How the CIA Turned a Sex Doll Into a Spy Trick

sex doll
The head for an inflatable sex doll pictured at the Ningbo Yamei plastic toy factory in China. Reuters/Jason Lee

Updated | Of all the many missions Walter McIntosh undertook in his long CIA career, buying life-size rubber sex dolls in a Washington, D.C., porno shop was maybe the most memorable.

It was all for a good cause, of course, and deadly serious, both for Langley and for McIntosh, who headed the CIA's disguise unit from 1977 to 1979. The agency's Moscow operatives were in desperate need of something—anything—to trick Russian counterspies into leaving them alone, if only for a few minutes, so they could meet their secret agents without fear of being arrested. A key operation was in peril.

Enter the inflatable sex doll. Tricked out with an ersatz mouth and vagina, the life-size rubberized playthings have been pleasuring lonely men for a century. Modified to a male likeness, appropriately clothed and rigged up with primitive airbag technology to pop them, inflated, out of a container, the "jack-in-the-box," or JIB, was adapted by the CIA for its espionage war with the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency .

The idea was that a CIA officer en route to a secret meeting would take a JIB along in his car, deflated and sealed inside an innocuous looking package. A colleague would be at the wheel. With KGB goons customarily following them, they needed to find a way for the operative to slip out of the car unnoticed. The first—and key—task was to slowly add distance between them and their surveillants to create what CIA operatives called "a gap." At some point, the operative in the passenger seat—they were almost always men during the Cold War—would crack open his door as they rounded a corner and slip out, disguised as an ordinary Muscovite. The driver then triggered the JIB, putting a lifelike dummy, fedora and all, in his place. The KGB would be none the wiser—at least for a short time.

The existence of the JIB was disclosed by Robert Wallace, a former head of the CIA's Office of Technical Service, and H. Keith Melton, a CIA consultant, in their 2008 book, Spycraft . But its full provenance has not been revealed until now.

McIntosh says he developed the JIB for the CIA, but credited two Hollywood costumes specialists, Les Smith and John Chambers, with the original idea. Chambers was a real-life Hollywood makeup maestro who surfaced as the character played by John Goodman in Argo , the 2012 thriller based on the CIA's rescue of six American hostages from Iran. But the CIA's connections to Smith, the proprietor of Owen Magic Supreme in Azusa, California, a specialty equipment store near Los Angeles, has never before been made public. "He was an illusion-maker for most of the top magicians," McIntosh says of Smith, who died in 2008. Boxes to hide things or "saw" people in half, that sort of thing, according to the company's Web page. He and Chambers did CIA work as a secret sideline.

Their idea was...magical. But the CIA was counting on McIntosh, a seasoned field operative, to turn their idea into a workable espionage tool. "They needed someone who actually understood field operations to run [the disguise unit], as it had gotten a bit out of hand with theoretical and pie-in-the-sky projects," he says.

McIntosh first needed to get his hands on a sex doll. And it wasn't an errand he could dump on his assistant. "My secretary in those days was a very nice, prim and proper lady of high religious upbringing," recalls McIntosh. "She was one of those people that was always volunteering to do the extra chore. But I just could not see sending her out to buy sex dolls. So I just strolled about until I saw a sign, Adult Book Store, and sure enough they had a selection of sex dolls."

The shop was "very close to George Washington University," he says, but he couldn't recall its name. He paid cash. The clerk thought it was odd that he asked for a receipt. "But what was a bit embarrassing was my several returns for additional dolls," McIntosh says. Like the mad scientist in Ex Machina who uses junked parts to build a mannequin with artificial intelligence, McIntosh had to keep supplying the CIA techies with sex dolls. "We went through quite a few in preparing a prototype," he recalls. "As I was buying four or five at a time and often over a period of a few weeks, I am sure I got quite a reputation."

The sex doll could look human for a while, at least from the rear, and at night, from a trailing KGB car. But the hard part of the trick was rigging the doll to pop up with the touch of a button. The CIA turned to a private company in St. Louis that was developing airbags. "It was quite tricky, in that it had to pop out of a briefcase, not be too springy or balloon like, but not to leak or sag, either," McIntosh says. After lots of trials, the engineers were confident it would work.

In December 1982, "Jack" went into service in Russia. "The jack-in-the box...worked," writes David E. Hoffman, author of The Billion Dollar Spy, a dazzling new account of one of the CIA's most valuable Cold War espionage operations. At the center of that drama was Adolf Tolkachev, code-named Sphere. From 1979 to 1985, when he was betrayed by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, Tolkachev stole thousands of technical documents that saved the Pentagon a billion dollars' worth of research and development costs, Hoffman writes.

But for several months in 1982, the CIA was unable to contact him. "Heavy, but apparently routine, KGB surveillance of CIA case officers in the latter half of 1982 forced several planned meetings to be aborted," according to an official CIA history of the affair. The Moscow station desperately needed a personal meeting to see if he was all right and collect his miniature film of stolen documents. The JIB had to work.

One night in December 1982, two CIA officers in a car trailed by the KGB turned a Moscow street corner. The CIA man in the passenger seat opened his door and hopped out. Almost simultaneously, the driver popped Jack up from its compartment, in this case a phony birthday cake. The KGB sleuths were faked out, according to Hoffman's riveting account, and kept following the car until it returned to the American embassy. The other CIA man made it to his meeting with Tolkachev.

"The completion of Jack was likely one of the high points of my two-year stint as chief of disguise," says McIntosh, who went on to assignments in Southeast Asia, including as chief of Vietnam operations. Jack became so commonplace in the CIA that in 1985, one disaffected former employee, Edward Lee Howard, rigged up his own version to elude FBI surveillance and defected to the Soviet Union.

Alas, such magic tricks aren't much use anymore. The contemporary world of ubiquitous electronic surveillance—not just traffic and shopping mall cameras, but email tracking, real-time GPS locating, and digital retina scans and fingerprinting at airports—have pretty much relegated the JIB, wigs and latex facial implants to the CIA's attic. "It's got to be incredibly difficult to use aliases and disguises," says former CIA operative Patrick Skinner, now director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a private intelligence organization headed by FBI, CIA and MI6 veterans. "The cameras are so ubiquitous you don't even know when you're not under surveillance, so when would you put on your disguise in an operation?"

In any event, notes McIntosh, disguises and other tradecraft paraphernalia can go quickly out of date. In the mid-1960s, he says, the CIA closed a five-story warehouse on the far side of Capitol Hill that was stocked with obsolete items agency operatives once needed for traveling incognito, and discarded much of its contents. "That was filled floor-by-floor with clothing, shoes, foodstuffs and so on from different denied areas of the world," McIntosh recalls. "One whole floor just had Cuban clothing."

McIntosh, now living in New Zealand, where he and his wife run a bed-and-breakfast and art gallery, thought all that material shouldn't go to waste. "I tried in vain to get the agency to donate the clothing to Salvation Army or whatnot," he says. "But it all went to the incinerator."

Newsweek national security correspondent Jeff Stein was a military intelligence case officer in South Vietnam.