In the 1970s, CIA Technical Officers modified a digital Seiko to conceal a Tropel T-100 camera inside. The purpose of the watch-turned-espionage-tool was to allow a recruited agent to surreptitiously photograph classified documents in their place of work and deliver them to CIA. The camera was so quiet that it could be used to photograph documents within a KGB Rezidentura or other sensitive buildings while unknowing co-workers were just feet away.
The Silver Screen vs Reality:
Hollywood's depiction of spy gadgets embedded in a Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster is entertaining, but largely a fantasy of the screenwriter's imagination. In fact, there were very few times in my career as a CIA Case Officer that I used “spy gear” and instead largely relied on low-tech tradecraft to build relationships, recruit spies, and steal secrets.
US Embassy Moscow- Cold War
That said, technology plays a significant role in the espionage trade from both an offensive (collection) and defensive (counterintelligence) standpoint in the modern era. Historically, spy gadgetry was a crucial tool in the “great game” of the Cold War where both the Soviet Union’s KGB and CIA leveraged cutting edge technologies– including miniature cameras and audio recording devices– to collect intelligence and thwart hostile surveillance.
In order to mask these capabilities, pieces of surveillance technology were often housed in “Concealment Devices,” seemingly benign objects that could be carried by the Agent into sensitive government facilities. In some now-declassified cases, a timepiece was used as either a passive or active concealment device to hide the presence of the espionage tool.
U.S. Representative to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. points to a hole for a concealed listening device in the U.S. Great Seal (a gift from the Soviets to the UNSC). (Photo Credit: Getty)
In the niche genre of Watches of Espionage, it is important to understand these historical references. We will periodically profile some of these watches, their relevance, and the impact they had on intelligence collection.
The Real Q-Branch:
In most spy movies, there is a “Q:” a fictional character responsible for providing the lead “spy” with the latest and greatest technological advancements. In obvious foreshadowing, the issued gear (often a luxury timepiece with spy gear embedded) will later play a significant role in the movie during a pivotal scene where the spy escapes a deadly situation or finally gets even with the villain.
While I never met an individual “Q” at CIA, there are several offices dedicated to developing, testing, and fielding technologies for intelligence collection. During the Cold War, this office was known as the Office of Technical Service (OTS) positioned within the Directorate of Science & Technology (DS&T).
Modified Seiko Housing T-100 Camera:
In the mid-1970s OTS technical officers reportedly modified an off-the-shelf Seiko LCD-equipped model (reference unknown) to conceal a Tropel T-100 camera inside. The watch worked by “active concealment,” meaning it functioned normally when the camera lens was not visible. When the asset–or a recruited agent–rotated the dial nearly 180 degrees it exposed the aperture at the 6 o'clock position. A button at the 4 o'clock position activated the shutter to take the picture.
(Photo Credit: Ultimate Spy, Keith Melton)
According to intelligence historian Keith Melton, the camera held a 15-inch strip of auto-advancing film and could capture 100 high resolution images. The purpose of the tool was to allow an asset or agent to surreptitiously photograph classified documents in their place of work. The camera did not require an auto-focus mechanism and could effectively take pictures of standard-sized documents when held approximately 11 inches off the desk, which was about the length of an average adult male's elbow to hand. The camera was so quiet that it could be used to photograph documents within a KGB Rezidentura or other sensitive buildings while unknowing co-workers were just feet away.
OTS produced instructions showing an Asset how to use the T-100 key fob model. Instructions also showed agents “how to hide the camera in a fist held to the forehead while seated–as if they were reading, not photographing.” (Photo Credit: Ultimate Spy, Keith Melton)
While the watch concealment is interesting in itself, the T-100 subminiature camera was the real technological feat at work. Despite its size, it was designed to take distortion-free images the size of a single page of text using retired stock film first used in spy satellites. In contrast to the movies, where a piece of gear was issued “just in case,” the tiny camera was purpose-built for intelligence collection and issued only to the most sensitive CIA assets operating behind the Iron Curtain. The tool was designed and produced by an outside contractor who painstakingly assembled the shutter components and lenses the size of a pinhead.
As Robert Wallace and Melton would later recall in Spycraft, the Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, “the T-100’s assembly was closer to watchmaking than any commercial manufacturing process. The owner of the company fabricated each camera himself under a large magnifying glass and halo light using a device he built specifically for the task.”
T-100 concealed in cricket lighter (Photo Credit: Ultimate Spy, Keith Melton)
Looking at the watch, it’s tempting to conclude that it looked semi-futuristic for the 1970s and that this might cause counterintelligence concerns for an asset back then. But the Seiko was created, or modified, during an important time in horology history: the Quartz Crisis.
During the Digital Revolution of the late 1960s, the development of the quartz watch resulted in a transition in the market from mechanical watches to quartz movements and eventually, digital displays with the Pulsar in 1972. This quick shift was dubbed the “quartz crisis,” where many consumers moved to the cheaper more accurate timepieces and there was a dramatic decline in the traditional, mechanically-driven Swiss watch industry. Seiko, credited with developing the first quartz movement, was one of the first brands to embrace the new technology and produced several LCD screen watches similar to the one used by CIA.
While we have not identified this exact reference, there are several Seiko watches from the era that match the similar design, including this 1975 Seiko 0114-0010 Quartz LC. The exact reference likely would have been procured in the Soviet Union before being shipped back to the U.S. for modification, so as not to raise questions why a Soviet official would be wearing an imported watch. Again, details matter.
1975 Seiko 0114-0010 Quartz LC (Photo Credit: Ebay)
Interestingly, it was in this time period (in 1977) that the Bond franchise integrated the first Seiko into the mix in The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond, played by Roger Moore, wore a modified Seiko 0674 LC, which contained a miniature printer to receive messages from his headquarters in the UK. CIA has been known to take inspiration from Hollywood, and whether this was life imitating art or the other way around, we can only speculate.
What is uncertain is whether the CIA-modified Seiko was actually used by an asset during the Cold War or if this was a prototype that never made it to the field. While much of the information from this time period has been declassified or leaked, there is no public information available indicating it was issued to an asset for operational use.
What we do know is that the camera itself, the T-100, was particularly effective at collecting intelligence and was dubbed by some as the "camera that won the Cold War." There are documented examples of both the T-100 and later the T-50 being issued to assets housed in fountain pens, keychains and lighters and capturing images that were later passed on to the CIA handling Case Officer.
Tropel Camera Housed in Fountain Pen, Image courtesy of International Spy Museum.
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This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.