Good spies don’t make their private lives public, but what fragments we can see often reveal surprises. From a Game of Thrones cameo to corruption-busting and political climbing, the world’s top spies have stories to tell. Today we introduce you to some of them and reveal the latest tricks of their trade. Just don’t turn double agent on us.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter
1. Igor Kostyukov, Russia
His son loves Italian wines. But the world hardly knows what the Russian military intelligence chief likes himself — except making the West uncomfortable. The U.S. put him on the sanctions list in 2016, and again in 2018. But that didn’t stop Kostyukov from leading Moscow’s unsuccessful efforts to swing the 2020 election in Donald Trump’s favor. The European Union, too, is wary. In October, it imposed sanctions on Kostyukov for allegedly stealing Angela Merkel’s emails in 2015. Rumor has it that his predecessors, who died in quick succession, had not made Vladimir Putin happy. Will Putin be happy if Kostyukov’s name keeps springing up?
Burns is a career diplomat, not a spook, but he knows how to keep a secret. He was pivotal in hidden negotiations with Iran and Libya over their weapons programs, served as ambassador in Jordan and Russia, and managed U.S. relations with the Middle East. Now, as Biden’s CIA director nominee, who cruised through his confirmation hearing Wednesday with bipartisan acclaim, Burns, 64, must revive an agency undermined for years by both parties. The father of two has what CIA insiders say is most coveted in a director: a sturdy relationship with the commander in chief.
3. David S. Cohen, U.S.
He stood in a Winterfell soup line in a Game of Thrones episode, but the hooded, nameless character might as well have been undercover. Now he’s one of America’s top spymasters. Cohen, 57, the acting CIA director who will bump down to deputy director once Burns is confirmed, is known to play whatever role he’s given. The former lawyer is a sanctions guru who was pulled into the Treasury Department by the Obama administration to put the financial squeeze on Iran, Russia and terrorist networks, before jumping over to Langley to serve in the deputy director post at the end of Barack Obama’s second term.
4. Christine Fang, China
This charismatic spy appeared at fundraising events, made calculated moves and lured up-and-coming Bay Area politicians with the potential to make it big during the Obama era. Her top victim? Rep. Eric Swalwell, who was close with her — he won’t say exactly how close — before the FBI tipped him off in 2015. And while she had placed at least one intern at Swalwell’s office, U.S. officials don’t believe she snagged any intel. (Swalwell serves on the House Intelligence Committee, meaning he has prime access to classified information.) But Fang’s moves do matter as they offer a peek into China’s spy strategies, and how they can start at American politics’ lowest rungs with so-called honeytraps. The FBI responded by creating a dedicated unit in 2019 to look into Beijing’s meddling at the state and local levels.
5. Yossi Cohen, Israel
In the three months since Joe Biden was elected president, he has made dozens of calls to leaders around the world, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t make the cut. And that’s good news for Cohen, the 59-year-old chief of Mossad, who has his own political aspirations. He led the heist of Iran’s nuclear secrets that helped bolster Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, but now the potential future prime minister wants to be the point person for Biden. He’s reportedly heading to Washington soon.
6. Loyiso Jafta, South Africa
The world is waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa to name his next spy leader amid recommendations to do away with three director general positions. So it is possible that Jafta’s position — currently on a month-to-month contract — will become obsolete. And intelligence minister Ayanta Dlodlo reportedly wants to force him out. But Jafta’s bold testimony against the misuse of money from the agency for the “purpose of funding political activity, principally within the African National Congress” on former President Jacob Zuma’s whim, makes it clear that he is a fighter not ready to budge.
7. Noureddine Makri, Algeria
Last month, Algeria’s defense ministry announced that Major General Makri would take the reins of one of the world’s most secretive and opaque intelligence agencies. But how long can we expect him to stay is the question: As former CIA deputy director and OZY contributor John McLaughlin points out, anti-government protests in recent years have created turbulence in the country’s intel world. Algeria had the world’s longest-serving intelligence chief, but Mohamed Mediène, also known as the country’s Darth Vader, was dismissed in 2015. Since then it’s been pretty much a revolving door leading to Makri, a specialist in the disputed territory of Western Sahara with close ties to the Polisario Front, which has been fighting Morocco for control.
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Artificial intelligence is already letting mariners across the globe know about upcoming threats and directing them with the best possible navigation. But the NSA has a fresh agenda. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, wants AI to find vulnerabilities in systems to extract foreign intelligence. (Yes, AI is even taking hackers’ jobs.) AI can also help analysts with translations and speech recognition in an attempt to reach firmer conclusions. For that to happen smoothly, AI needs to be more secure, say experts. And they have good reason to be wary — a 2017 MIT study revealed how changing the texture of 3D-printed objects can dupe neural networks.
2. Ruffling Feathers
We’ve heard how the U.S. government’s defense research agency has been trying to perfect insect espionage for decades, and one U.K. company is already rolling it out. But bugs aren’t the only creatures spying on you — or at least that’s what the Indian government believed. Last year, a Pakistani pigeon — with a ring on its legs inscribed with a code — ruffled the feathers of the Indian spy agency for nearly a month. That is, until a Pakistani villager came forward and told the world that he had flown his pigeon to celebrate the Eid festival. And the code? It was just his phone number.
We know a good spy does not reveal much to people. But isn’t it suspicious to not have a social profile in the digital era? So what are spies doing to cover that gap? They are leaning into making carefully curated social media accounts — and even using the platform to uncover intel. Australian spy chief Mike Burgess has urged his countrymen to be careful on social media after his agency “identified multiple countries using social media to approach unsuspecting Australians.” And what’s been the favorite platform so far? The unsexy professional networking site LinkedIn.
4. Open Door
For decades, people from the LGBTQ community found it hard to navigate the world of spycraft, as they were considered untrustworthy. But that’s been changing over the past decade. In 2016, U.S. spy agencies celebrated LGBTQ employees at a convention in Texas, when they urged more people from the community to join the services. And just recently, the head of MI6 publicly apologized for the agency’s treatment of past staff because of their sexuality: Despite gay sex being decriminalized in 1967 in the U.K., the agency had not allowed people from the community to serve until 1991.
This could be a new brand of spies ... or just traumatize them for life. Now, 22 U.K. state agencies can use children as undercover agents even if that means they have to spy on their parents in cases of terrorist or other criminal activity. And while that may seem like a win for Boris Johnson’s government, his new guidance faces a backlash from his fellow Tories that might scuttle — or at least seriously revise — the measure.
Even in the digital age, human intelligence is a must for a successful spying organization. This year the CIA rebranded itself, as the warm yellow, blue and white logo was replaced with a dark version — and the patriotic seal was given a sleek, more contemporary look. Then-director Gina Haspel made it clear why: to pique the interest of a more diverse audience, “giving them a sense of the dynamic environment that awaits them here.” Meanwhile, MI6 recently advertised for part-time 007s who love to travel, have contacts in Russia or China and are “looking to spice up an otherwise dull life.”
3. Deep Cover
Fresh recruits are necessary in part because they might be the only ones who can go undercover. Constructing a cover identity is harder than ever these days, involving extensive craftsmanship and back-dating of social media profiles. It’s also easier than ever to crack a cover: Facial recognition technology and cellphone tracking mean the old ways of staging clandestine meetings must be chucked out the window for today’s spies. Secluded park benches are no longer safe.
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1. Shifting Paradigm
Western spy agencies increasingly consider Chinese cyber espionage an “imminent threat,” as China — and other authoritarian nations such as Russia and Saudi Arabia — can at times claim the upper hand over spy agencies that used to be the cream of the crop. What’s going on? A skeptical public and trickier legal framework are hemming in the spies in the U.S., U.K. and beyond. Meanwhile, authoritarians aren’t so big on the checks and balances.
2. Information Technology Flaws
In December the world found out that Russia had hacked Texas-based IT management company SolarWinds to break into hundreds of federal agencies. And in February, word got out that suspected Chinese hackers made use of a flaw in a software made by SolarWinds to help break into U.S. government computers last year. What’s clear is that the biggest intelligence coups are happening not by breaking into government servers through the front door, but via these kinds of outside vendors.
3. Vaccine Access
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, North Korea has declared that it doesn’t have a single case of the disease. But South Korean spies believe that’s a lie. And they have good reason to believe so. Spies from Seoul recently found out that North Korean hackers tried to break into Pfizer’s systems to find treatment technology. But they aren’t the only ones. Spies across the world are trying to figure out how other countries are rolling out their vaccine distribution programs and otherwise faring against the virus. They want to know quickly which countries are struggling, and thus will be economically weakened, and some may even start meddling in the supply chains of adversaries.