Houdini
was also recruited as a spy by Melville. Though at the time Melville was only working for the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police he had already begun developing an international network of secret operatives. These men would become the principal agents of the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI5, which was run by Melville. In the same period he also recruited Shlomo Rosenblum, more commonly known as Sidney Reilly
, the pseudonym created for him by Melville. Both Reilly and Melville were among the various real-life inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories.
While some of this story may be apocryphal another tale from World War 2 is certainly true. It centres around another spy whose real life inspired the fiction of James Bond, agent Zigag a.k.a. Eddie Chapman. Chapman was a safe-cracking criminal turned double agent who worked for both the Nazi intelligence directorate the Abwehr and also for MI5. One of the techniques MI5 used during the war to try to maintain the credibility of their double agents was to stage acts of sabotage on targets inside Britain that were then blamed on the double agents. Thus the Nazis would think their saboteurs were still loyal and were carrying out their orders. In reality the attacks were staged by members of the British security services, and were often exaggerated or just faked.
One such false flag sabotage attack took place at the de Havilland aircraft factory in Hertfordshire in January 1943. The de Havilland factory produced many of the aircraft being used by the British air force, included the famous Mosquito, and so the Germans considered it an important target. On the night of January 29th, Chapman and a crew of security services officers set up props and camouflage apparatus to make it appear as though Chapman acting as a saboteur had bombed the factory’s power generators.
This was accomplished with the assistance of the illusionist Jasper Maskelyne, who worked for the Army during the war as a specialist in illusion and deception. While it appears Maskelyne exaggerated or fabricated some of his WW2 exploits, and even that his book Magic: Top Secret
, the de Havilland story is true. MI5 documents
and photographs show how the operation was carried out.
This curious relationship between stage illusionists and the secret services continued into the modern era, most notably via spoon-bending ‘psychic’ Uri Geller. Geller served in the Israeli army, was injured in the Six Day War in 1967 and he later worked for the Mossad. Alongside his endless TV appearances and live shows he has also worked for oil and mineral companies, using his ‘psychic’ powers to locate deposits across the world.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Geller’s spy career is that from 1972 until at least 1990 he was part of a series of experiments mostly run by the Stanford Research Institute or SRI. These experiments were funded by the CIA, DIA and the Pentagon, and involved testing people’s abilities with advanced mental techniques such as remote viewing. For example, simple line drawings were sealed in envelopes and Geller (as well as other remote viewers) were tasked with seeing the drawings in their mind’s eye and then replicating them by sketching them out on paper.
as well as video footage
of the experiments are now publicly available and various people involved with the experiments, including Geller, have openly admitted to this previously secret science. The US military/intelligence fascination with the paranormal and so-called ‘psychic spies’ or ‘psychic soldiers’ was highlighted in the 2009 movie The Men Who Stare at Goats
, which starred CFR member George Clooney.
Clooney, along with Goats producer Grant Heslov, went on to produce Argo, a movie about the CIA’s friendship with Hollywood, produced with help from the CIA. Argo won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating the similarly CIA-supported production Zero Dark Thirty.
The BBC recently aired a documentary called The Secret Life of Uri Geller that outlined his career as an international spy in some detail, including interviews with Geller himself and many of those who worked with him. While the show is replete with doublespeak, half-admissions, non-denial denials and similar spook-talk it is a fascinating piece of TV.
What is not clear is whether the CIA, DIA or any of the other agencies that Geller worked for played any role in assisting his career on the stage and the small screen. As with the Houdini and Maskelyne stories it is highly likely, if not certain, that some aspects of the legend are exaggerations or fabrications. With Geller the most obvious example is the suggestion that during the raid on Entebbe in 1976 that Geller used his ‘psychic’ powers to black out Egyptian radar, thus allowing the plane carrying Israeli special forces to get to Uganda without being spotted.
From picking handcuffs to fooling the Nazis to remote viewing, what is abundantly clear is that the venn diagram for magic circle and the intelligence services has some crossover.
In itself this is unsurprising as both worlds, both jobs, involve keeping secrets so as to be able to continue fooling the public. Both types of people have to be comfortable with the daily deception required to maintain the illusions that are necessary to continuing to perform their role. As such this curious relationship is quite predictable, a natural combination of similar people operating in the same way, albeit across different spheres of influence. Likewise the myth-making that surrounds spies and magicians is multiplied when it comes to spy-magicians, leading to the creation of pure legend. Truth in this area is not easy to come by, but perhaps it is less important to find truth than to appreciate the parallel between those men who get up on stage to show us sleights of hand, and those who do so from within the walls of shadowy institutions.