December 2 – 8: “Which country had the best spies of all time and why?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The KFSB, SVA, KGB, the Mossad, CIA, MI6…this week we ask ITW Members S.D. Skye, Quentin Bates, Ralph Pezzullo and Amy Lignor which countries had the best spies of all time and why?


heros companionAs the daughter of a career librarian Amy Lignor grew up loving books; ‘Patience & Fortitude’ at the NYPL were her heroes. Her Tallent & Lowery series has been a huge hit with readers – and is growing with each new puzzle she offers. Working as an editor in the publishing industry for decades, she’s now the Owner/Operator of THE WRITE COMPANION along with a new publishing company that will begin in November of 2013. A reviewer and writer for many, Amy contributes to SUSPENSE MAGAZINE, AUTHORLINK, THE FEATHERED QUILL and many others.

hunt the falconRalph Pezzullo is a NEW YORK TIMES best-selling author and an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. His books include Jawbreaker and The Walk-In (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen, Inside SEAL Team Six, Plunging into Haiti (winner of the Douglas Dillon Award for Distinguished Writing on American Diplomacy), At the Fall of Somoza, Most Evil (with Steve Hodel), Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, Hunt the Wolf and Hunt the Scorpion (with Don Mann), and the upcoming novel Saigon.

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin BatesQuentin Bates worked as a factory hand, trawlerman and truck driver before turning to writing for a living, first as a journalist and then giving in to the lure of fiction.


itchS.D. Skye, a former Intelligence Operations Specialist/Analyst in the FBI’s counterintelligence program, supported many high-profile cases during her 12-year tenure at the Bureau. Skye has spent the last 8 years supporting the U.S. Intelligence Community as a senior intelligence analyst/editor with the DIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff J2 (Director of Intelligence), U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

  1. Even though I have to give a small shout out to the unmatched courtesan, Mata Hari, who spied for Germany, when all is added up the Soviet Union/Russia had the longest list of spies that are still a curiosity for me—ranging from assassins to snitches to killers. The husband and wife team, the Rosenbergs, will always be remembered as the American Communists executed for passing nuclear secrets to our worst enemies (at the time). Julius was seen as the top KGB spy for the country, and the nuclear information they turned over is still unbelievable to many. Living in New Mexico, Klaus Fuchs is always a frightening man to think about considering he worked just down the road from where I do now and knew everything about the atom bomb project. He was one of the smartest of them all. And ‘The Cambridge Five’—the ring of Soviet spies that worked from WWII into the 50’s, are the worst charlatans of them all. They provided classified information that led to scores of agent deaths; and they are also still spoken about as being catalysts when it came to the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin, the beginning of the Korean War, and more. From MI5 to the FBI and CIA, these five men put one over on everybody. So when I think of the dark passages and clandestine meetings throughout history, I think of the Russians.

  2. We’re talking real spies or fictional spies here? As far as real spies go, who knows? It has to be the ones that we haven’t heard of, the successful ones who caused no ripples and were never noticed. Otherwise I’m with Amy on the Soviet spies who seemed able to to infiltrate everywhere with deep-cover agents who stayed in place for years and decades.
    But as far as fictional spies go, I’ll go for the Brits. Not James Bond, and certainly not the cartoon character Bond on the big screen. My favourite spy has to be Len Deighton’s unnamed operative (Harry Palmer in the films), the intelligent working class boy turned spy, distrusted and disliked by his snobbish superiors. Then there’s Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson trilogy of trilogies, and the entirely convincing characters that John le Carré created.

  3. I’m going a little off the grid with my response. When I worked in FBI Counterintelligence, we used to warm up our audiences by telling them about the differences in methods of operation for hard target services like China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Russia’s KGB/SVR. It went something like this. If valuable intelligence was sand on the beach, American intelligence would send in satellites and spy planes to collect imagery and return them to HQ for analysis. The KGB/SVR would park a submarine on the coast and collect the sand in giant buckets in the dark of night. But the MSS would send 1,000,000 tourists and ask each to return with only ONE grain. The MSS would combine the grains to have a more realistic picture than anyone.

    This is VERY true of how they operate.

    I’ve worked against both the Russians and the Chinese intelligence, mostly Russian. But I believe the MSS is among the toughest foreign services–bar none. Russia tends to be a little more sexy and prevalent in our minds because, quite frankly, it’s easier to catch Russian agents stealing “buckets” than MSS networks stealing “one grain.” The MSS also has networks of networks of agents in EVERY walk of life, from students and tourists, to researchers and businessmen. I would argue no other services gets that level of “support” from its citizenry (even if sometimes/often coerced). The MSS networks and “one grain” methods make them the most difficult to target and quietly more successful than the Russians.

    I recently saw a poll where respondents were asked which country is the #1 superpower, only 47% answered the U.S. Many answered China. There’s a reason for that. They can thank the MSS.

  4. “(…) which countries had the best spies of all time and why?” – In my believe, spying action of all nations is being centred in VIENNA (Austria). Not only because of its historical background, but also because of its location, in the “heart of Europe”.

    By the way: In this matter I do not make a difference between the “world of fiction” and what I call “reality”.

    And here is a hint for an excellent spy novel to read: Daniel Silva, “A Death in Vienna”.

    1. Vienna has been at the centre of intrigue and spying for centuries, with two wars in the last century, as well as being at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So it’s no surprise that so much spy fiction has Vienna as its backdrop. I haven’t read a ‘Death in Vienna’ but will add it to the list of books-to-be-read. Much of Len Deighton and John le Carré’s work is set in and around Vienna and the Cold War, and of course there’s the Third Man, one of the most atmospheric movies made in monochrome.

      1. And … Austria has one of the most invisible governments within Europe. It is exactly this “invisible” part, which attracts attention.

        But how about another spy country option: DOVER (England)and its secret wartime tunnel-system. Quite dangerous idea to build such a hiding place into chalk, but the minor distance to France must have been an unbeatable reason for it. I was wondering if someone had used this location for writing a spy novel in the past.

    2. Yes, Vienna has been termed the “Spy Capital of the World.” A few years back when the FBI shut down the Russian illegals network in the NY area, they were sent back to Russia in a spy trade that took place in…Vienna! You can’t change your mind without bumping into a spy in that place.

      1. What if nowadays the international “spy-business” in Austria has changed (compared to its real movements in the past). Money seems to be the magic word to enter easily and take part in the great sale-out. So how about a chalet in Kitzbühl?

        1. A halfway house between one culture and another or between one sphere of power and the next one is always going to be seething with spying, crime, smuggling, money, and everything that goes with it, as Berlin was as well. Plus Vienna is such a fascinating place, it makes a brilliant backdrop.

  5. The best spies of all time? In terms of technical surveillance – both audio and visual – the current CIA and NSA are the best ever. No question. The tech tools they have at their disposal are incredible. How they use and interpret that data is another question.

    Give the NSA the cellphone number of an al-Qaeda commander in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and they’ll listen in on everything he says and track his movements. If the CIA wants to take him out and they get approval from the President and Pakistani government, they’ll kill him with Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. But their track record is poor when it comes to penetrating terrorist organizations like AQ or the Taliban, or developing local networks to spy on them.

    I would say that the Soviet KGB of the late ’40s-’80s did an amazing job of developing double agents in UK, US, and West German intelligence services. Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, Aldrich Aimes, and William Weisband to name a few. They were also highly successful at building networks of individuals living within the US who had access to secret material – something that the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) is actively doing today.

    If we’re judging spy agencies in terms of their ability to conduct operations, I would say that the CIA’s campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the end of 2001 (described in my book JAWBREAKER, which I co-authored with Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer who ran it on the ground) has to be one of the most successful in history. In a little more than two months, 110 CIA officers and 350 Special Forces soldiers allied with 15,000 Northern Alliance Afghans and supported by as many as 100 U.S. airforce combat sorties a day, defeated a Taliban army estimated at 50,000 to 60,000, wrested political control of the country from the Taliban, and effectively drove al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. The New York Times estimated that a majority of the 5,000 al-Qaeda fighters based there were either killed or taken prisoner.

    1. I agree with much of this…except the MSS and the PLA have been operating the same way for years and years, not just today. They are just a VERY hard target to catch. With that said, I was careful to say the MSS was the toughest “foreign service.” If you join the collective forces of U.S. Intelligence Community, I don’t think any country in the world operates as well as we do–even with our failures. In addition to our technical prowess, on the HUMINT side, American intelligence has one thing to offer that no other country can–the American dream. We cannot diminish the weight of that. It’s still a pretty powerful motivator in many circles.

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