How the World’s Spooks Stack Up

Spy vs Spy
John Brennan: Nominated to lead America's spies and Anna Chapman: An alleged undercover threat Stas Vladimirov/Kommersant-Zuma-Newscom; Chip Somodevilla/Getty

This week, President Obama nominated John Brennan, currently his counterterrorism adviser, to run the CIA. Brennan’s hiring aside, it hasn’t been a great few months for the CIA: first, there was David Petraeus’s sex scandal; then, more recently came word that the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the CIA gave too much access to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty. All this drama surrounding the CIA got us wondering: How does it compare to other agencies around the world on various measures of spycraft? And which agencies have historically excelled—or conspicuously failed—at particular tasks? Here, a highly unscientific and purely anecdotal guide.



The Russians created an umbrella that shot defector Georgi Markov with a ricin pellet in 1978. They also allegedly poisoned Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 by slipping a radioactive isotope into his tea in a London hotel, according to media reports.


In 1992, a Kurdish politician, Sadegh Sharafkandi, was gunned down in a Berlin restaurant, one of several dozen Iranians killed abroad under orders from the Supreme Leader.


In 1988, Israeli commandos entered the villa of PLO leader Khalil al-Wazir in Tunisia carrying a box of chocolates (it contained a gun). They shot and killed him. In 1996, a cellphone blew up, killing Hamas bombmaker Yehiyeh Ayyash; security experts believe the Mossad was responsible. And agents working for Israel, including one on a motorcycle, have reportedly killed four nuclear scientists in Iran.

Source for the deaths of nuclear scientists: Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, By Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman



For decades, the chief of MI6 was known only as “C.” The Brits have been stealthy in other ways, too. Working at Bletchley Park during World War II, code-breakers unraveled the mystery of the German Enigma cipher machine, though for decades afterward none of them would talk about what they had done. Years later, MI6 managed to recruit Oleg Gordievsky, an official who had been working at the Soviet embassy in London, and with his help got hold of hundreds of reports about his colleagues.


In 2010, a Mossad agent, carrying a tennis racquet, was caught on video before allegedly killing a Hamas official in a Dubai hotel. Back in the 1990s, Mossad agents poisoned Hamas’s Khaled Mashal in Amman, Jordan—then got caught. Embarrassed, Israeli officials ended up giving him an antidote for the poison. He survived.


Pakistan’s ISI has been clumsy about double-crossing: they’ve allegedly worked with a terrorist group, the Haqqani network, that kills Americans in Afghanistan—and word has gotten out.



Anna Chapman—dubbed ‘Red’ Head by the New York Post—was part of an alleged Russian spy ring operating in the United States until it was uncovered in 2010. Since then, Chapman has appeared in the Russian edition of Maxim, partly undressed and holding a pistol.


United States

The CIA tested LSD on its own scientists in the 1950s, partly because it wanted to see how the drug could be used against American operatives in the field. In addition, the agency has mechanical dragonflies that can be controlled from a remote location.


At least according to its enemies, Israel excels at animal spying. Iranian officials said they captured two Israeli spy pigeons near a nuclear facility at Natanz, Iran, in 2008. Last year, the Saudis detained a vulture that they claimed was from Tel Aviv and accused the bird of working for the Mossad. The bird was later released, but the fact that the Saudis suspected Israel of deploying a vulture speaks to the Mossad’s reputation for innovation.

Source: “Iran Captures ‘Nuclear Spy Pigeons,’” The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 23, 2008



China appears to have hacked into Lockheed Martin in 2009 and obtained information about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. Two years later, the Chinese built their own version, the J-20.


At the other end of the computer spectrum: Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security uses handwritten bookkeeping (it’s too paranoid to use computers). Records take hours to update, which allowed journalist Delbar Tavakoli and others to sneak out of Tehran’s airport before being placed on a no-fly list.

Sources: “Cyber-Warfare: Hype And Fear,” The Economist, Dec. 8, 2012; Iason Athanasiadis, “How Iranian Dissidents Slip Through Tehran’s Airport Dragnet,” The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 8, 2010



In 2011, Iran reportedly hacked an American RQ-170 Sentinel’s GPS, forcing the drone to land. It was a major public-relations triumph for Tehran.

Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times



Appealing to a Los Alamos physicist’s generous spirit, China reportedly convinced him to reveal classified information about nuclear warheads. The scientist met with Chinese officials in the 1980s and 1990s, explaining later that he wanted to help them because China is “such a poor country.”

Source: Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War With China, By David Wise


United States

The CIA scores highly in this category for helping KGB agents to collect evidence against two Russian dissidents in 1966. We know about this because poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said he was tipped off by then-senator Robert Kennedy, who alleged the CIA had been trying to divert attention from problems that Americans were having at the time in Vietnam.

Source: Vincent J. Schodolski, “CIA Allegedly Aided KGB In ’66 Arrest Of Soviets,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1989 NW