42 Devious Facts About Espionage

Janet Mowat

Who hasn’t dreamed of becoming a suave spy like James Bond? Sure, they always say that espionage isn’t just gadgets, seductions, and daring escapes—but this list might convince readers otherwise! Check out these 42 facts about the bold, sexy, and dangerous world of espionage.

42. Numbers Game

Ever wonder where MI5 and MI6 got their numbers? Well, there used to be a lot more of them. By the end of the Second World War, Britain had 17 Military Intelligence units—MI1 dealt with codes, MI4 covered maps, etc. Now only two are left.

41. Optical Zoom

The cameras in spy satellites can photograph license plates from 50 miles up in space.

40. Dim-Witted Double Agent

Earl Pitts spied for the Russians while working for the FBI in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The FBI set up a sting operation to catch him, but Pitts inadvertently thwarted their attempt—by forgetting where to meet his contact. He wandered around the wrong part of the New York Public Library for half an hour before giving up and leaving.

Espionage facts

39. Odd Proposal

Anna Chapman—AKA Anya Kushchenko—began spying for Russia in the 2000s and became famous for it back in Russia. When the Russian government tasked her with keeping Edward Snowden in the country, she attempted to seduce him by proposing over Twitter.

38. CIA “Bug”

As early as the 70s, the CIA was experimenting with a drone spy gadget—disguised as a dragonfly! This tiny UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) had a gas engine powering it, but all it took was a crosswind to knock it off course.

37. Using Your Head

All kinds of everyday objects have been used to conceal spy gear. One inventive example is a pipe with a tiny radio concealed inside it. No speakers required—sound waves traveled through the jaw bone straight to the ear canal.

36. Wanted Dead or Alive

Christine Granville—AKA Krystyna Skarbek—a former Miss Poland, spent the late stages of WWII spying for the British in France. When she ran afoul of the Gestapo, not only did she convince them of her cover story, but she also got them to release two more captured spies—even though their office walls were plastered with her picture on Wanted posters!

35. Close Call

Morris “Moe” Berg was an American baseball player who got caught up in espionage during the Second World War. At one point, he went into enemy territory to attend a lecture by Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg. If he determined that Heisenberg seemed close to building an atomic bomb, he was to assassinate the scientist on the spot. Luckily for Heisenberg, he wasn’t close at the time.

34. Punch-Out

One deadly spy gadget was the glove pistol. Mounted on the back of a glove, the trigger was activated by punching the target, which would shoot them at point-blank range. This gun came in “handy” when the spy was caught: they could innocently put their hands up, then punch the enemy in the head once they came closer.

33. Lonely Hearts

There was such a problem with lonely secretaries being seduced by “Romeo” Soviet spies in East Germany, that NATO had to hang posters in their offices reminding ladies to keep their hearts closed.

32. Worst Case Scenario

Cold War suicide glasses had a single cyanide pill hidden in the arm. When a spy found themselves in trouble, they could chew on the arm of the glasses to poison themselves and avoid torture. Playing with your glasses is a pretty common nervous habit, one that hopefully none of the aforementioned spies were afflicted with.

31. Check Your Prejudice

John Scobell was an educated former slave living in the North when the American Civil War broke out. Scobell went to the South as a spy, and used the Confederates’ racism against them: officers did nothing to protect their information when he was around because they assumed he couldn’t understand it.

Espionage facts

30. Earning Accolades

Eddie Chapman was an Englishman who spied for the Germans in WWII. When he parachuted into England with a mission to blow up a factory, he instead contacted MI5 and offered to become a double agent. The English faked the factory explosion, and Germany was so convinced that they awarded Chapman a medal.

29. Doctor of Espionage

The CIA runs both a university and a grad school program which train students in technology, language, and other subjects that are especially useful to spies.

28. Blame Canada

A Canadian named Alexander Keith Jr.—nephew of Halifax beer baron Alexander Keith—worked with a Confederate spy ring in Canada during the American Civil War. One of the plans he hatched was to spread Yellow Fever among the Yankees by smuggling dead people’s clothes over the border. As long as you don’t put it in the beer, dude!

27. Beat That, Shakespeare

Christopher Marlowe, the English playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare, might have been a spy for the British government. He did have a history of getting into legal scrapes that the government would smooth over. The Privy Council also ordered Cambridge University to grant Marlowe an MA, saying that they needed him for “matters touching the benefit of his country.”

26. Novelist and Spy

Daniel Defoe was an English writer famous for the novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was also a spy for the English government. He earned the trust of the Scottish elite and covertly helped push Scotland into accepting union with England, even becoming an advisor to Scottish parliamentary committees.

25. Spy with a Conscience

Israeli Sarah Aaronsohn joined an espionage ring in 1915 after she witnessed Turkish soldiers brutally executing 5,000 Armenians. The Turks captured Aaronsohn two years later and tortured her for information on her fellow spies. Aaronsohn refused to talk and held out long enough to shoot herself with a smuggled pistol.

24. Criminal Activities

James Bond had a license to kill, but real MI6 agents don’t bother—everything they do outside the UK is illegal, anyway.

23. Implausible Deniability

The British government didn’t acknowledge the existence of MI6—James Bond’s employers—until 1994.

22. Hauling Them Over the Coals

Some of the best spy weapons don’t look like much. During the American Civil War, the Confederates disguised bombs to look like lumps of coal. When a Union sailor shoveled the coal bomb into their ship’s boiler, the explosion was big enough to cause serious damage—as many as 60 Union ships were destroyed this way.

21. Fact and Fiction

James Bond author Ian Fleming was friends with CIA Director Allen Dulles. When Fleming complained to Dulles that the CIA’s spy gadgets were too boring, Dulles knew just where to find inspiration. Shortly afterwards, the CIA created shoe daggers and homing devices straight out of the James Bond novels.

20. An Artist at Work

Spies can find the strangest ways to ingratiate themselves with their targets. Petrus Alamire had a workshop that produced exceptionally beautiful sheet music manuscripts. European royalty would ask to meet this incredible artist, and Alamire would steal the secrets of their court.

19. Real Life Red Sparrow

Sex has always been an effective tool for spies, but you never know when it might backfire. Anna Maria Knuth was a Soviet spy tasked with seducing foreign officials and blackmailing them for information. However, she got a taste of her own medicine when she fell madly in love with a West German spy, and unwittingly gave away her entire espionage ring.

18. Great Souvenir

Even when a mission goes off without a hitch, spies don’t always get what they expected. When the KGB showed Indonesian President Sukarno video of him having an orgy with several beautiful Soviet spies, they thought they were blackmailing him. Instead, he liked the tape so much that he asked for copies.

17. Quit Stalin

Joseph Stalin really didn’t like Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s head of state. Tito got so fed up with the constant stream of spies attempting to assassinate him, that he sent this message to Stalin: “If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow and I won’t have to send a second.” Despite attempts including a specially-designed disease and a poison jewelry box, Tito outlived Stalin by 30 years.

16. Hotel Estonia

The KGB had extremely advanced audio surveillance technology during the Cold War, and they took advantage of it. One hotel in Estonia, popular with international travelers, had 60 rooms permanently wiretapped, while the KGB occupied an entire floor for constant monitoring.

15. A Full Life

Pierre Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, held down several jobs in his life, including writer, watchmaker, music tutor to French princesses, and spy. Among his espionage activities, he helped bring France into America’s Revolutionary War. He once said, “If time were measured by the events that fill it, I have lived two hundred years.”

14. The Unassuming Barber

Karl Schulmeister was a spy for Napoleon Bonaparte, and a quick thinker. One time, when a group of Austrian soldiers found Schulmeister, they chased him into a boarding house. They found a barber, complete with towels and razors, who told them the spy had gone upstairs—and as the Austrians raced upstairs, Schulmeister ditched his barber props and made his escape.

13. Clever AF

During WWII, the Americans intercepted Japanese messages saying they would attack a target called “AF”. Unsure what they meant, the Americans took a guess and sent out messages falsely stating that the Midway Atoll had a water shortage. When Japanese communications started reporting a water shortage in “AF”, the Americans knew where to set up defenses.

12. Top Dog

Col. George Trofimoff of the US Army worked in military intelligence, with top-level security clearance. He was also a spy for the Soviets, and passed along 50,000 pages of data over the course of 25 years. He is the highest-ranking American officer to ever be convicted of spying.

11. Family Business

If you’re going to recruit family into the espionage business, be sure to stay on their good side. John Walker worked for the US Navy and was a Soviet spy for 17 years. In that time, he convinced his wife Barbara, his brother Arthur, and his son Michael to help out—but when he divorced Barbara and refused to pay his alimony, she went straight to the FBI.

10. Sex, Drugs, and Military Invasions

In the 1940s, the Nazi SS decided to bug a Berlin brothel, Salon Kitty, in order to record high-ranking Nazis in compromising situations for potential blackmail. The plan went awry when a British spy tapped into Salon Kitty’s surveillance system and recorded Joachim von Ribbentrop plotting an imminent invasion of Gibraltar.

9. Jack in the Box

When you know you’re being tracked, you have to get creative. One CIA officer who had a rendezvous in Moscow arranged a fake birthday party. He and his driver brought a fake birthday cake in the car with them, knowing the KGB were tailing them. The car took a sharp turn to elude their trackers, the CIA officer jumped out, and a silhouette popped out of the cake so it would look like he was still in the car.

8. Making the Best of It

Being tapped can come in handy. One CIA officer in the Soviet Union used an unsecured phone line to make a dinner date. One the way, he realized that the KGB were driving both in front of and behind him—so when he got lost, he simply followed the KGB straight to the restaurant.

7. Uncanny Resemblance

Gabriele Kliem had once dated a handsome scientist, and never quite got over him. So when she met Frank Dietzel, who looked just like her ex and worked for a world peace organization, Kliem was happy to hand over intel from her job at the US Embassy in East Germany. In the seven years they were engaged, Kliem never knew Dietzel was actually a KGB agent with a family back home, chosen specifically for the job because he resembled her ex.

6. Death to Spies

SMERSH, the Soviet intelligence agency that employed Dr. No and Goldfinger in the James Bond novels, actually existed. Smert Shpionam, AKA “Death to Spies”, was an organization in operation during the Second World War, and one of their missions was the recovery of fragments of Hitler’s skull. We know Bond is already in the mix, but it also sounds like a great plot for an Indiana Jones movie.

Espionage facts

5. Oral Exam

Soviet sex spies had the task of seducing high-ranking men and blackmailing them for information. One former sex spy described the training she received, which included filming orgies with classmates and critically evaluating the tapes afterward.

4. Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The CIA designed a tiny anal toolkit, which a spy could hide in their posterior in case of trouble. Once captured, the spy would simply poop out the toolkit and make their escape.

3. A Telltale Staple

Russia used an incredibly subtle trick to identify hundreds of spies: Americans would use good-quality, rust-proof staples on their documents, whereas actual Russians used cheap staples that left a rust stain behind.

2. Off With Her Head

A double agent prevented an assassination attempt against Queen Elizabeth I. Gilbert Gifford hid messages in beer barrels destined for Chartley Hall, where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned. He helped to sneak messages between Mary and her supporters, but at the same time he secretly deciphered the notes and passed information to Elizabeth. This intel finally convinced Elizabeth to have Mary beheaded.

1. Slapstick Espionage

When Rome was embroiled in a devastating war against Carthage in 204 BC, they needed every advantage they could get. So, they sent an envoy to the Carthaginian camp with some inept servants on hand. The “servants” were actually centurions—they let a horse get loose, and as they chased it around the camp, they noted the precise weaknesses that would allow them to burn it down a few days later.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

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