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.”