The CIA Would Use 'Love Dolls' As Decoys In The 1970s

Culture | September 6, 2019

President Gerald Ford with George H.W. Bush, then CIA Director, in an undated, undoctored photo. Source: cia.gov

In the thick of the Cold War, America's Central Intelligence Agency conscripted unfeeling, pneumatic specialists to foil the enemy: inflatable plastic or rubber love dolls.

(You thought we were going to say Austin Powers-style fembots? No, that would be silly.)

Here's the scene: The chill of Moscow seeps in through the frame of your unmarked car. You and another agent deftly navigate the streets in attempt to lose your KGB tail. When you get to the drop point you slow down long enough for your fellow agent to get out of the car to steal away down an anonymous street; moments before your tail pulls into view, you hit a button on your briefcase and out pops a... plastic love doll.

That might read like a Mad Lib, but when US operatives needed a real way to keep KGB agents off their scent, and these plastic dolls designed as replacements for female companionship turned out the be the perfect weapon against the Soviet machine. Here’s how. 

During the Cold War deception was key

source: United Artists

When we think of Cold War technology, James Bond and Q usually come to mind. Whether it’s cigarettes with cyanide, a homing beacon in a shoe, or a parking meter that releases tear gas, these contraptions are more or less nothing but fantasy. In reality, government agents were pretty low tech. They relied on disguises and subterfuge to keep enemy operatives guessing.

One of the biggest problems with agents taking secret meetings in Russia was the fact that they couldn’t lose their tails in a car. In order to do that they came up with a plan to fill the seat with something that looked human, and that was inflatable so it wouldn’t be seen until the last minute. These devices, referred to as “JIBs” or jack in the boxes went through a few permutations before they were perfected. 

Early JIBs had a touch of Hollywood magic

source: pinterest

According Walter McIntosh, the head of the CIA’s disguise unit from 1977 to 1979, the brains behind the idea for the love doll JIB came from Les Smith and John Chambers, two costume and prop specialists who worked on a ton of movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Smith owned Owen Magic Supreme in Azusa, California, a specialty equipment store near Los Angeles, and he worked on a bunch of effects for magicians when he wasn’t creating something for a film or working a government contractor.

Smith and Chambers came up with the concept of an inflatable doll popping out of a briefcase or false cake, but it was up to McIntosh to actually make the idea work. He explained:

They needed someone who actually understood field operations to run [the disguise unit], as it had gotten a bit out of hand with theoretical and pie-in-the-sky projects.

In order to craft an invention that actually performed the necessary function without too much flare, McIntosh had to experiment on a lot of dolls, which made him fairly popular at the local Washington DC adult book store. 

The budget for personal dolls must have been astronomical

source: pinterest

Creating the perfect inflatable JIB takes a lot of trial and error. In a time before the internet or the mail order system that meant that when Walter McIntosh wanted to experiment with various brands of personal dolls he had to make repeat visits to the same DC area adult book store. In order to prepare a prototype he had to literally tear through multiple dolls, and he’s certain that the folks at the store thought he was the biggest creep in the DC area. He told Newsweek

We went through quite a few in preparing a prototype. As I was buying four or five at a time and often over a period of a few weeks, I am sure I got quite a reputation.

The dolls couldn’t handle rapid inflation

source: pinterest

The key to the rubber doll taking the place of an agent is that they had to inflate quickly or the ruse is lost. The dolls had an issue with the rapid inflation necessary to give the seamless appearance of a passenger in a car, and they often burst when they were inflated - especially in the testing stages.

A similar problem existed for agents who were hopping back into a car. If they found themselves getting into the same car they left for their clandestine meeting they had to get the dummy back into the briefcase, which often meant fighting a love doll back into its briefcase, or with nothing left to do, popping it for a quick deflation. 

The dolls actually worked 

source: MGM

This story might sound like something from a spy spoof but it turns out that with a lot of hard work and elbow grease the CIA was able to manufacture a JIB that worked exactly how they needed them to. Referred to as “Jack,” the JIBs were outfitted with parts originally designed for an airbag deployment system, wigs, hats, and even coats in some instances.

The JIBs didn’t just work as predicted, they managed to fool the KGB. It’s good that they did because it would be embarrassing if there were photos out there of our top CIA agents struggling with plastic dolls and their wide open mouths. Walter McIntosh told Newsweek, “The completion of Jack was likely one of the high points of my two-year stint as chief of disguise.”

The best JIBs weren’t inflatable

source: pinterest

JIBs, or Jack in the Boxes, as they were referred to by the government were a hassle because of their propensity to explode, or to not even inflate correctly when they were triggered. The best solution was the most simple, and unfortunately the least cool.

The best JIB worked the same way as the love doll JIBs, but instead of inflating these devices were made of a toilet plunger or stick, a coat hangar, a shirt or jacket, and a styrofoam head with a wig or hat to finish the illusion. As intelligent as this version of the JIB is, it’s clear that it works better than something that has to be inflated and deflated every time it’s used. 

JIBs didn’t stick around for long

source: Sony Pictures Releasing

Even though JIBs were the apex of a kind of Cold War ingenuity, they weren’t long for this world. Their heyday lasted from the ‘70s to the ‘80s, but with the advent of GPS locators, cameras, and email tracking, a pop up passenger seems somewhat quaint. Even Walter McIntosh, the guy who helped turn JIBs into a functioning escape tool, realizes that the time of disguises and wacky inventions is over. He explained the downfall of the most fun kind of spying:

The cameras are so ubiquitous you don't even know when you're not under surveillance, so when would you put on your disguise in an operation?

Tags: The CIA | The Cold War

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.