Spying on the spies in the covert market

The Guardian, November 8 1991

The security was tight. They searched my bag for bombs. They checked my collar for razor blades. They looked for flick knives, firearms and fibre-optic spy cameras. All they missed was me, and so with a shy smile and a phony identity card I trespassed into the very private world of Copex.

It happens every year – the Covert and Operational Procurement Exhibition – a ritual gathering of secret agents, spies, plainclothes cops and large men in grey suits who meet behind closed doors to inspect the latest tools of their trade. It is an annual undercover supermarket.

This year, they left the back streets of Beirut and the ghettos of west Belfast and the empty battlements of the Cold War to bring their well-laundered cash and used notes to the bland anonymity of Esher in Surrey.

All day, they beat a silent path to the exhibition centre that lies alongside the race-course, its terrain depriving saboteurs of all cover. Inside they found the stalls sagging under the weight of the new technology of espionage: bug detectors, portable intruder detectors, phone-tap detectors, bomb detectors, drug detectors, detector detectors – a complete wardrobe for the secret warrior.

Some of it was unashamedly violent — like the Hydra Shok bullet marketed by the Federal Cartridge Company of Anoka, Maine. In official tests by the FBI, the salesman boasted, the Hydra Shok has scored the highest “wound value” of any bullet, measured, of course, by tissue damage as well as depth of penetration.

The secret is the hollow tip with the tapered centre post concealed within. “The centre post directs the target’s fluids against the inner walls of the bullet cavity on impact. This outward pressure results in a more reliable and consistent mushroom.” There were colour glossy pictures of broken bullet snouts to prove it.

Mild-mannered men in anoraks, whose badges identified them as police officers from the Home Counties, gathered to look. Some queued for the firing range next door where they shouldered semi-automatic weapons to fire pellets of pink paint at a picture of a bad guy with a gun. Most of them got their man.

Some of the equipment claimed to be defensive – like the air-conditioned, armour-plated Trojan vehicle which comes complete with roof-mounted slingshot, remote-controlled camera, cable cutters, smoke grenades, tear gas, gun ports for the use of small arms and optional water cannon, all purpose built “to contain unrest scenarios”.

But all of it a was covert: the covert briefcase with the hidden camera; the covert handbag with a shoulder strap full of aerial (sports bag available for gents); and the covert car with a video camera, a stills camera, a microwave transmitter, a tape recorder and a monitor screen all tucked into the private parts of its bodywork.

The salesmen were full of seductive patter. At the Civil Defence Supply stall, a shy young man in a mac asked for “some basic information about riot control”. The salesman took the offensive. “We’re competing against the Americans, the Italians, the Germans and the French. Now the German stuff is cheap but it won’t pass half the tests. The French stuff is horse shit but they still get a lot of backing from their government. What you see here is the real thing.”

“Now you can talk through your ear,” announced the man from Sonic Communications. “It’s ideal for Crops situations.” (That’s ‘covert reconnaissance operations’ to outsiders.) Thoughtfully, he offered the ear-moulded microphone in a range of sizes for eavesdroppers with unusually large ears.

The hall was awash with carabinieri, the Canadian Mounted Police, Norwegian drugs officers, South African Special Branch and lots of American gun dealers. Then the Ministry of Defence arrived, a posse of grey men in grey suits. I mounted a surveillance operation (covert).

I picked a group of four and watched them push their way purposefully through the crowd. They were looking for something. They drifted past the body armour and the experts in penetration and insertion. They hovered for just a second among the policemen at the display of truncheons and handcuffs. Then, for a moment, it looked as though they had found it: bug detectors.

The four of them scrummed down round the Ranger automatic bug detector with its built-in acoustic range-finder. “What’s the frequency?” asked one. “Ten megas to four gigas,” said the salesman with a smile. “It’s perfect for the businessman.”

“Yeah,” said the man from the Ministry. “The paranoid businessman.” He walked on. The others walked on. I followed. They went for lunch. End of surveillance.

It soon became clear that for all their hi-tech kit and their low-life reputation, these were very ordinary mortals. Most of them wore cheap suits and nylon shirts. They talked about pensions and prices. A few centuries ago, they would have sold explosives to Guy Fawkes and then sold an interrogation aid (a rat) to his jailers. The truth is that they are not really warriors at all, only travelling salesmen.