CIA's Tree: Some Kind of Secret | WIRED

WIRED Staff 4-4 minutes 12/26/2022

LANGLEY, Virginia -- The hottest holiday party at CIA headquarters is put on by the masters of spy gadgetry who use Christmas ornaments to display the latest technology.

It's not cameras in cigarette lighters anymore, but the tree at the Office of Technical Service party this year would thrill even fans of the fictional "Q" who produced pens that could fire bullets and cars that could swim for British agent James Bond.

A manager identified only as Robert, for security reasons as he is still undercover, says step closer to the conifer bedecked with ordinary looking lights, ornaments and a star.

The butterfly ornament is actually thin silver metallic wings attached to a small piece of circuit board. A piece of wire changes shape with the temperature and moves the wings up and down; the technology is useful to move tiny items.

Bird ornaments chirp if a light is shone or they are touched on a certain spot on their heads.

A dragonfly ornament's wings move at hummingbird speed when the tree lights are clear. The wings are made of sheer material that could be used to construct a microphone that would be almost impossible to detect.

And if you put on a pair of special cardboard glasses, the words "happy holidays" appear dancing around the star, showing off a way to conceal messages.

The Office of Technical Service holiday party has been a staple at the CIA for 25 years and this year's hottest item was LED lights that operate on far less power than regular lights.

If made infrared, they could for example flood a landing zone detectable only with night-vision equipment.

A big potted plant was adorned with a string of 250 small red bulbs that used the power of just one eight-watt Christmas tree light, lasting up to 100,000 hours.

The hosts wouldn't discuss devices currently in use in the field, stating only that efforts were always being made to produce things that used less power and were smaller and lighter.

But some things never change.

The most fun gadgets Robert said he has seen are miniature cameras in a variety of concealment devices.

"It's remarkable what you can put a camera inside and the device still works," Robert said.
He would not, however, divulge what the agency currently is using.

One thing that has changed, however, is the camera-in-the-cigarette-lighter of Bond's heyday.

"A camera in a lighter was great 30 years ago because everybody carried a cigarette lighter. Who carries a cigarette lighter today?" Robert said.

But as one might expect, even the Christmas party at the U.S. spy agency office had to be undercover, with a reporter allowed in only after revelers had departed.

The 350-pound speakers that can produce sound equal to a woofer 50-feet in diameter were still belting out crisp tunes.

A spy-style laser light show illuminated the empty dance floor. And on a screen the CIA seal in laser lights looked three-dimensional as it rotated.

One straggler with perky short brown hair and black-frame glasses snapped into a sandy-haired corporate type by shedding her disguise. Agents in the field can don a new look in two minutes, she said.

Two robots wandered the hall, under remote control, but more for effect than as an example of real use in the field.

"Our business is to enable a human being to do operations. We're not in remote stuff," Robert said.

But even agency operatives seemed to have something in common with office partyers nationwide -- there wasn't much food or drink left lying around.