Romeos, Red Sparrows, and the Art of the ‘Honey Trap’

February 1, 2023Matt Fratus
Honey Trap Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is amateur hour. In the world of espionage, spies lure, lie, and love to steal secrets. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die.

In July 2009, British diplomat James Hudson was lured into a Russian hotel room by two blond prostitutes. Unbeknownst to Hudson, inside the bedroom were hidden cameras planted by Russian intelligence operatives. Soon afterward, a video titled “Adventures of Mr. Hudson in Russia” was published online by a Russian news website. The short video documented in explicit detail the sexual favors he received. As a result of the scandal, Hudson resigned in disgrace from his posting as the deputy consul general in Yekaterinburg. 

Hudson was an experienced diplomat with postings in Sarajevo, Havana, and Budapest. But he had fallen for a type of tradecraft known in spy circles as a “honey trap.” Honey traps are used by intelligence services to exploit sexual and romantic fantasies to gather secrets. In Hudson’s case, the trap was relatively simple, but they are usually pulled off by hand-picked espionage professionals. 

All sounds very complicated, right? It’s not, and it has existed for longer than you might think. Even longer than many Valentine’s Day traditions have been around, spymasters have been employing the act of love for espionage. Here are some of history’s finest examples of using “honey traps” to steal secrets. 

Sweet Gear: Check out BRCC’s Valentine’s Day collection

Honey Traps Go Waaay Back

Honey Trap Valentine's Day

Russian activist Maria Butina — posing in 2012 — was convicted of conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the conservative movement in the United States as an agent for the Kremlin from 2015 through her arrest in 2018. She established and maintained romantic relationships with several US men in prominent political roles. AP photo by Pavel Ptitsin.

An early example of a successful honey trap occurred in 15th-century Venice between a low-level official and his mistress. It was 1498 and the Council of Ten — a shadowy and powerful governing body in charge of security — was on the hunt to impose punishments against any senate, university, or secret council officials who shared confidential information with a foreigner. Those found guilty were sentenced to death. 

In March, Antonio di Lando, a 70-year-old Chancery secretary with knowledge of Venetian state secrets, was discovered hanging on the gallows of a public execution site. His mistress, Laura Troylo, betrayed him in a clever scheme. After one night of passionate lovemaking, Troylo encouraged di Lando to confide in her about his work concerns. Di Lando didn’t know that before they entered the bedroom, Troylo had another lover sneak underneath their bed to listen to their conversation. According to The Secret World: A History of Intelligence by MI5 historian Christopher Andrew, the accomplice reported di Lando’s crime and collected the reward money to share.

Related: The Daring Exploits of Virginia Hall, World War II’s Most Notorious Spy

World War I’s Mata Hari

Mata Hari’s espionage exploits as a seductress during World War I are so well known that modern spy agencies like the CIA have written tweets dedicated to her memory.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands in 1876. By age 18, she had married a Dutch soldier in the colonial army and lived at his military post in the Dutch East Indies (or Indonesia as it is known today). The couple had two children, including one who died as a baby. By 1902, the couple had returned to Europe, but their marriage began to crumble due to her husband’s abuse and they soon divorced. Zelle reinvented herself as an exotic dancer with the stage name “Mata Hari.”

In 1905, she began touring European capitals, charming her clientele of high-profile government officials and military officers with her knowledge of several languages, exotic dances, and sex appeal. In World War I, these relationships would become suspicious as French and British intelligence services began to wonder about the true nature of Mata Hari’s intentions. They even sent a surveillance team to follow her. 

Her Dutch citizenship allowed her to travel across Europe on both sides of the conflict. In 1916, Mata Hari courted a young Russian pilot named Vladimir de Masloff (sometimes spelled Maslov). While flying combat missions for France, he was shot down over the Western Front and severely wounded. Mata Hari wanted to marry him but needed to make enough money to support him. This led her to agree to spy on the Germans on behalf of the French.

Mata Hari Honey Trap

Mata Hari is one of the most famous seductresses in the world of espionage. Wikimedia Commons photos. Composite by Coffee or Die.

She soon met and seduced Maj. Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché, in Madrid. What happened next is unclear. According to French military files released decades later, she tried to convince Kalle that she was working as a spy for Germany.

Some historians think Kalle believed her. Others say he did not. What is known is that Kalle sent a report to his German superiors that named Mata Hari as a spy for Germany. However, a separate branch of French intelligence intercepted that report and used it as evidence that she was a German spy.

Debate remains whether Kalle set Mata Hari up. Some historians believe Kalle knew that French officials would intercept the message, so he embellished her role as a spy, hoping the French would believe him and arrest her. Other historians believe Kalle was fooled by Mata Hari.

Either way, Mata Hari was arrested by French authorities as a German spy. She received a secret trial, with the evidence based mostly on Kalle’s intercepted message, and was executed by firing squad in 1917.  

Related: Operation Ghost Stories: How Anna Chapman and the Russian Illegals Almost Stole State Secrets

Russia’s Red Sparrows

Ana Chapman Honey Trap

Anna Chapman, a Russian spy, was arrested by the FBI in 2010 for her role as a deep cover operative. According to a Russian defector, Chapman also once attempted to seduce NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Composite by Coffee or Die.

During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a clandestine academy that trained young, beautiful Russian women in the art of “sexpionage.” This school was called State School 4, and its graduates would enter brothels, bars, and five-star hotels in Russia, targeting foreigners. The school’s existence was later popularized by former 33-year CIA clandestine officer James Matthews in his 2013 novel Red Sparrow.

“The Russians have for many, many years, used women to try and sexually entrap [high-ranking foreign officials] for blackmail purposes, to try and tell their secrets,” Matthews told CNBC in 2018. “If the conditions are right, in Moscow, someone with access to secrets is having one too many drinks in a Moscow bar, and a young lady for sure will sidle up to them and see how far it goes.”

Love-ly Mugs: Check out BRCC’s Love is in the AR mug for Valentine’s Day

Romeo Spies of East Germany

Romeo Spies Honey Trap

Once the Romeo spies infiltrated West Germany, they began their savvy quests to swindle their “Juliets.” Photo by Unsplash.

While Red Sparrows used their charms as young women to learn the secrets of Western men, a program in East Germany once targeted young Western women for seduction by handsome male spies. After Soviet and East German authorities erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, East German intelligence operatives searched for weaknesses within prominent positions of West Germany’s government, military, and intelligence service sectors. One area they targeted were the young, eager women who flooded the Western workplaces in the early 1960s, many with access to highly classified information. 

The concept flourished under East German Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf, whom the CIA called “the man without a face.” Wolf’s male spies gained so much notoriety that they were heralded as “Romeo spies.” Romeo spies were well educated, mainly between the ages of 25 and 35, grounded in Western manners and postwar ideas. Only the top 1% of those who applied became Romeo spies, to be given false identities of either immigrants or dead citizens. They received training in spycraft before being sent to West Germany. 

Once the Romeo spies infiltrated West Germany, they began their savvy quests to swindle their “Juliets.” Many carried on long affairs, usually revealing their identity at some point, and fully recruiting their Juliets to be full-time spies.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the Romeos failed to alter their approach and Western intelligence began to catch on. Many were identified by short haircuts in the era of nearly universal long hair.

Over the three decades that the Romeo program was active, close to 40 German women were prosecuted for espionage.

“As long as there is espionage, there will be Romeos seducing unsuspecting Juliets with access to secrets,” Wolf wrote in his 1999 autobiography. “After all, I ran an intelligence service, not a lonely-hearts club.”

Read Next: Josephine Baker: Roaring ’20s Symbol of the Jazz Age, World War II Spy, Civil Rights Activist

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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