The Top-Secret History Of The Dead Letter Box

International spies have long relied on the "dead letter box" or "dead drops" for important information exchanges. Recently, a British Magazine gave ordinary people the chance to play spy by giving clues to a dead letter box somewhere in London. Alan Judd, an expert on British espionage, explains.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Back in the dear dead days of the Cold War, western capitals were presumably curling with eastern spies, enlisting moles, turning people in a position to know their nation's secrets into traitors. And if you read your spy novels, you'll also know those secrets, once acquired, would have to be passed along to the spy's handler.

Alan Judd has written about the history of British espionage as well as served his country as a soldier and a diplomat. He likes the dead letter box. He joins us from the BBC studios in London. Mr. Judd, welcome.

Mr. ALAN JUDD (Writer): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, what is a dead letter box?

Mr. JUDD: Let's pretend we're two spies trying to contact each other. You want to give me some money...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDD: So you find a hiding place to put it which I can come along to and empty it.

WERTHEIMER: And presumably, it would have to be a place where it would not be out of the question for me to be there...

Mr. JUDD: OK.

WERTHEIMER: Or for you to be there.

Mr. JUDD: No. It's got to fit your pattern of life and my pattern of life. It would be no good leaving in, say, the ladies lavatory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDD: Because, you know, I wouldn't be allowed in.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, you and the British magazine Intelligent Life recently organized a contest for your readers to find a dead letter box, empty it, and maybe win a prize. Did somebody find it?

Mr. JUDD: The manager of a Japanese restaurant found it a couple of days after it was filled.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think he made it too easy? There's some sort of broad hints in the magazine.

Mr. JUDD: Well, yeah. It was meant to be fairly easy because a dead letter box needs to be easy. Because it's no good if I fill one for you, and you've got to empty it. And you are very vulnerable and possibly very frightened spy. You don't want to be seen climbing up walls, doing something like that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDD: You've just got to be able to empty it in a couple of seconds and come away again looking entirely innocent.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I never asked you what your dead letter box was in this contest.

Mr. JUDD: It was simply a cigarette package that contains the torn half of a currency note. And it was hidden beneath a metal box, and you had to just slip your hand underneath the box to feel the cigarette package.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that spies still exist in capitals like London and Washington? Do you think there's spies here?

Mr. JUDD: I'm sure there are many spies in London and in Washington, as there are in any other capital city. Probably as many as there were in the Cold War. But I don't think anyone really knows. One thing I do know is that spying is said to be the second oldest profession, and that it would take a revelation in human affairs for it to die out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: What about you? I'm leaping to the conclusion that you may have had some experience of dead letter boxes in your life.

Mr. JUDD: As you know, with spies, you can never believe what they say. And so if I said yes, I was, you wouldn't know if I was making it up. And if I said no, I wasn't, you'd think, well, he must have been really. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDD: Not much I can say about it, really.

WERTHEIMER: Alan Judd has written about the history of espionage. He spoke to us from London. Mr. Judd, thank you very much.

Mr. JUDD: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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