Review: Legerdemain: The Presidents Secret Plan, The Bomb and what the French Never Knew… by James J. Heaphey

Legerdemain: French term (literally “light of hand”) commonly used to refer to sleight of hand or magical manipulation.

The term could have been James Heaphy’s job description.

Legerdemain is the story of Heaphey’s time in Morocco, working for U.S. Air Force intelligence. At the time, the United States had a secret cache of nuclear weapons, hidden in an air force base in Nouasseur. A journalist assigned to the base newspaper, The Minaret, Heaphey’s true assignment is to gather information on the nationalist forces brewing in Morocco. While official US policy was to work with the French colonial forces controlling the region, they secretly worked to encourage and befriend the local nationalists. The US believed that eventually the nationalist forces would drive out the French, and we wanted to be well-positioned to maintain our bases in the region. To do that, we needed to have friends on both sides of the fence.

Spying involves a lot of meetings. There is a lot of sitting around conference tables, looking at files; Heaphey spends a lot of his time and effort putting out an actual newspaper, all the while he is working on more secretive projects. There is a lot – and I mean a LOT – of lying. There are parties to attend and people to meet and you must find a way to convince everyone that you are really on their side. Heaphey uses his cover as a journalist to ask a lot of questions, travel to a lot of restricted areas and move freely amongst a variety of people – anything could be a story. He seems to be very aware of the responsibility he bears for not just his own work, but the people around him. When he involves a good friend, Sargeant Jilly Hopper, in his work, he is keenly aware that an innocent misstep could lead to the end of her promising career, but he still can’t tell her what he knows – even if it would keep her safe.

Anyone interested in the day-to-day work of an intelligence operative will find this a fascinating read. There is no James Bond-style excitement, only a few real confrontations, but it does a good job of explaining old-style intelligence gathering. I must admit that it seems a bit dated, with no mention of the Internet, no wire-tapping or high-tech gadgetry, but it is still a very interesting look at some of the secrets we kept and how we kept them.

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