The World's Greatest Spy Capers

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The dank mists of the Cold War swirled back in June 2010 as the U.S. Justice Department announced it had arrested 11 members of an alleged Russian spy ring. Unlike information thieves of the great espionage novels, though, this group appears to have lived comically pedestrian lives—as suburban parents, college professors, and business entrepreneurs like Anna Chapman, pictured here. Prosecutors still have not pointed to any classified information uncovered by the so-called spies that they couldn't already Google. One commentator even called it the "lamest espionage conspiracy … ever."

Still, it got NEWSWEEK all nostalgic for the glory days of the CIA and KGB, when every covert rendezvous in a faraway capital might be blown up by an exploding cigar. Even then, some of the cleverest, sneakiest, and strangest operations were undone—by small mistakes, good counterintelligence, or dumb luck. To put the current caper in context, here are some of our favorite real-life episodes of espionage (the ones we know about, anyway).

Rudolph Abel, convicted of running the spy ring. Top right: A hidden message. Bottom right: A hollow nickel. (Photos: Bettmann-Corbis)

Perpetrator: U.S.S.R.
Target: U.S.A.

On June 22, 1953, a Brooklyn Eagle delivery boy named Jimmy was making the rounds in Brooklyn to collect payments for his newspaper when he was handed a suspiciously lightweight coin. When he accidentally dropped it on the floor outside, it broke, revealing a microfilm of a series of numbers. He passed it on to a friend, who gave it to a cop, who then gave it to the FBI. But since the woman who had handed him the coin was equally surprised by the finding (she was an unwitting conduit), it wasn't until four years later that authorities got any closer to solving the mystery. As it turns out, the delivery boy had stumbled upon an extensive communication network used by the KGB in the United States, consisting of hollowed-out coins, pens, brushes, bolts, and various other tiny vessels. Only when a KGB officer defected to the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 1957 did Americans begin to crack the code and make arrests.


Perpetrators: U.K., U.S.A.
Target: Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh

With hindsight, all the snags in Iran's Western-backed 1953 coup probably suggested it wouldn't end well. In 1952, British intelligence officials contacted the CIA about the prospect of a coup, frowning on the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his plans to nationalize the country's oil industry, which had previously been under British control. The plan was for Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh and replacing him with a royalist general, Fazlollah Zahedi. But the shah proved an unenthusiastic co-conspirator, wary of losing his throne and his own popularity. After months of cajoling (and a power grab by Mossadegh), he assented.

To set the stage, the CIA launched an anti-communist propaganda campaign against Mossadegh, including planted newspaper reports, bribes, street demonstrations, and even the bombing of a cleric's home to break the prime minister's coalition with Iran's religious community. (It managed to dupe NEWSWEEK into running one of those planted stories.) Finally, on the night of Aug. 15, 1953, pro-shah soldiers fanned out across Tehran, snipping phone lines, arresting top Mossadegh officials, and stirring up anti-Mossadegh demonstrations. But they were unable to grab Mossadegh himself, who had been warned about TP-Ajax, as the mission was dubbed. The next morning there was no certain government--and also no shah, who had fled to Baghdad and then Rome amid the chaos.

But just when the operation seemed an utter flop, royalist officers took control of the radio and whipped up even more fervid street demonstrations, suddenly shifting the national mood against Mossadegh, paving the way for the coup's success and leaving 300 demonstrators dead in the process. Zahedi, who had been hiding just outside Tehran, was brought into the city to assume leadership, while Mossadegh and the rest of his supporters were rounded up; 22 were later executed, including the foreign minister. The following day the CIA wired $5 million to the new regime. The CIA's first-ever attempt at regime change was deemed so successful that it became a popular policy option, pulled out again the following year in Guatemala. But as the full extent of CIA involvement leaked out, the unequivocal victory for American spies began to seem awfully shallow. It wrought a friendly regime but also a half century of fierce anti-American and anti-British animosity among ordinary Iranians.

Pinhas Lavon, Israel's minister of defense, was forced from office by the ill-fated Operation Susannah attacks in 1955. He claimed he was framed by political opponents within Israel. (Bettmann-Corbis)

Perpetrator: Israel
Target: Egypt

On July 2, 1954, a firebomb rattled a post office in Alexandria, Egypt. The following week, bombs tore through a British theater and the U.S. Information Agency libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. As it turned out, they were surreptitiously carried out by Israel, which named the plot Operation Susannah. The idea was to blame the attacks on local insurgents, which would make Egypt look too unstable for British troops to withdraw from the Suez Canal inside two years, as planned. But Egyptian authorities traced the bombings back to nine Egyptian Jews who had been recruited by Israeli military intelligence to target sites frequented by Westerners. After confessing in public trials, two were hanged, one committed suicide, and the other six were jailed for more than a decade, ignored by Israel in multiple prisoner exchanges. The debacle became known as the Lavon Affair after Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, who, while denying involvement, quit after the plot became public.


Perpetrator: Belgium, with nods from U.S.A., U.K.
Target: Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba

Until government vaults in the West were opened 40 years later, the murder of Congo's first elected prime minister remained a mystery, blamed on errant villagers. Outspoken against the abuses of Belgian rule--and not shy about nurturing a potential Soviet friendship--Patrice Lumumba, who led Congo after its independence in 1960, made quick enemies in the West. Months after his election, a CIA-supported coup led by Col. Joseph Mobutu put him under house arrest, where he continued to protest and plan his restoration.

A CIA officer was sent with a tube of poison toothpaste to quiet him down, but Congolese and Belgian forces got to Lumumba first. After he attempted to escape his house arrest, he was chased down by Mobutu's soldiers, then beaten and humiliated in front of diplomats and journalists, when this photograph was taken. Showing Lumumba in the back of an Army truck one day after his arrest, it is the last photograph taken of him. A month later, he and two colleagues were shuttled off into the bush by Congolese and Belgian soldiers and shot, execution style, one at a time. The following day a Belgian police officer went back to cover the tracks, exhuming the bodies, hacking them to pieces, and dissolving them in acid from the nearby Belgian mines. Mobutu later rechristened himself Mobutu Sese Seko, the vicious autocrat animated by hatred of colonialism (understandably, after his role in Lumumba's demise) who ruled the country (then called Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo) from 1965 to 1997.


Perpetrator: U.S.S.R.
Target: U.K.

John Dennis Profumo didn't fit the profile of a man destined to shock and scandalize Britain. But in 1963, caught in an espionage-inspired love triangle, that's precisely what he did. Profumo, the secretary of war, had attended Oxford, climbed to cabinet rank, and married a film star, making him a fixture of London's high society. The object of his extramarital affections, Christine Keeler, was a showgirl at a cabaret club. Their rocky affair alone would have scandalized 1960s Britain, but it blew up into a full-fledged national-security crisis when it emerged that Keeler had also been sleeping with Eugene Ivanov, the naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. The FBI opened a file (dubbed Operation Bowtie), Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's government collapsed (in no small part due to the scandal), and Keeler did jail time for immoral earnings. She wasn't quite finished there; in an autobiography published in 2001, she alleged that other Soviet spies in her circle included the MI5 chief, Sir Roger Hollis, and the curator of the queen's artwork, Sir Anthony Blunt, affirming suspicions from decades earlier.


Perpetrators: Morocco, likely France, possibly Israel and U.S.A.
Target: Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka

As a friend of Che Guevara and Malcolm X--and an opponent of his own country's king--Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka was closely watched by the world's leading intelligence agencies. So when two men kidnapped him off the street in Paris, where he was living in exile, just before he was to chair the first international meeting of Third World liberation movements, everyone suspected that French and Moroccan agents, working together, had done it. Forty-five years later it still seems that way, though nobody is sure. Ben Barka is thought to have been killed shortly after his kidnapping, but neither a body nor definitive evidence has emerged. According to one former Moroccan agent, a Moroccan general and his assistant tortured Ben Barka, then brought his body back to Morocco and dissolved it in a tank of acid. Another former agent says the body was encased in cement. Just this past October a member of the French Navy came forward, claiming to have files showing that the body was burned and the ashes were thrown in a lake.

Arrest warrants were issued by Interpol for four suspects, including the current chief of Morocco's police, but they were mysteriously withdrawn the next day. Rumors that the plot was hatched by the CIA and Mossad agents still swirl.


Perpetrator: U.S.A.
Target: Cuban President Fidel Castro

It wasn't until the declassification of documents known as the "family jewels" in 1993 that the world learned the full extent of the CIA's ambitious--and often colorful--attempts to off Cuba's Fidel Castro. A congressional committee conducted hearings on the matter and concluded that the CIA had planned at least eight assassination plots between 1960 and 1965. Some schemes were actually attempted--like contaminated cigars, a fungus-laced diving suit, and depilatory salts bound for his shoes (which would, it was thought, emasculate him by making his beard fall out). Marita Lorenz, shown at right, claims she had an affair with Castro at age 19 and was involved in one of the poisoning attempts. Others, like a booby-trapped seashell and a plan to contaminate the air at Castro's radio station with an LSD-like drug, were simply dreamed up. Perhaps the most scandalous of all was an elaborate gambling syndicate planned with major Mafia figures who were given poison pills that, quite possibly, never made it out of Miami.


Perpetrator: Israel
Targets: PLO murder suspects

Within days of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (right), Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (left) had authorized Mossad to take out those responsible for the killings. Her order launched a seven-year operation of hit-team assassinations of more than a dozen suspects throughout Europe and the Middle East, including a raid in Beirut that killed three PLO officers, for which Ehud Barak, later the prime minister of Israel, dressed as a woman. Internally, it was known as Operation Bayonet; in the media it became known as Operation Wrath of God. In total, assassinations took place in Cyprus, Beirut, Athens, Rome, and Paris, before ending in Norway in 1979. There the operation fell apart after a Mossad agent shot an innocent Moroccan-born waiter, mistaking him for Ali Hassan Salameh, the alleged Munich mastermind. Five Mossad officers were arrested for the mistake, then released.

Georgi Markov, left. The poisoned pellet responsible for his death, right. (Photos: Dimitar Deinov / AP (Left); Keystone-Getty Images)

Perpetrators: Bulgaria, likely KGB
Target: Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov

A harsh critic of autocratic communist rule in his native Bulgaria, novelist and playwright Georgi Markov (left) set up a new life for himself after fleeing to London in 1969, working as a journalist with the BBC World Service. Nearly a decade after his escape, his foes were not ready to let the defection go. In 1978, as he was standing at a bus stop in London, Markov was injected in the back of the right leg with a ricin-laced pellet (right), likely from the tip of an umbrella. Although he experienced a sudden stinging pain, he continued to work, only to fall sick later that evening and die three days later. In 1992 the former Bulgarian intelligence chief was jailed for destroying 10 volumes of files on Markov's death, but the killers have never been identified. Historians suggest KGB involvement.


Perpetrator: Nigeria
Target: Former transportation minister Umaru Dikko

Normally, diplomatic packages are completely immune from search and seizure. When one of those packages is a crate with the former transportation minister of Nigeria inside, however, exceptions can be made. Umaru Dikko, a notoriously dirty politician wanted on corruption charges in Nigeria, fled the country for London shortly after a 1984 coup unseated his government. Months later Dikko was abducted from his luxurious London home, drugged, stuffed into a crate, and loaded onto a Nigerian Airways cargo plane bound for Lagos, addressed to the Nigerian Foreign Ministry from its embassy in London. Beside Dikko in the crate was an Israeli with a syringe to keep him subdued; a nearby crate held two more Israeli men recruited by Nigerian officials to carry out the mission (Mossad connections were suspected but never established). Three Israelis and a Nigerian were eventually imprisoned in the case in London. Dikko himself was denied political asylum in the U.K., but he continued living in London, his status in limbo, until 1994, when he was invited home by the same government that had previously wanted him extradited. Today he is considered an elder statesman in Nigeria.


Perpetrator: France
Target: Greenpeace

Greenpeace named its ship Rainbow Warrior after a North American Indian prophecy that a mythical band of warriors will descend from a rainbow to save the world from human greed. But the French intelligence services had other plans for the ship, which Greenpeace had parked at a port in Auckland, New Zealand, en route to the tiny French Polynesian atoll of Mururoa, where the French atomic agency was conducting nuclear tests. Three teams of agents planted explosives on the vessel, planning to "neutralize" it to prevent the group's protest. A Portuguese photographer was killed in the attack. The ship itself was destroyed; it was towed out to the middle of a bay near New Zealand and allowed to sink. Although French President François Mitterrand had denied any involvement in the decision to bomb the Rainbow Warrior (he allowed his defense minister and intelligence chief to resign over the issue), a report published in 2005 said he had authorized the attack.

Sgt. Clayton Lonetree outside his court martial in 1987. (Mark Wilson / AP)

Perpetrator: U.S.S.R.
Target: U.S.A.

Violetta Seina, a receptionist at the residence of the American ambassador to Moscow, had long blonde hair and large eyes. When she wore a long, elegant black dress to the annual Marine ball in 1986, she made quite the impression--especially on 25-year-old Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, a guard at the U.S. Embassy whom Seina, a KGB agent, persuaded to share documents and diplomatic secrets. He also opened the embassy at night for Seina, allowing the Soviets to plant bugs in some of the building's most sensitive communications and reconnaissance areas. The first Marine in history to be convicted of espionage, Lonetree was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison, but ultimately served nine. Seina was later said to work for the Irish Embassy in Moscow, but she fell off the grid after leaving that job in 1987. Lonetree reportedly kept in touch with her throughout his prison term.


Perpetrators: U.S.A., U.K.
Targets: United Nations officials

DIRTY TRICKS screamed a British newspaper headline, announcing that the paper had obtained a leaked document showing that the U.S. National Security Agency had been spying on top U.N. officials. It was March 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The Observer reported that the NSA had bugged the homes and offices and read the e-mails of delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea, and Pakistan.

Charges were brought against Katherine Gun (right), a translator at the British equivalent of the NSA, for leaking the document—which she openly admitted to doing—but the government ultimately dropped the case. At the U.N., on the other hand, the news was greeted with a collective shrug. "We've always done it," one U.S. government official with experience at Turtle Bay told the Los Angeles Times. "It's routine." Bulgaria's ambassador said he would have taken it as an insult if he wasn't being watched. Other intelligence officials said they thought the memo was a forgery, planted to embarrass American officials at a sensitive time. The scandal never reached a fever pitch, but it never quite died out either. A former aide to Tony Blair revealed in 2004 that British intelligence services had spied on Kofi Annan in the weeks before the Iraq War, a claim Blair denied. Another bug turned up in a room used for high-level meetings at the U.N. office in Geneva at the end of 2004; the culprit remains unknown.


Perpetrator: Russia
Target: Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko

Before Alexander Litvinenko, a onetime KGB officer and critic of the Kremlin, died in London in 2006, he had something to say to the person responsible for his "present condition": "You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price." Litvinenko was poisoned by a rare radioactive isotope, polonium 210, which had been planted in his teapot at London's Millennium Hotel; the murderer is still at large. Litvinenko and his family had become British citizens after fleeing Russia in 2000, when they chose exile for his outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin—whom Litvinenko implicated in his final statement. But while British prosecutors have identified a suspect, another KGB alumnus, they have been unable to secure the man's extradition from Russia to face murder charges—indicative of Putin's iron grip on Russian justice. Litvinenko was right about the price Russia would pay, though: the U.K. expelled four Russian diplomats after the murder, which has left an enduring chill in Russian relations with Western Europe.


Perpetrator: China
Targets: U.S.A., Germany, Google, capitalism

As China has risen to global power, so too has the sophistication of its intelligence--but in markedly different forms than the spy capers of yesteryear. The computer attacks exposed by Google in early 2010 revealed a concerted political and corporate espionage program targeting major financial, defense, and technology companies in the United States, as well as human-rights activists and political dissidents within China. Months earlier, a German counterintelligence agent said that Chinese spies were stealing industrial secrets using phone tapping and hacking tools, and that they were likely capable of "sabotaging whole chunks of infrastructure" in his country. In 2005 American officials identified Chinese hacking successes at hundreds of computer networks throughout the U.S. government, including the Defense Department, in an operation investigators code-named Titan Rain; none of the breaches was believed to have accessed classified materials.

Perpetrator: probably Israel
Target: Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

From the moment Mahmoud al-Mabhouh stepped off a plane in Dubai on Jan. 20, his killers—probably from Israel's Mossad—had him in their sights. A senior Hamas official, al-Mabhouh had arrived from Damascus allegedly to arrange an arms shipment to Gaza. In this video, compiled from CCTV footage, he is shown (bottom) being followed out of the elevator at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel by two attackers disguised in tennis gear. Later their colleagues returned to finish the job, electrocuting and strangling al-Mabhouh in his room. The assassins covered their tracks well. They flew in from Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, and Zurich on forged passports. They wore disguises. They switched hotels multiple times. They carried cell phones but never called each other directly. What they probably didn't count on was the tenacity of Dubai investigators. Thanks to DNA and fingerprint evidence, 26 people are so far implicated in the assassination.

The World's Greatest Spy Capers | World