HUMINT, the acquisition of intelligence through human means, is a key tool for any spy organization. For as long as men have governed or made war, women have been employed to acquire intelligence. Since March is International Women’s History Month, a look at two of the most well-known female spies is appropriate.
Mata Hari – Dancing for Secrets
The first is Margarete Gertrud Zelle. Who? She is best known by her stage name, Mata Hari. She was an exotic dancer famous across the European continent and, at the age of 40, was still able to use her charms to obtain secrets from prominent men during World War I.
To this day, it remains a bit unclear just who she was working for and when. What is dreadfully clear is that the French executed her for espionage on Oct. 15, 1917. She stood, unbound and without a blindfold before a firing squad and after the first volley was administered a coup-de-grace.
Suspicious of her travel schedule, the French brought Mata Hari in for questioning in 1916. She reportedly agreed to spy for France, reporting intelligence she obtained through her frequent liaisons with important Germans. It would appear that one of two things then happened. The Germans may have turned her, making her a double agent. Or, realizing that she was a French agent, the Germans may have set her up for arrest through leaked documents. She was arrested in February, 1917.
In the end, it was Margarete’s own bumbling and French desire to remove an embarrassment that convicted her. In a trial in which few witnesses were called, and none of her French contacts questioned, she was convicted. Her admissions that she had taken money from German men provided no assistance. Mata Hari would become a stereotype for female spies, despite her singular lack of success.
Anna Chapman – Clubbing for Mother Russia
Fast forward nearly a century. Anya Kushchenko, using her married name of Anna Chapman, parlayed her good looks and social nature into popularity in the New York club scene in the years just before 2010. Shocking many of her friends and acquaintances, she was arrested by the FBI in June of that year for espionage on behalf of Russia.
The network of contacts she, and others in her spy ring, were able to cultivate gave them access to information in policy making circles in the U.S. Government and international organizations. FBI Counter Intelligence Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi described Chapman to ABC News as “the cream of the crop, handpicked out of the Russian intelligence academy, because of their fluency in languages, and their ability to acclimate into another society.” “We were dealing with the most sophisticated cadre the Russians could put here,” Figliuzzi said.
The Chapman spy ring was part of an exchange with the Russians in July 2010, so none served much time in U.S. prisons. Unlike many intelligence officers, Chapman did not fade into obscurity. Indeed, Putin’s new Russia celebrated her. She was decorated by the government, posed in lingerie on the cover of Russia Maxim and was given her own television show.
According to the FBI, Chapman’s spy ring was fairly successful in garnering the intelligence it sought. More than that, it was very successful in gaining access to social circles where people with that intelligence could be found. As HUMINT operations go, Anna Chapman and her fellow officers very nearly hit the mother lode.
Mata Hari and Ann Chapman were separated by a century in time. But in the spy game, HUMINT is HUMINT, and the centuries don’t change good tradecraft.