Honey trap secrets from the Russians

Spy movies, spy novels and even recently in New Zealand politics have all focused on the ‘honey trap’. No one did it like the Russians or East Germans.

Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin was once asked why so many Russian spies used sex in their work, intelligence historian H. Keith Melton recalls. Kalugin’s reply was simple: “In America, in the West, occasionally you ask your men to stand up for their country. There’s very little difference. In Russia, we just ask our young women to lay down.”


One of the most significant episodes in the annals of sexpionage occurred during the depths of the Cold War in 1963, when Britain learned the hard way that mixing sex and spying could cause even the best-laid plans to go off the rails. Britain’s MI5 security service successfully dangled showgirl Christine Keeler in front of the Russian naval attaché Yevgeni Ivanov. But Keeler’s knack for making men swoon had a downside. John Profumo, the British secretary of war, was at a party that summer when he saw Keeler swimming naked in a pool. He fell for her too.

As Melton put it, “You have a situation where the equivalent of the secretary of defense is having an affair with the same woman who is having an affair with the Russian naval attaché. This was not to end well.” Indeed, after Profumo emphatically denied the affair on the floor of Parliament, Keeler decided to sell his love letters to the Express newspaper. Profumo resigned, and Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government crumbled.    

The crude term is c*nt struck.

Getting someone to fall into a sexual trap — a “honey trap,” in spy talk — is not automatic.Markus Wolf, a former head of East German intelligence, was one of the masters. His idea was to dispatch male agents, known as “Romeos,” to targets like NATO headquarters with the mission of picking up female secretaries. He later told Melton that a good Romeo had three critical traits: he was likeable, he knew how to make himself the center of attention, and he listened well, which made women enjoy talking to him.

If a Romeo wants to recruit women, Wolf told Melton once, “you don’t go to them, have them come to you. You become the center of the party, you buy the drinks, you tell the jokes. You’re the life of the party. She will come to you. And then naturally that will make it easier.”

The next step in East Germany’s playbook was to escalate the relationship. The agent would propose marriage and later reveal to his wife that he was a spy — but for a friendly country (like Canada!). The finishing touch was for the agent to explain that he would have to be recalled, ruining their precious relationship, unless the wife could cough up some information to satisfy the bosses back home.

These tactics were so successful that by 1978 East German intelligence had racked up at least 53 cases of women falling for Romeos. The ruse was so successful that by 1980, NATO started compiling and monitoring a registry of single female secretaries to make sure they weren’t marrying East German spies.

Times have changed…but have they?

The digital age could make sex an even more potent tool for espionage. “In the digital world, the new honey trap is not sexual,” Melton argued. “It’s not compromise, but it’s access.” To illustrate his point, he showed a training video for defense contractors that depicts a woman picking up a man in a bar, drugging his drink, and then retiring to a hotel room with him. While the man lies passed out on the bed, the woman has plenty of time to install programs on his computer and read messages on his devices.

“Unfettered access to his laptop and cell phone could have provided unfettered vulnerabilities,” Melton cautioned.

After the talk, one audience member pointed out that none of the examples Melton gave involved U.S. spies wielding sex as a weapon.


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  • Mediaan

    In the USSR, during the Cold War, they evidently got their homosexual young men to do it, too.

    There was a junior British Naval attache at the British Embassy around the mid-sixties, caught up in a similar scandal, apparently compromised by deliberate sex bait. But as I recall it was a homosexual honey-trap.

  • Mediaan

    You imply the USA didn’t do it.

    I think they were actually worse.

    From published sources, the US spy agencies certainly did, but they used safe-houses, prostitutes and parties.

    There are indications from various personal book memoirs that the USA also used unknowing non-prostitute young women, hypnotised, each for quite a long period of their lives. I have some of these books, but can’t locate them right now. From memory, one was called Cherry and was married to a radio programme host, and he sorted out what had been happening to her.

  • unitedtribes

    At the time Christine came to fame so did another called Mandy Rice-Davies. At the time of their infamity I was a shepherd out the back of Wairoa on the east coast. I managed to send both my horses lame at the same time so we had to go out to the back paddock and cut a couple of fresh ones from there. They were what I would call very fresh. So much so that I called one of the Christine and the other Mandy. The lambing beat became quite exciting until I managed to quiet them down a bit.

  • baw

    The Russians tried this on an unnamed Muslim leader visiting Moscow.

    They showed him the pictures and threatened to release them.

    He asked for copies to show his cabinet.

    Sometimes the honey trap does not work as one would like it.

  • Betty Swallocks

    I seem to recall being told a tale of a certain NZ ex-PM’s other half being involved in something similar in a public toilet in the US, but who knows? I’m old and may have a failing memory.