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TURN Spycraft Handbook – Exfiltration Operation

When Ben Tallmadge learns that Captain Simcoe is plotting to exact revenge on his family and those close to them by executing them in Episode 110, “The Battle of Setauket,” he enlists the help of Caleb Brewster and several hundred Continental soldiers to execute a daring rescue operation. In spy circles, such a rescue is known as an exfiltration operation, a clandestine rescue operation to bring a refugee, operative or family member out of danger.

An exfiltration operation requires agents to go deep into areas under enemy control through stealth, deception, surprise, or clandestine means. This falls under the umbrella of what many would term “special operations” as a form of unconventional warfare. The element of surprise is key: Unorthodox tactics give the aggressors a distinct advantage which keeps the enemy on their toes.

Ian Fleming’s masterful book From Russia With Love is crafted with an exfiltration operation (James Bond finding and extracting Tatiana Romanova from the Soviet Union and moving her safely to Paris) at the center of its plot. It’s a complex web of action, lies, and shaken martinis that Sean Connery skillfully navigates in the film version of the book. During real life rescue operations, the espionage agents are often much less dashing and the road to a getaway is often much less smooth.

Perhaps the most famous exfiltration operation also made it onto the big screen. On November 4, 1979, militant Islamic students took over the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took the 66 US personnel inside hostage. Six US State Department employees escaped capture and took refuge in the homes of Canadian Embassy officers. The “Canadian Six” became a rescue target for the U.S. Government, who tapped a small team CIA operatives with expertise in disguise and document falsification to get them out of Iran.

The exfiltration of the six American hostages was fraught with difficult obstacles. Iran’s tight immigration exit controls, the lack of intelligence backgrounds of the targets, the potential risk of failure by the U.S. and Canadian governments, and the possible loss of freedom and life made the operation a high wire act. In the face of tremendous odds, the CIA came up with one of the most audacious cover stories in espionage history: Using the fake company “Studio Six Productions” tasked with location scouting for its new production “Argo,” the CIA was able to create the cover and documentation necessary to make a harrowing escape out of the country with all the hostages safe and sound. An Oscar-winning film was born.

Clandestine human intelligence operations are intricate campaigns that require surgical precision. One false move and the thin web of lies and deceptions can fall apart. The stakes: Life and death. In the midst of this emotionally volatile and physically dangerous powder keg, an agent must use concealment, cover stories, and even outlandish means to secure the operatives.

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