The Geology of Spying

So, the Brits finally fessed up that indeed they did plant a fake rock in a park outside of Moscow to spy on Russia. The story first arose in 2006 when Russian Intelligence claimed that British diplomats had used the rock to download and transmit information about Russian NGOs, or Non-Governmental Organizations. At the time, the British government denied any knowledge of the rock or the spying.

But on Thursday, in a BBC documentary, Jonathan Powell, who in 2006 was Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Tony Blair, admitted that “they had us bang to rights.” (For those unfamiliar with this phrase, it means caught red-handed. There appears to be some dispute as to whether it is of British or American origin.) Powell added that “Clearly they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose.”

That purpose appears to be Putin’s clamping down on NGOs. Supposedly, the British were funding NGOs that sought to promote democracy and human rights. An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper quoted human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. “For any thinking person this rock meant nothing – it was simply a provocation, a cheap trick used by a former KGB agent.” The British continue to deny that the had illegally funded any NGOs.

Curiously, the Russians have long been known to use such fake rocks themselves. In an interview on C-Span in 2000, author David Wise described how double-agent Joe Cassidy used fake rocks for Russian spy drops in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sergeant Cassidy made one for me o–out of papier-mache. He
 showed me how it’s done. And it looks absolutely realistic. Then he
 would roll it in the dirt to–to look like a rock, to pick up some 
dirt. And it was kind of gray looking to begin with. And the inside 
would be completely hollow. And in there, he would have some
ti–ordinary tinfoil that you would buy at the supermarket.

And inside the tinfoil, he would wrap the film of the documents he had
secretly photographed on behalf of the Russians. All was under the
control of the FBI and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. The
 Russians would then pick up this–this–these films and they would 
develop them and they would think they had the secret documents.

In regard to the modern rock, my big question is whether it looked authentic or not. I think that it does. The rock looks like sandstone or limestone and Moscow is known to have subsurface karst limestone. So, I like to think that even if the Brits made what some call an embarrassing choice by using the rock and then denying it, they at least may have gone to the effort to choose a geologically appropriate rock.

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