Spies have long captured the public imagination. Books and movies have been based around the imagined lives and exploits of secret agents. Sometimes, these tales stray far from reality. But sometimes, the truth can be stranger than fiction. Below are 10 facts that detail the real drama, and some surprising truths, about the world of spies.
10. Spies’ Families Often Don’t Know Their Real Identities
It’s pretty obvious why spies have to conceal their true identities from the general public, but often their subterfuge goes much further. Spies’ own family members, including parents and children, may have no idea about what their loved ones actually do for a living. One ex-CIA agent told his parents and girlfriend that he was a low-level salesman to cover his 8 years of undercover work. Covering up his double life involved thwarting attempts by his parents to visit him in Hawaii, where he supposedly worked (he was actually in Afghanistan) and fielding girlfriends’ accusations of infidelity and illicit behavior when they found gaps in his stories.
Even that degree of deception pales in comparison to keeping your true identity from your own children. This situation isn’t just a construct of The Americans, a TV spy drama where KGB agents pose as husband and wife, complete with two unknowing kids, to spy on the US government. In fact, the show’s premise is based on a real-life dilemma many spies who are parents face: when, or if, to tell their children who they really are.
In one illustration of how this situation can play out, in 2010, 20-year old Tim Foley and his 16-year old brother Alex discovered, after their family home in Cambridge, MA was raided by the FBI, that their parents were part of a Russian spy operation. The Foley brothers claim they had no idea that their parents had any vocations outside of consultant and real estate agent. They knew their parents had been born outside the US, but thought they were from Canada (as both brothers were). They were shocked to discover that the parents they knew as Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, were actually Russian nationals whose real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.
9. Sex is a Tool of the Trade
We all know sex sells, but evidently, sex also spies. There are numerous examples of spies using their feminine (and masculine) wiles to dupe targets, create blackmail material, and occupy the enemy. One of the most well-known spies to have employed seduction is Margaretha Zelle Macleod, better known by her stage name, Mata Hari. Depending on which side of the contested story is believed, Mata Hari, a Dutch national, was either passing French secrets to the Germans, or passing false information to the Germans in hopes of abetting the French. Either way, in 1917, a French court declared Mata Hari, “one of the greatest spies of the century,” sentencing her to death. She retained her sexuality to the moment of her death, reportedly forsaking a blindfold and blowing a kiss to the firing squad that executed her.
More recent examples include the seduction of CIA clerk Sharon Scranage by Ghanian official Michael Agbotui Soussoudis, a relationship that allowed him to acquire a list of all CIA employees in Ghana. The information acquired through this “honey trap” is believed to have resulted in the death of at least one CIA informant in Ghana. While there are no facts and figures around the commonality of the use of sex in espionage, government spies in Russia, China, and the United States are reported to have employed hanky-panky in the service of their nations.
8. Not All Spies are Adults
Clearly, not all spies are going to fit the James Bond mold. It’s critical for a spy to blend into his or her environment seamlessly. A suave, handsome man in expensive suits and cars would surely stand out far too much to take on, say, the role of a clerk in a foreign tax office. But in some settings, any adult would stand out. And, at least on occasion, governments and insurgent groups around the world have relied on child spies to get the information that adults cannot reach.
Generally, when children are used as spies, the situation is pretty bleak. Recruiting and using children under 15 to support armed forces/groups in any capacity is against international law. Children from 15-18 are only allowed to serve voluntarily. Nonetheless, children have been employed as spies in numerous conflicts, recently serving as informants to the Somali government on the identities of insurgents and as messengers, spies, and suicide bombers for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In some cases, as in North Korean gulags or under the East German Stasi intelligence agency, children are encouraged to report to the government on friends and family members’ actions and ideologies.
7. Suicide is Sometimes Part of the Job
Obviously, capture is a bad situation for both the spy and the government he or she represents. The spy faces the very real possibility of torture to gain intelligence details and the names of other operatives, and perhaps execution. The spy’s government faces the fallout from the loss of any sensitive information its agent gives up. But as bad as being caught spying is, is it really a fate worse than death? The existence and use of suicide pills by some spies suggests that at least some (and/or their sponsors) view death as preferable to capture.
In 1987, after planting bombs on a South Korean passenger plane, an attack that took the lives of all 115 passengers on board, the two North Korean agents behind the act of terror were taken in for questioning in Bahrain. Following the instructions of their regime, the pair promptly bit into cyanide capsules hidden in their cigarettes. Kim Hyun-hee, one of the agents, described her decision, saying, “I knew when an operation failed, an agent had to kill themselves. So I bit down on the cyanide ampoule.” Kim survived her suicide attempt. While the South Korean government initially sentenced her to death, she was later pardoned under the view that she had been brainwashed by the North Korean State.
6. There are Celebrities Among Their Ranks
At first glance, a career in the spotlight would appear to appear to be the polar opposite of the covert work of espionage. However, there are some famous people who have worked as spies, both before and after they became famous.
Before her career in the kitchen, chef Julia Child worked as a typist, then research analyst for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency during WWII. She earned the “Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service” for her work. Before becoming a US Supreme Court Justice, Arthur Goldberg also served in the OSS, where his work involved organizing European labor unions and dissident groups to resist the Nazis. Children’s author Roald Dahl earned a reputation as a ladies’ man during his undercover work with the British embassy in Washington D.C., as part of the British campaign to draw the US into WWII.
While, for obvious reasons, there are more spies who later became famous than celebrities who later became spies, there are still several famous people who also worked as secret agents. Jazz Age performer Josephine Baker used her travel schedule and position as a star to support the French Resistance during WWII. She reported on the identities of French Nazi supporters, conversations she overheard from German officers in her audiences, and even smuggled secret documents written in invisible ink on her music sheets.
US baseball catcher Moe Berg was known for being one of the smartest men to ever play the game. A Princeton graduate, Berg spoke 8 languages and had passed the bar before turning to baseball and joining the Washington Senators. Berg’s intelligence career began when he traveled to Japan as part of an all-star baseball exhibition tour. During his tour, he took home movies of Tokyo’s skyline and shipyards, which were reportedly used to help plan US bombing raids during WWII. After leaving baseball, Berg joined the OSS, where his work included parachuting into Yugoslavia to evaluate resistance groups and evaluating Nazi progress towards a nuclear weapon.
5. Not All Spies are Human
Spies often need to blend into the background and to be able to quickly get in and out of tight spaces to get the information they need without being detected. In some cases, the spy who best fits the parameters of the mission may have four legs, flippers, or even wings and a beak. Robert Wallace, who led the CIA’s office of Technical Services in the ’90s notes the appeal of turning to other species for espionage dirty work: “Animals can go places people can’t Animals are unalerting.”
Animal spies have been trained for a variety of roles, dependent on both the capabilities of their species and the intelligence needs of the country. Homing pigeons were used during WWI to dispatch messages between divisions, and in a pilot program, to take aerial photographs using automatic cameras. The US Navy, through the ongoing Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP) has trained dolphins to detect and report underwater mines. An outfit called Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) worked with the CIA and Army during the Cold War, employing animals including ravens and cats to retrieve documents and serve as living listening devices.
While ABE has ended its intelligence work and one of its former employees suggests that technology has rendered many applications of animal spies superfluous, the same employee continues to work training dogs to perform tasks for European security agencies. Their ranks may be diminished, as the NMMP shows, but there still continue to be some intelligence roles that are best filled by non-human agents.
4. Spy Agencies Can Employ Very Aggressive Hiring Practices
It doesn’t come as a surprise that authoritarian regimes can have very heavy-handed methods of persuading their citizens to become spies. One former North Korean agent says she was simply plucked from her school as a teenager to become a spy: “One day a black sedan showed up at my school. They were from the central party and told me I’d been chosen…I was just told to pack.”
However, even democratic countries can make potential spies offers they can’t refuse. When describing how the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, pressured his brother, Eli Cohen, to join their ranks and spy on Syria, Maurice Cohen noted, “Even as the Mossad was recruiting my brother, they secretly went to his employer and got him fired. He had a wife and kids to support.”
In 2002, the Russian Security Service accused the US of using drugged drinks and cookies to try to recruit a Russian defense worker who visited the US Embassy in an ex-Soviet Republic. Russia insisted that the ploy had backfired, with the defense worker subsequently working with Russian intelligence to feed misinformation to his US handlers.
3. Spies Sometimes Assume the Identities of the Dead
How does a spy come up with a believable cover identity? Some spies maintain their existing identities, just disguising their real professions. Most US spies overseas operate under “official cover,” which is to say they are given fake jobs in US agencies or embassies that offer diplomatic immunity. “Non-official cover” is more dangerous, requiring the use of an assumed name and profession, without the protection of diplomatic immunity in the event of discovery.
In cases where spies need to assume a realistic identity, assuming the identity of someone else, usually someone who died as a child, can be a useful shortcut to create a backstory and official documentation to support the cover identity. In Britain, undercover police seeking to infiltrate protest groups used the identities of 80 dead children between 1968 and 1994. The identities of these children served as cover identities for officers, allowing them to easily obtain drivers’ licenses and passports that would stand up to scrutiny if anyone checked.
A similar strategy, the theft of the identity of a dead Canadian infant, appears to be how a Russian spy (mentioned in #10) created his cover identity, Donald Heathfield. This practice is reportedly on the decline due to the digitization of death records.
2. Spies May Kill Their Own to Protect Their Cover
You’d think that spies working on the same side would try to help each other out, or at least not hurt each other. Usually, that’s what happens, but sometimes things go awry, and the life of one agent is deemed to be less important to the mission than the cover of another.
When British intelligence was attempting to infiltrate the IRA, their agent Freddie Scappaticci (pictured above) managed to work his way up to head the IRA’s internal security force. In that role, he was responsible for the death of a number of people. British press reports say as many as 40, and a former British handler says, “well into the tens.” Among those deaths were at least a few fellow British agents. The blood on his hands helped bolster Scappaticci’s credibility within the IRA, since it was believed that no one who had killed for the cause could be a British agent.
Kevin Fulton, another undercover British asset within the IRA, believes he almost became another casualty of Scappaticci’s cover story. As an an article in The Atlantic puts it, “his handlers decided he would make a good sacrifice: another mark of credibility for their prize agent.” Fulton escaped death at the hands of his fellow British spy by fleeing and going into hiding.
1. Even When Spies Retire, They May Not Die of Natural Causes
Once their spying days are over, some agents enjoy a quiet retirement. Ex-CIA spy Jason Matthews recently described his decision to spend his retirement writing spy novels to counter the restlessness he felt when his intelligence career ended, saying that, “Being in the Agency is a very experiential career, like being a policemen or a fireman or a jet pilot, and when it stops, it really stops.”
However, some spies don’t share that experience. Remnants of their professional lives follow them into retirement, and perhaps, to their unnatural deaths. In 2002, 17 years after defecting to Russia, former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard met his end in Moscow, after reportedly breaking his neck in a fall down the steps in his house. The death that was ostensibly accidental, but certainly raises questions.
In the case of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvenenko, the evidence of murder is incontrovertible. Litvenenko published an expose of the misdeeds of the Russian intelligence service before fleeing to the UK in 2000, where he was granted asylum. However, in 2006 he died after being poisoned with radioactive polonium, allegedly while meeting two former agents for tea. For some spies, retirement isn’t a respite. It’s just another terrifying chapter in their danger-filled lives.