What endures is a hodgepodge of myths and wild flights of imagination surrounding the oldest, and arguably among the most effective, category of intelligence operations. Some of these tales are familiar to nearly everyone. For example, Mata Hari, never an effective spy, quickly evolved from a propaganda tool assisted by publicity photos from a once lucrative stage career to an archetype of the duplicitous and deadly femme fatale. “Her kiss sent thousands to their death,” proclaimed the trailer for Greta Garbo’s 1931 film Mata Hari based on a highly dubious book length account by Maj. Thomas Coulson a year previous.
However, other questionable accounts of honey traps, no doubt shocking at the time, seem almost quaint by today’s standards. In one particularly odd instance, double agent Boris Morros, claimed in his memoir, My Ten Years as a Counterspy (1959), Soviet intelligence officer Aleksandr Korotkov related an ongoing operation to study of sexual preferences from every country to create more effective honey traps. While defector Anatoli Granovsky’s memoir, I was a NKVD Agent (1962), includes the claim that he witnessed an instructor, appropriately called Rasputin, of a secret Soviet sex school engage in sex with five different women over an 8-hour period by way of instruction.
What is not generally noted in even the less lurid descriptions is detailed planning involved and wide range of configurations these operations may take. For instance, the most commonly known honey trap involves capturing the target in bed, either by overtly by bursting into a room or covertly with hidden cameras. Evidence of the indiscretion would then be presented either during an immediate confrontation later to coerce the target into cooperation. In another variation, images or video are released without warning to publications or simply uploaded to the internet to initiate an embarrassing scandal that results in the loss of job and/or credibility.
Similarly, long-term operations have just as many variations, ranging from operating under a false flag of a friendly nation to full awareness on the part of the target. In one notable operation in the lead up to WWII, a Soviet agent convinced the target to provide crucial intelligence by telling her it was to earn enough through insider trading of stocks to begin a married life together. Of course, the marriage never occurred.
A most recent example is Maria Butina, whose best-known conquest, Paul Erickson, was a much older, balding operative in conservative political circles. Although a well-known political presence for decades, he had a somewhat sketchy career, once acting as a lobbyist to gain Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, entrance into the US. Seku, who had been denied a visa because of human rights violations, was seeking a visit to the United Nations. In another instance, he represented John Wayne Bobbitt, whose penis was re-attached after his wife severed it with a kitchen knife. During the subsequent publicity tour, Bobbitt made public appearances where he signed steak knives.
The Butina and Erickson relationship went on for multiple years, progressing from a meeting at a gun rights event in Russia in 2013 to her entering the U.S. on a student visa a few years later.
It was through Erickson that she gained entrance to events featuring notable Republicans, such as Wayne Robert LaPierre, Jr., of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA); Piyush ‘Bobby’ Jindal, the former Governor of Louisiana who had also served in the U.S. House of Representatives; and Richard ‘Rick’ Santorum, a former U.S. Senator, whose conservative style of culture warrior politics opposed same sex marriage, abortion, and teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Photos with these and other notables went up on her social media pages, implying an access to the kind of power that serves as the unofficial currency in Washington. They also led to wild, somewhat gleefully disingenuous speculation by those on the left that she had been sleeping her way through a long list of the conservative power elite. In fact, the pictures are of the variety politicians regularly pose for at public events. A typical American politician will pose for hundreds of them a year with that number increasing during election years with so-called ‘selfie lines’, now a standard feature of campaigns. That any of the well-known politicians with whom she posed was targeted for anything beyond a picture is highly unlikely, and no evidence exists that they were.
However, the photos, collected for what appears to be a campaign to build a social media presence of bonafides, seem to have succeeded in burnishing Butina’s credibility in conservative circles for anyone looking at her social media profile. It might be added that in the picture of her with Santorum, taken in daytime hours, Butina is outfitted in a modest dress that would not be out of place at a church picnic. Indeed, her entire operational persona, which included a love of all things Disney, eschewed the femme fatale in favour of the wholesome. Her wardrobe, which sometimes included a cowboy hat and boots, looked as if she had purchased it at a mid-priced Midwestern mall. The pricey John Richmond blazer, which she recently marked with a ‘Z’ on the lapel in a social media video in support of the Ukrainian invasion, would likely not have been part of her wardrobe back then, though is fitting in her current role as vocal pro-Putin member of Russia’s Duma.
In addition to Erickson, another of her conquests was Patrick Byrne, the much older founder of Overstock.com. She met him at FreedomFest, a libertarian conference in Las Vegas in 2015, then several months later rendezvoused in New York at the upscale Bowery Hotel. Byrne, like Erickson, occupied a spot on the political fringe. Given to fanciful political theories, he later became associated with a group, the America Project, that promoted voter fraud conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 Presidential election. Byrne later claimed he was in touch with the FBI during his relationship with Butina, suspected her of being a ‘Red Sparrow’ assassin, and later described how he fashioned weapons out of coat hangers he hid under the bed during their tryst.
These conquests, odd as they were, could be called well-targeted, though not out-of-control debauchery.
We could say the same about Anna Chapman. Active several years previous to Butina, she gained a media and online reputation as promiscuous in the press. However, according to those who knew her, Chapman was no more promiscuous than many young women in the club scene at the time. She mixed with what could be labelled a ‘fast crowdˆ, but her behaviour did not raise any flags or eyebrows among club-goers in New York or come across as particularly unseemly. Just as Butina’s behaviour did not raise any flags among members of the conservative movement, Chapman’s behaviour was wholly consistent with the environment in which she operated. Of course, strait-laced law enforcement surveilling her at the time would take a different view.
Neither Butina nor Chapman could be called overly attractive for the environments in which they operated. This is not a particularly negative attribute in the world of espionage. In New York City’s clubland, for instance, which is awash in svelte 6-foot models/actresses, Chapman did not turn heads, though neither would she have been intimidating to either other women or men. Perfectly suited to her cover of internet real estate entrepreneur, she did not look out of place at a VIP table in many clubs, though neither was she a fashion stand out in $10,000 couture party frocks or $1,000 vintage metal t-shirts.
For Chapman, the appellation of femme fatale or Mata Hari of the nightlife scene would come later, first in the Western press where she quickly became known as the ‘Hot Spy’, and then in Russian media. Seeking to enhance the dour apparatchik image of the intelligence services, the initial official statement labelling the arrest of Chapman and her compatriots as ‘baseless and improper’ was soon abandoned. Chapman became a star in Russia, promoted in magazine photo spreads, a guest on Russian talk shows, given a slot on the runway during Moscow’s Fashion Week, and dubbed ‘Agent 90-60-90’, referencing her measurements in centimetres. Risqué photos released by her ex-husband, only fed into the image.
But it is not just femme fatales. So called Romeo Spies or Ravens have also been used to great effect. Legendary intelligence officer Markus Wolf of the East German service proved highly effective in his use of Romeo Spies. His success was, at least partially, based on a demographic anomaly following the war. German casualties of the war had not only created a lack of suitable husbands but also sent women into the workforce in unprecedented numbers, including government agencies. As Wolf himself noted, the men used in such operations were not young and handsome. More often than not, they were average in appearance, though better than average at showering the targets with attention. Of course, a dossier had been worked up on the target before they made the initial approach, while sometimes they handed love letters over to psychologists for their professional appraisals and counsel.
“The ends did not always justify the means we chose to employ. But it does irk me that Westerners adopt such a strident moral tone against me on the subject,” Wolf noted in his book, Man Without A Face. “As long as there is espionage there will be Romeos seducing unsuspecting Juliets with access to secrets. After all, I was running an intelligence service, not a lonely hearts club.”
Wolf, of course, was correct. These efforts, when all is said and done, were intelligence operations. Social media pundits with little background often liken them to something akin to a wild weekend in a disreputable resort town. In fact, they were closely monitored and kept on track. Most times, superiors micromanaged relationships to assure the appearance they were progressing at a natural pace. This attention to detail is no small thing. While much of espionage, from loading a dead letter drop to conducting a brief clandestine meeting, is designed to mimic the rituals and routines of ordinary life, this is particularly true with honey traps. Given such a calculated approach to affairs of the heart and the bed, is it any wonder writers of fiction and headlines choose the more explicit approach?
By Henry R. Schlesinger