In-Depth: A Former CIA Case Officer Reveals The Surprising Connection Between Watches and Espionage
Luxury timepieces play a significant role in the murky world of spycraft – just not the way they’re portrayed in Hollywood.
[Editors’ Note: The author of this story, a former undercover officer for the CIA, has asked to remain anonymous.]
It’s pouring and I’m standing in a dark alley in a North African capital at the height of an ongoing military coup, waiting for my source.
I nervously glance down at my titanium Panerai Luminor Marina 8 Day. The still-glowing hands indicate it is 2:01:15 AM. If the asset, a foreign intelligence officer who is taking great risk to spy for the United States, does not arrive in the next 45 seconds, I’ll have to disappear into the night, missing a crucial opportunity to collect intelligence of strategic importance to the United States government.
As a CIA Case Officer operating undercover for almost a decade, my job was to recruit spies and steal secrets. At the core of this trade was clandestinely handling assets, or “spies,” to securely collect information to further United States’ interests. This generally occurred late at night in less-than-ideal locations, including dark alleys and the types of hotels that charge by the hour.
The scene in this story was a relatively routine night and something I spent years training for, rehearsing and perfecting throughout the Middle East and Africa. While the location and the mission changed over the years, the one thing that remained the same was the presence of a reliable timepiece on my wrist.
Senses heightened, I scan the alley and again check the time on my Luminor Marina 8 Days Titanio PAM 564. Panerai originally developed the watch in partnership with Rolex for the use of the Italian Frogmen – the elite maritime special operations unit that served in World War II. The large, luminescent numerals ensured legibility in murky water, and they’re proving legitimately useful all these years later in the muddy alleyway.
15 seconds to go.
Mentally running through the contingency plan, I ready myself for my long Surveillance Detection Route to my bed-down location. I’m calm, but the inevitable second-guessing sets in. Is this a setup? Is the asset in trouble? Will I be swarmed by police as I leave the alley? Will my cover story hold up under intense interrogation?
Finally, a dark figure enters the alley with a smile on his face.
Just in the nick of time.
In the world of espionage, time matters. During an intelligence operation, mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death, imprisonment or (potentially worse) failing to collect strategic intelligence. So, it’s no surprise that the intelligence business – foreign intelligence collection, covert action and counterintelligence – is inextricably linked to reliable, even luxury, timepieces.
When I started Watches of Espionage, an Instagram page dedicated to the intersection of timepieces and spycraft, I wanted to challenge the popular notions of James Bond driving an Aston Martin DB5, a Rolex Submariner reference 6538 on his wrist. Or of Jason Bourne scaling the U.S. Embassy in Zurich wearing a TAG Heuer Link Chronograph. In reality, the utility of watches in the intelligence business is more mundane. Watches are tools. They are used to accomplish clandestine missions, build relationships, and complete operational tasks. In a world where GPS-enabled electronic devices pose an operational security risk, analog watches are even used for their original purpose: To tell time.
In the halls of “Langley” – the colloquial term for CIA Headquarters – the ties of watches to the Intelligence Community are evident. The CIA is composed of tribes, and timepieces are subtle indications of an officer’s tribe or identity. Burly paramilitary officers with beards are seen wearing Panerai, Sangin Instruments, and Bremont. European officers are drawn to dressier Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC pieces to match fine tailored suits, while officers who serve in the Middle East and Africa may wear Breitling or Rolex, with the most fortunate ones showing the crest of a Middle Eastern nation.
There’s also the so-called “war zone watch.” While a government salary does not support an extensive watch collection, when officers deploy to war zones for an extended period, their pay can almost double while their personal expenses are minimal. After returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, or one of the undeclared expeditionary locations, many officers take a portion of their savings and purchase a watch to discreetly commemorate the accomplishment, often the ubiquitous Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster, no doubt a subtle nod to Bond.
When collecting Human Intelligence (HUMINT), it is the job of a Case Officer to build a relationship with a foreign government official or member of a terrorist group and manipulate them to spy against their own organization or country. It takes time to build this level of trust, and operational gifts can go a long way toward earning it. A luxury timepiece is an ideal gift; it’s immediately recognizable and it’s something that the agent can wear as a constant reminder of the friendship with the Case Officer and thus the greater relationship with the US Government.
Further, the soon-to-be agent’s acceptance of an expensive gift from an American official is a strong indication that the individual is willing to move in the direction of a clandestine relationship. If he or she accepts the watch, the Case Officer must work with the target to develop an appropriate cover story regarding the watch’s origin.
The utility of luxury watches in clandestine tradecraft is a common theme throughout the history of espionage.
• In 1943, Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan, both members of the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), presented the Dalai Lama with a Patek Philippe reference 658 on behalf of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Reportedly, the purpose of the gift was to win the Dalai Lama’s support for a potential road through Tibet into China to assist the Chinese in fighting the Japanese.
• FBI Special Agent turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen received at least two Rolex watches from his Russian handlers as forms of payment.
• Cuban President Fidel Castro gave two Rolexes to Argentine socialist revolutionary Che Guevara, including a Rolex GMT-Master 1675 that was “liberated” by CIA paramilitary officer Felix Rodriguez after Guevara’s October 1967 death in La Higuera, Bolivia.
On one of my first days at CIA as a junior trainee, I was provided $20,000 in cash and sent to Liljenquist & Beckstead, an authorized dealer in McLean, Virginia, to purchase a timepiece for the Director of CIA to give as a gift to the visiting head of a Middle Eastern intelligence service. The gift was used to build rapport and solidify a personal relationship between the CIA Director and the visiting dignitary. This personal touch would prove useful given the sometimes-tenuous relationship between the two intelligence services.
The human intelligence business is built on relationships and trust. While a Case Officer continually assesses a potential unwitting asset – spy – for recruitment, the asset is also assessing the Case Officer to determine if he or she can trust this official with their life. Just as blue button-down dress shirts and yellow ties can project authority and smarts, a recognizable timepiece like a Rolex Submariner can be a subtle demonstration of confidence and dependability. A fine watch is a message that’s understood by scrappy rebel leaders in Africa or polished diplomats in Geneva.
In a modern context, the Hollywood version of the CIA Directorate of Science & Technology (DS&T) issuing luxury watches for operational purposes beyond building trust is largely a fantasy. But Hollywood doesn’t have it all wrong. There’s some historical precedent for spy gadgets embedded in watches.
In July 1977, CIA Case Officer Martha Peterson was arrested by the KGB in Moscow while servicing a dead drop for Russian asset Alexsandr Ogorodnik, code-named Trigon. When her supervisor arrived at the notorious Lubyanka Prison to assist with Peterson’s release, he was reportedly wearing a watch that contained a covert microphone. The watch was likely a version of the German manufactured Protona produced by Minifon during the Cold War. The so-called Internet of Things has rendered obsolete the need for secret microphones or cameras embedded in watches.
CIA Operations Officers view watches as another tool that can be leveraged to accomplish a mission or extract yourself from a particularly hairy situation. A watch like a Rolex GMT-Master has a perceived inherent value and is recognized worldwide in both the rural mountains of the Hindu Kush and the back alleys of Bangkok’s seedy Patpong district.
Should you find yourself in need of immediate help, the watch can be utilized as a form of currency that can be traded for a few hours of shelter in a basement, a ride to the nearest international border, or even a seat on the next plane out of a war-torn nation. A Rolex is easier to carry and less likely to be misplaced than eight ounces of gold or $15,000 in cash. CIA finance officers will not reimburse a personal watch if used for this purpose, but ultimately it was a financial risk I was willing to take in my overseas operations. I have a Rolex GMT-Master, myself.
On May 1st, 1960, USAF pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in Soviet airspace, causing the infamous 1960 U-2 incident that had significant diplomatic implications during the height of the Cold War. Powers carried an escape and evasion (E&E) kit containing maps, a compass, gold coins, Soviet Rubles, and four gold watches. These watches were to be leveraged to barter his way to the border or some other place of safe harbor. Powers was immediately apprehended and was unable to utilize the watches for their intended purpose, as tools of espionage.
On the practical side, mechanical watches can offer an added layer of security simply by telling time. An intelligence operation is a carefully choreographed dance where accurate timekeeping is mission-critical. Missing a clandestine operational meeting, a surveillance detection cover stop, or a dead drop signal by seconds can mean the difference between operational success and high-stakes failure.
Smart devices are certainly not a spy’s best friend. When wading through a Middle Eastern souk trying to detect and avoid hostile intelligence services, wearing a beacon that tracks your every move, on your wrist or in your pocket, simply is not acceptable. In late 2017, open-source fitness tracker data was used to reveal the location of sensitive military locations in countries including Syria, Niger, and Afghanistan. A reliable timepiece is a necessity to ensure you conduct your operational act (agent meeting) at the exact time and place without leaving behind a digital footprint that can be pieced together by a competent hostile intelligence service. Sometimes it’s best to do things the old-fashioned way.
Timepieces and espionage will continue to be intertwined for decades to come. While the Hollywood version will be perpetuated in pop culture, in reality Case Officers, Paramilitary Officers, and Intelligence Analysts will stroll into watch stores in Dubai, Tokyo, and Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, during R&Rs and operational trips, looking for the perfect timepiece to commemorate a specific overseas tour or classified operational accomplishment.
Young Case Officers on their first overseas assignment will utilize an individual’s watch to strike up a conversation with foreign intelligence officers in hopes of building a lasting relationship. Intelligence Analysts will scrutinize images of foreign leaders’ watch collections, looking for subtle clues to inform their leadership assessments and psychological profiles. The provenance of the Rolex Submariners at CIA Headquarters, Bremonts at SIS Building in London, and Cartiers in DGSE headquarters in Paris rival those auctioned at Christie’s.
But most of those stories will never be told.
This article has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
In lieu of payment for this article, @watchesofespionage has elected to donate to Third Option Foundation. The name refers to the motto of the CIA’s Special Activities Center: Tertia Optio, the President of the United States’ third option when military force is inappropriate and diplomacy is inadequate. Third Option Foundation is dedicated to providing comprehensive family resiliency programs, working behind the scenes to quietly help those who quietly serve.