The Brush Pass: CIA’s Covert Technique for Exchanging Information
In hostile countries, CIA case officers use the “Brush Pass” to exchange physical items with couriers or the spies they recruit. They “brush” past each other, usually in public places with crowds to interfere with any visual surveillance. However, if they suspect foreign spies are present, they will choose alleyways or narrow corridors. They don’t stop walking, and at most, they appear to bump into each other.
The exchange may involve carrying identical objects, such as newspapers, briefcases, or magazines, with the information being exchanged in one of them. As they separate, they still appear to hold the same object in the same hand. Experienced spymasters learn to pass sensitive data “baton style,” like in a relay race, usually done with small objects like photographic film cartridges. This method is more dangerous and requires better manual dexterity, but it has the advantage of the operatives not carrying anything after the transfer and blending into a crowd even more easily.
A variation of the brush pass is the live letter drop, where one agent follows a predefined route on foot with a prepared report hidden in a pocket. En route, a second agent unknown to the first picks their pocket and passes the report on unread to a cut-out or intelligence officer. This technique provides opportunities for plausible deniability and penetration by hostile agents.
Here’s a snippet from the spy thriller novel “MISSION OF VENGEANCE,” where a team of counterintelligence agents carries out a brush pass:
Snippet- Phillips lay on a lounge chair by the pool, sipping a Bahama Mama and admiring the tall palms. Across the tiled patio was a makeshift bamboo beach bar with a thick palmetto-thatched roof. A stairway rose behind it to an unoccupied upper level, but it was veiled by a terra cotta clay border wall.
It had to be flawless. CIA spymaster Corey Pearson walked past Phillips and began ascending the brown-tiled stairway. His coppery-colored duffel bag blended well with the surroundings. Steve Sweeney, codenamed “Brush Pass,” appeared through an opening at the top of the stairwell and descended, carrying an identical bag. Neither man paused nor stared at each other; they merely glanced curiously at the pool below them…and at Phillips.
If Phillips had taken a sip from her drink, the brief encounter would have been terminated. Fortunately, she did not. Sweeney’s duffel bag hung from his shoulder, while Corey’s was low at knee level, hidden by the wall. Without breaking stride, Sweeney lowered his bag to his side just before Corey passed. Neither man stopped, paused, or bent over.
Phillips accidentally knocked three tin ashtrays off the table next to her onto the tile patio, making a loud noise. She apologized to those sunbathing around her. Corey and Sweeney walked their separate ways, and no one noticed the exchange. End of snippet.
There are many real-life examples of CIA operatives employing the brush pass. During the Cold War, a CIA operative named Marti Peterson used the brush pass technique to exchange information with a Soviet defector in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Peterson and the defector, code-named Trigon, had agreed to meet at a specific location in the park.
To avoid detection by KGB agents, they used the brush pass to exchange documents. As they passed each other, Trigon handed Peterson a shopping bag, and Peterson handed Trigon a magazine. The exchange was successful, and Peterson was able to gather critical intelligence for the CIA. This operation became one of the most successful examples of the brush pass technique in the agency’s history.
In another instance, a CIA operative in a foreign country needed to pass information to a recruited spy. They arranged to meet at a busy marketplace, where they both blended in with the crowds. As they walked past each other, the operative brushed a small package into the spy’s hand. The package contained a coded message with crucial intelligence information. The spy slipped the package into his pocket and continued to walk through the market as if nothing had happened. Thanks to the successful brush pass, the CIA operative was able to pass on critical information without arousing suspicion or alerting any potential surveillance.
During the Cold War, a CIA agent operating in East Germany needed to pass critical information to his asset without being detected by the Stasi, the East German intelligence agency. The agent arranged a brush pass with his asset in a crowded park in East Berlin. They both walked towards each other, and as they passed, the asset handed the agent a newspaper. The agent continued walking while he removed a microdot hidden in the newspaper, and then discarded it in a nearby trash can. The asset kept walking and blended into the crowd while the agent continued on his way without arousing suspicion, and the information was successfully passed without detection. This brush pass allowed the agent to maintain his cover and continue gathering crucial intelligence.
In sum, CIA case officers need to be as stealthy as a ninja to exchange physical items with couriers or the spies they recruit. That’s where the brush pass technique comes into play. They brush past each other, almost like a romantic comedy, but with sensitive information instead of hearts. If there’s a chance of visual surveillance, they’ll choose alleyways or narrow corridors. They don’t stop walking, and at most, they appear to bump into each other. It’s like a scene out of a spy thriller, except it’s happening for real.
But don’t worry, the brush pass isn’t just reserved for the likes of James Bond. In fact, it’s been used by real-life spies, such as Marti Peterson, who exchanged information with a Soviet defector in Gorky Park during the Cold War. It was a success, proving that the brush pass is a valuable tool in the CIA’s arsenal.
So, if you ever see two strangers “brushing” past each other, don’t be too quick to judge. They might just be exchanging crucial intelligence to save the world. Or, they could be on a really awkward first date. You never know.
Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community. He authors the Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Check out his latest spy thrillers: MISSION OF VENGEANCE.