April 18th, 2012
07:38 PM ET

Sex and espionage: A long and sordid history

By Tim Lister, CNN

Call it the flip-side to torture: using seduction to extract valuable information. It’s as old as the Old Testament – literally. Delilah used deception and seduction to find out the secret of Samson’s strength. His hair was never to be cut. So off she went to tell the Philistines – and his precious braids were shaved as he slept.

The lure of sex has been the stuff of both spy fiction and real-life scandals ever since.

“Let's face it, historically women — and prostitutes in particularly — have been used to infiltrate or get information," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said Tuesday, referring to the unfolding scandal over the conduct of Secret Service agents in Colombia.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) chimed in: "Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons or in any other (ways) jeopardized security of the president or our country?"

Nothing has been made public to suggest information about President Barack Obama’s visit to Colombia was sought or given during the encounters between Secret Service personnel and the Colombian women they met – either in the Play Club or subsequently at the agents’ hotel.

But whether from conviction or for profit, women – and men – have traded sex for secrets for centuries. The most (in)famous case of the modern era involved Mata Hari, the Dutch-born exotic dancer who took up residence in Paris after a failed marriage. She appeared virtually nude on stage in a jewelled bra and little else – and was soon the talk of the town, becoming the mistress of a wealthy industrialist and involved in many more liaisons, some with military officers.

But she was also – allegedly – a German spy, code-named H-21. There are as many differing accounts of her spying as of her dancing – with some suggesting that she had an arrangement with the German consul in the Hague to pass on information about enemy war plans. British intelligence supposedly got wind of the arrangement and she was arrested in February 1917. Part of the otherwise flimsy evidence against her was secret ink found in her hotel room, which she said was make-up. Protesting her innocence to the end, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad. But her name has since become a byword for the seductress seeking secrets.

The Cold War provided plenty of opportunities for so-called “honey-pot” scandals. A Marine Sergeant – Clayton J. Lonetree – posted at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the 1980s was convicted of espionage after giving secrets to a 26-year old translator who worked at the embassy. At his trial it emerged that the woman had introduced him to a man she described as "Uncle Sasha," who inevitably was a KGB operative.

Lonetree’s sentence was later reduced when it emerged that some of the secrets he was alleged to have passed on were in fact betrayed by CIA agent Aldrich Ames, And in Lonetree’s defense, the commandant of the Marine Corps said his motivation “was not treason or greed, but rather the lovesick response of a naive, young, immature and lonely troop in a lonely and hostile environment.”

Using sex for secrets goes “both ways.” John Vassall was a British official posted to Moscow in the 1950s as a clerk to the Naval Attache. Plied with alcohol at a party, he was photographed by the KGB in a compromising situation with several men. He was blackmailed – and passed thousands of classified documents to the Russians in the following decade.

A British journalist in Moscow, Jeremy Wolfenden, got into similar trouble in the 1960s. But he told the British embassy that he’d been caught in flagrante, and was asked to become a double agent. The stress of having both MI6 and the KGB breathing down his neck is said to have led to heavy drinking and his premature death at the age of 31. Wolfenden’s short life became the subject of a book by Sebastian Faulks, “The Fatal Englishman.”

The East Germans may have been the best at using the lure of sex to gather intelligence, but in a unique way. The long-time head of the Stasi (East German intelligence service), Markus Wolf, deployed “Romeos” to West Germany and later wrote in his autobiography: “If I go down in espionage history it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying.”

In the 1950s, Wolf dispatched an agent called Felix to Bonn, who befriended a woman called Norma employed in the office of the German Chancellor – by waiting at her bus-stop. They even married, and he got to know many of her colleagues. Then one day, she came home and he was gone – pulled back to the East after Wolf got wind of an investigation by West German intelligence services.

Marianne Quoirin, author of “The Spies Who Did It For Love,” tells the story of another West German woman who as a former nun refused to have sex with her “Romeo” until they were married. So the Stasi staged a wedding, providing both priest and mother-in-law. The Stasi would do detailed research on targets, examining their previous relationships and hobbies.

One Stasi agent, Gerhard Beier, worked in West Germany for nearly 20 years before the Berlin Wall came down. "I was fulfilling my patriotic duty, and it wasn't unpleasant," he said later in an interview. Altogether some 40 German women were prosecuted for passing secrets to East German Romeos.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of seduction in recent times involved Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu. In 1986 he visited London and provided the Sunday Times with dozens of photographs of Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program. But Mossad was on his trail and a female agent – Cheryl Ben Tov – befriended him (reportedly bumping into him at a cigarette kiosk in London’s Leicester Square.) She lured him to Rome for a weekend, where he was drugged and spirited to Israel.

Vanunu was convicted of betraying his country's secrets and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Ben Tov later became a realtor in Florida.

Using sex for information or as blackmail doesn’t always work. When Indonesian President Sukarno visited Moscow in the 1960s, the KGB sought to take advantage of his renowned sexual appetite, sending a batch of glamorous young women posing as air hostesses to his hotel. When the Russians later confronted him with a film of the lurid encounter, Sukarno was apparently delighted. Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.

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