Russian spies? In this day and age? Living in New Jersey? Apparently so: The FBI conducted a sweep of suspected deep-cover Russian spies last week, among them a married couple living outside of Boston, a New York City party girl and a Spanish-language journalist. Metsos, a Canadian, is the one who got away — he escaped in Cyprus after posting bail and has possibly entered Turkey. Is it just me, or is this whole thing kind of cool?
America’s first spy, Nathan Hale — a Yale man, by the way — earned this distinction at 21 when, as a captain in the Continental Army, he snuck across enemy lines during the Battle of Long Island in September 1776. It was while documenting British troop movements that he was caught, in what is now Flushing, in Queens, and hanged in midtown Manhattan, but not before uttering the phrase with which he would ever after be associated: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Can’t talk about spies without a mention of the most notorious femme fatale in history. Mata Hari’s time was World War I, the place: Europe, where as an exotic dancer she gained access to powerful men. In 1917 she was busted by the French in a Paris hotel room — yes, she was one of the bad guys, sending coded messages to the Germans — and was executed later that year by firing squad. And it is noteworthy that some historians believe that Hari was never a spy at all, set up as a pawn by a French double-agent.
In 1962, Aldrich Ames, college dropout, secured full-time work as a clerk with the Central Intelligence Agency. By 1970 his job was to turn known Soviet agents into moles for the US. And by 1985, broke and divorced, he turned him self, jeopardizing perhaps 100 US covert operations inside the Soviet Union before he was caught in 1994. Among the evidence against him was the fact that on a $60,000 a year salary he was able to afford a half-million-dollar home, a Jaguar, tailored suits and a credit-card bill that exceeded his monthly income.
G. Gordon Liddy was a White House plumber during Richard Nixon’s presidency — but the only leaks he and his corps tried to fix concerned classified information and the press. Liddy became known after the Watergate breakins, when he had his crew break into Democrat National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel looking for dirt against party members. He kept his mouth shut and did his time, and now he’s a highly paid fixture on talk radio and the college lecture circuit.
Oliver North Here’s one for barroom debate: Was Oliver North actually a spy? Well, he played a big role in the secret sale of arms to Iran in the early 1980s to aid in their war with Iraq. And he masterminded the ploy to use the funds from those sales to shore up the defenses of his good friend President Manuel Noriega, of Panama. Also, his comely secretary Fawn Hall smuggled documents from his office in her undergarments. Pretty sneaky, if you ask me.
That’s right, among her many other talents and attributes, Josephine Baker, the Bronze Venus, worked as a spy. After leaving the US and becoming a French citizen — and muse to talents like Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald and Dior — she enlisted as an agent with the French government during World War II. As an entertainer, she crossed enemy lines freely, often with messages coded into her sheet music, and was able to scout in Europe and Africa. She was eventu ally awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor, for her efforts.
Belle Boyd, the Cleopatra of the Secession, reputedly began her career in espionage after gunning down a Union soldier who tore the Confederate flag from her Virginia home and yelled at her mother. She spent the Civil War using her charms and famously perfect ankles to elicit secrets from Union soldiers, which she would then ferry to Confederate scouts. Though she was caught several times, she avoided execution and after the war spent time in England and New Orleans before touring the US lecture circuit. She died on the road, in Wisconsin of all places.
In the early days of the Cold War, senior editor at Time magazine Whitaker Chambers accused high-level political advisor Alger Hiss of being a secret Communist to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hiss denied it, and Chambers then accused him of spying for the Russians. Hiss was eventually convicted on perjury charges, and maintained his innocence until his death in 1996. But questions as to his role in espionage remain among those who remember. Was Hiss the Soviet agent known as ALES? Or was he a straw man use to whip up Red Fever at a time of national paranoia?
On the surface, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg looked like a nice young couple, but they were avowed communists and Soviet Union sympathizers in a time when people took this kind of thing much more seriously than they did last week. After it became clear that Julius was, indeed, a courier of nuclear secrets for the KGB — details of his wife’s involvement are much more murky — the two were brought to the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1953, the first civilians to be killed for spying in US history.