Own it Today
Beyond Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Other Moles, Double Agents and Traitors

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: Search for the Mole

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s spy classic TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY continues a fascination in popular culture with double agents. In the novel and film, which are set in the 70s, Control (John Hurt), the head of the intelligence organization known as the Circus, contacts George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who has recently been pushed out by internal politics, to initiate a covert investigation into the existence of a Soviet mole at the very top of the Circus. In the world of espionage, deception is second nature, and no one, not even the most trusted agent, may be exactly who they seem to be. Indeed, many fans of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY have looked back at history to find actual antecedents for le Carré’s dramatic duplicity. While le Carré refuses to give up his sources, there are, as the following slideshow demonstrates, a remarkable rogues gallery of traitors, double agents and moles in recent history.

Baronet Double Agents Samuel Morland & Richard Willis

Top to Bottom: Sir. Samuel Morland, by Peter Lely; Sir Richard Willis, by William Dobson.

Two of the first double agents to become figures of cultural fascination were Baronets Samuel Morland and Richard Willis, opposing mathematicians caught up in a plot to execute King Charles II. After the English Civil War, which ended with the execution of Charles I, the Commonwealth of England was ruled by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, and then his son, Richard Cromwell. While the fighting had stopped, intrigues and conspiracies continued between agents for the Commonwealth and pro-royalist forces.  Baronet Samuel Morland, a mathematician and scientist, who served as a spy and cryptographer for the Commonwealth, secretly switched allegiances when he learned of a plot by his boss, Secretary of State John Thurloe, to assassinate Charles II, the exiled son of Charles I. Thurloe and Baronet Richard Willis were conspiring to lure Charles II and his brothers to come to Sussex, England – to supposedly secretly meet with royalist followers – where they would then be killed. After hearing this plot while feigning sleep in Thurloe’s Lincoln’s Inn office, Morland informed Charles II and began working for the restoration of the monarchy. Ironically, the mastermind of the assassination plot, Richard Willis, was another baronet, mathematician, and cryptographer. Willis had been a member of the Sealed Knot, a cabal of royalists who through the period of the Commonwealth worked for the restoration of the monarchy.  Willis, who was twice imprisoned, eventually switched sides, and began to plot against Charles II. In 1660, the monarchy was restored, Charles II was crowned king, and Morland, Thurlow and Willis went on to die of natural causes.

Benedict Arnold, American Traitor

Benedict Arnold, by Thomas Hart; Detail from "The Unfortunate Death of Major John André"

Perhaps no name says treason more than that of Benedict Arnold, America’s first great traitor. But Arnold not only betrayed fellow Americans, but also at least one celebrated British officer. While Arnold distinguished himself as a military commander early in the Revolutionary War, he soon lost his patriotic fervor. While no one is completely sure what turned him, there are several theories about the reason his treachery: he was deep in debt and needed the money; after having been wounded, then turned down for several military promotions, he grew bitter; his wife favored the British. In letters, he complained the state of the union was “horrid” and “deplorable” and, indeed, facing “impending ruin.” In any case, he formulated a plan to assume the command of the West Point Fort and then turn it over to the British. In 1779, with the assistance of his wife, who conducted some of her correspondence in code and invisible ink, he started negotiating with British forces. British officer Major John André was appointed to be Arnold’s contact, and in 1780, André went behind enemy lines to formalize a contract with Arnold. Unfortunately on the way back to the British forces, André was captured by Revolutionary forces and papers detailing the plot were discovered in his possession. While André was sent to New York City to face General Washington, colonial officers, in one of history’s great mix ups, also sent news to Arnold of André's arrest, giving the American traitor enough time to escape arrest and join the British. At one point, colonial officials offered to release André if Arnold would return to face charges. But Arnold refused, and the British refused to give him up. In the end, Arnold went on serve in the British Army and retire to London. André, on the other hand, was hanged at the age of 31 as a spy, despite having the sympathy of many, including Washington. After witnessing the hanging of André, Continental Army Surgeon James Thacher wrote, “Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for André, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.” Many say that André’s ghost, still smarting from Arnold’s betrayal, haunts the grounds of Patriot’s Park in Tarrytown, NY.

Mata Hari: A Woman of Mystery Unveiled

Mata Hari postcard

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands and raised in a middle-class family, the woman who would become Mata Hari hardly seemed destined for fame. After marrying a man she met through a newspaper advertisement, she moved to the Dutch East Indies where she learned the local customs. When she returned to Europe, she divorced her violent, alcoholic husband, took the name Mata Hari (which means “Eye of the Day” or “Sun,” in Indonesian), and quickly became a Succès de scandale through out Europe, performing in exotic, near-nude dances for the European in-crowd. Across the continent, powerful men – bankers, generals, diplomats of all nationalities –– became her private admirers. Even though she advertised herself as “a Java princess born of a Hindu priest,” she traveled under a Dutch passport, a fact that allowed her –– because the Netherlands were neutral –– to move freely thoughout Europe during World War I. However, her neutral status did not keep her from being suspected of spying. She was first detained by British, to whom she confessed (probably more for effect than for veracity) that she spied for the French. The next year, she was arrested by the French for being a German spy. The basis of the suspicion was an intercepted German radio broadcast that pointed to an unnamed spy working in Paris. Tried for being a spy and causing the death of 50,000 soldiers, she was convicted and executed by a firing squad on October 15, 1917 at the age of 41. To the end she denied the charges, writing, “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else.” While later historical scholarship backs up her claims of innocence, her legend, especially after her dramatic death, quickly outstripped the truth, transforming her into a master spy and double agent, provocatively portrayed by Greta Garbo in the hit 1931 film MATA HARI.

Eddie Chapman (aka ZigZag), the Perfect Spy

Eddie Chapman; photo of fake factory bombing

Perhaps no one was more born for treachery than Eddie Chapman, later code-named ZigZag by British intelligence.  Born into poverty, he joined the army, only to go AWOL in the 1930s. On his own, he took to cracking safes, using his newfound wealth to ingratiate himself with London’s elite. Hobnobbing with the likes of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, he regularly seduced society dames, only to later blackmail them. In one case, he’d supposedly infected a young upper crust woman with syphilis, then forced her to pay him to not tell her family. Eventually arrested for safe cracking, he was jailed in the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Commonwealth that fell under Nazi Occupation. Once the Germans took over, Chapman, always looking for a new angle, offered his services to the occupying Nazis, convincing them that he could use his contacts with London’s criminal underground to further their subversive goals. After a year of training in France under Nazi supervision, Chapman was parachuted back into England, where he immediately turned himself over to the British. Luckily so, since MI5, which had already broken the German code, knew exactly who “Fritzchen,” as the Germans affectionately called him, was and what he was sent to England to do. Like the Germans, the Brits saw in this career criminal the essence of a great spy. Lt. Col. Robin "Tin Eye" Stephen, the British intelligence officer who handled Chapman, wrote, “By his courage and resourcefulness he is ideally fitted to be an agent." To convince the Nazis of Chapman’s usefulness, MI5 worked with him to fake the bombing of a factory, going so far as to plant newspaper stories and create the illusion, when seen from above, of complete devastation. Chapman returned to Germany a hero, with the Nazis awarding him –– the only British subject to receive one –– an Iron Cross. MI5 had written at the time: “The Germans came to love Chapman... but although he went cynically through all the forms, he did not reciprocate. Chapman loved himself, loved adventure, and loved his country, probably in that order.” He returned to Britain after the war, writing several memoirs, which later became the basis for the 1966 film TRIPLE CROSS, with Christopher Plummer.

Mathilde Carré, the Femme Fatale

Mathilde Carré on trial in 1949

While Mata Hari was branded as a double, perhaps triple, agent in legend, she was most likely an innocent victim. However, Mathilde Carré, code-named “The Cat,” was one of World War II's real double agents.  A beautiful woman whose sex appeal could ensnare men, Carré was also a woman whose life was unfortunately defined by men. A Sorbonne-educated teacher living in Algiers, Carré moved back to Paris after her husband was killed early in World War II. Angry at the Nazis, she met the handsome Polish agent Roman Cherniawski, who persuaded her to join his “Réseau Interallie” espionage network. Her sultry demeanor, feline charm, and, some said, great legs, earned her the name “La Chatte” (The Cat). She soon became famous for flirting strategic information out of German soldiers. In 1941, however, everything changed when she was betrayed. After being arrested and tortured, she was eventually turned by another significant man in her life, Hugo Bleicher, an Abwehr non-commissioned officer (who would also become a double agent). After she was arrested by the British, Carré claimed that she was in fact a triple agent, being sent by the Germans only to work for British intelligence. Unfortunately, no one bought her story. After the war, she was turned over to the French for treason. At her trial, prosecutors used her own journal, in which  she wrote, defending her collaboration, “What I wanted most was a good meal, a man, and, once more, Mozart's Requiem," as proof of her guilt. Her death sentence was later commuted to 20 years in jail.

Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spies

Philby in his heyday; Philby commemorated on a Soviet stamp

Undoubtedly the most notorious post-war British double agent was Kim Philby, a mole at the top of British intelligence. Many see Philby as the inspiration for the double agent in John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Kim Philby, the son of a British colonial civil servant, flirted with communism while at Cambridge, but joined the Soviets later when he was living in Austria. It was also there that he met Litzi Friedman, a member of the Austrian Communist Party, who would become his wife. To cover his tracks, Philby would often align himself with opposing political forces. During the 30s in Spain as a reporter for London Times, for example, he wrote many pro-Franco articles. In fact, Philby was an agent for both the British and the Soviets. In 1939, his Soviet handler in Spain, Walter Krivitsky, defected to the West, claiming knowledge of British agents working for the Soviets. MI5 never followed up, and Philby continued unnoticed. Indeed, Philby’s wartime efforts as part of the intelligence branch called Special Operations Executive (SOE) were so praised that after the war he was put in charge of Section IX, the Soviet section of MI6. From there, he reported on several Soviets, either preparing to defect or who were working for British Intelligence, causing their arrest by the KGB and, in several cases, execution. More importantly he was able to hide other Soviet agents, including his Cambridge friends (aka “The Cambridge Spies”) –– Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and Donald Maclean –– who all were also spying for the Soviets. After a position in Istanbul, and then in Washington DC, Philby was eased out of MI6 in 1953, especially as more and more questions about his loyalty started being asked. Yet, for the next decade, the British government stood behind him. In 1955, British Foreign Secretary Harold McMillan told the New York Sunday News, “I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country.” While he was no longer a central figure for MI6, he remained an agent at large for years. In 1963, when MI6 finally confronted him with hard evidence in Beirut, Philby defected to the USSR, where he lived the rest of his life. In 2011, his Polish-born wife, Rufina Pukhova, told a Russian newspaper that Philby turned to drink to drown his sorrow, particularly at the plight of the aged in the Soviet Union. “His habit was fuelled by his sorrow over what he saw around him,” she said. “Kim believed in a just society and devoted his whole life to communism. And here he was struck by disappointment, brought to tears. He said, 'Why do old people live so badly here? After all, they won the war.’ ” 

The Mole Hunter: James Jesus Angleton

As the Cold War heated up, James Jesus Angleton, the head of Counter-Intelligence at the CIA from the 1950s to 1975, created an air of paranoia and fear that saw moles and double agents everywhere. To some extent, his own paranoia was based on real events. Although Angleton was one of the CIA’s founders, he was also a man of diverse tastes. He maintained correspondences with poets like Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, as well contemporary literary theorists, and developed a deep friendship with Kim Philby, whom he met during World War II. In a piece in The Telegraph, John le Carré identified Philby’s duplicity as being critical to Angleton’s development:  “a deranged CIA in-patient of vast persuasive powers named James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987)… preached that the whole of the Western spook world was being controlled by superheads in the Kremlin. In human terms Angleton's disturbing vision was forgivable. He had received his education in the black arts of doublecross at the knee of one Kim Philby, a longstanding double agent in the service of the Kremlin and, as head of the MI6 station in Washington, Britain's appointed cup-bearer to the CIA. If any spy ever had an excuse for going off his head, it was James Jesus Angleton –– fabled poker player, master of the spook universe, who woke up one morning to be told that his revered mentor, confessor and fellow boozer, Philby, was a Russian spy.” To justify his views, Angleton promoted an ex-KGB agent, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who defected to the West in 1961. Considered by most as a middle-management Soviet agent with unreliable conspiracy theories, Golitsyn was heralded by Angleton as “the most valuable defector ever to reach the West.” And as such, Golitsyn’s ranting served to legitimize Angleton’s crazed accusations and often-illegal operations. During President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, Angleton initiated Operation CHAOS, a massive surveillance program that ran roughshod over civil rights, regularly infiltrating, spying on and tampering with anti-war and civil rights groups. He started accusing foreign leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, of being Soviet frontmen. It was ultimately his relentless search for the moles that Golitsyn insisted operated throughout the CIA that pushed Angleton out. In 1974, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s exposé of Angleton’s infringements of civil rights had made him a public embarrassment. Even worse was Angleton’s subsequent phone calls to Hersh, offering him government secrets if he did not publish the article.

Oleg Penkovsky: Western Hero or Soviet Spy?

Oleg Penkovsky; Peter Wright’s revisionist history

Oleg Penkovsky, a turned Soviet agent, suffered the fate so common for double agents. Once you’ve lied to one side, how can anyone believe you? In 1960, Penkovsky, a disgruntled Soviet attaché, attempted to pass information to the West, with little results. He handed off packages with sensitive information about Soviet missiles first to American students, then British businessmen, then Canadian diplomats, and no one from the CIA bothered to follow up. Supposedly the one CIA operative sent to liaison with Penkovsky was drunk and could barely speak Russian. Finally, Penkovsky found a way to the West through agents at MI6. As a member of the State Committee on Science and Technology, Penkovsky traveled frequently outside the USSR as a trade delegate. In 1961, Penkovsky met with CIA and MI6 agents in a London hotel. He told them that not only was the USSR “definitely not prepared at this time for war,” but also their whole nuclear arsenal was woefully underdeveloped. During 50 hours of briefings over a three-month period, Penkovsky disclosed endless pages of essential strategic information. Indeed Penkovsky’s intel both provided knowledge about the Russians planting missiles in Cuba, and gave President Kennedy a factual basis for standing up to them over those missiles. It’s believed that Jack Dunlap, a KGB agent working in the CIA, betrayed Penkovsky. On October 20, 1962, a KGB team searched Penkovsky’s apartment, turning up the camera he used to photograph government documents. He was quickly tried and shot to death on May 16, 1963 –– according to one source, he was burned alive, with his death filmed as a warning to other potential traitors. Or that is how it seemed. In the 1980s, an MI5 agent Peter Wright was tasked with officially reviewing the Penkovsky case. The more he dug, the more suspicious he became. Three things seemed fishy: the fact that Penkovsky tried so hard, with three different attempts, to contact the CIA; the fact Penkovsky couldn’t identify any Russian moles operating in the US or UK; the nature of his documents, many of which were originals, not copies. In his 1987 exposé, Spycatcher, Wright then asked “why should the Russians have sent Penkovsky as a disinformation agent, if such he was?” His answer was that the Russians wanted the US to underestimate Soviet nuclear capabilities, especially as concerned their arsenal of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). And as for Penkovsky? Supposedly he was retired after a show trial, after which he lived a quiet life.

Aldrich Ames: Turned by Love and Money

Above, Aldrich Ames under arrest; below, Rosario Ames.

From 1985 to 1994, CIA agent Aldrich “Rick” Ames was a double agent for the Soviet Union and Russia. As an employee in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, Ames had access to the identities of FBI and CIA agents who were spying in and on the Soviet Union. Based on his info, 25 “sources” (24 Soviet men and 1 woman who spied for the CIA) were rounded up, and 10 were sentenced to what Soviet officials called “the highest measure of punishment,” meaning they were shot in the back of the head and buried in unmarked graves. In addition, he handed over a vast amount of information about CIA operations and agents. For this, he was paid over $2 million (with another $2 million kept in a Soviet bank for him). Although at his trial Ames offered a pseudo-ideological defense, claiming, “I had come to believe that the CIA was morally corrupt. The CIA is all about maintaining and expanding American imperial power, which I had come to think was wrong,” most view his real motive as simply money. A bad divorce and new fiancé had stretched him financially. In 1983, after being promoted to Counterintelligence Branch Chief in Soviet Operations, Ames realized he had access to very valuable information, which he started selling to the Soviets in 1985. After a few years, he feared that the sudden disappearance of so many Soviet sources might lead the CIA back to him. But in truth it was his greed, not his treason, which tripped him up. In 1986, after he’d gotten himself transferred to Rome with his new Columbian wife, Rosario, he started a massive spending spree, which continued even when he returned to Washington DC, and bought a half-million dollar house, a brand new Jaguar, Armani suits, and expensive jewelry – all supposedly on his $69,000 a year salary.  Ames was sentenced to life in prison, and Rosario, the woman who inspired him to turn traitor, got five years and was deported back to Columbia, even though at trial she claimed she was just a dupe: “In order to understand how I got caught up in Rick Ames's deceit, you have to understand that he was, and is, a liar and manipulator. Exactly those qualities that made him a good intelligence officer for our country."

Robert Hanssen: A Traitor for the Children

Robert Hanssen's mugshot; the Hanssen home in Vienna, VA.

On the face of it, no one would seem less like a traitor than Robert Hanssen, a family man with eight children and an ultra patriot who, as a member of the strict order of the Catholic sect Opus Dei, maintained a deeply conservative political and moral ideology. After getting an MBA, Hanssen worked his way up through law enforcement, first in the Chicago Police Department, where he worked for a secret internal affairs group spying on drug enforcement cases. Eventually he came to work at the FBI. While he rose up to middle management, his $40,000 a year job was barely enough to keep his large brood in the fancy Catholic schools Hanssen believed they should be in. After dabbling with selling state secrets in 1979, Hanssen contacted Victor Cherkashin, the head of Soviet Espionage, through a coded letter in 1984, handing over the names of three double agents. The Soviets sent him $50,000 in payment. Over the next six years, he handed over 6,000 pages of confidential info to the KGB, earning some $600,000 in payment. Much of this he used to keep his six kids in the Opus Dei school. Hanssen continued to make drops and collect money, long after the Soviet Union had begun to crumble. After a series of blunders brought him to the attention of counter-espionage agents, Hanssen was arrested in a sting in February 2001, and by June, the government had hammered together a deal in which Hanssen would get a life sentence but his wife would maintain his pension. After his arrest, secrets about him started to come out, including his affair with a D.C. stripper. A college friend, Robert Lauren, remembered how Hanssen had given him Kim Philby’s memoir in 1969 with the comment, “You know, someday I'd like to pull off a caper like that.” His story has inspired a number of films, including BREACH (with Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe), the made-for-TV film MASTER SPY: THE ROBERT HANSSEN STORY (written by Norman Mailer), and the documentary SUPERSPY: THE MAN WHO BETRAYED THE WEST. His wife, Bonnie, and his children continue to visit him in prison. Also a member of Opus Dei, Bonnie Hanssen explains, “I'll never divorce him. I love him and I'll pray for the salvation of his soul every day for the rest of my life."

Double Agents in a Holy War

Iyman Faris; Abu-Mulal al-Balawi

As the United States wages the war against terrorism, double agents are again in the news—and in popular culture, as the Showtime series “Homeland” demonstrates. Two double agents from different sides illustrate how the turning and re-turning of agents continues. The first, Iyman Faris, a Pakistani-born American, was arrested in 2003 for his involvement in trying to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Faris, who became a US citizen in 1999, traveled back to Pakistan, and then Afghanistan in 2000, where he became involved with al-Qaeda. After his arrest, Faris agreed to work for the FBI, who set him up in a safe house in Virginia to get in touch with his al-Qaeda contacts. “He was sitting in the safe house making calls for us. It was a huge triumph,” government officials told Time magazine.  On the other side was Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who appeared to be working for the U.S. but actually plotted a suicide attack inside the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. Born in Kuwait and educated at a medical school in Turkey, al-Balawi had a history of supporting violent political groups and was arrested in 2008 by the Jordanian police. There he was supposedly turned by the Jordanians and the CIA. After disclosing that he might have information about the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, he was brought to the CIA headquarters in Afghanistan in order that he might infiltrate the local al-Qaeda branches. Instead the 36-year old doctor blew himself up, killing seven CIA agents in the process. In a videotaped confession released after his death, al-Balawi explained his suicide attack was carried out on behalf of the Pakistan Taliban to avenge the death of one of its leaders, Baitullah Mehsud.

Anna Chapman: The Cold War Gets Sultry

Anna Chapman; on cover of Russian Maxim

Just because the Cold War ended doesn’t mean that spying between the U.S. and Russia had to stop. In 2010, news about the FBI arresting 10 members of a sleeper cell of Russian agents felt ripped front the headlines of the 1970s. The figure of most fascination was the red-headed Anna Chapman, a sexy real-estate agent who traveled in high social circles before being entrapped by the FBI. Using secret Wi-Fi and old style tradecraft, the spies, who had burrowed into their assumed identities over ten years ago, were tasked with gathering all manner of information on the U.S. government by their Russian handlers.  As FBI Counter Intelligence Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi told ABC News, “They wanted to get their hands on the most sensitive data they could get their hands on.” The only problem is none of them had government jobs or access to classified data. In the end, the spies gathered little real information, which is why they were charged with “conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government” –– rather than the more serious charge of espionage –– and were handed back to Russia in a prisoner swap.  But the end result was more comedy that tragedy. Rather than be executed or sent to Siberia, Chapman and her fellow spies received celebrity status and medals from President Dmitri A. Medvedev back in Russia. Indeed, Chapman has become a fixture in Russian media, with TV host Andrei Malakhov exclaiming, “she is without exaggeration the woman of the year!”  Back in the US, the FBI still worries about other sleeper cells or double agents. Agent Figliuzzi comments,” The public needs to know this threat continues…Spying has been with us since the Old Testament; spying is with us now.”

More From Focus Features:

The Mystery of “Tinker, Tailor…”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Rhyme
Uncovering the rhyme at the center of the title of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY.
John Hurt and Ciarán Hinds
Circus World
Giving the Cold War a chilling new look.
Colin Firth
Out of the Past
Recognizing the lure of Cold War espionage.

Display this slideshow on your own site:

Share This:



in depth