Female spies, saboteurs, and double agents have been overlooked and underestimated throughout history. But time and time again they’ve proven their mettle. Some have used their looks to effectively charm, disarm, and co-opt men who really should have known better. Others have acted just as bravely in the face of incredible danger as any man. Here are nine of the most famous (and infamous) female spies, saboteurs, and double agents of all time.
9. Donna Geiger – US Navy
US Navy Lieutenant (and double agent) Donna Geiger was recruited by the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a very special mission, which she performed spectacularly. In December 1986 she boarded a Soviet research vessel in port in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Talking with the Soviet captain and first mate, she played the role of a disgruntled Navy officer who needed money for her sick mother and to prop up her husband’s business.
A few months later a letter arrived in the mail for her, initiating a relationship with an agent eventually identified as Canadian citizen Stephen Ratkai, who had lived in Hungaria for several years in the mid-1980s, and was likely recruited and trained by the KGB there. Ratkai was a valuable asset to the KGB due to his Canadian citizenship. Ratkai soon tasked her with gathering intelligence on the Navy’s SOSUS system, which allowed underwater tracking of Soviet subs, and was consequently one of their highest collection priorities.
After a year-long operation consisting of several meetings with Ratkai, a final, fateful meeting took place in a hotel room that NCIS and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had wired with cameras and microphones. Ratkai departed the hotel room with several real classified documents, and was immediately arrested in the hallway outside. He pled guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Geiger returned to her original role in the Navy with an incredibly successful counterespionage operation under her belt.
8. Kay Marshall – Australian Security Intelligence Organisation
In the early 1960s the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation undertook an operation against Ivan Skripov, a Russian diplomat and KGB agent assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Skripov had approached Kay Marshall, an employee of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. Marshall reported the contact to security personnel and they decided to gather more information about Skripov’s activities. Marshall later moved to Australia to work with ASIO and Skripov made her recruitment for the KGB a top priority.
Over the course of 17 meetings Skripov tested her, gradually escalating her taskings. She was instructed where to find booby-trapped message containers and taught the chemical process to read messages written in invisible ink. Marshall eventually received a hair dryer as a Christmas gift from Skripov. The hair dryer contained a high-tech transmitter which could compress a long radio message into a short burst, undetectable by Australian signals intelligence.
Marshall’s final mission was to pass this burst transmitter to another agent at a rendezvous. But the mystery KGB asset never arrived for reasons unknown at the time. Skripov asked her to return the burst transmitter to him but by this point ASIO had had enough. Skripov was declared persona non grata from Australia and left the country. The story broke in the press and inflamed public passions during the Cold War with the tale of the beautiful double agent and the devious Russian spy. For decades, questions lingered as to why the mystery agent never arrived at the final meeting with Marshall.
In the spring of 2020, researchers finally identified the agent as a Polish immigrant to Australia named Stanislaw Kilanski, who arrived across the street posing as a wedding photographer for a nearby event. He appeared to notice the ASIO surveillance agents and fled the scene. Three days later he was found dead, apparently from suicide by hanging at an Adelaide golf course. The connection between the missed meeting and suicide was not made until 2020. The 1961 autopsy revealed bruising to Kilanski’s jaw, a possible indicator that the suicide was not exactly voluntary. With Skripov forced to flee the country, the KGB could have been tying up loose ends among their assets. Kilanski was likely an additional cutout for Horace Allen Pile, a fervent communist who worked on the fringes of the Weapons Research Establishment, home to a ballistic missile testing range.
7. Katya Mayorova – Miss KGB 1990
In a belated attempt to improve their public image, the Soviet KGB announced in October 1990 that they held a secret beauty pageant and crowned an employee as Miss KGB. No information was provided as to when the pageant took place, or how many contestants had participated. But 23-year-old secretary Katya Mayorova was declared the winner and was paraded through the media in the ensuing months.
Photos were distributed of her relaxing at home or smiling in front of the Kremlin, and alternately participating in martial arts training and pistol marksmanship. Pravda gushed that she wore her bulletproof vest “with an exquisite softness, like a Pierre Cardin model”, and that she was trained to deliver a karate kick “to her enemy’s head.” Katya appeared on Moscow television broadcasts, providing news updates about the KGB. She was even interviewed by David Remnick, Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, “We’d like people to think that we’re not monsters working here,” she told him. The accuracy of this statement is debatable.
However, this jarring shift in strategy for the KGB was a case of too little, too late. By the time she was crowned as beauty queen, mass protests were taking place all over Moscow, supported in part by an increasing number of public figures. The KGB had lost a great deal of its control over the Muskovite population and stood by to observe the toppling of statues and construction of monuments to the millions who died in Stalin’s purges.
What happened to Katya after the Soviet Union finally crumbled in December 1991 is unknown. She disappeared from the history books. Perhaps she joined the newly-formed FSB as so many KGB employees did.
6. Violetta Seina – the KGB Honeytrap
In 1984, US Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree, assigned as an embassy guard in Moscow, began dating a 25-year-old Russian woman named Violetta Seina, who was employed as a translator at the embassy. Violetta was 5’9″ tall, had striking grey eyes, and dressed very fashionably. Lonetree quickly fell in love with the manipulative and ruinous woman, in keeping with Marine Corps tradition. She soon introduced him to her “Uncle Sasha”, who built a relationship with Sergeant Lonetree and soon began asking him more and more pointed questions about the embassy facilities and staff. Lonetree quickly realized that Uncle Sasha was a KGB officer, but later claimed he had felt in way over his head, and was still in love with Violetta. He soon began providing classified information to Uncle Sasha, including blueprints of the embassy and the identities of CIA case officers assigned there.
Eventually overcome with guilt, Lonetree confessed his actions to the CIA station chief, and was arrested and tried for espionage in Quantico, VA. He served nine years in prison for his crimes. Another Marine, Corporal Arnold Bracy, was initially implicated in the scandal, but was later exonerated and went on to have a career with the Protective Services Police department in Washington DC.
Violetta is said to have written letters to Sergeant Lonetree while he was in prison, but she soon disappeared from the limelight. She is reported to have worked at the Irish embassy in Moscow after leaving the US embassy, but little else is known about her. Her current whereabouts and identity are unknown. Violetta’s story features prominently in “Moscow Station”, available here:
5. Martha Peterson – CIA Case Officer
Arriving at Moscow Station in 1975, CIA case officer Martha Peterson successfully flew under the KGB’s radar for the next two years. The KGB couldn’t imagine that the slender young woman was with the CIA, as they had previously only identified male case officers in the city. She was the first female case officer assigned to Moscow Station. Her husband had been a CIA case officer as well, but died in Laos in 1972 when his helicopter was shot down by the NVA.
Peterson was arrested servicing a dead drop for agent TRIGON, aka Alexandr Ogorodnik in 1977. She was captured placing a hollowed-out rock inside a nook in a railroad bridge crossing the Moscow River. In addition to being a highly-trained case officer fluent in Russian, Peterson was also a green belt in tae kwon do. As the KGB roughly frisked her, finding a hidden surveillance detection system, she was able to deliver a swift kick to the groin of one of the arresting agents, resulting in his hospitalization. The following day, she was the subject of a press conference for Soviet media (picture 3) before she was turned back over to the US embassy and deported from the USSR, never to return.
Unbeknownst to Peterson or anyone else at the CIA, TRIGON had already been dead for more than a month at the time if her dramatic arrest. He was betrayed by a mole inside the CIA who was working as a translator. His identity was passed to the KGB, who arrested Ogorodnik. He was able to bite down on a suicide pill that the CIA had passed to him and died on the spot, before he could be thoroughly interrogated.
After leaving Moscow Station, Peterson continued her career with the CIA, retiring in 2003 after nearly 30 years with the Agency. Her autobiography “The Widow Spy” can be found here:
4. Anna Montez – DIA Analyst and Cuban Spy
One of Cuba’s top spies in the US government received an award from the director of the CIA in 1997. Ana Montes worked as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 until her arrest in 2001. Unbeknownst to them, she had been scouted by Cuban intelligence for her anti-authoritarian views while attending graduate school, and later recruited while working in a clerical position with the Department of Justice. The year following her recruitment by Cuba she applied for an analyst position with DIA and eventually rose to a senior position. She was considered the agency’s top expert on Cuba. Little did they know how right they were.
Montes’ tradecraft was impeccable. She never removed documents from the office, or made excessive photocopies of sensitive information. Instead she took her taskings from a Cuban numbers station, received on a Sony ICF-2010 short wave radio and simply memorized key pieces of information while at work. She sent her messages via a Toshiba laptop at home using an encryption program.
Montes’ eventual downfall began in the mid-1990s as the FBI wrapped up the Cuban’s Miami-based Wasp Network (subject of a recent Netflix film). The members had become careless with their spycraft, using crypto codes for long periods of time without changing them. This lead the FBI and NSA to eventually decrypt older recorded messages that had been archived, gradually tightening the noose on Montes. She was arrested on September 21st, 2001, to no media fanfare due to the non-stop coverage of the 9/11 attacks which took place just the week prior. To this day Montes remains one of the most damaging spies in US history, and is completely unrepentant. She is scheduled for release from prison in 2023.
Read all about Ana Montes here:
3. Anna Chapman – KGB Illegal Agent
Anna Chapman is the most famous member of the famous “Russian Ten” spy ring operating out of New Jersey, which was rolled up by the FBI in 2010. The spy ring consisted of ten illegal agents plus a handler who primarily stayed outside of the US. The ten members were all highly trained prior to moving to the United States, where they attempted to lead seemingly normal, quiet lives, infiltrating American society.
Despite their sensational arrest in 2010, the spies uncovered very little information of significant value to the Russian government. They were found to be in possession of covert communications gear and one-time cypher pads, but rarely used them to communicate. All ten spies allegedly faced great difficulties in speaking unaccented English and were never able to fully immerse themselves or convince anyone they were anything other than Russian emigres.
Chapman ran a small real estate company in Manhattan, and had moved to the US after gaining British citizenship by marrying Englishman Alex Chapman. She was able to build relationships with a few journalists and financiers but never made significant inroads with US politicians or lawmakers as was her apparent mission and intent.
The ten spies were quickly traded back to Russia in exchange for four incarcerated Russians who the US wanted. Their handler, Christopher Metsos, was able to escape capture in Cyprus and remains at large to this day. Among the four returned spies was Sergei Skripal, who would later settle in England and eventually be poisoned by GRU agents using Novichok poison hidden in a perfume bottle in 2018.
Since her return to Russia, Chapman has worked as a fashion model and television personality, and has been seen publicly in the company of Vladimir Putin. Her story is covered in the outstanding book “Russians Among Us”. Find it here:
2. Jonna Mendez – CIA Case Officer
Jonna Mendez, née Hiestand was the CIA’s Chief of Disguise, and one of its most legendary operatives. Recruited into the agency in 1966, she served for more than 25 years in a variety of positions, most with the Office of Technical services. There, she met her husband, Antonio ‘Tony’ Mendez. The Mendezes became two of the most talented personnel to ever work on the CIA. Both were artists first and foremost. Tony was a painter who became a forgery artist after joining the Agency. He worked diligently to create perfect foreign passports, visas, and entry/exit stamps to allow CIA personnel to pass through foreign countries without raising suspicions.
Jonna became an expert photographer, eventually teaching agents how to use some of the miniature cameras the CIA produced, such as the T-100. After working across Asia as a specialist in disguise, identity transformation, and clandestine photography, Jonna was promoted to a position in Denied Area Operations. There, she put her skills to the test in some of the most dangerous operating environments in the world; including Havana, East Berlin, and Moscow.
Jonna’s most famous exploit by far was her meeting with President George H. W. Bush in the White House. She wore an ultra-realistic disguise — code-named Dagger — to the meeting and sat just three feet away from him. She discussed the CIA’s disguise capabilities with him and he had no idea she was wearing one herself at the time. When she revealed she was in disguise herself and dramatically removed it inside the Oval Office, the President was astounded.
Jonna has written several books about her work with the CIA, and now works closely with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Find her book “Moscow Rules” here:
1. Virginia Hall – British SOE, American OSS, and American CIA
Virginia Hall was one of the most capable, and most hunted spies of World War II. After studying French, German, and Italian in school, Virginia joined the US State Department in the 1930s and served throughout Europe. A hunting accident in 1933 resulted in her left leg being amputated below the knee, and she used a heavy wooden prosthesis for the rest of her life.
When France fell to the German army in May 1940, Virginia escaped by walking more than 50 miles in three days (on a wooden leg) to Spain, and eventually made her way to England. There she was soon recruited by the British Special Operations Executive and was back in France, building a source network and running sabotage operations with the Frence Resistance. She was so busy and so effective that at times she would go through four disguise changes and false identities in a single day, always staying one step ahead of the Gestapo and French Vichy police. She soon attracted the attention of Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon.
After another evacuation to England in 1942, SOE no longer wanted to send Virginia into occupied Europe, considering it far too dangerous for her. So she joined the Office of Strategic Services, and returned to the fight in 1944, organizing guerilla forces in France to prepare to support the D-Day landings. With the invasion of Europe her forces swung into pitched battle with the Nazis, and in August 1944 she and her fighters accepted the surrender of the German southern command in Le Chambon. At war’s end Virginia received the Distinguished Service Cross from Wild Bill Donovan, and continued serving with the CIA as an operations officer until 1966.
Virginia’s story is told in the incredible “A Woman of No Importance”, available here: