She seemed downcast. I remember leaving a counter-espionage briefing and seeing one of my fellow workers in attendance who seemed very downhearted. I asked if she was all right. “Oh yes,” she said, perking up. “I guess it just struck me after all these years what a waste of time it is for me to attend these. Spies don’t care about me, they care about getting high-tech and secret plans from senior officers and supervisors. I’m just a secretary.”

Aside from the fact that the briefer did not make it clear that perhaps she and those like her were among the most targeted of all by spies, her concern greatly affected me. It influenced how I spoke about espionage and terrorism the rest of my career.

The secretary who held the world’s future in her hands

It has only come to light in the last year, that a frail old lady, who when she was Corporal Helen Kogel, U.S. Army, in 1944, became aware of a monumental secret. She carried that secret almost to her grave. She was a typist in World War II for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of all Allied Forces for the planned invasion of Europe. After an elaborate destruction process, using the two person rule, she was asked to take the original document she just prepared to the Commander. Eisenhower asked, “Corporal, do you know what you’ve typed?” Kogel said, “Yes, sir. These are the battle plans that you will use for the invasion of France.” Kogel was just a secretary who knew everything about Operation Overlord, the invasion of France on D-Day. Just a secretary.

Spies are only too aware of such connectivity. It is usually the secretary who knows who is talking to whom, who the contacts are for every dimension of a project, what those plans are, and where they are located. Nowadays, they know what media contains the information and who has access to every shred of such information. No clearance holder is “just a secretary.” Indeed, they know who is working at what level on a project, its sensitivity, and how real some of the bluster which comes forth from some companies and commands might be. Quite often, it is the secretary – not the supervisor for whom they work – who knows the real status of projects, the actual likelihood of a course of action.

East german “romeo spies” during the cold war

Spies throughout history have known that often people with humble positions have the most access to knowledge. During the Cold War, the Communist East Germans found themselves in possession of many identity documents from West Germany. To these real documents they created entirely fictitious personalities. Then they affixed photos of actual people. These real people were actual East German spies – spies who would then be slipped into the West to elicit information. These infiltrators would have perfectly legitimate “cover documents” for their perfectly sinister plan. It is how they did this that concerns the clearance holder now.

A nickname for these newly created persons was “Romeo Spies.” Their job was to infiltrate into West Germany and find lonely secretaries, who in those days were primarily women. One of the consequences of the vast, brutal slaughter of World War II was such that many, many German women were without husbands. Before finding these women in person, the communist Romeo spies would use other spies to research all about these targeted secretaries. Their interests, hobbies, beliefs, and customs were better known by the prospective Romeo Spy than most real boyfriends would ever know. The spies knew how they planned their days, what their habits were, even the kind of music they liked.

Bear in mind that “secretary” is a generic term. Such secretaries could be translators, public administrators, personnel clerks, communication assistants, even technicians. None of these people were made to feel of significant by their bosses or co-workers in many cases. Sadly, they were often looked upon by their West German bosses as simply work commodities, who were not even paid attention to.

But someone noticed them. These were the East German spies. Oh, and it should not come as a surprise at all that there were many Romeo Spies who pretended to be other than Germans. One was said to have falsely claimed to have been a Dane, for that’s what his passport said. It should be further noted that these Romeos played “hard to get.” Why?  The East German espionage hierarchy knew that persons newly married to government officials in the West were carefully vetted by the Federal Republic’s security service. So no marriages ever resulted from these phony liaisons. One insidious spy actually arranged with the East German authorities to conjure up a fake priest to convince a hesitant, conscientiously religious target that it was perfectly all right to provide information to an ally, for that is what the spy pretended to be.

It didn’t stop there. While their East German subordinates had such success with this Romeo technique, the Soviet KGB was not far behind. They even improved the method. They recruited an actual British citizen abroad, and had him try to recruit lonely hearts in embassies in various countries.

Clearance Holders Shouldn’t Assume Romeo Spies Are a Thing of the Past

With all this in mind, I’m even more convinced that it was a tragic failure not to convince all our government employees about how important their jobs were, no matter what their positions. Today’s security clearance holders have to be on alert; if it worked then, it could work now.

Few can say the Romeo Spy method failed, even though the secretaries were often discovered and their Romeos disappeared beyond the Iron Curtain. Indeed, they are still out there, and it is so much easier to learn everything about lonely people today. After all, isn’t that what innumerable meet-up clubs are all about? Isn’t that simply conveyed in even a superficial social media search? Clearance holders, don’t fall for this. Report anything that seems out of the ordinary. You won’t be betraying a friend who just “doesn’t seem right.” You’ll be protecting your country – and yourself.


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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.