CIA Analysis of Foreign Leaders’ Timepieces

CIA Analysis of Foreign Leaders’ Timepieces

At CIA, the workforce is divided into two groups, otherwise known as “Directorates”.  The Directorate of Operations (DO) is staffed by Case Officers, Paramilitary Officers and other roles to collect human intelligence (HUMINT) and conduct covert action as directed by the President. The Directorate of Analysis (DA) is composed of all-source Intelligence Analysts who process, study, distill, and make sense of the information collected by the DO and other Agencies, writing up and briefing this information to inform policy makers.  

Within the DA (also known as DI), there is a specialized cadre of “Leadership Analysts,” who focus on understanding foreign leaders' personality traits, plans and intentions.  For example, prior to President Biden’s November 2022 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he would have likely received a written and oral briefing on the leader's background, worldview, national ambitions, and personality traits. The goal of the leadership profile is to provide policy makers insight to better forecast a leader's decision-making and actions.

President Puting Xi Omega BlancpainVladimir Putin and Xi Jinping meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2019. (Photo Credit Unknown)

Intelligence analysis is like solving a very complicated puzzle, but the pieces of the puzzle (Foreign Intelligence) are hidden all over the world and the box doesn't come with instructions or a picture of what the puzzle looks like when it’s completed. Instead you only find a few pieces at a time and never all of them. To make it even more complicated, an analyst is simultaneously working on multiple puzzles and has pieces from entirely different puzzles thrown into the pile. Just when you think you are finished, the image on the puzzle changes.

Watches of espionage Arabic Seiko
Intelligence analysis is like solving a very complicated puzzle. Arabic Seiko is fitting.

A foreign leader's timepiece can play a part in informing the profile and psychological assessment of the given leader, and when it comes to analysis, just having a piece of the puzzle helps – a watch might be significant or might not be. A person's wristwatch says a lot about their character, how they perceive themselves and want to be perceived by others. Politicians, both American and foreign, often put significant thought into their appearance. More sophisticated ones even rely on PR teams to determine everything from the color of their tie to the position of their lapel pin.  Analyzing a foreign leader's watch can provide unique insight into their personality and what they are trying to telegraph to both their own constituents as well as the larger world.

President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin:

Putin Blancpain Léman Aqua Lung Grande DatePresident Putin wearing Blancpain Léman Aqua Lung Grande Date (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Analysts assess Russian President Vladimir Putin is one wealthiest men in the world, with shaky estimations putting his net worth in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Putin has been photographed wearing expensive watches, including a 18k yellow gold Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Moon Phase and a platinum A. Lange & Sohne Up/Down – watches fitting for a man of his supposed fortune. But in recent years, Putin has appeared to favor a more modest limited edition Blancpain Léman Aqua Lung Grande Date.  Putin has also been known to give away watches to everyday Russians, including a Blancpain to a factory worker in 2009.

President Putin Patek PhillipePresident Putin wearing a Patek Philippe Moonphase Perpetual Calendar Ref. 5039 (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Putin’s expensive watch collection is estimated to be valued at well over $1 million dollars, which is hard to explain given the Kremlin's claimed salary of $140k per year, something that Putin has drawn significant criticism for in recent years. By flying in the face of norms and wearing a flashy watch in public, Putin might have been demonstrating that he believed he would not be held accountable for past corruption. Similarly, Putin’s more recent outings wearing a modest and explainable timepiece may indicate he has concerns for the criticism and his domestic image.

Of course, these are all speculations, and as a former Case Officer, W.O.E. is not qualified to make these sorts of assessments.  But these are the types of things a Leadership Analyst and Operational Psychologist would explore in assessing the foreign leader in question. 

Kim Jong Un:

Jim Jong Un IWC Schaffhausen Portofino
Kim Jong Un wearing a IWC Schaffhausen Portofino (Photo Credit: Unknown)

In June 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on state television after a noticeable month-long absence from the public eye.  There was speculation of potential health issues for the Korean leader and, as highlighted by NK News, keen watchers noted that the leather strap on his gold IWC Schaffhausen Portofino had been tightened significantly, indicating he likely lost weight. For an isolated leader like Kim with limited contact with the outside world, scrutinizing public imagery frame by frame can offer valuable insights and can corroborate or refute clandestinely-collected intelligence. 

Kim Jong Un IWC Schaffhausen PortofinoOpen source photo analysis demonstrating potential weight loss.  (Editing credit: NK News)

The current and past leaders of the Hermit Kingdom have a long history with luxury timepieces: the country’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, commissioned a range of Omegas in the late 1970s bearing his signature on the dial.  Interestingly, the younger Kim is believed to have spent four years as a child in Bern, Switzerland, at a boarding school a mere three-hour drive from the Swiss watch manufacturer’s IWC headquarters located in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.  Was there a connection or a coincidence? Does this connection indicate Kim had a fond experience in Switzerland as a child or an affinity for Swiss culture? Again, these are the types of questions Operational Psychologists would explore.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

Islamic State Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi RolexAbu Bakr al-Baghdadi wearing a mystery watch during public appearance at Mosul, Iraq mosque in 2014.

Former Islamic State Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made one of his few public appearances in 2014, when he delivered a sermon at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq.  Press reporting was quick to note the steel watch on his right hand, speculating that it was potentially an expensive Rolex or Omega “Seafarer.” (Of note, there is no Omega “Seafarer”).

Al Fajr Islamic Watch
Al-Fajr Watch (Product Photo)

This would have been notable in itself; however, it appears it was more likely an “Islamic watch” from Saudi Arabia-based watchmaker Al-Fajr. That watch provides prayer times and could be a clear signal to others that one is a devout Muslim.  Further, he was also wearing the watch on his right hand, which some believe is in line with Islamic tradition.  ISIS maintained a sophisticated PR and media wing that could rival any nation state, so it stands to reason that significant thought was put into al-Baghdadi’s watch prior to this recording of one of his few public appearances, but of course it’s simply speculation.

President Joe Biden’s Apple Watch:

President Biden Apple WatchPresident Biden wearing an Apple Watch in the Oval Office. (Photo Credit: AP)

The U.S. is not immune from this type of analysis by foreign intelligence organizations, and we can tell a lot about the U.S. Presidents by their choice in watches.  Interestingly, current President Joe Biden was the first U.S. President to wear an Apple Watch in the Oval Office.  For Biden, a certified watch nerd with a collection of Seiko, Rolex and Omega, this was no accident.  It is possible that this was a signal from Biden that he is “hip” and focused on modernity.  For a President criticized for his age, it would be a logical message to send.  Either way, we can assume this is something that foreign intelligence services are watching closely.

Smart Watch:

The “smart watch” brings up another issue that we will explore in a future Dispatch. As discussed previously, Intelligence Community personnel working in secure facilities are not permitted to wear Bluetooth/wireless enabled devices, including smart watches, due to the counterintelligence risks they pose. A foreign leader (or U.S. President) wearing a smartwatch would present a significant opportunity to collect information on that individual's location, health, sleeping habits and even potentially remotely activate the microphone to listen in on conversations.  All of this is valuable information that could be exploited by an intelligence service and this is an example of analysis informing operations. While there are potentially ways to mitigate the vulnerabilities, including removing the bluetooth, microphone, etc., any digital watch with expanded capabilities comes with risks.   

Watches of Espionage
A timepiece says a lot about the person wearing it. (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

In addition to the above, an individual's watch can provide clues and context for open-source analysis. On the evening of February 22 2022, President Putin and Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu held a "live" National Security meeting to discuss the recent invasion of Ukraine.  Analysis of the footage showed that both individuals' watches indicated the time was mid-day (12:15-12:45), which would indicate the meeting was held hours or even days before the claimed time.  Again, this might or might not be significant, but these are the types of details a competent intelligence service would analyze.  Similarly, it is possible Putin, a former KGB officer, could feed disinformation by changing the time of his watch. Such is the wilderness of mirrors.

President Putin Patek

Supply Chain:

The journey of the watch from the manufacturer to the leader's wrist is also worth exploring and can potentially provide an opportunity for exploitation. Was it purchased during a visit to Geneva or New York?  Was it a gift from a foreign leader, a constituent, spouse or even mistress?  Could the next watch or box be outfitted with a beacon or listening device?

Fidel Castro’s Rolex GMT, Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Rolex DateJust, George Bush’s Timex Indiglo, Emmanuel Macron’s Longines Dolce Vita and Usama bin Laden’s Casio F-91W.  What these all have in common is that they potentially provide data points to analyze. 

Emmanuel Macron’s Longines Dolce VitaFrench President Emmanuel Macron’s Longines Dolce Vita, an affordable ~$600 watch (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Full disclosure: We are only aware of one example of a foreign leader's watch being mentioned in a classified Leadership Profile and I do not want to give the perception that this is a major focus of leadership analysis. It's not. That said, it is indicative of length and standards that intelligence services will go to understand their adversaries and partners. When it comes to “watches of espionage,” watches are tools–only in this case they are tools of analysis.

READ NEXT: The Connection Between Watches And Espionage

This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.


A timely piece ……..
Loved this article

MJ Garcia

Love the article and the information.


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