The prospects for an intelligence operative captured by enemy forces are grim. Soldiers and other war fighters have recourse to Geneva Convention protocols concerning treatment, but personnel working in intelligence and covert operations are effectively denied such protection by virtue of their mission's clandestine nature. The best hope is to be released in a prisoner exchange, sometimes after years. Even then, imprisonment in many countries is likely to include lengthy and exposure to coercive methods, including beatings and/or torture whose intention is to induce the operative to divulge sensitive information. For some, the risk is too great, and therefore, intelligence operatives and agents have often gone into dangerous situations equipped with suicide devices. Most of these employ one form of disguise or another to hide a deadly compound of nitrogen, carbon, and other elements known as cyanide.

The chemistry and biological effects of cyanide. When an atom of carbon bonds with an atom of nitrogen, that is cyanide, an ionic compound designated as CN—hence the name cyanide. The bonding of these atoms with other elements produces various forms: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), cyanogen chloride (CNCl), sodium cyanide (NaCN), or potassium cyanide (KCN). The first two are colorless gases, while the second two appear in crystal form. In addition to these chemical formulas, cyanide is sometimes referred to by military organizations as AN (hydrogen cyanide) or CK (cyanogen chloride).

Applied in materials for exterminating rats and other pests, removing artificial nails, or developing photographs, cyanide has a number of practical uses. It is found in some foods, most notably cassava, and when combined with another chemical, it produces a life-sustaining substance, vitamin B 12 . Yet even in small quantities, cyanide is harmful, a fact illustrated by poisoning deaths in parts of Africa where the diet is heavy in cassava. Cyanide is also one of the most dangerous toxins in cigarette smoke, which is the form of cyanide to which the average person is most likely to be exposed.

Cyanide prevents the body's cells from receiving oxygen, and particularly effects the heart and brain because those two vital organs are particularly dependent on the body's oxygen supply. Within minutes, the victim of cyanide poisoning in very small quantities will begin breathing rapidly and display signs of restlessness. Other symptoms include dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea and vomiting, and a rapid heart rate. Exposure to larger amounts causes rapid convulsions, severe lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, loss of consciousness, lung injury, and ultimately respiratory failure that leads to death.

Cyanide in history. Because cyanide is an effective killer, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein included hydrogen cyanide among the chemical weapons he used against the Kurds in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Forty years earlier, during World War II, Nazi Germany used hydrogen cyanide—in the form of Zyklon B—as an even more efficient agent of genocide in its death camps, where it killed millions of Jews and others. Ironically, in the same war, the Nazis' enemies carried cyanide pills on their persons for a very different reason, to eliminate themselves if captured.

Personnel working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the war were often equipped with "L" pills ( L for lethal ) containing cyanide in crystal form. In some cases, cyanide could be hidden in the earpiece of a pair of glasses. When cornered, the operative could take off his glasses and pretend to thoughtfully bite the end of the earpiece while thinking about what he would say next. But there would not be any next statement: within seconds of consuming this deadly toxin, the operative would be dead.

A similar situation happened in 1977, when Soviet diplomat Aleksandr Ogorodnik found that he had reached the end of the line. He had been secretly working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who knew him by the code name TRIGON. When the Soviets discovered they had a traitor in their midst, they presented him with a confession to sign. Ogorodnik, well aware of what lay in store for him, asked to use his own pen, and when it was given to him, he bit off the end, ingesting a dose of cyanide hidden there. Within seconds, he was dead.

In order to keep this means of escape handy, operatives have gone to extraordinary lengths. Among the items used for concealing cyanide pills in the past is a container shaped like a cigarette lighter and made to fit in the rectum. In 1960, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers carried a cyanide capsule on his person. Instead of committing suicide, when the Soviets shot down his plane, Powers parachuted to earth, and was taken prisoner. Later, after his captors had reaped enormous propaganda benefits from the incident, he was traded for a Soviet spy in a prisoner exchange.



Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate Spy Book. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

Minnery, John. CIA Catalog of Clandestine Weapons, Tools, and Gadgets. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1990.


Facts About Suicide. Centers for Disease Control. < > (March 19, 2003).

International Spy Museum. < > (March 19, 2003).


Assassination Weapons, Mechanical
Biochemical Assassination Weapons
Chemical Warfare
Intelligence Agent
U-2 Incident

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