By Dr. James Burch  |  03/15/2024

secret agents and their historic impact


“Intelligence” is a broad term that addresses a wide range of activities. It conjures up images of stealthy spies meeting in dark street corners or on a bridge, a violent spy ring, or fictional characters from spy movies and TV series, such as CIA analyst Jack Ryan or CIA assassin Jason Bourne.

Intelligence activities and secret agents have been around since Biblical times. Spies in history include the spies of the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, both World Wars, and the Cold War. Their activities, sometimes performed at the risk of their own safety, have included giving classified documents and other useful intel to leading figures such as George Washington and Union commanders like George McClellan.

Some of the most famous spies in history whose names might be recognizable include:

  • Nathan Hale, a Continental Army spy who reported on British troop movements to benefit the forces of George Washington before being eventually caught and executed by the British army
  • Sarah Edmonds and Philip Henson, who each worked behind enemy lines as a Union spy during the American Civil War
  • Virginia Hall, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent and damaging spy who collected classified information for England and the U.S.
  • George Koval, a Soviet spy and sleeper agent who was able to gather intel about the Manhattan Project, pass it to the government of the Soviet Union via the Soviet Embassy, and escape the U.S. before detection
  • Josephine Baker, an exotic dancer who worked in France as an American agent, collecting information for the FBI and later for the French government

Today, however, intelligence professionals are involved in a wide range of activities. These activities range from providing intelligence reports to national policymakers and collecting intelligence through sophisticated electronic surveillance and more traditional methods of information collection, such as human intelligence (HUMINT).

Nation-states, private organizations, and non-state organizations use various types of intelligence to gain insights into their adversaries. They may also use information from intelligence professionals such as a Soviet spy, a British agent, a German spy, or CIA agents to gain a competitive edge in a complex, ever-changing world.

However, certain secret agents stand out for their activities and contributions to history.


Sidney Reilly, the ‘Ace of Spies’ and Secret Agent

Sidney Reilly, popularized as the “Ace of Spies,” is one particularly famous secret agent. Born under the name Rosenblum in 1870s Russia, he left Russia after being targeted by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, for subversive activities. He initially traveled to Brazil and later settled in London.

After having an affair with the wife of a wealthy establishment Englishman and marrying her after the mysterious death of her husband, he assumed the name of “Sidney George Reilly.” His ability to quickly assume a new identity and nationality without going through official channels and his quick access to high society suggests that he was developing an official cover, which facilitated his exploits against Russia.

Both the British and Russian Empires were active on the international stage. Prior to World War I, Reilly and other secret agents were involved in espionage activities.

Living with his wife in St. Petersburg, Reilly traveled throughout the Russian Empire, serving as a British intelligence agent. He allegedly secured the defense plans for the Russian naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria and sold them to the Japanese. As a result, Japanese forces launched a successful surprise attack during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.

During World War I, Reilly operated inside Germany and even participated in a series of German General Staff talks in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In his later years, Reilly’s focus was on countering the newly formed Soviet Union because of the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Tsarist regime. Lured by a Soviet secret service counter-espionage operation posing as counterrevolutionaries under “The Trust,” Reilly disappeared and is said to have been executed in 1925.

Reilly’s exploits highlight the deep-cover realities of intelligence operatives and the real dangers of gaining access to critical intelligence information. His work is also an example of how intelligence aids the support of national objectives.


Sir Francis Walsingham and His Spy Network

History is full of the role of intelligence in national decision-making. Intelligence professionals can provide key insights for national decision-maker, which is helpful in shielding a country from its adversaries.

As the grandfather of U.S. intelligence, Sherman Kent, said: “Strategic intelligence is the thing that gets the shield to the right place at the right time.” British nobleman Sir Francis Walsingham was a famous spymaster whose work shielded his leaders from both internal and external threats.

In the 1500s, England was in extreme turmoil. Domestically, King Henry VIII had shifted England toward Protestantism, but there was a significant Catholic opposition to the British royal family.

Also, England was surrounded by hostile neighbors, such as Scotland, France, and Spain. France and Spain were major Catholic powers and remained hostile to Protestant England.

This challenging security situation was further compounded by the disputed accession of Queen Elizabeth I. Under these precarious circumstances, Walsingham came to the notice of Queen Elizabeth after being a diplomat in France during the St. Bartholomew Massacre, which saw Catholic mob violence against Protestants. After returning to England, Walsingham was appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council and later became Secretary of State where he served for 17 years.

His presence at court was felt in all circles. His organization and network were extremely adept at intercepting and deciphering diplomatic and other key correspondence between Catholic powers and their supporters in England.

Walsingham’s ties to the international commerce and diplomatic community ensured that he remained aware of a turbulent Europe torn by internal religious strife between Catholics and Protestants. His ability to access and control information for internal security and foreign affairs enabled England to face several national-level threats from groups who sought to overthrow the monarchy.

Elizabeth was accused of being illegitimate and unworthy of the throne. Her cousin, Queen Mary of Scots, held an equal claim to the throne. As a Catholic, Mary enjoyed extensive support, both in England and by the Catholic powers in Spain and France.

Walsingham’s extensive intelligence networks were critical to gaining insight into domestic plots and gauging the level of support for Queen Mary. Also, English support to Protestant causes in France and the Spanish Netherlands played an important role in restricting French and Spanish activities.

The power of Walsingham’s intelligence networks came to a head when Spain, the leading global power at the time, prepared to invade England. Early intelligence indications of Spanish efforts to build an armada led to England’s fortification of Dover Harbor, a key port for the British Navy. In addition, sending misinformation to the Spanish on the true objective of Sir Francis Drake’s intentions led to a successful raid on Cadiz, a key port for the Spanish Armada.

When the launch of the Spanish Armada came to fruition a year later, Walsingham’s intelligence information regarding the location, timing, and intent of the Armada was critical to enabling England to defeat the Spanish invasion. Elizabeth’s precarious hold on power later became much stronger.


Ian Fleming, Creator of James Bond and Intelligence Professional

The list of famous spies must include Ian Fleming, who popularized the world of intelligence by creating the fictional secret agent James Bond. For generations, the activities of James Bond as a secret agent have entertained movie audiences worldwide and led to the creation of other interesting characters in the Bond franchise, such as M and Miss Moneypenny.

What others may not know is that beside the creation of James Bond for the spy genre, Fleming did intelligence work for the British during World War II. His imagination, keen sense of detail, and focus on aligning intelligence activities and planning to support intelligence operations were critical to Britain’s success against Nazi Germany.

The onset of war in 1939 pitted Great Britain and Nazi Germany against each other. Germany’s vaunted military and its early spectacular victories soon resulted in its near-total domination of Continental Europe and the isolation of Britain.

Before the war, Ian Fleming had had no association with intelligence or the military, but he had traveled extensively as a journalist and financier. Initially, Fleming was recruited as personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence.

Admiral Godfrey utilized Fleming as a British intelligence operative and a liaison with other British intelligence organizations such as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and Britain’s special operations organization. Fleming was also in contact with national leaders such as Winston Churchill, so he was uniquely placed at the pinnacle of the U.K.'s intelligence and special operations community and could assist in waging war against the Axis powers.

Britain had to employ intelligence and special operations against Germany to disrupt its operations and foster local resistance. The British established the Special Operations Executive in 1940 to conduct surveillance, espionage, and intelligence and special operations.

The SOE’s strategic objective was to “set Europe ablaze” by employing irregular warfare and subversive techniques. In these challenges and frameworks, Fleming proved his worth.

At the onset of the Second World War, Fleming created the “Trout Memo,” which proposed the creation of special intelligence commandos and suggested their activities. One of the activities included placing misleading documents on a corpse to be discovered by the Germans. Fleming’s idea later became the basis for Operation Mincemeat, a deception operation to misdirect the Germans to the true objective of invading Italy.

Other activities included:

  • Obtaining German Enigma codes used to encrypt naval communications
  • The creation of special operations commando units, the 30 Assault Unit and T-Force
  • The seizure of key enemy intelligence assets, such as code books, key documents, equipment, and even personnel

Fleming was also key in early collaboration with the United States and its establishment of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He met with its founder, Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would go on to develop his own highly effective spy ring for intelligence collection.


Juan Pujol Garcia, Successful Double Agent

Of all the roles of an intelligence operative, the function of a double agent is perhaps the most notorious and problematic. By definition, a double agent is someone who professes allegiance to one country when working on behalf of an adversary.

One of the most famous double agents who can be counted among the world's greatest spies is Juan Pujol Garcia. Codenamed “Garbo” by the British and “Alaric” by Nazi Germany, his exploits earned him the Iron Cross by Germany and a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Juan Pujol Garcia grew up during a turbulent time in his nation’s history. In the 1930s, Spain was in a state of significant turmoil with the fall of the monarchy, the chaotic Spanish Second Republic, and a worldwide economic depression.

In 1936, Spain was plunged into a civil war. The Republicans, largely influenced by Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists and supported by the Soviet Union, were pitted against the Spanish military, supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

When the Second World War began, Garcia chose Britain as the country for which he wanted to fight. The British government initially refused his offers of help, so Garcia then went to Germany.

He posed as a committed Nazi and offered to give the Germans insight into British activities, claiming that he could travel to London as a businessman. The Germans were keen on using Garcia, due to the veracity of his intelligence.

The problem for Germany was that all of Garcia’s reporting was fabricated and derived from fake sources. The British Security Service, MI5, caught wind of Garcia’s activities and decided to use his “networks” to pass misinformation to German intelligence behind enemy lines.

Garcia’s intelligence reporting on Operation Torch, the Anglo-U.S. invasion of North Africa, was all based on actual, verified Allied movements and targets. Garcia’s reporting, however, was made to look as if it was delayed and too late to assist Germany in counteracting the invasion force. For the Germans, however, Garcia’s reports seemed credible and valid.

The veracity and credibility of Garcia’s reporting made him the ideal conduit to pass misleading intelligence to the Germans regarding the Allied invasion of Normandy. Operation Overlord, the codename for the D-Day invasion, was supported by a military deception plan known as Operation Fortitude. Operation Fortitude made the Germans believe that the invasion force would land at Pas de Calais.

The Allies established fictitious decoys and bases and also created radio traffic, designed to support the German belief that the Allies would land at Pas de Calais. Garcia’s intelligence, however, continued to mislead German troops and leadership as to the true location and intent of the landing until it was too late.

Even after the Normandy landings, Garcia’s continued reports suggested that this invasion force was part of a diversion to delay German counterattacks. Ironically, Garcia’s work led Hitler to award him the Iron Cross for his service.

The British also recognized Garcia’s accomplishments and awarded him the Order of the British Empire. As a result, Garcia is the only secret agent to receive high honors from both adversaries.

Garcia put his life at great risk. If caught by the Germans, he would certainly have faced incarceration and death by firing squad or hanging.


Intelligence Teamwork Matters: The Collaboration between Edwin Layton and Joseph Rochefort

While the U.S. Intelligence Community places a high value on expert judgment in terms of developing knowledge and expertise on key intelligence issues, intelligence sharing and collaboration are key aspects to success. In other words, teamwork matters.

Much of today’s intelligence studies literature on focuses on cooperation between organizations, such as the Anglo-British cooperation before and during World War II and with the post-war establishment of the Five-Eyes (FVEY) Alliance in 1946. The FVEY Alliance, which brought together the combined efforts of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States to cooperate globally on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) efforts.

Teamwork, however, also involves individual collaboration between people. One great example of collaboration is Edwin Layton and Joseph Rochefort.

Edwin Layton, an intelligence officer, and Joseph Rochefort, a naval officer and cryptanalyst originally met en route to Japan in 1929 for language immersion training.

Layton later served as the U.S. Naval Attaché to Japan in the 1930s. Rochefort became immersed in the U.S. Navy’s growing SIGINT establishment, primarily focused on decrypting Japanese communications.

During the 1930s, there were rising tensions on the international stage. Various countries, such as Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union sought to disrupt the status quo. In the Pacific theater, these rising tensions brought Japan and the United States into increasing confrontation.

Layton was assigned as the intelligence officer to the U.S. Pacific Fleet one year before the Pearl Harbor attack while Rochefort was assigned as the office in charge of Station HYPO, the U.S. Navy’s premier SIGINT station in Hawaii in early 1941. Both were largely focused on assessing and getting ready to fight the Japanese threat.

Interestingly, both Layton and Rochefort were also fighting another challenge, the control of intelligence information largely housed in the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. While decryptions of Japanese military communications were made available to U.S. military forces in the region, they were denied access to vital Japanese diplomatic communications by Admiral Richmond K. Turner, head of the department’s War Plans Division.

According to Layton, vital pieces of intelligence would have allowed Admiral Husband Kimmel, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander greater insight into Japanese intentions. As Layton noted in his book, “Admiral Kimmel was cheated.” Sadly, internal fighting to control over information and data within the U.S. Intelligence Community is not a new phenomenon.

The fallout after the Pearl Harbor attacks resulted in a new Fleet Commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz. Nimitz took the unprecedented step of keeping most of Kimmel’s staff in place, which included Layton.

The collaboration between Layton and Rochefort in assessing Japanese intentions and determining the next major attack became the focus of their intelligence efforts. Between Layton’s penchant for brainstorming, Rochefort’s prodigious memory for voluminous decrypted messages, and other intelligence personnel poring over pieces of data and other intelligence, their collaborative efforts led to identifying Midway, coded as “AF” in Japanese communications, as the likely objective of the next Japanese attack.

Despite mounting evidence, the Navy Department continued to assert that Hawaii was the true objective. The decision to initiate a deceptive operation by transmitting an unencrypted status report that Midway’s water distillation system suffered a critical mishap was more designed to prove to the Navy Department that the objective was “AF.”

When U.S. decryption of Japanese communications revealed that “AF” suffered a water distillation mishap, Japan’s plan to launch its next attack at Midway was confirmed. As a result, Layton and Rochefort enabled the U.S. carrier task force – consisting of the USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise, and USS Hornet – to get into position and attack the oncoming Japanese forces.

While winning the Battle of Midway was not a foregone conclusion for the U.S., the role of intelligence support in operations was critical to maximizing the efforts of lesser U.S. forces to seize an opportunity. Layton and Rochefort’s efforts were critical to establishing the groundwork for intelligence support in a complex theater of operations.


Making Sense of Intelligence Information: R.V. Jones and His Analysis Work

The role of targeting in intelligence activities occupies a special place within intelligence operations. Target systems analysis “entails identifying, describing, and evaluating the composition of an adversary target system to determine its capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities.”

Intelligence targeting activities assess and determine potential objects – human or non-human – of importance for attack, influence, and/or influence in support of national, operational, or tactical objectives. These activities require highly specialized analysis and integration of other activities, such as intelligence collection to focus, prioritize, and fully understand the significance of these targets within a wider network.

One key figure occupying this specialized role was British physicist Reginald Victor (R.V.) Jones.

Before the onset of the Second World War, R.V. Jones worked in the Air Ministry and started focusing on improving Britain’s air defense capacity against the German Luftwaffe. He witnessed the emergence of new technological developments such as radar, communications equipment, and weapons.

Jones’ background as a scientist made him were well suited to evaluate emerging threats from new technology and to develop countermeasures to mitigate their use.

For instance, Britain was fighting for its survival against the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Nazi Germany’s strategic air campaign was designed to bring Britain to its knees.

The precision of German bombing was being aided by new technology unknown to the British government. Jones was the first scientist to be assigned to the Air Ministry’s intelligence section to assist in unraveling this technical problem.

Through the collection of intelligence and downed German aircraft, Jones determined that the Germans were employing a navigation system, known by the code name “Knickebein,” that used radio beams to direct aircraft to their targets. Jones identified the radio frequencies that Germany was using, developing a way to jam the radio beams and misdirect German bombers.

Later, Jones’ efforts were directed towards more complex work, such as analyzing the state of German air defenses. His intelligence efforts supported Allied strategic bombing and eventually assisted the D-Day invasion.

An early proponent of intelligence collection and integration of multiple sources to ensure the effective processing of information and data into action, Jones stated: “The analogy with the brain is relevant, and in that sense, an intelligence system is like a vast neutral network where information is gained, filtered, sorted, and correlated before it can be applied to action.”


Reuven Shiloah, David Ben-Gurion, and the Mossad

The Mossad – Israel’s spy agency – is also worthy of mention for its impact on the intelligence world. Founded by David Ben-Gurion in 1949, its first director was Reuven Shiloah.

In 1948, the nation of Israel emerged, amidst extreme controversy and significant opposition from neighboring Arab states. As a result, Israel met significant challenges that required the establishment of an intelligence agency, capable of gaining insight into adversary intentions.

While Israel is considered a unified state today, with a cohesive intelligence agency and military force, that was not the reality in the late 1940s. Israel was originally founded by Jews fleeing from persecution during the aftermath of WWII and from Arab countries increasingly hostile to their Jewish populations, as well as local Jewish inhabitants living in Israel.

As a result, there was a community of Jewish inhabitants from all over the world, all separated by differing cultures and languages. Public euphoria of establishing Israel was quickly overcome by the reality of having to establish a working government capable of meeting the rising threat posed by Israel’s neighbors. In this chaotic period, Israel’s intelligence organizations began to emerge under the Mossad.

The establishment of the Mossad was a result of fractious infighting among Israel’s nascent intelligence community, consisting of its military, foreign, and domestic intelligence organizations. In effect, Israeli foreign intelligence operatives in Europe were not willing to serve intelligence chiefs in Israel, due to differences of opinion and culture.

Foreign intelligence organizations were incredulous at this division. To make matters worse, this infighting was occurring during a very dangerous period.

In the early 1950s, the Cold War was heating up and the Korean War was in full swing. Israel’s political leadership under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was concerned that Arab neighbors would take advantage of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, focused on Korea, to attack Israel. These internal power struggles within disparate Israeli intelligence agencies and the international geopolitical situation in regard to the U.S. and the Soviety Union, resulted in Ben-Gurion’s personal intervention.

The Prime Minister reached out to a close and personal confidant, Reuven Shiloah, who had served in various pre-state intelligence roles. Known as “Mr. Intelligence,” Shiloah has been described as “good at asking questions but volunteer[ing] very little information. He was a lone wolf, keeping to himself and doing his best work behind the scenes. He was a methodical planner, an analytic thinker who delivered his recommendations free of emotional coloring or additives.”

Shiloah was a classic intelligence professional who could remain objective and make the necessary decisions to support national decision-making. He decisively dealt with Israel’s European operatives, who were essentially on strike.

Shiloah also established the basic structure of the Mossad by unifying Israel’s intelligence community and establishing international contacts with foreign intelligence communities. While he served for only a short period, Shiloah's legacy and the enduring nature of the Mossad, established under very trying circumstances, earns him a place of prominence among noted intelligence operatives.


Intelligence Is Dynamic, Diverse, and Multifaceted

The intelligence world is dynamic, diverse, and multifaceted. There is a broad range of activities that are part of the intelligence community, which include traditional spy activities such as human operatives infiltrating certain areas to other activities requiring the integration of several intelligence agencies and a focus on developing key targets.

Most successful spies can operate for years, even decades, without detection. Their ability to evade detection depends upon the value of their information, their instinct for self-preservation, their talent at spy craft, and sometimes sheer luck.

The role of famous spies, however, are remembered by their impact on intelligence activities and history. They made significant contributions to their countries, which is what makes them worthy of commemoration for their exploits.

About the Author
Dr. James Burch
Dr. James Burch is the Department Chair for Intelligence Studies at American Public University. He holds a M.M.A.S. in military history from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, a M.A. in Security Studies – Homeland Security and Defense from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Doctor of Management in Homeland Security – Management from Colorado Technical University. Dr. Burch is a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a Naval Cryptologist intelligence professional for over 20 years. His research interests focus on intelligence collection, domestic intelligence issues, integrated mission management, history, and intelligence support to national decision-making.

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