Above the Tearline: Brush Passes and Dead Drops
MIN READNov 9, 2011 | 13:39 GMT
Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton examines declassified surveillance video and deconstructs the tradecraft techniques known as the Brush Pass and the Dead Drop.
In this week's Above the Tearline, we're going to explain two aspects of tradecraft used by intelligence organizations while conducting espionage. These are commonly referred to as a "brush pass" and a "dead drop." The recently declassified FBI surveillance videotape of Operation Ghost Stories, the 10 Russian spies rounded up on U.S. soil for conducting espionage, provide great examples. First, for the sake of definitions, a brush pass is a brief encounter, known as a "B.E.", where something is passed between a case officer and an agent. A dead drop is a secret location where materials, information or money can be left for another party or agent to retrieve. Clandestine agents are taught how to perform these actions in the classroom, then in field-practical exercises, before they are put to the test in the real world. In most intelligence agencies, if an agent cannot perform these duties flawlessly, he or she are bound for a desk job and never put into an operational role. To the naked eye, a brush pass should never be seen, but it does take coordination and practice. It's harder to do in real life while under stress than most people realize. In this example of a brush pass, you're going to see two individuals exchanging bags in a stairwell, that if you had seen this, it's certainly very odd behavior, and from a demeanor perspective, would not be the ideal circumstance that you're going to have occur. Having said that, they are doing this in what is known as a channel, in a secretive location, and of course there is a hidden clandestine video at a observation point that the average person would not have seen, capturing the entire event unfold. Dead drops can be used in almost any environment to include locations such as public libraries, cemeteries, fields or trails. The interesting part to me, as I look at the FBI's surveillance footage of the dead drop under the bridge, takes me back to the famous case of the notorious KGB spy and MI6 traitor, Kim Philby, who serviced dead drops along the Potomac River in Maryland in a similar fashion, as depicted here in this video. In Philby's case, the same tradecraft was executed 60 years earlier to communicate with his Russian handlers. If interested in further information on the topic, I discuss Philby's tradecraft in my first book, "Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent." Let's take a look at the Russian agent servicing the dead drop under the bridge. Notice his clothing, which is perfect for the trail. However, he is also carrying a bag. He has no cover for action as he ducks underneath the bridge. If an individual happen to be walking along the trail and spotted him, his behavior would certainly be very odd and bizarre. Having said that, the Russian agent has absolutely no idea that the FBI has a clandestine video camera covering the entire event. What's the Above the Tearline in this video — some things never change in the great game of espionage. Old school methods remain in place to communicate with agents in the field, from brush passes to dead drops. From a foreign counterintelligence perspective, known as FCI Behind the Veil, if you can capture the tradecraft in the field through observation, and in this case, with clandestine video surveillance, a smoking gun can be made as to the nature of the actions being performed, making an ironclad-case. In studying the videotape, a trained FCI agent, along with the Department of Justice, can point the tradecraft depicted and show the court, the public and the Russian SVR that some things are what they are. In this case, the Russians were caught red-handed.