Depending on whom you ask, Edward Snowden is either a national hero or a spy secretly working for the Chinese or Russian government. The right answer is likely to be revealed with time, history’s greatest ally.
Spying is not exactly new. Stories of spies working for nations have lasted almost as long as the history of mankind itself. The best spies are those that are never discovered. However, some spies have gained a lot of popularity because of either their achievements or their identities.
There have been thousands of spies throughout history, but based on their failed attempts, impressive accomplishments, or dramatic endings, the following are some of the most well-known spies.
Born at the end of the 19th century, Ernest Hemingway was a prolific writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also attempted at one point to be a spy.
According to written reports credited to a former KGB officer, Hemingway was recruited in 1941, shortly before a planned trip to China. The Soviets requested that he provide useful political information that could help their advancement.
Despite several meetings with Soviet agents in London and Havana, Hemingway was never able to provide any information of significant value. After ten years, the Soviets gave up and cut ties with the writer, codenamed “Argo.”
Carl Hans Lody
Carl Hans Lody, also referred to as Karl Lody, was executed for being a German spy during the Second World War. Initially, Lody wished to become a seafarer. Unfortunately, illness struck, which halted his plans.
Instead, Lody went undercover for the Germans, volunteering to serve the U.K. in order to report on the movements of the British fleet. Although he was initially turned down, he was clever enough to fabricate a U.S. passport under a fake name. By doing this, he was able to travel throughout Europe without any problems, making him a great asset to the German military.
However, it was downhill from there. Lody broke just about every rule in the book as a spy. While working for the Germans, he drew instant attention by hanging around a British naval base and asking pointed questions about the ships.
If that was not bad enough, Lody then visited an anti-aircraft facility in London and asked how many guns were needed to shoot down a German aircraft. Responding to leads triggered by his questions, he was followed and spotted making open drawings of a warship, at which point he was immediately arrested, and later executed.
John Walker was a U.S. Navy specialist who secretly worked for the Soviet Union for close to two decades. During that period, he earned close to a million dollars for his efforts. Instead of leading a low-key life, he spent the money lavishly, buying himself two sailboats, among other things. Despite his lavish lifestyle, he was only caught after his ex-wife reported him to the FBI when he failed to increase her alimony.
Margaretha Geertruida “M’greet” Zelle McLeod was an exotic dancer who worked in Paris during the early decades of the 1900s. She took the name Mata Hari on stage, which meant “eye of the dawn.”
Although Mata Hari was born in Holland, she passed herself off as a princess from Java, and was successful largely because there was no easy way to disprove her claims without the Internet or telephones.
In addition to her dancing, she became famous for her nude pictures and evolved into a courtesan for many high-ranking politicians. Because of this, she was able to gather a lot of information, which she passed along to the Germans. However, a 1917 interception of a German transmission led to her capture and execution by firing squad in France. She was charged with espionage.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
Although both were U.S. Citizens, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were communists who spied successfully for the Soviet Union (USSR) for a number of years. Originally, Ethel took a secretarial job for a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League (YCL), where she met Julius, the leader of this organization. Julius was a top KGB spy and worked closely with Ethel.
Among his leaks, Julius Rosenberg passed along designs of a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star and an implosion-type bomb. He likely would have continued his spying efforts for many years. However, the two were discovered when Ethel’s brother—another spy, named David Greenglass—confessed to working with them.
After the Rosenbergs were arrested, they were tried, found guilty, and executed. Their charges were related to passing information about the A-bomb to the USSR.
Aldrich Hazen Ames
Of all of the American spies, Aldrich Ames is one of the most popular. Ames worked in the CIA as a counter-intelligence officer for several years. Initially charged with recruiting Soviet intelligence officers, he began spying for the Soviet Union himself after running into financial problems. Ames was not recruited; he volunteered his services after walking into a Russian embassy in Washington.
In total, Ames revealed the identity of close to a hundred CIA agents, ten of whom were executed. He was paid as much as $4.6 million for his efforts, allowing him to live the lavish lifestyle he always wanted.
After a series of losses, the CIA became concerned about the possible breach in the organization’s security and called in the FBI to investigate. In 1993, the CIA and FBI began an intense investigation of Ames that included electronic surveillance, combing through his trash, and placing a GPS device on his vehicle to track his every move.
From 1993–94, Ames was kept under constant surveillance. In 1994, the FBI investigation of the security breach led to Ames, who was arrested before he could leave the country. He was convicted and imprisoned for life.
Born in Germany, Fuchs was a theoretical physicist who worked for the U.K. and U.S. at various points throughout his lifetime. He was closely involved with the British atomic bomb project, the Manhattan project, and the Los Alamos atomic bomb project. At each phase, Fuchs handed over information to the Soviets.
When interrogated, he explained that he felt it was only fair that the Soviets advanced at the same rate as the British and Americans. His leaks included plans for the construction of a hydrogen bomb and the production of uranium-235.
Fuchs was arrested in 1946 after the British cracked a Soviet transmission. Found guilty, he was sentenced to jail for fourteen years. Luckily for him, he was released after nine years—a light punishment compared to others on our list.
History is littered with stories of spies who were of great service to the governments they worked for and of others who failed to provide useful intelligence without being detected. Ultimately, these examples prove that most spies will only become famous if they make a mistake at some point.
The spies above also show that even those who seem the most successful can eventually be caught. Secrets have a way of getting out. Because a spy’s career is built on secrecy, there is always the risk that he or she may be exposed—ending a long period of success with one famous failure.