The espionage technique of the honey trap is as old as the biblical story of Sansom and Delilah. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said that there is “no better means of introduction than a pretty face” and he was right. But the problem for intelligence officers has always been: what happens after that? A target who has been approached by a woman who appears to have romantic feelings for him is likely to be very upset when he finds out that she only wanted his secrets. And also, where do you find the women who will jump into bed with the target? Modern female intelligence officers don’t want to play the role of courtesans and if one uses experienced “professionals” for this work then you have the problem that prostitutes, by the very nature of their work, may not be trustworthy. Despite these drawbacks, the history of espionage has shown that under the right conditions and with careful handling, honey traps can be a useful espionage tool.
Although honey traps are used by all intelligence services, Russia is particularly noted for using them in the modern age. There are many examples, but three recent cases provide good examples of how they work:
1) Anna Chapman. She arrived in the US in early 2009 and was a one of a group of ten Russian illegals (deep cover agents) who were being watched by the FBI. By the time of her arrest she had had five lovers, all wealthy and well connected. It is believed that she was working her way up into the higher ranks of American society hoping to snag access to secrets in Washington DC. According to her boyfriends who were later interviewed, she let her targets know that she was up for anything: “She never knew the meaning of the word no,” said one. She would send her reports back to Moscow from internet coffee shops using encrypted apps. After her arrest in June 2010, she was flown back to Moscow with the other illegals as part of a spy swap for American agents. She has continued with a lucrative modelling and TV career in Russia.
2) Maria Butina. In July 2018, aged 30, she was arrested by the FBI. She was a red-haired beauty who had sought to subvert Republican politicians and donors during the 2016 Presidential election. She had moved from Siberia to the US to study and spent five years developing contacts with the Republican politicians using National Rifle Association (NRA) meetings as access points. She soon began a love affair with leading Republican politician Paul Erickson. He fell heavily for her charms, but many of his friends simply could not understand why she would be interested a man nearly twice her age (he was 56 at the time). In fact, she was working to establish links between Republicans her Russian contact, Alexander Torshin, a known ally of Putin. Like Chapman she used encrypted apps to communicate with her handlers in Russia. After her arrest by the FBI, she was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for acting as an unregistered foreign agent. However, in a plea deal agreed in December 2018 she was deported back to Russia.
3) Maria Rivera (pseudonym). She was a GRU (Russian military intelligence) illegal (deep cover agent). From 2013, she spent several years in Naples posing as a South American jewellery designer. She told people that her father was German, her mother Peruvian and that she was born in Callao, Peru. She explained her Russian passport and connections by saying that her mother had taken her to the Soviet Union in 1980s and left her there. The real reason she was in Naples was to target staff working NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command. She became secretary of the Naples branch of the international Lions Club which enabled her to meet NATO staff at parties and other social events. She had a brief romantic relationship with one NATO employee. But then, in 2018, she was exposed by the website Bellingcat. She fled to Russia, claiming that she needed cancer treatment and has not been seen since.
Lately, honey traps have appeared online. A recent development has seen initial contact with possible targets being made through internet dating apps. Sometimes the initial approach has used fictional profiles using photographs taken from elsewhere on the internet. The advantage is that you can put out hundreds of these as they do not involve real people. The disadvantage is that the fake profiles have sometimes been discovered by using reverse image searches and the initial contact needs to be followed up by a real person. The Ukrainian intelligence service has just announced that it has found a way to improve on this technique: they have used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create fake profiles of attractive young women which are then placed on dating sites that are known to be used by Russian conscript troops. These lonely young soldiers can then be tempted into online conversations with the AI and increasingly placing their trust in their online “girlfriends”. Sometimes they even reveal their current location or the locations of other possible targets such as military bases or ammunition dumps. The Ukrainians claim that these new AI-created honey traps have led to a number of successful drone or missile attacks on Russian military targets. Honey traps are alive and well. Delilah would be proud.