Review of The Dirty Tricks Department, by John Lisle

Available for pre-order. Release date: March 7, 2023.

This book chronicles the work of Bill Donovan, who became the first Coordinator of Information (COI) before heading up the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), his mad scientist inventor Stanley Lovell, and others who fought dirty for the sake of national security.

President Roosevelt appointed Donovan in 1941 as war in Europe escalated, to collect intelligence related to national security and perform espionage, sabotage and propaganda. The number of personnel in Donovan’s department grew and his responsibilities soared after Japan attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Now too large to be under the auspices of the White House, Roosevelt changed the name of Donovan’s organization to the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency), and placed them under the purview of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

From these humble beginnings, Donovan defended the organization from barbs and quips, some well-deserved. Detractors said Donovan hired the rich and famous to divert them from serving in the armed forces. At a dinner party, Horace Schmahl made fun of Donovan’s agency, saying it was a “Tinker Toy outfit, spying on spies”. Donovan challenged Schmahl, saying he could steal his secret files and blow up his ammunition dump before midnight. Donovan made a discreet phone call to his office. His employees broke into Schmahl’s office and safe, stole his secret information, and planted fake dynamite at his ammunition dump. Donovan got the last laugh when he handed Schmahl the contents of his safe and told him where to find the fake dynamite, all before the dinner party was over.

As the OSS grew, Donovan created several departments to oversee divisions of the operation, including a branch to make lethal gear and gadgets on the order of Q, the fictional scientist who created such devices for James Bond. This group of scientists pursued ridiculous (attaching cats to bombs since cats always land on their feet), barbaric (biological warfare), and even some useful (time-delay detonation) ideas. They considered ways to assassinate foreign leaders and developed a lethal pill for US agents to ingest if captured. There were additional drug experiments, including a plot to spike Hitler’s food with female hormones.

The book mainly covers the time periods just before, during, and after World War II, although it mentions little of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles and the CIA’s covert activities. The Dirty Tricks Department addresses the inventors’ moral dilemma of creating devices and tactics to kill, with most justifying it by believing their work would shorten the war.

The book covers a lot of material without becoming overly serious, as may be deduced from the title.

@JohnLisle @StMartinsPress

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