Some do it for money. Some do it for morality. Some do it just to add excitement to their rotten lives. Whatever their motivations, spies have always held a special place in the popular imagination.
But the stories of real life covert operatives are nothing like what we see in the movies. These true tales of deceit, treachery, heroism, and greed paint a picture of what it’s actually like to work in the shadows.
In the early 1950s, in New York City, a paperboy was making his rounds, collecting payment for his weekly deliveries. While on his route, he accidentally dropped a nickel on the ground. When he went to pick it up, he discovered that it had split in two.
Inside the hollowed-out coin, he found a microphotograph containing a mysterious set of numbers. Suspicious, the newsie gave the coin to a New York City detective, who passed it on to the FBI. The feds were unable to trace where the coin had come from, and the mystery went unsolved.
On May 4, 1957, a drunk man presented himself at the American embassy in Paris. He claimed he was an officer in the KGB (the Soviet security service) and requested asylum. His name was Reino Hyhnen. Although the Americans initially considered his story dubious, they eventually realized he was for real.
Hyhnen had been helping to run a Soviet spy ring for five years – although helping may be a bit of an exaggeration.
In 1949, Hyhnen had been assigned a fake identity by the KGB; he spent three years in Finland blending in, establishing his false persona. In 1953, he was ordered to report to New York City and assist a fellow agent known as Rudolf Abel.
Abel was less a spy and more a spymaster. He coordinated and collected information from other operatives through his photography studio in New York, and relayed it back to his masters in Moscow.
Abel might have gone undetected indefinitely were it not for Hyhnen. When Abel took leave in Russia for six months, he left the spy ring in the hands of his Finnish assistant. Upon his return, Abel found that Hyhnen had neglected his responsibilities, preferring to spend money on sex and booze rather than espionage.
When Hyhnen was recalled to Moscow to receive a promotion shortly thereafter, he instead defected to the west, worried that the Soviets might be planning to rub him out.
Abel was detained at his studio in New York. The FBI found him in possession of $19,000 in cash, Russian code ciphers, a special shortwave spy radio, a hollowed-out pencil full of microfilm, and a host of other old school spy gadgets.
Hyhnen testified against Abel, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, no other members of Abels spy ring were ever identified. The amount of damage they did remains unknown.
Abel served only four years of his sentence before he was traded back to the Soviet Union in exchange for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Abel reportedly spent the rest of his career training future KGB agents in the art of spycraft.
In 1979, Robert Hanssen – a conservative father of three, and devout Roman Catholic – was transferred to the counter-intelligence section of the FBI. His task was to create a database of suspected Soviet assets.
But he forgot to add one very important name to that list: his own. (continued…)
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As a counter-intelligence officer, Hanssen was able to tell the Soviets a great deal about the FBI’s wiretapping operations. He was also in a position to give them the names of people the Bureau suspected might be Russian agents.
After a hiatus from spying, Hanssen took up the habit again in 1985. He sent a letter to the KGB providing the names of three Russian double-agents who were secretly cooperating with the United States, and requesting a payment of $100,000.
Two of the double agents were executed, but their names had already been provided by another American spy named Aldrich Ames (more on him later). Ames’ activities provided Hanssen cover, and his espionage would continue undetected for another 16 years.
Hanssen was such an effective spy that in 1987 he was assigned to find the man who had betrayed those double agents. He was seriously ordered to hunt for himself. Unsurprisingly, Hanssen failed to apprehend the culprit. Instead, he seized the opportunity to sell the Soviets the names of KGB agents who had tried to warn the FBI about him.
Hanssen’s own brother-in-law, also an FBI agent, eventually became suspicious after he saw thousands of dollars in cash at Hanssen’s home. The brother-in-law reported it to his superiors, but no action was taken. This was only one of several incidents that should have raised red flags.
On one occasion in 1994, Hanssen was bold enough to hack into a colleague’s computer system and steal documents from him. He claimed this was to demonstrate that FBI security was insufficient, and the brass believed him. In hindsight, it seems more likely that Hanssen was trying to test whether he was under surveillance.
Hanssen’s deeds eventually caught up with him. Convinced that they had a mole, the FBI paid $7million to a former KGB officer to acquire files from Russian intelligence that might reveal the traitor’s identity.
In 2000, that former KGB officer (whose identity remains classified) delivered. Although the Soviets didn’t actually know the mole’s name, they did have an audio recording of him speaking with one of his handlers. The voice on the tape was quickly recognized as Hanssen’s.
He was promoted in order to keep him close, and to allay his suspicions so that he could be placed under surveillance. Even though Hanssen sensed that the noose was tightening around his neck, he attempted to pass information one last time. He was caught in the act, arrested, and sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences.
Hanssen was a long-time adherent of the Roman Catholic order Opus Dei, and often chastised communists for being “godless.” After his arrest, he claimed he had no ideological basis for helping the Soviets and did it strictly for the money. He is believed to have received $1.4million over 22 years.
Those who worked the case speculate that his motives were more complex than he let on. It’s certainly interesting that Hanssen’s disapproving father was a hard-nosed Chicago cop known for hunting suspected communists.
In 1905, a sensation swept Paris in the form of a mysterious exotic dancer known as Mata Hari. Where had she come from? There were rumors that she was a Javanese princess, a Hindu, an exotic ornament of the East, immersed from early childhood in ancient and sensuous arts of pleasure.
Of course, none of that was remotely true. (continued…)
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The woman known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands. After a disappointing and abusive marriage to a Dutch Army officer, she abandoned her family and moved to Paris.
Having lived in the Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia with her estranged husband for several years, she decided to make Eastern mysticism part of her dance routine. Combined with her provocative and flirtatious style, this made her rich and famous. It also empowered her to become a courtesan for wealthy industrialists and political leaders, which would later lead to her recruitment as a spy.
During World War One, Mata Hari fell in love with a Russian pilot who was fighting in France. When her lover was shot down and grievously wounded, she attempted to visit him in a military hospital. Thats where she was intercepted by French intelligence agents.
They told her that she would not be permitted to see her lover unless she agreed to spy on behalf of France. Before the war, Mata Hari had twice performed for Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of the German Kaiser. The French now offered her a million Francs if she could seduce Prince Wilhelm and get him to divulge military secrets.
Mata Hari travelled to Spain, where she met with a German intelligence officer and requested a meeting with the Prince, promising to provide the Germans with information about the French. Whether this was a ploy in order to win an audience with the Prince or a sincere attempt to become a double agent remains unclear.
In any case, the Germans were frustrated that the only information she possessed was salacious gossip, so they actually gave her up to the French. They allowed the French to intercept a message that contained incriminating details about Mata Hari, describing her as their double agent.
To test her allegiance, French intelligence gave her the identities of several spies who were working for them in the German camp. When one of those men was promptly executed, the French moved on Mata Hari.
After a show trial, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917.
Until 1942, the Nazis had occupied only the northern half of France. But in November of that year, they suddenly took control of the southern half as well. The woman the Gestapo called the most dangerous of all allied spies was organizing resistance in the region when the Germans arrived, and she was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Her name was Virginia Hall, and she hailed from Baltimore, Maryland.
Before Hall fled to Spain, she sent her handlers a cryptic message: I hope Cuthbert wont give me trouble on the way. (continued…)
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Her handlers replied, “If Cuthbert troublesome, eliminate him.” Obviously, they weren’t in on the joke: ‘Cuthbert’ was the nickname Hall had given her wooden leg.
Hall had spent much of her youth travelling through Europe, learning foreign languages. She had dreamt of a career in diplomacy, but that hope was dashed when her leg was amputated after she accidentally shot herself while hunting in Turkey.
Hall was working in France when Hitler invaded in the Spring of 1940. After the country fell, she fled to London and volunteered to go back. She spent the next 15 months coordinating the French Resistance before she and Cuthbert were forced to make their escape.
In 1944, she joined the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) and bravely volunteered to return to France yet again. In the field, she organized drops of supplies and Allied commandos, managed wrecking operations behind enemy lines, and trained three battalions of French Resistance soldiers to wage guerrilla war against the Nazis.
After the war, Hall married a fellow secret agent and joined the CIA. She passed away in 1982 at the age of 76.
In 1964, France opened a new embassy in Beijing. They were the first Western nation to re-establish relations with communist China after the Korean War.
Bernard Bouriscot was a hapless 20-year-old accountant who managed to secure a job working at this new mission. Bouriscots only sexual encounters up to that point had been with male classmates. As he confided in his diary, he was overcome with a desire to meet a good woman and fall in love.
At an embassy Christmas party, Bouriscot encountered the strikingly beautiful Shi Pei Pu, who had been earning money as a Mandarin tutor for embassy staff and their families.
Bouriscot could clearly see that Shi was a woman, but she was dressed as a man. She told Bouriscot that she was an opera singer, and that she was forced to cross-dress because her father had always wanted a son.
The two hit it off, one thing led to another, and the young lovers wound up alone together in a dark room, exploring their newfound feelings for each other. Bouriscot must have been elated. He had finally found a beautiful young woman to fall in love with.
Except that he hadnt. (continued…)
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Shi Pei Pu was not a woman tragically forced to pass herself off as a man to fulfil her fathers wishes; he was a man. Shi was indeed an opera singer as he claimed, and an actor of some renown. And now he would launch himself into a new career: espionage.
Despite the fact that Bouriscot had sex with Shi, the callow young accountant was convinced that his love was a woman – which doesnt speak very highly of French sex eduction of the period. Decades later, Shi would explain that he took pains to conceal his genitals in order to convince Bouriscot that he was a woman.
Once the Chinese government caught wind of the affair, they pressured the young accountant to hand over information about the French government, which he did until 1979. He also (amazingly) continued his sexual relationship with Shi, who he continued to believe was a woman.
On one occasion, Shi went so far as to present him with an infant, claiming it was their lovechild. In 1982, Bouriscot managed to secure passage for his lover to come to France with their child. The following year, they were both arrested for espionage.
In custody, Shi explained that he had purchased the baby from a crooked doctor. Bouriscot was finally confronted with the true identity of the ‘woman’ he had carried on an affair with for more than a decade, and who had turned him into a traitor against his country.
Shi and Bouriscot were each sentenced to 6 years imprisonment; both were subsequently pardoned by French President Francois Mitterrand, who described the whole affair as “silly.”
In the summer of 1985, American spies in the Soviet Union began turning up dead. Over the following two years, 10 Russian double agents were executed by the KGB, including the man who was arguably the most valuable spy in American history.
Major General Dmitri Polyakov was, at the height of his career, the head of the GRU, the intelligence arm of the Red Army. He had also been passing information to the United States since the early 1960s. Polyakov was the highest-ranking double agent ever recruited within the USSR, and he provided an invaluable perspective on the workings of the Soviet government at its highest levels.
CIA officer Jeanne Vertefeuille said of Polyakov: He didnt do this for money. He insisted on staying in place to help us. His assistance was repaid with a bullet in the back of the head.
Americas most valuable intelligence asset was betrayed by a mediocre, mid-level alcoholic CIA officer who sold secrets (and lives) so that he could afford to buy flashy tailored suits. (continued…)
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As a young CIA agent, Aldrich Ames was described by colleague Sandy Grimes as an absent-minded professor. He was noted for his poor deportment, slovenly appearance, and propensity for tardiness.
But Grimes later noticed a radical shift in Ames self-image and demeanor. She recalled that he had become insufferably arrogant by the early 90s, despite the fact that his career had stalled. He had also grown preoccupied with his own appearance. The thousands he spent on suits and shoes should have sounded the alarm, even if the unaccountable transformation of his personality did not.
In fact, Ames had begun funneling information to the Soviets in 1985. He claims he started out by offering them information he considered worthless, but which validated his claims to be a CIA insider and netted him a $50,000 payday. Ames told himself this would be a one-off, but he became intoxicated with the potential for profit.
He next sold the Soviets the names of every double agent he knew of, which led directly to the execution of at least 10 people, including General Polyakov.
Later, in his prison cell, Ames would muse about the amorality of his actions. Men like Polyakov gave up names. They gave up secrets. I did the same thing for reasons that I considered sufficient to myself. I gave up the names of some of the same people who had earlier given up others. Its a nasty kinda circle.
The mystery of who betrayed those double agents went unanswered for years. But the CIAs Jeanne Vertefeuille, who was tasked with finding the mole, continued tirelessly in her work. She was assisted in this crusade by Grimes and others.
In the early 90s, they were able to convince the Agency to let them take one more serious hack at exposing the traitor. The first step was to make a list of everyone who had been in a position to expose the dead agents. This method revealed that there were at least 160 people who could have been the spy.
Vertefeuille and Grimes needed to narrow it down further, so they employed another, decidedly unscientific method. They asked everyone in their unit a simple question: which of the 160 suspects bothers you the most? Which of them rubs you the wrong way? Which have given you cause to suspect them? The name that came up the most was Aldrich Ames.
An investigation of Ames finances redoubled their unease. He was living far beyond the means of a middling CIA officer. On a $60,000 annual salary, he had somehow purchased $50,000 Jaguar, a $540,000 home (in cash), and was paying as much as $6,000 a month on his phone bill so that his wife could call her family in Colombia. The official excuse he provided for his affluence – that it came from his wifes wealthy family – didnt hold water.
In total, Ames accepted $2.7million in payment from the Soviets. He eventually confessed to his crimes and was sentenced to life imprisonment.