Spies are cool, but only on the big screen. The James Bonds and Jason Bournes of the screen may have all the thrills, lifestyle, girls, and glory. But in real life, espionage is much more serious and often all too mundane, but with deadly consequences.
Real life spy stories tend to be very messy affairs. Sure, catching a traitor or an enemy secret agent is a success in itself. But that’s usually just the silver lining on the inevitable dark cloud of damage inflicted by the spy, before capture.
As a superpower with historic enemies, America has seen more than its fair share of spies. While the Cold War was peak time for espionage, some stories go all the way back to the Independence war!
Here are five famous American spy stories with hidden details that will surprise you:
1. The Rosenbergs, A-Bomb, Picasso and the Pope
In terms of sheer media impact, the Rosenberg spy saga probably has no equal in US history. After all, they were the couple who were accused of leaking plans of the nuclear bomb to the USSR. Remember, at that time the Russians did not have the A-bomb.
Despite being ardent Communists (who happened to be working for the US Army and Government in the 1950s), the Rosenbergs never confessed or admitted their guilt. Their innocence plea gained worldwide attention and the support of world figures like Pablo Picasso and the Pope himself.
But despite such high-level support, the couple became the first American civilians to be executed for treason and espionage in 1953. Even sixty years after their execution, suspicions linger regarding the extent of their involvement in espionage.
The video above is a PBS Nova Documentary that looks behind the scenes of the Government case against the Rosenbergs, and their possible innocence.
2. Aldrich Ames – Divorce, Alcohol, And a Whole Stack of Cash
In terms of sheer damage done to US spy networks abroad, Aldrich Ames probably has no equal in US espionage history.
The son of a CIA agent, Ames joined the Agency himself, only to betray it and his country over decades.
The Rosenbergs at least were firm believers in the enemy ideology. But in the case of Ames, it was all about money, divorce, and a costly affair.
And his actions led to the execution of at least a dozen top US spies inside the USSR.
Further, his longevity was not down to just skill either. There were numerous red flags about Ames that the CIA chose to ignore, including alcoholism, indiscretions, and a suspiciously lavish lifestyle.
But the walls eventually closed around Ames, when the signs became too large to ignore, including expensive tailor-made suits, a $50K Jaguar car, a house worth half a million, and monthly international phone bills in excess of $6k.
The video above includes interviews of both Aldrich Ames and the members of the task force who finally caught him, along with actual scenes of the capture of Russian agents betrayed by Ames.
3. Robert Hanssen – The Spy Who Was “Investigating” Himself
Hanssen was to the FBI what Ames was to the CIA. Working around the same time as Ames (but unconnected), Hanssen was also motivated by greed. Both spies were responsible for betraying numerous Russians spying for the US during the latter days of the Cold War.
In the late 1980s, the FBI even tasked Hanssen to identify potential suspects who may have betrayed some of those Russian agents. So basically, the guy was asked to hunt down himself! He even had a Breaking Bad – Heisenberg moment, when his brother-in-law (also an FBI agent) became suspicious of the piles of cash in Hanssen’s home and reported him to the Bureau.
Despite these setbacks, Hanssen evaded attention for another 10 years and even
continued to spy for the Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was finally nailed by an audio tape recording sold to the FBI by an ex-KGB Agent for a cool 7 million dollars.
The video above is aA longish Made for TV movie about Robert Hanssen, starring William Hurt, and directed by Lawrence Schiller.
4. James Nicholson – The Guy Who Couldn’t Stop Spying (In Prison)
Though not comparable to either Ames or Hanssen, Nicholson still holds the distinction of being the highest ranking CIA officer recruited by a foreign power. His betrayal happened right around the time Ames was arrested in 1994.
Nicholson even stated that he was inspired by Ames’ arrest to become a spy for Russians. And like Ames, he was also in it for the money. Though he was caught within two years, what sets Nicholson deserves a mention in the list of famous American spy stories because of what he did while in prison.
He did not sever contacts with his Russian handlers. In fact, he used his own son to maintain contacts with them, apparently for payments related to past work. Both father and son were caught red-handed, and Nicholson senior had another 8 years added to his existing sentence of 23 years.
In the video above, Pulitzer winning journalist and author Bryan Denson talks in detail about the Nicholson case, which is also the subject of his book “The Spy’s Son”.
5. The “Illegals” – Real Life Inspiration For FX Series The Americans
In 2010, the FBI uncovered a massive espionage program carried out by the Russian spy agency SVR. It involved placing Russian immigrants as “sleeper agents” in countries like Canada. Using fake identities, they would then infiltrate universities, companies, and government agencies in the US for long-term espionage.
Despite the scale of the operation, the Illegals were uncovered before they could do any real damage. Details of the FBI investigation revealed that the methods used by the agents were sometimes amateurish and often ill-conceived.
Interestingly, all 10 agents were allowed to return to Russia as part of a swap deal. Four Russians caught spying for US and UK were released in exchange. One of them was Sergei Skripal, who would later end up poisoned with a Russian chemical weapon in London.
The video above is a CBS telecast of surveillance footage captured by the FBI on Anna Chapman before her arrest and deportation.
Do you know of any interesting spy stories from throughout history? Share them in the comments section below!Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com