Espionage is an act that can be either intriguing or traitorous, depending on what side of the fence you fall on. For certain, spy craft makes for an excellent and alluring literary and movie plot, as James Bond has prove time and again. However, with real espionage, the stakes are much higher than a lack of entertainment. For the nations and persons involved, spying is a very real and often dangerous part of the international landscape, that can result in tremendous damage or enhancement to national security.
Given that the United States is still the most powerful country on Earth, it makes sense a large number of spy cases are directed towards learning her secrets. Here are ten of the most talked-about.
10. Edward Snowden (2013)
There is some argument as to whether this is a true espionage case or not, despite the fact that U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with a criminal indictment asserting such. The reason for this is because Snowden did not provide information he obtained to a foreign government. Instead, he talked to the media, specifically the Guardian newspaper. Snowden claims that he did this in order to expose the illegality and expansive encroachment of the government into the private lives of citizens.
Snowden himself is a former civilian contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), and was also once an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. Snowden’s level of access allowed him to collect a tremendous amount of top-secret information regarding America’s various electronic surveillance programs, such as Tempora and PRISM. The shocker, for some at least, is that some of these spy programs were being used against US citizens and American allies. Equally, these programs are purported to sift through everyday emails and phone conversations in search of usable intelligence.
The US government has stated that Snowden’s revelations have caused a serious blow to its ability to gather needed intelligence and that, as a result, terrorists are already changing the manner in which they communicate with one another. For certain, Snowden’s breach of security is one of the most notable and damaging in the history of the NSA, with a point that he has yet to disclose all of information that he has available. Snowden has currently obtained temporary asylum in Russia, escaping US charges of espionage and theft of government property for the time being. The US, however, is keen to get him back, possibly by any means necessary.
9. Clayton Lonetree (1987)
During the time that this case happened, it gained quite a bit of media attention, more for the titillating circumstances that surrounded it than for the actual damage that was caused. Lonetree was a highly thought-of Marine sergeant who was assigned to the prestigious post of U.S. Embassy security in the early part of the ’80s. While stationed in Moscow however, he was recruited, seduced, and turned by an attractive Soviet agent, and began passing secret documents and information. The Soviet agent who seduced the young Marine entrapped him to continue selling secrets, even after Lonetree was reposted to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna. In all, Lonetree provided the Soviets with the inner workings of U.S. embassies, including floor blueprints. He also was able to identify the personnel in the embassies who were actually U.S. intelligence agents.
In the end, though, the damage that he caused was termed minimal, he was discovered and court martialed in a military court. Lonetree was sentenced to 15 years in prison, fined $5000, and dishonorably discharged from the military.
8. Jonathan Pollard (1987)
This case is interesting not only for the fact that Pollard was spying for perennial U.S. ally Israel, but also for the continued lobbying by Israeli top officials (including a number of Prime Ministers) to the U.S. government for his release from prison. For his part, Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst working for Naval Intelligence Command (NIC). His work ethic was anything but stellar, and certainly raises many questions as to how he was able to maintain employment, let alone be assigned to work and have access to sensitive information. For example, he continually lied to superiors during the vetting and background checks, and he routinely went around his direct supervisors in attempts to further his own agenda. On one such attempt, the commander of NIC – an admiral – recommended that he be stripped of his security clearances and reassigned. Amazingly, after Pollard complained loudly about this, his security clearances were reinstated.
Subsequently, in 1984, Pollard met an Israeli air force colonel named Aviem Sella, and offered his services to the Israeli government as a spy. Israel purportedly paid Pollard an initial sum of $10,000 and put him on a $1,500 a month stipend for continued information. The nature of the information that Pollard passed was typically regional to Israel: information concerning the Palestine Liberation Organization and developed intelligence on nations like Jordan, Egypt, etc.
Pollard was finally discovered as a result of leaving unsecured classified material on his desk at work that did not pertain to his area of concern. A supervisor noticed this and other irregularities, prompting an investigation that ultimately led to his capture and arrest. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison, and is eligible to be paroled in 2015.
7. George Trofimoff (2001)
Trofimoff was a Colonel in the U.S. Army who specialized in military intelligence. He has the distinction of being the highest-ranking U.S. officer to ever be convicted of spying.
Like many potential spies, Trofimoff was motivated by money. His nefarious activities, however, would span 25 years before he was finally arrested. In his position as Chief of the United States Army Element with the Nuremberg Joint Interrogation Center (a NATO operation located in then West Germany), he held top level security clearances and had access to sensitive information about Soviet and Warsaw pact defectors, as well as other relevant intelligence. At some point in the early ’70s, he was recruited by the KGB, who used one of their agents to befriend the Colonel while in Germany. In total, Trofimoff was paid about $250,000 for the information he passed on, which is said to have amounted to over 50,000 pages of data.
Trofimoff was initially suspected of spying as the result of information authorities obtained from a KGB defector in 1992. Trofimoff was questioned, but released for lack of any supportive evidence. After this brush, he retired and left Germany for Florida. Trofimoff was not forgotten however, and the FBI ran a sting in 1997 that tricked the colonel into revealing his once-covert activities. He was subsequently convicted of espionage charges in 2001, and sentenced to life in prison.
6. James Hall III (1989)
The Hall case was one that seriously compromised the U.S. Army’s signal intelligence capabilities. Hall was a warrant officer in the U.S. Army, working as an analyst in signal intelligence. This is essentially monitoring and deciphering intelligence that is produced by electronic means. Hall’s initial post was at an NSA listening post in Berlin, that was a key component in monitoring East German and Soviet activity.
Motivated by financial gain, beginning in 1983 Hall compromised such secrets as the Project Trojan Horse program. This program provided NATO with the ability to identify land targets, such as tanks, by the signature of the signals they emitted. So dedicated was Hall to spying, that he actually re-enlisted in the Army in order to continue doing so, going so far as to win a promotion to warrant officer, and greater access to secure information. Hall would go on to divulge the capabilities of U.S. signal intelligence, codes, and various other related information. All told, Hall’s activities are considered one of the most damaging to U.S. Cold War capabilities.
Hall’s spying came to the attention of authorities as a result of an East German defector, who provided key information about Hall’s activities. An investigation and subsequent sting had Hall admitting to his espionage role. He was arrested in 1988, and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
5. Harold James Nicholson (1997)
The Nicholson case brought glaring attention to the deficiencies in the hiring and vetting practices of the CIA that allowed for such highly placed moles. By all accounts, Nicholson had a stellar career with the CIA. He joined the agency in 1980 after a stint in the US Army. He subsequently served in various foreign posts as a counter-intelligence officer. He served as chief of station in Romania, and later as a branch chief with the Counterterrorism Center.
It appears that Nicholson was recruited by the Russian Intelligence Service (SVR) while serving as a deputy chief of station at some point between 1992 – 1994. During that time, until his arrest in 1996, Nicholson passed along national defense information, including sensitive photos and computer data that he had access to. Nicholson’s spy career, however, would not last very long. Nicholson came under suspicion after failing a number of polygraph tests that the CIA routinely administers to its personnel. An investigation was launched, and further evidence was developed that conclusively identified Nicholson as a spy. It was found that the Russians had paid Nicholson about $300,000 for his services. He was subsequently sentenced to 23 years in prison in 1997. To date, Nicholson is the highest-ranking CIA official to be convicted of espionage.
4. The Rosenbergs (1951)
Looking at this otherwise ordinary couple, you would not immediately consider that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a part of one of the most notorious spy rings in America. Their journey began, interestingly enough, at a Young Communist League meeting in 1936, where they became acquainted with one another. They were soon married and produced two sons.
For their part, Julius and Ethel were part of a large spy ring, dedicated to passing top secret information about the US atomic bomb program to the Soviets. Included in the ring were David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Morton Sobell, and the German scientist Klaus Fuchs. Julius was recruited by the Soviets as early as 1942, and passed information to them throughout World War II, concerning work at Los Alamos that he received from Greenglass. He is believed to have turned over classified documents to the Soviets regarding the fledgling atomic program, including sketches of an atomic bomb in 1945. The results of the information provided is believed to have advanced the Soviet nuclear program by years, and helped them achieve the atomic bomb much earlier than would have otherwise been the case.
Interestingly, it seems that Ethel’s part in the spy ring was minimal at best, with the incriminating notes she purportedly took containing very little in the way of damaging information. In fact, her indictment was a tactical maneuver by the government to pressure Julius to giving up additional names of members associated with the spy ring. The result is that both were convicted of the Espionage Act of 1917, and sentenced to death. Many have argued that the penalty did not fit the crime, especially for Ethel. Nevertheless, they were both executed by electrocution in 1953.
3. Aldrich Ames (1994)
Aldrich Ames was a coup for Soviet intelligence services. As a counter-intelligence agent, he was the person responsible for catching enemy spies. In addition, as an officer for the CIA, Ames had access to information that detailed how the agency planned to deal with the KGB, and other foreign intelligence agencies. This would include the plans for intelligence operations, as well as names of agents and double agents.
In 1985, Ames essentially presented himself to the Soviet officials that he was familiar with, along with a bit of classified information and the dangling opportunity for more. The Soviets readily agreed to put him on the payroll. Aldrich would provide information for the Soviets until about 1993. In those eight years, Aldrich would give up every operative working for the CIA that he knew of. At least 10 operatives are known to have been executed by the Soviets as a result, and hundreds of CIA intelligence operations were fundamentally ruined.
The Soviets, for their part, paid for Aldrich’s services lavishly. He is said to have been given upwards of $4 million over the course of his spying. In fact, it was this excess of funds that ultimately led to his downfall. His extravagant living eventually raised alarms with the CIA, resulting in his 1994 arrest. Ames pleaded guilty to his charges, and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Ames’ betrayal ranks as second behind our next guy, for the number of compromised operatives in CIA history.
2. Robert Hanssen (2001)
If the Ames case wasn’t bad enough, you only have to look at the Robert Hanssen case to put real intelligence scandals into perspective. Hanssen is a former FBI agent who spied on the US for his Soviet handlers for 22 years, starting in 1979 until he was finally apprehended in 2001.
This is another guy who did it for the money and, over the span of his spying activities, he collected well over $1 million, including diamonds. Hanssen was a tremendous asset for the Soviets, as he worked in various FBI counter-intelligence units. This meant that the Soviets had the inside track on what the FBI was doing to catch Soviet spies. Hanssen is the individual who gave up the CIA’s prized mole in the Soviet Army, General Dmitri Polyakov (who was subsequently executed as a result.) Hanssen would go on to divulge such secrets as the names of double agents working for the US, hindering FBI investigations attempting to identify Russian agents who had penetrated US intelligence agencies.
While a number of instances should have red-flagged Hanssen as a possible mole, these were discounted, and the circumstances were attributed to Aldrich Ames, whose deeds were contemporaneous. As a result, Hanssen continued to turn over sensitive information unabated. In fact, while the FBI was convinced that another mole existed, especially after Ames was arrested in 1994, they did not initially suspect Hanssen in any fashion. The FBI finally got creative, and offered a former KGB agent $7 million to find out who the mole was. This KGB agent successfully stole the files that identified Hanssen from SVR headquarters (the agency that succeeded the KGB in the Russian Federation,) and the subsequent investigation led to Hanssen’s capture. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The amount of information that Hanssen divulged has led many counter-intelligence experts to declare the case the worst in FBI history.
1. John Walker Family (1985)
The Walker family made spying for the Soviet Union a family affair. In fact, the depth of this case is astonishing in both scope and breadth. John Walker was a US Navy chief warrant officer who specialized in communications. He was privy to the codes, equipment and capabilities of the Navy’s most sensitive communication systems used on its ships. He began his spying career in 1968 by simply walking into the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. and selling them a few classified codes he had access to. They immediately put Walker on the payroll.
Walker was ambitions and cunning. He soon recruited a fellow sailor named Jerry Whitworth, to assist gathering information once Walker was transferred out of the position that had allowed him access to sensitive information. He would also use his wife, Barbara, to carry out some of his dealings with the Soviets. In 1976, Walker faced retirement, but this did not deter him either. Instead, he recruited various family members that were in the military to continue collecting information for him. This included Arthur (his older brother) and Michael (his son.) He even made an attempt to recruit his youngest daughter who was in the Army, but she was soon discharged because of a pregnancy. His crucial mistake was attempting to recruit his disgruntled ex-wife. John and Barbara divorced in 1985, and she was not happy about John’s decision to not pay alimony. Her solution was to turn him over to the FBI.
The scope of the damage that had already been done over the 17 years Walker had been spying was jaw-dropping. With over a million encrypted messages, documents, and vital pieces of information provided to the Soviets, Walker is said to have altered “significantly the balance of power between Russia and the United States.” It would take the Navy decades to recover. In exchange for a more lenient sentence for his son Michael, John fully disclosed his activities and those of his co-conspirators. John himself was sentenced to life in prison.