Tradecraft and the Web

 Tradecraft Tradecraft and the Web

There was an interesting notice or ad, I am not sure of the exact term, in a well-known web classified ad site a few days ago; Interesting, and surprisingly suspicious. This site, and its competitors, have never been known for any ads or notices at all suspicious.  Right.  The notice is still up, at least when I wrote this. Apparently the NSA does not actually read much of the stuff it is grabbing from electronic media.

Anyway, someone is seeking a person for what seems like an easy assignment.  The person needs to have an address in the 20005 area code in Washington D.C., one of the prime area codes in the DC business district, a couple of blocks from the White House, not far from George Washington University, with its 15,000 students. Ideally, as the ad put it, the person should be planning on living in the area for the next few years – so probably would not be a college student. For $10 a month, all the person needs to do it receive some mail, just a few pieces per month, mostly solicitations and a few invoices. Forward this mail, in self-addressed envelopes supplied by the hiring party, to the hiring party. Easy, right? How much work can this take?

Is this ad suspicious? Very suspicious? Very, very suspicious? Yes. Yes. Yes. One can go on and on, adding adjectives.  But what is the motive? Washington DC is not noted as an easy place to run a business.  So if there was some form of tax or regulation dodge going on here, someone would be more likely to look for an address in Virginia, just across the Potomac, an easy and comfortable subway ride away.

Is someone looking for a more impressive address within DC than a post office box or where they might live? Are they too cheap to rent office space or one of these services that rents an address? This may be most likely. Under the rule called Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is probably correct. This may be the most logical explanation. But this is no fun at all.  This is Washington, a city of conspiracies equaled, perhaps, only by New York City. And there are points on which to hang the conspiracy theory.  Though next thing you know I will start worrying about the Federal government is reading our e-mail.  (In my own case, I am probably putting them to sleep).

The notice mentions the “occasional invoice” among the mail. Someone seems to want to hide a real address from vendors from whom they are purchasing products. At least this appears to be the case. Of course, they could just as easily pay cash when they want to hide their address. Even stores that ask for addresses when you buy something are not going to ask for address ID for cash.  This letter forwarding is complex, probably. And not 100 percent safe.  Why not just ask for invoices right then? Most places will be glad to give you a bill immediately, as they get paid faster. Explanations may be simple, but people can be very complicated and illogical.

However, remember that Washington DC is one of the espionage capitals of the world.  “Tradecraft” is more likely to refer to how spies do their job than how tradesmen make things. “Dead drop” does not refer to the Washington Nationals pennant chances since the All-Star break. It does refer to leaving documents hidden in something else for a contact to pick up. Important filmed papers in the Alger Hiss espionage case in the late 1940s were found in a hollowed out pumpkin on a Maryland farm.  Fortunately, there was no indication that the Great Pumpkin was involved.  Linus never had to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He never had to face attacks from the younger “bad” Richard Nixon – as opposed to the older “good” Nixon, who turned out to be really bad.

The ad at least implies that no packages are to be forwarded. And there are limits to how much drugs can be sent in an envelope. What is effectively blind forwarding of information is rather old school, with all the electronic means available today. But modern methods of tracking the baddies will tend not to look at old school methods. The NSA apparently can search just about everything electronic. But checking mail still requires hands on, literally, checking the mail.  Low tech threats can be more of a problem than high tech threats. This may be an oldie but goody for a modern day baddy.

Actually, and this is not as much fun, or worrisome, to think about, the ad probably just a complex, and cheap-assed, way of getting a more impressive looking address for a consultant or small business. But even if I lived in the area, enough warning bells would be going off to have me decide to not reply. The risks, however likely they are miniscule, are not worth it.

Bruce Brager is an experienced freelance writer and ghost writer with an extensive record of publications. His most recent major piece is an e-book on the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo. Mr. Brager’s e-book Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo can be found at

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