WASHINGTON — Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin was once asked why so many Russian spies used sex in their work, intelligence historian H. Keith Melton recalls. Kalugin's reply was simple: "In America, in the West, occasionally you ask your men to stand up for their country. There's very little difference. In Russia, we just ask our young women to lay down."
Most people's first association with spies and sex is James Bond, but conducting espionage through seduction happens in real life, too. And in a briefing at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. last week, Melton spilled some of sexpionage's greatest secrets.
One of the most significant episodes in the annals of sexpionage occurred during the depths of the Cold War in 1963, when Britain learned the hard way that mixing sex and spying could cause even the best-laid plans to go off the rails. Britain's MI5 security service successfully dangled showgirl Christine Keeler in front of the Russian naval attache Yevgeni Ivanov. But Keeler's knack for making men swoon had a downside. John Profumo, the British secretary of war, was at a party that summer when he saw Keeler swimming naked in a pool. He fell for her too.
As Melton put it, "You have a situation where the equivalent of the secretary of defense is having an affair with the same woman who is having an affair with the Russian naval attache. This was not to end well." Indeed, after Profumo emphatically denied the affair on the floor of Parliament, Keeler decided to sell his love letters to the Express newspaper. Profumo resigned, and Harold Macmillan's Conservative government crumbled.
In the United States, these kinds of scandals may have gone all the way to the top of the government. Suspected East German spy Ellen Rometsch, for instance, was a call girl at the Quorum Club, a favorite spot for politicians (who used the side entrance) in Washington, D.C., who allegedly became involved with none other than President John F. Kennedy. While the president had plenty of affairs, this one was of particular concern to his brother, Robert Kennedy, who had the unenviable task of sending her back to Europe, making sure she didn't talk, and getting FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to drop his investigation into the matter.
Getting someone to fall into a sexual trap — a "honey trap," in spy talk — is not automatic. Markus Wolf, a former head of East German intelligence, was one of the masters. His idea was to dispatch male agents, known as "Romeos," to targets like NATO headquarters with the mission of picking up female secretaries. He later told Melton that a good Romeo had three critical traits: he was likeable, he knew how to make himself the center of attention, and he listened well, which made women enjoy talking to him.
If a Romeo wants to recruit women, Wolf told Melton once, "you don't go to them, have them come to you. You become the center of the party, you buy the drinks, you tell the jokes. You're the life of the party. She will come to you. And then naturally that will make it easier."
The next step in East Germany's playbook was to escalate the relationship. The agent would propose marriage and later reveal to his wife that he was a spy — but for a friendly country (like Canada!). The finishing touch was for the agent to explain that he would have to be recalled, ruining their precious relationship, unless the wife could cough up some information to satisfy the bosses back home.
These tactics were so successful that by 1978 East German intelligence had racked up at least 53 cases of women falling for Romeos. By 1980, NATO had started compiling and monitoring a registry of single female secretaries to make sure they weren't marrying East German spies.
Sexualized spying didn't fade with the Cold War. Just three years ago, the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies in New York City, the most famous of which was Anna Chapman, who used her marriage to a British citizen, whom she met at a rave in London, to get a British passport that she in turn used to enter the United States. Melton noted that her husband, Alex Chapman, was later asked if he noticed anything unusual about his wife. "Every time I would call her cell phone she'd answer me from a payphone, but at the time I didn't think anything was unusual," he said.
The digital age could make sex an even more potent tool for espionage. "In the digital world, the new honey trap is not sexual," Melton argued. "It's not compromise, but it's access." To illustrate his point, he showed a training video for defense contractors that depicts a woman picking up a man in a bar, drugging his drink, and then retiring to a hotel room with him. While the man lies passed out on the bed, the woman has plenty of time to install programs on his computer and read messages on his devices.
"Unfettered access to his laptop and cell phone could have provided unfettered vulnerabilities," Melton cautioned.
After the talk, one audience member pointed out that none of the examples Melton gave involved U.S. spies wielding sex as a weapon.
"The official statement is that we not only do not condone it, but that if someone did that, they'd probably also lose their security clearances," Melton replied. "So that is not something that we do."
At least that's the official statement.