Those of us who grew up marveling at Gorbachev’s birthmark or learning to identify the USSR on a map while sitting in school buildings with bomb shelters were often left with a deep and indelible fascination with espionage. Clandestine dead drops in Moscow’s Gorky Park, diplomatic double crosses at Capitol Hill cocktail parties, and a foreboding sense of mutually assured destruction were standard features of our country’s consciousness. The Cold War intensified our national obsession with the spy trade and provided fodder for some of our most beloved books, movies, and television shows, but these stories of real spy scandals are better than any fiction.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both born in New York City to Jewish immigrants, and were the only Americans executed for espionage during the Cold War. Their case was the subject of media and political frenzy, and the evidence has been reexamined many times. What is indisputable is that during World War II, Julius Rosenberg passed information about aeronautics and nuclear research to the USSR. However, the case occurred at a time of heightened American paranoia about communism, and many suspected that the Rosenbergs, who were members of the American Communist Party, were the victims of media hysteria, anti-Semitism, and an unfair trial. Some claimed that Julius was tricked into providing information to the Soviets because they were wartime allies. Others claimed that Ethel was never really involved at all. The pair always maintained their innocence and, when questioned about their communist activities or associations, always pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Their co-conspirators received prison sentences, but the Rosenbergs were electrocuted to death in 1953—a punishment that suggested they were made into scapegoats because of their political leanings and Jewish faith.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Hiss was a career public servant, clerking for a Supreme Court justice and helping to establish the United Nations, among many other diplomatic and governmental positions. But in a 1948 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a former communist accused Hiss of having been a member of the U.S. Communist Party and of leaking State Department documents to the Soviet Union. Hiss vehemently denied the allegations, but rumors of Soviet activity had swirled around him for years, and although the statute of limitations for espionage had run out (the alleged crimes had occurred in the ’30s), he was accused of perjury for claiming his innocence to a grand jury. Hiss’s first trial resulted in a hung jury, but a second jury convicted him of perjury, despite prominent character witnesses such as Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, justice Felix Frankfurter, and a former presidential candidate. Many politicians and members of the media considered the trial to be nothing more than a witch hunt. When Hiss emerged from jail, he maintained his innocence until his death in 1996. Although documents central to the case remain classified, modern historians now suggest that Hiss was probably guilty all along.
Ames was a lackluster CIA agent plagued by a drinking problem in the 1980s. When his divorce left him deeply in debt, he decided to finance his obligations by selling information on agency operatives and assets in Russia. Even after making enough to pay off his ex-wife, Ames continued to sell secrets to the Soviets, which resulted in the compromise of at least one hundred intelligence operations and the death of at least ten agents working undercover in the USSR. Despite suggestions that Ames was disloyal (including the simultaneous executions of every agent he had information about), the CIA never thoroughly investigated him until his superiors realized that he was living an extravagant lifestyle far out of line with his CIA salary—expensive cars, a lavish home, bespoke clothes, and credit cards whose monthly payments exceeded his pay. In 1995, he was sentenced to a life sentence in a federal penitentiary.
Because of Hanssen’s two decades of espionage—he was an FBI agent who began selling secrets to Soviet military intelligence in 1979 and continued until he was finally caught in 2001—his case has been called one of the worst intelligence breaches in American history. Over the years, Hanssen leaked information from his many assignments at the bureau regarding defectors, military secrets, technology, and agency operations. He spied of his own volition and never gave a reason for his betrayal, although many suspected that he simply liked getting away with it. Over the years, he was almost discovered several times; once, his wife even caught him, though she chose not to report him and instead simply insisted that he go to confession. Other agents reported him as a possible spy, and he engaged in many highly questionable computer activities, but each time, the bureau neglected to investigate further. It wasn’t until Hanssen’s voice was recognized on a recording that the bureau started seriously considering the possibility that he was a spy, and enlisted the help of a young agent to steal Hanssen’s PDA for proof. Hanssen avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty and agreeing to a life sentence in prison. The story of his capture was the subject of the 2007 film Breach.
The figure at the center of one of the biggest diplomatic and political scandals of the Bush administration, Plame was a covert CIA operative who worked against nuclear proliferation in Iran, and her husband, Joseph Wilson, was a diplomat who had investigated whether Iraq really possessed weapons of mass destruction. After the beginning of the Iraq war, in March 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that he had never found the fabled WMD, and that President Bush had misrepresented intelligence in order to justify the invasion. In what was believed to be a retaliation against Wilson, a senior White House staffer revealed to journalists that Plame worked for the CIA. When one of those journalists, Robert Novak of the Washington Post, broke the news in a column, Plame’s cover was blown, casting a pall on everyone she worked with and every project she worked on. With her identity revealed, her career was ruined. Wilson and Plame have tried twice to sue the government for leaking her classified identity, but both attempts have been unsuccessful. The leaker of the information, however, did receive a full pardon from President Bush.
In 1776, Nathan Hale was arrested as a spy by the British troops and uttered the immortal words “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” In 2010, Russian spy Anna Chapman was charged with conspiracy and deported from New York. No matter what side they’re on, spies will always capture our imagination, and their real stories are sometimes even better than anything we can dream up.