‘Once They’ve Got Leverage, They’ll Use It’: Profumo and Other Honey Traps

Politicians, business leaders, diplomats, journalists and citizens have all fallen victim in the past to devious schemes concocted by intelligence agencies to entrap and compromise unsuspecting individuals for blackmail purposes. Here are five of the most famous ‘honey trap’ operations in history — at least, those that are known about.

John Profumo, the early-1960s Secretary of State for War, is infamous for resigning after lying to Parliament about his sexual indiscretions with aspiring model Christine Keeler, in the process severely damaging the British establishment, and helping dislodge the ruling Conservatives from office. 

Now, declassified files from the 1950s indicate Keeler was far from Profumo’s first politically-charged liaison — he engaged in an affair with fashion model Gisela Winegard, who worked for German intelligence during the Second World War, and may have tried to blackmail him.

 

However, Stephen Dorril, a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, intelligence services historian and co-author of Honeytrap, a book about the Profumo Affair, suggests Winegard may not have been the only one seeking to leverage the illicit affair.

“If MI5 had this information in the 1950s, there’s the possibility it could’ve been used for blackmail purposes — it would’ve come up in his vetting when he became Minister for war, in which MI5 had input. Whether they revealed it or not, it’s significant, as either way they would’ve had a hold over him. The papers explain his behavior in 1961 — MI5 approached him with the suggestion of conducting a ‘honey trap’ to ensnare Soviet assistant naval attache Yevgeni Ivanov, but he declined,” Mr. Dorril told Sputnik.

The intelligence services expert suggested that if Profumo knew he himself could be blackmailed, he may not have wanted to get involved.

“Honey traps are used by intelligence services to get compromised individuals to do their bidding. Once they have a handle on somebody, they’ll use it. The use of such honey traps is widespread among intelligence services — the British specifically established a massage parlor in Northern Ireland to capture compromising snaps of Irish politicians, and a brothel in London in the 1950s, to secure potential blackmail material on anybody of interest, including Russians who entered the orbit, foreign businessmen and British politicians,” Mr. Dorril continued.

Anthony ‘Lord’ Lambton

Then-MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defense Lambton was caught out by an MI5-created brothel in 1973.

Mr. Dorril said he was regarded as a “security risk” due to a number of concerns, including the use of prostitutes, and was thus ensnared in a “willing set up.”

A hidden camera documented his activities at the brothel, and the photos were sold to Sunday tabloid The News of the World. A police search of Lambton’s home subsequently also found cannabis.

He subsequently resigned both from his ministerial post and parliament itself. A later inquiry found Lambton had not jeopardized national security, as the minister had never taken his red ministerial briefcases (full of government documents) with him when he visited brothels.

 

Lambton claimed that the pressure of his job as a minister was what drove him to procure prostitutes, and his sense of “the futility of the job” and lack of demanding tasks as a junior minister were also contributing factors. 

Mordechai Vanunu

In 1986, Vanunu, an Israeli technician who had worked in the Dimona nuclear facility, approached British newspapers and offered to reveal to the world how Tel Aviv had illegally developed nuclear weapons, with photos to prove it.

The papers he approached then became engaged in a secret bidding war for exclusive right to his explosive revelations, a process that bored and stressed the already restless Vanunu, who was hidden in a secret location in suburban London courtesy of The Times. While sightseeing in London, he met a young woman, Cindy, who he quickly fell for — after a few dates, she suggested they take a romantic trip to Rome to take his mind off things. 

Shortly after arriving in Rome with his lady friend, Vanunu was seized by Mossad officers, forcibly drugged, and smuggled to Israel, where he was put on trial for treason. Convicted, he went on to serve 18 years in jail, including 11 years in solitary confinement. Released in 2004, he is still confined to Israel under tight restrictions, which include not being allowed to meet with foreigners or talk about his experiences, and has been subsequently re-jailed for breaching his bail conditions.

Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, center, sits between two prison guards as he waits in a courtroom before a hearing in Jerusalem in 2009.

Cindy turned out to be a Mossad officer, Cheryl Ben Tov, married to another officer of the Israeli security service. The ruse was concocted in order to avoid a diplomatic incident — kidnapping Vanunu on UK soil would’ve been potentially highly damaging to the country’s relations with one of its closest allies.

Jeremy Wolfenden

 

Wolfenden, Daily Telegraph correspondent in Moscow in the early 1960s, is perhaps the most tragic victim of a honey trap. The journalist was doubly vulnerable to KGB blackmail — he spoke Russian, and was gay, then a crime in the UK. The Ministry of Foreign Trade’s barber was dispatched to seduce him — and a hidden camera documented the resultant tryst. The KGB then threatened to pass on the photographs to Wolfenden’s employer if he did not spy on the Western community in Moscow.

Wolfenden reported the incident to the embassy — which responded by suggesting he work as a double agent, leading the KGB along and continuing to report back to MI6.

The stress of his double-life led Wolfenden to alcoholism, and he tried to end his career as an unwilling spy, marrying a British woman he met in Moscow, and arranging a transfer from Moscow to the Daily Telegraph‘s Washington bureau. However, the spy game is not easily left behind, and after encountering his old MI6 handler at a British Embassy party in Washington in 1965, Wolfenden was again compelled to carry out clandestine intelligence work.

His alcoholism progressively worsened, and he died aged-31 in December 1965 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a fall in the bathroom. Conspiracy theories about his death abound to this day — was he killed by American, British or Soviet intelligence, or no one? 

In a bleak twist, research reveals his life as a spy produced little useful material for either side in the Cold War — his British colleagues gave him no worthwhile information as they’d been warned he was talking to the KGB, and the Soviets had foreseen the risk of him becoming a double agent, and offered him nothing of value either.

Markus Wolf

Unlike other entries on the list, Wolf — the head of East German intelligence — was not the victim of a honey trap operation, but the architect of perhaps the most successful and extensive honeytrapping in history. 

In the early 1950s, Wolf recognized the number of eligible bachelors in Germany had been sharply reduced during World War II — and the paucity of working age men meant more and more German women were entering government, commerce, and industry. These dual phenomena meant the upper echelons of West German society were now filled with single women, whose singledom and status could be exploited by the Stasi.

 

He went on to establish a special department staffed with handsome, intelligent officers — “Romeo spies” — who were charged with infiltrating West Germany, seeking out powerful, unmarried women, and squeezing them for secrets.

The operation allowed the Stasi to penetrate most levels of the West German government and industry, with spies inside NATO and the private office of West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

However, the scheme unravelled when  West German counterintelligence realized Stasi officers could be identified through their haircuts — practical “short back and sides” rather than stylish civilian dos. 

In his autobiography, Man Without a Face, Wolf denied he put pressure on his officers to use sex as an intelligence tool — he simply gave them the freedom to do so.

“They were sharp operators who realized that a lot can be done with sex. This is true in business and espionage because it opens up channels of communication more quickly than other approaches. As long as there is espionage, there will be Romeos seducing [targets]. I was running an intelligence service, not a lonely-hearts club,” he wrote.

 

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