The Most Notorious Spies In History

Mata Hari

Mata Hari, a spy for Germany in World War I, was an exotic dancer in Paris. Dutch-born, Margaretha Geertrida Zelle, used her neutral Dutch passport to travel freely and seduce politicians and high-ranking military men to gather information for the German military.

She was caught in 1917 after French intelligence intercepted a coded radio signal to Berlin, which was traced back to her. Some historians think she was a double agent, but she was executed for espionage by firing squad on September 15, 1917.

Sidney Reilly

Sidney Reilly, the man said to inspire writer Ian Fleming to create James Bond, was nicknamed the “Ace of Spies.” Born in Russia in 1873 as Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum, he was thought to have spied for four different countries, and at one point was employed by the British Secret Service Bureau.

As with James Bond, Reilly was a womanizing, extravagant-living “gentleman spy.” His daring exploits involved a failed plot to assassinate Lenin, but it led to a spectacular escape. Reportedly, he fled his home a mere half-hour before Bolshevik secret police arrived to arrest him in 1918.

In 1925, he was captured and executed by the Soviets; his death was reportedly ordered by Stalin himself.

Melita Norwood

Melita Norwood (1912-2005) is credited with one of the longest spy careers on record. A British civil servant, she spied for the Soviets for 37 years and provided them with secrets that allowed them to replicate the British atom bomb.

As an assistant to the director of a British atomic research center, she carried secrets out of the center in her shopping bags. A Communist-sympathizer, she reportedly did not take any money for her spy work.

She was finally exposed at the age of 87 saying, “I thought I had got away with it.”

Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames, an American working for the CIA, turned spy for the Soviets in 1985. His mission for the United States was to try to recruit Soviet intelligence officers in Ankara, Turkey, but instead was recruited by the Soviets as they helped with his financial difficulties.

Ames’ access led to the compromising of around 100 CIA agents, of which 10 were executed. His use of the money to buy an expensive home and car brought him to the CIA’s attention, as they were looking for a mole to explain how their agents were being compromised.

He was said to have passed two lie detector tests but was finally caught by the FBI in 1994. He was convicted and is serving a sentence of life in prison.

Oleg Gordievsky

Born in 1938, Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB officer stationed in London and became one of the highest-ranking KGB officers to assist Western intelligence operations.

He came under suspicion due to agent information given to the Soviets by Aldrich Ames. He was interrogated in Moscow and released under KGB surveillance, but escaped the country with the help of British agents. He was sentenced to death by the Soviests for treason, but luckily for him it was in absentia.

Gordievsky is still alive today, but has had some close calls. In 2007, he was reportedly poisoned — he claims by a Russian business associate who gave him pills he thought were Xanax — and spent 34 hours unconscious.