The History of the Honey Trap

Five lessons for would-be James Bonds and Bond girls -- and the men and women who would resist them.

MI5 is worried about sex. In a 14-page document distributed last year to hundreds of British banks, businesses, and financial institutions, titled "The Threat from Chinese Espionage," the famed British security service described a wide-ranging Chinese effort to blackmail Western businesspeople over sexual relationships. The document, as the London Times reported in January, explicitly warns that Chinese intelligence services are trying to cultivate "long-term relationships" and have been known to "exploit vulnerabilities such as sexual relationships ... to pressurise individuals to co-operate with them."

This latest report on Chinese corporate espionage tactics is only the most recent installment in a long and sordid history of spies and sex. For millennia, spymasters of all sorts have trained their spies to use the amorous arts to obtain secret information.

The trade name for this type of spying is the "honey trap." And it turns out that both men and women are equally adept at setting one -- and equally vulnerable to tumbling in. Spies use sex, intelligence, and the thrill of a secret life as bait. Cleverness, training, character, and patriotism are often no defense against a well-set honey trap. And as in normal life, no planning can take into account that a romance begun in deceit might actually turn into a genuine, passionate affair. In fact, when an East German honey trap was exposed in 1997, one of the women involved refused to believe she had been deceived, even when presented with the evidence. "No, that's not true," she insisted. "He really loved me."

Those who aim to perfect the art of the honey trap in the future, as well as those who seek to insulate themselves, would do well to learn from honey trap history. Of course, there are far too many stories -- too many dramas, too many rumpled bedsheets, rattled spouses, purloined letters, and ruined lives -- to do that history justice here. Yet one could begin with five famous stories and the lessons they offer for honey-trappers, and honey-trappees, everywhere.

1. Don't Follow That Girl

In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli technician who had worked in Israel's Dimona nuclear facility, went to the British newspapers with his claim that Israel had developed atomic bombs. His statement was starkly at odds with Israel's official policy of nuclear ambiguity -- and he had photos to prove it.

The period of negotiation among the newspapers was tense, and at one point the London Sunday Times was keeping Vanunu hidden in a secret location in suburban London while it attempted to verify his story. But Vanunu got restless. He announced to his minders at the paper that he had met a young woman while visiting tourist attractions in London and that they were planning a romantic weekend in Rome.

The newspaper felt it had no right to prevent Vanunu from leaving. It was a huge mistake: Soon after arriving in Rome with his lady friend, Vanunu was seized by Mossad officers, forcibly drugged, and smuggled out of Italy by ship to Israel, where he was eventually put on trial for treason. Vanunu served 18 years in jail, 11 years of it in solitary confinement. Released in 2004, he is still confined to Israel under tight restrictions, which include not being allowed to meet with foreigners or talk about his experiences. Britain has never held an inquiry into the affair.

The woman who set the honey trap was a Mossad officer, Cheryl Ben Tov, code-named "Cindy." Born in Orlando, Fla., she was married to an officer of the Israeli security service. After the operation, she was given a new identity to prevent reprisals, and eventually she left Israel to return to the United States. But her role in the Vanunu affair was vital. The Mossad could not have risked a diplomatic incident by kidnapping Vanunu from British soil, so he had to be lured abroad -- an audacious undertaking, but in this case a successful one.

2. Take Favors from No One

One of the best-known honey traps in spy history involves Mata Hari, a Dutch woman who had spent some years as an erotic dancer in Java. (Greta Garbo played her in a famous 1931 film.) During World War I, the French arrested her on charges of spying for the Germans, based on their discovery through intercepted telegrams that the German military attaché in Spain was sending her money. The French claimed that the German was her control officer and she was passing French secrets to him, secrets she had obtained by seducing prominent French politicians and officers.

During the trial, Mata Hari defended herself vigorously, claiming that she was the attaché's mistress and he was sending her gifts. But her arguments did not convince her judges. She died by firing squad on Oct. 15, 1917, refusing a blindfold.

After the war, the French admitted that they had no real evidence against her. The conclusion by most modern historians has been that she was shot not because she was running a honey trap operation, but to send a powerful message to any women who might be tempted to follow her example. The lesson here, perhaps, is that resembling a honey trap can be as dangerous as actually being one.

3. Beware the Media

Sometimes a country's entire journalism corps can fall into an apparent honey trap. Yevgeny Ivanov was a Soviet attaché in London in the early 1960s. He was a handsome, personable officer and a popular figure on the British diplomatic and social scene, a frequent guest at parties given by society osteopath Stephen Ward.

Ward was famous for inviting the pick of London's beautiful young women to his gatherings. One of them was Christine Keeler, a scatterbrained '60s "good-time girl" who supposedly became Ivanov's mistress. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Keeler was the lover of the married British MP and Secretary of State for War John Profumo, who was then working on plans with the United States to station cruise missiles in Germany.

In 1963, Profumo's affair with Keeler was exposed in the press. Britain's famed scandal sheets also blew up the Soviet spy/honey trap angle, for which there was no evidence. Profumo was forced to resign for lying about the affair to the House of Commons. His wife forgave him, but his career was ruined.

Ivanov was recalled to Moscow, where he lived out his days pouring ridicule on the whole story: "It is ludicrous to think that Christine Keeler could have said to John Profumo in bed one night, 'Oh, by the way, darling, when are the cruise missiles going to arrive in Germany?'" He was probably right: When the media gets hold of a potential honey trap, the truth is easily lost.

4. The Deadliest of Honey Traps

Not all honey traps are heterosexual ones. In fact, during less tolerant eras, a homosexual honey trap with a goal of blackmail could be just as effective as using women as bait.

Take the tragic story of Jeremy Wolfenden, the London Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Moscow in the early 1960s. Wolfenden was doubly vulnerable to KGB infiltration: He spoke Russian, and he was gay. Seizing its opportunity, the KGB ordered the Ministry of Foreign Trade's barber to seduce him and put a man with a camera in Wolfenden's closet to take compromising photos. The KGB then blackmailed Wolfenden, threatening to pass on the photographs to his employer if he did not spy on the Western community in Moscow.

Wolfenden reported the incident to his embassy, but the official British reaction was not what he expected. On his next visit to London, he was called to see an officer from the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) who asked him to work as a double agent, leading the KGB along but continuing to report back to SIS.

The stress led Wolfenden into alcoholism. He tried to end his career as a spy, marrying a British woman he had met in Moscow, arranging a transfer from Moscow to the Daily Telegraph's Washington bureau, and telling friends he had put his espionage days behind him.

But the spy life was not so easily left behind. After encountering his old SIS handler at a British Embassy party in Washington in 1965, Wolfenden was again pulled back into the association. His life fell into a blur of drunkenness. On Dec. 28, 1965, when he was 31, he died, apparently from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a fall in the bathroom. His friends believed, no matter what the actual cause of death, that between them, the KGB and the SIS had sapped his will to live.

Ironically, his time as a spy probably produced little useful material for either side. His colleagues weren't giving him any information because they were warned that he was talking to the KGB, and the Soviets weren't likely to give him anything either. In this case, the honey pot proved deadly -- with little purpose for anyone.

5. All the Single Ladies

The broadest honey trap in intelligence history was probably the creation of the notorious East German spymaster, Markus Wolf. In the early 1950s, Wolf recognized that, with marriageable German men killed in large numbers during World War II and more and more German women turning to careers, the higher echelons of German government, commerce, and industry were now stocked with lonely single women, ripe -- in his mind -- for the temptations of a honey trap.

Wolf set up a special department of the Stasi, East Germany's security service, and staffed it with his most handsome, intelligent officers. He called them "Romeo spies." Their assignment was to infiltrate West Germany, seek out powerful, unmarried women, romance them, and squeeze from them all their secrets.

Thanks to the Romeo spies and their honey traps, the Stasi penetrated most levels of the West German government and industry. At one stage, the East Germans even had a spy inside NATO who was able to give information on the West's deployment of nuclear weapons. Another used her connections to become a secretary in the office of the West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt.

The scheme lost its usefulness when the West German counterintelligence authorities devised a simple way of identifying the Stasi officers as soon as they arrived in West Germany: They sported distinctly different haircuts -- the practical "short back and sides" variety instead of the fashionable, elaborate West German style. Alerted by train guards, counterintelligence officers would follow the Romeo spies and arrest them at their first wrong move.

Three of the women were caught and tried, but in general the punishment was lenient. One woman who managed to penetrate West German intelligence was sentenced to only six and a half years in prison, probably because ordinary West Germans had some sympathy with the women. Wolf himself faced trial twice after the collapse of communism but received only a two-year suspended sentence, given the confusion of whether an East German citizen could be guilty of treachery to West Germany.

Unlike most spymasters, Wolf preserved his own thoughts on his experience for posterity in his autobiography, Man Without a Face. Wolf denied that he put pressure on his officers to use die Liebe to do their jobs; it was up to the officers themselves: "They were sharp operators who realized that a lot can be done with sex. This is true in business and espionage because it opens up channels of communication more quickly than other approaches."

How about the morality of it all? Wolf replied for all spymasters when he wrote, "As long as there is espionage, there will be Romeos seducing unsuspecting [targets] with access to secrets." Yet he maintains: "I was running an intelligence service, not a lonely-hearts club."

Juan Silva/The Image Bank/Getty Images


What the Neocons Got Right

Believe it or not, they made a few good calls.

When the editors at FP asked me to write 1,500 words on "What the Neocons Got Right" for the launch of their Middle East Channel, I jumped at the opportunity. To be sure, the topic generated a fair number of bipartisan guffaws and lame jokes among my friends: "It will be the shortest article you ever wrote," quipped one. "They got something right?" queried another. "How about 1,500 pages on what they got wrong?" still another partisan asked. Hilarity aside, neoconservatives have been derided by almost everyone for their misadventures in the Middle East -- and there were many -- during the George W. Bush years, but that does not mean their approach to the region was always, everywhere a total failure. The fact is, the neocons are a group of very smart people, as anyone who has ever spent some time actually reading Commentary or the Weekly Standard might know. They happen to hold a worldview that, at the moment, is not terribly popular. Of course, the primary reasons the neocons have encountered so much criticism has everything to do with their approach to the Middle East, which is not distinguished for its grasp of the region's history, politics, and culture. Yet, a fine-grained understanding of the Middle East will not always produce superior policy, a fact all too often lost on the punditocracy.

Let me start out by saying that I do not believe the neocons got Iraq right. It may turn out right or it may not. It's too early to tell. So far, the March 7 elections look pretty good as the counting gets under way, despite 36 deaths. Analysts will likely point to the hard, messy coalition bargaining that is sure to come as evidence that Iraq is moving in the right direction. After all, Iraqis are processing their grievances through democratic institutions, which says a lot about how far the country has come since the dark days of 2006 to 2007. Perhaps it's my skeptical nature, but I am not ready to declare victory. We have seen too many "corners turned" and "watershed moments" in Iraq for me to be confident that anyone inside or outside the U.S. government actually understands Iraq.

The effort by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to bar certain politicians from politics was one prominent warning sign that Iraq might actually be moving toward the "Arab mean" -- Middle Eastern leaders have been reverting to this tactic since Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser invented it in the early 1950s. More profoundly, there seems to be an undeniable logic to Iraqi politics that concentrates power in Baghdad, which does not bode well for democratic development. It remains an open question whether the U.S. military's almost seven-year mission in Iraq has undermined the unwritten codes, norms, and rules of behavior that governed Iraqi politics for the better part of a century before Operation Iraqi Freedom. We'll just have to wait and see.

So what did the neocons get right? Syria, Iran, and democracy.

It probably wasn't wise for George W. Bush's administration to oppose the indirect Syria-Israel negotiations that the Turkish government organized in Istanbul through 2008. If the Israelis and Syrians want to make peace, the United States should help them. Despite this bungle, which actually came well after neocon influence in the administration peaked, the neoconservatives had a healthy understanding of what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime's is all about: violence, repression, and duplicity. For all their faults, the neocons can read recent history pretty well, and they understood that endless shuttle diplomacy of various U.S. secretaries of state (with the exception of James Baker) brought the region no closer to peace and did nothing to alter Damascus's strategic posture.

Indeed, the Syrians have a long history of doing just enough to keep their enemies at bay, while retaining the instruments to do considerable harm. This is not to suggest that Bill Clinton's people had a Pollyannaish view of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, but neither Hafez nor his son, who took power in 2000, ever demonstrated the kind of flexibility that engagement was supposed to produce. Although Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, visited Damascus 29 times and his successor, Madeleine Albright, sipped tea with Hafez al-Assad on five occasions, the Syrians continued their support for Hamas and Hezbollah with political support as well as weaponry. The Syrians also never exhibited any flexibility on the peace process. During the 1990s, the elder Assad sent his foreign minister and other officials to one locale or another for talks with Israelis, but his emissaries consistently demanded that the Israelis return to the June 4, 1967, line without ever spelling out the nature of the peace they were offering. And of course, Damascus has never repudiated its strategic relationship with Iran.

To be fair, the Bush team dabbled in engagement with Damascus after the September 11 attacks, but those efforts were focused on counterterrorism. The goodwill did not carry over into other areas, including Iraq. True to form, the Syrians did just enough on al Qaeda to earn plaudits in some quarters while never restricting the group's ability to injure the United States, its friends, and its interests in the region. For example, Bashar al-Assad never shut down the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq by way of Damascus International Airport.

It's hard to sign up with the folks who seem all too willing to bomb Iran, but like Syria, the neoconservatives have a well-grounded view of the Iranian regime. George H.W. Bush tried engagement (remember "Goodwill begets goodwill" in his inaugural address?), so did Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama has offered a hand to the clerical regime.

Yet all three presidents have very little to show for their efforts. Why? Did they not engage enough? Did Bush, Clinton, and Obama engage incorrectly? Unlikely. Rather, one needs to look at the ontology -- yes, ontology, the metaphysical nature -- of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic was founded in many ways on opposition to the West, and in particular, the United States. A good portion of Iran's revolutionary narrative identifies the United States' perfidy in undermining the aspirations and identity of the Iranian people. The litany of Tehran's complaints against Washington is long. This is precisely why the Iranian leadership cannot make a deal with the United States. To do so would undermine the reason for the revolution and the Iranian leadership's own reason for being. The neoconservatives seem to have innately understood -- perhaps for different reasons -- that the Iranians were quite unlikely to respond to U.S. overtures. This doesn't mean that engagement is bad everywhere, even when it comes to Iran. The Obama administration may have been too sanguine about its ability to sway Iran's leadership, but the policy does serve an important purpose. Engagement demonstrates that, unlike with the run-up to the Iraq war, Washington is willing to exhaust every possible avenue to resolve its differences with Tehran before taking more punitive steps such as sanctions or even military action.

The one other area where the neocons got it right is democracy. A few caveats. First, you don't have to be a neoconservative to support democratic change in the Middle East -- it's simply the right thing to do. Second, the Freedom Agenda is all but dead, but that doesn't mean that the neocons were wrong. It has become fashionable to say that the Bush administration made "egregious" errors promoting democracy in the Arab world. Yes, invading Iraq to transform the country and the region qualifies as egregious. Still, Bush's forceful, public support for freedom and democracy in the Middle East had a profound effect on politics in the region. It did nothing less than change the terms of the debate in a way that Arab leaders could no longer control and allowed democracy activists to pursue their agendas in new ways.

Of course, democracy and reform in the Middle East did not begin when the Bush administration discovered the issue on or about September 12, 2001, or when the neoconservatives began pressing the issue. Still, with Washington watching, Arab authoritarians had to position themselves as reformers, making it more difficult for them to crack down on the real reformers. In Egypt, for example, opposition activists who were generally opposed to Bush's Middle East policy ruefully acknowledged that Washington's outspoken support for democracy provided them and their colleagues' protection from the Egyptian state. Indeed, it seems that Bush and the neocons had moved the needle on democracy in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2005 was upon us, but then Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Having never resolved the problem of what happens when nasty people are elected freely and fairly, the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the region was left to wither. Nevertheless, the neocons were onto something.

Needless to say, Washington's position in the Middle East was far worse after the ascendance of the neoconservatives during the Bush years. The region was further from peace, stability, and prosperity than when they found it in early 2001. Still, the neocons' perspective on the nature of the Syrian and Iranian regimes were largely accurate, and their forceful advocacy of democracy and freedom in the Middle East may have grated on many, but it did much to advance those causes in a region once described as "democracy's desert." Any number of observers would surely disagree with these claims, but I suspect that has more to do with politics than a careful evaluation of what the neocons have to offer to the foreign-policy debate.