In recent months, an Indian Air Force officer allegedly grew close to a woman who introduced herself on Facebook as Damini McNaught, a defence journalist based in the United Kingdom. Induced into traitorous activity, he shared secret documents about Indian combat exercises with her, the story goes. Since then, the woman has melted away and the officer has been arrested for espionage. Turns out she was working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The IAF officer, all the reports declare gleefully, had been “honey trapped”.
Honey trap. The term reeks of a certain 1960s machismo, of martini-swilling spies and languid molls. The men are willing to be pleased; the women are pleasing. The result: skulduggery. Technically, people of both sexes can set up a honey trap ‒ the Germans deployed “Romeo spies” during the 1950s and Jeremy Wolfenden, a gay British journalist, was turned into a double agent by the Secret Intelligence Service. But this is the scenario usually played out in the popular imagination. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first entered the English language through the John Le Carre novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “You see, long ago when I was a little boy I made a mistake and walked into a honeytrap,” confesses one of the more decrepit characters in the novel.
Despite the weight of fiction and history, spies, suits, security personnel and all those involved in the netherworld of secrets seem to be incurable romantics. Because the honey trap is alive and well, by all accounts. A few years ago, the MI5 distributed a 14-page document to hundreds of British banks and businesses, warning them about the Chinese intelligence services using sex to get information. After the IAF officer was caught this week, intelligence officials grumbled about the increasing number of fake accounts online, luring young officers into treachery.
Perhaps it’s just as well. The world loves a honey trap, no matter how tired or sexist the plot. Sample these:
Mata Hari, or the honey trap that probably wasn’t: Everybody knows the Dutch dancer who stormed the stages of Paris in the early 20th century and had free passage between Spain and England during the First World War. The French eventually arrested her on charges of spying for the Germans, based on intercepted telegrams which showed that she was receiving money from a German attache in Spain. He was her control officer, the French concluded, and she was feeding him information that she gathered by seducing politicians and diplomats in Paris.
In spite of protesting her innocence, Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in 1917. She refused a blindfold.
The Profumo Affair: The scandal that rocked Britain in the 1960s had all the ingredients of a good story: the high-profile politician, the forgiving wife, the siren. Early in 1963, it was revealed that John Profumo, secretary of state for war in the Harold Macmillan government, had had a brief affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler. What complicated matters was that Keeler was also close to Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attache, which constituted a security risk. Keeler had come to know both men through Stephen Ward, a flamboyant osteopath.
Though it is believed that no actual information was passed on by Profumo, his political career was destroyed. He spent the rest of his life in the country, rising to prominence in a very genteel charity organisation. Keeler posed for some immortal photographs, published several accounts of her life, tried her hand at acting and then faded into obscurity.
Anna Chapman, the spy who got away: The Russians seem partial to this gambit, or else they just get caught more. In 2010, Anna Chapman, a Russian living in New York, was arrested for being part of a spy ring. Born in Moscow as Anya Kushchenko, she married a British national, changed her name, and later moved to New York, where she made her way through the city’s nightclubs and business circles. Chapman became part of a Russian spy ring that was supposed to make inroads into “policymaking circles” and pass on sensitive information to their government. Eye witness accounts paint Anna as a “seductress” who used her femininity to extract information.
After her arrest in 2010, Chapman pleaded guilty and was deported to Russia. Back home, she became something of a celebrity, hosted a TV show and became editor of a magazine.
The Gorshkov mystery: Once again, it was probably the Russians. For years, India wrangled with Russia over the refitting and sale of the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. To make matters worse, it was revealed that Commodore Sukhjinder Singh, a naval officer posted in Russia from 2005-2007 and closely associated with the deal, had been in an “amorous relationship” with a Russian woman. Singh was indicted, though the navy insisted that his conduct had not affected the negotiations.
It was no use. India eventually paid $2.33 billion for the refit, instead of the $974 million mentioned in the original contract. leading to suspicions that Indian negotiating positions had been betrayed in a “honey trap operation”. Singh was eventually sacked but the Admiral Gorshkov now sails in Indian waters as the INS Vikramaditya.
And the time-tested method of the honey trap lived to see another day.