Meet the Women and Men Who Set Honey Traps, and Their Victims

Second Amendment

‘Honey Trapped: Sex, Betrayal and Weaponized Love’
By Henry R. Schlesinger
The History Press, 457 pages

“And bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment and combed her hair and put on a tiara, and arrayed herself in her gayest apparel, which she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living. And she put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets and bracelets and rings, and her earrings and all her ornaments and made herself very beautiful to entice the eyes of all men who might see her.”

Even in the age of the internet and short attention spans, I don’t think anyone would want to abbreviate the preceding passage from the Book of Judith, quoted in Henry R. Schlesinger’s fascinating and informative history/group biography of women and men practicing the art of seduction that sometimes resulted in the head of an Assyrian general being served on a platter, or less lethal but no less destructive interventions into the cold and hot wars between nations.

The trouble with writing about honey traps is that they are, by definition, clandestine and often difficult to expose and assess. Prime targets of honey traps are those with military or diplomatic secrets. Honey traps can lure the lubricious to brag about the secrets they are supposed to sequester, so that one side in a conflict/rivalry gets to know at least something about the thinking and plans of the other side.

Moreover, as Mr. Schlesinger shows, the very concept of the honey trap is so enticing that governments and their agents cannot resist employing women and men as, in effect, sex workers, who play their marks with varying degrees of sophistication, though I’m doubtful anyone ever outdid Judith.

I said women and men, because there is a category Mr. Schlesinger calls “Romeo” spies. And they don’t have to deck themselves out like Judith. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany in the bad old Cold War days) ran several Romeo agents — none of whom seems to have been especially handsome or stylish.

Why would a West German woman fall for an overweight East German spy? All sorts of reasons: The spy could present himself as a charming, mature, protective older man pretending, perhaps, to be in the employ of a West German ally who, after all, ought to know the secrets of their own side.

Mr. Schlesinger describes women who enjoyed thinking of themselves as at the center of history handled by an authoritative-looking gentleman who made spying seem both exciting and ennobling, as if some small part of the fate of nations pivoted on a single woman with a camera and copying machine and a lover who treated her to happy holidays.

Some more recent honeys you may recognize — like Maria Buttina, the Russian spy who infiltrated the NRA and took up with an older conservative lover. Mr. Schlesinger says she did not have much training, but was good at her work anyway, so that her dupes should not be considered that gullible.

In this case, I find Mr. Schlinger’s reasoning hard to follow: Why would the NRA and other conservative supporters take her interest in guns seriously when Vladimir Putin’s Russia is hardly a Second Amendment haven? Why would anyone suppose she came from a culture that promoted a gun-toting citizenry?

Overall, though, Mr. Schlesinger’s accounts are measured and never promise too much — just as the spying itself, while occasionally successful, seems very often a waste of time.

You will learn some tradecraft, such as the “verbal parole”: an exchange in which, say, the expected answer to, “Haven’t we met in California last summer?” is, “No, I think it was the Hamptons.” Or the use of “signal sites” — in one instance pasting an upside-down postage stamp on a neighborhood map outside a Starbucks to indicate a passport had been delivered.

If you want to be even more up-to-date, check out the last part of Mr. Schlesinger’s book that deals with “cyber honey traps.” That online dating service you are using? Watch out. A number of Israeli soldiers have been fooled, and the consequences have not been sweet.

Mr. Rollyson is the biographer of a great spy-detector, Rebecca West.

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