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10 Wild Tales of Famous Spies

Secret agents

Secret agent.

Secret agent.
(Image credit: sergign, Shutterstock.com)

Spies. They operate in the shadows. The public isn't supposed to know who they are. Perhaps as a result, the most famous spies out there tend to be pretend: James Bond, Jason Bourne and Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.

Occasionally, though, the curtain gets pulled back, whether through betrayal or just time. Here are 10 stories of spies whose tales have become public.

Spy vs. Trump

After CNN reported on Jan. 11, 2017, that U.S. intelligence chiefs had briefed president-elect Donald Trump on allegations that Russia had dirt on him, Buzzfeed quickly followed by posting the entire leaked dossier.

After CNN reported on Jan. 11, 2017, that U.S. intelligence chiefs had briefed president-elect Donald Trump on allegations that Russia had dirt on him, Buzzfeed quickly followed by posting the entire leaked dossier.
(Image credit: Public Domain)

After CNN reported on Jan. 11, 2017, that U.S. intelligence chiefs had briefed president-elect Donald Trump on allegations that Russia had dirt on him, Buzzfeed quickly followed by posting the entire leaked dossier. The documents contain unverified claims that Russia had assisted Trump, feeding him intelligence about his opponents, and offering him sweetheart real-estate deals. The documents also claim that Russia's Federal Security Service has salacious blackmail material on Trump's sexual activities while visiting Moscow.

At first, the claims in the report were attributed only to a former spy that the U.S. government had reason to trust. Within a day, however, Reuters reported that the person who compiled the dossier was a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. 

According to the news agency, Steele spied under diplomatic cover. The U.K. newspaper The Independent reported that he'd worked in the United Kingdom's embassy in Moscow as well as in Paris. Steele is the founder of Orbis Business Intelligence, a private firm in London. As of Jan. 12, he had fled his home and was in hiding as a result of the dossier becoming public. 

Valerie Plame

Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee March 16, 2007 in Washington, DC.

Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee March 16, 2007 in Washington, DC.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Valerie Plame was a covert operator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — though until she was outed in the pages of the Washington Post in 2003, she seemed to be just another D.C.-area professional.

Plame was deep undercover working in counter-proliferation, she told "60 Minutes" in 2007. Her job was to gather intelligence and recruit spies to ensure that bad actors didn’t acquire nuclear weapons, she said. That all ended when the late reporter Robert Novak revealed her to be a CIA spy; subsequently, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said he had inadvertently revealed Plame's status to Novak.

No one was charged with leaking Plame's identity, though a Department of Justice investigation probed whether the Bush administration had outed Plame as revenge for her husband's opposition to the Iraq war. In the process of that investigation, administration advisor and lawyer Lewis "Scooter" Libby was indicted for perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice.

Libby was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, a sentence later commuted by president George W. Bush. Plame now lives in New Mexico. 

Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on November 20, 2006 in London, England.

Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on November 20, 2006 in London, England.
(Image credit: Natasja Weitsz/Getty)

A former agent in the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's spy agency, Alexander Litvinenko fled to the United Kingdom in 2000, after being arrested twice in Russia because he and his colleagues accused higher-ups in the FSB of ordering the murder of Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky was a businessman who had been critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Litvinenko spent his time in exile speaking out against Putin. On Nov. 1, 2006, he became seriously ill. He had been poisoned, doctors found, by radioactive polonium-210, which had been put in his tea that day at London's Millennium Hotel. Litvinenko died three weeks later of radiation poisoning, as reported by the BBC.

A British investigation accused two former Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, of carrying out the poisoning. The agents denied the charges and Russia refused extradition; a 2016 inquiry by the British government found that Litvinenko's poisoning was "probably" approved by Putin, according to the BBC.

Ethel Rosenberg

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury.
(Image credit: Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division)

Ethel Rosenberg is one of the most famous names associated with clandestine activities, but it's not clear she was even guilty of espionage. Rosenberg was convicted of treason along with her husband Julius in 1951, accused of sharing secrets about the U.S. atomic program with Russia. Both were executed in 1953. As recently as December 2016, the two sons of the Rosenbergs were petitioning President Obama to exonerate their late mother, CBS reported. Ethel Rosenberg was born Ethel Greenglass in 1915 in New York City, according to her biography on Atomic Archive. She worked as a secretary until marrying her husband Julius and having the couples' sons. The couple were members of the American Communist Party until 1943, an affiliation that would not serve them well in the charged Cold War climate of their trial. The primary witness in the case against the couple was Ethel's brother David Greenglass, who was convicted of stealing nuclear weapons intelligence from Los Alamos, New Mexico, according to the New York Times. Documents released in 2015 reveal that Greenglass did not initially implicate Ethel in grand jury testimony, according to CBS; years later, Greenglass would tell the New York Times he lied about Ethel Rosenberg's involvement to distract suspicion from his wife.

Virginia Hall

CIA agent Virginia Hall of Special Operations Branch receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, in September 1945.

CIA agent Virginia Hall of Special Operations Branch receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, in September 1945.
(Image credit: CIA, Public Domain)

A World War II-era female spy with a wooden leg? It seems too fantastic to be true, but Virginia Hall's tale is the stuff of high drama. This eventual CIA spy was 27 when she lost her lower left leg in a hunting accident, according to the agency's biography of her. She nicknamed her prosthetic leg "Cuthbert."

The Baltimore native was told she could not join the foreign service because of her disability. Instead, she joined the ambulance corps in France at the beginning of World War II. From there, she volunteered for the British Special Operations Executive and set to work organizing resistance activities against the German occupiers in France. The Nazis called her "the most dangerous of all Allied spies" and were determined to eliminate her.

They never could. After the war, Hall continued covert operations in Europe before joining the CIA in 1951. She worked there until the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky is congratulated by Baroness Thatcher following his investiture by the Queen on 18th October 2007.

Oleg Gordievsky is congratulated by Baroness Thatcher following his investiture by the Queen on 18th October 2007.
(Image credit: Public Domain)

What's a spy story without its double agents? Oleg Gordievsky joined the KGB in 1961. But starting in 1971, Gordievsky had another boss: MI6, the British intelligence service.

Gordievsky's double life caught up with him in 1985, according to a 2015 Smithsonian profile. He received word from Moscow that he was to come home from his posting in London.

"Cold fear started to run down my back," Gordievsky told Smithsonian Magazine. "Because I knew it was a death sentence."

He'd been found out, but with reassurance from MI6 that he hadn't been compromised, he returned to Moscow anyway. He was drugged and accused of being a double agent, but not arrested; the Soviets were waiting for him to contact the British to arrest him, Gordievsky told Smithsonian Magazine. From there, Gordievsky's life started to resemble a movie plot. The British slipped him an escape plan hidden in the cover of a novel; his signal to flee was the sight of a British person eating something at a designated place and time. He made his way to the Finnish border, where three British agents met him with an SUV specially modified so that the fleeing spy could hide in the space where the driveshift would normally be. Gordievsky now lives in the U.K. and has authored several books on the KGB.

Melita Norwood

A view of the general office of the FSB (KGB) building on January 23, 2006 in Moscow, Russia.

A view of the general office of the FSB (KGB) building on January 23, 2006 in Moscow, Russia.
(Image credit: Oleg Klimov/Getty Images)

Melita Norwood almost got away with it. As a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, she passed information to the Soviet Union about metallurgy research used to develop atomic bombs, according to her obituary. Her code name was Hola.

KGB archivist Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin revealed Norwood's identity in 1999, by which time she was an 87-year-old grandmother living in southeast London. She told the BBC at the time that in general she didn't agree with spying on one's own country, but that she was motivated to spy to support Russia's new communist system.

"I did what I did not to make money but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had at great cost given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service," Norwood said. She was never prosecuted, and died in 2005.  

Kim Philby

Kim Philby (1912 - 1988), former First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, holds a press conference at his mother's home in Drayton Gardens, London, on Nov. 8, 1955.

Kim Philby (1912 - 1988), former First Secretary to the British Embassy in Washington, holds a press conference at his mother's home in Drayton Gardens, London, on Nov. 8, 1955.
(Image credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the most notorious KGB moles ever was Kim Philby, the son of a British explorer and colonial official in the Middle East who was recruited as a Soviet spy during his time at Cambridge University. In a 1981 speech to the German Stasi, unearthed in 2016, Philby said his place in the upper class provided his cover as he worked his way up to a job in MI6. It was easy to pass secret information to the Russians, he claimed — he simply befriended an archivist who would let him take documents home.

In 1951, Philby left MI6 under suspicion that he was a mole. He was exonerated in 1955 and went to Beirut as a journalist, working again as spy for Russia. He came under suspicion again by British intelligence. He fled, defecting to Russia in 1963. He died there in 1988, reportedly disappointed in Russian communism.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman
(Image credit: Library of Congress)

Harriet Tubman is famous for her work shuttling hundreds of enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Tubman escaped slavery herself in 1849. Between 1851 and 1860, she made 19 trips to liberate around 300 people from slavery.

But Tubman was also a spy. During the Civil War, she volunteered at Fort Monroe, Virginia, as a cook and a nurse. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, Tubman was able to take an official position in the Union Army, according to the Harriet Tubman Historical Society. She was a scout and spy charged with creating escape routes for slaves. In a famous raid, the Combahee River Raid, Tubman led 150 black soldiers to liberate 750 slaves in South Carolina.    

Robert Hanssen

Shown here, the so-called Ellis drop site; under this footbridge over Wolftrap Creek in Vienna, Hanssen placed a package of highly classified information for his Russian handlers to pick up.

Shown here, the so-called Ellis drop site; under this footbridge over Wolftrap Creek in Vienna, Hanssen placed a package of highly classified information for his Russian handlers to pick up.
(Image credit: FBI)

For 22 years, Robert Hanssen sold American secrets to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation in what a U.S. Department of Justice report would dub the "worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."

Hanssen was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who started selling intelligence only three years after joining the agency in 1979.

"Hanssen usually collected this material in the normal routine of an FBI manager privy to classified information that crossed his desk or came up in conversation with colleagues," according to the DOJ report. He also downloaded data from the FBI's record system, including the identities of U.S. intelligence agents. Hanssen told investigators his motives were purely financial and that he planned to make a little money. He ended up making $1.4 million in diamonds and cash.

Hanssen was arrested in 2001 and is serving 15 consecutive life sentences at a supermax prison in Colorado.

Shown here, the so-called Ellis drop site; under this footbridge over Wolftrap Creek in Vienna, Hanssen placed a package of highly classified information for his Russian handlers to pick up.