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Sex, Spies and Stereotypes

The Mata Hari image is passe, but love and lust remain tools of the trade

May 27, 2003|Wesley K. Wark

Katrina Leung, code name "Parlor Maid" -- accused of being a double agent who worked both for the FBI and Chinese state security -- is destined, whatever the outcome of her trial, for the historical display case marked "sex-espionage." Yet the Leung case scarcely fits the stereotypes handed down to us in espionage lore.

The bespectacled Chinese American businesswoman, with an MBA from the University of Chicago, is a far stretch from the female spy prototype established by the infamous Mata Hari.

Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan, charmed Parisian audiences in the years before 1914. When war broke out she made the fatal mistake of believing that she could parlay her reputation, charms and sexual liaisons (one of her lovers was the French minister of war) into a career as a master spy for the Germans.

She proved to be a hopeless agent and met a sorry end before a firing squad in 1917. But her legend flourished, thanks in part to Hollywood, which cast both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in glittery film versions of her story during the 1930s.

The Mata Hari legend cast in stone the connections between women, sex and espionage. The legend, of course, did a terrific disservice to the reality of women's careers in espionage during World War II, the Cold War and beyond.

Beginning in World War II, spying strove to become an equal-opportunity profession, whatever the mystique. Women served with distinction in the Office of Strategic Services and its postwar successor, the Central Intelligence Agency.

As the intelligence profession expanded and became bureaucratized, glass ceilings thickened but were also challenged, most notably in a class-action suit brought by female officers against the CIA for alleged job discrimination in the early 1990s.

However corporate and correct spy services became at headquarters, they played down-and-dirty in the trenches of the Cold and post-Cold War worlds.

Sex was, and is, a tool of the trade. Although Western intelligence services were by no means above the gambit of using female and male agents to lure their Soviet-bloc adversaries into compromising situations or betrayal, it was the East German spy service, the Stasi, that devoted the most resources to putting the sex into sex-espionage.

Under the direction of the coldly efficient Markus Wolf, the Stasi built up a trade in controlled brothels and what he proudly called his "Romeo spies," a legion of East German agents sent across the border to find unsuspecting but well-connected lovers and partners working in West German government offices. As Wolf proclaimed in his memoirs: "If I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying."

Before the Leung case came along, the U.S. had already suffered some embarrassing sex-espionage scandals of its own, largely at the hands of the KGB. The Soviet service managed to ensnare some Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, thereby providing clandestine access to one citadel of American secrets.

Nor was the FBI immune. Richard Miller, a classic bad apple who found his way into counterintelligence work at the FBI office in Los Angeles, fell into the clutches of KGB agent Svetlana Ogorodnikov. Miller, the first G-man ever to be convicted of spying for the Soviets, was sentenced to two life terms plus 50 years in 1986. His defense, in which he claimed to have become Ogorodnikov's lover in order to pose as a double agent, failed to impress the judge.

The spicy history of sex-espionage, in which the mythology of popular culture and real cases have become so intertwined, should surely have put a professional brake on the libido of the current generation of intelligence officers. Yet the prosecution's case against FBI counterintelligence agent James J. Smith suggests that history does repeat itself, always with a new twist.

Smith began as Katrina Leung's handler, or case officer, and became her lover. Along the way, so the prosecution alleges, Smith turned a blind eye to evidence that Leung was really working for the Chinese and allowed his lover access to his secure briefcase, as well as his heart.

The Leung case, with its strong whiff of sex-espionage, was a product of a pre-Sept. 11 world and of a long history. The world may have changed, but we can safely assume that the sex-espionage nexis is here to stay.

There is a moral to this bedtime story. As FBI Director Robert Mueller knows full well, and as his call for scrutiny of agents handling operations nationwide reveals, prudence, maybe even prudery, should be the watchword of counterintelligence operations these days.

Wesley K. Wark is an espionage historian at the University of Toronto.

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