Throughout history humans have developed a certain mistrust of one another, stemming from finite resources and growing populations putting a strain on peaceful co-existence to polarized ideologies too hard to reconcile. Whatever the reason for tension and mistrust, humans continue to practice it unabated. One form of this mistrust manifests itself in the art of espionage. Since the dawn of time tribes, city states, and modern day sovereign nations have engaged in the shadowy act of spying on one another. A never ending cycle of snooping in on neighbors and vice-versa. No one can be too sure who’s telling the truth, so the insurance policy of espionage is kept alive. In the midst of this hopelessly entangled web of intrigue and deceit are the men and women of the espionage trade craft. The professionals who get the job done, collecting and analyzing field data. Among them are the spymasters, a class of über spies that run the show, directing field agents into great feats of theft, deception and information collection, and at times delving into the action themselves, leading by example.
5. Eli Cohen
The Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy agency has been known to produce results with terrifying precision. Knowing that the very existence of their state hangs in the balance, Israelis have mustered every available resource to train, equip and fund their spies to collect data from their neighbors. One such spy was Eli Cohen. Cohen was born in Alexandria Egypt in 1924, though his family would eventually leave for the newly created State of Israel. He had some early brushes with intelligence work but at first Mossad decided he was not fit to be a spy. Eventually under new leadership they reconsidered and recruited him for a dangerous mission to Syria. They built up his “legend” or false background and planted him inside influential circles within the Syrian elite. There Cohen surpassed all expectations as a spy and cemented his legacy as that of a spymaster. Frequenting cafes catering to the rich and glamorous of Damascus, he ingratiated himself within their world by throwing wild parties in his luxurious apartment, where who’s who of the elites would show up, from celebrities and heiresses to high ranking military officials. Cohen himself indulged frequently in the excesses of his new found life, reputedly having as many as 17 mistresses. By doing so, Cohen earned the trust of the senior military and intelligence echelons in Syria. This allowed him to pass back to Israel via radio transmission invaluable intelligence regarding the plans and capabilities of the Syrian Armed forces, which would play a crucial role in Israel’s emphatic victory in the Six-Day war of 1967. Cohen though, would not live to see the fruits of his labor. In 1965 after suspecting a mole within their ranks, Syrian intelligence with the technical help of KGB officers uncovered Cohen’s activities and arrested him. He was given a short trial and sentenced to death by hanging.
4. J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover’s name has become synonymous in America with intelligence overreach and gross violations of civil rights. Hoover got his start in The Justice Department during WWI in the War Emergency Division, in charge of arresting and deporting undesirable or unpatriotic aliens from America. Hoover showed great promise and distinction in his ability to round up suspicious individuals and report them for various crimes under The Espionage Act of 1917. Having impressed his superiors, Hoover was named the director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924. For the next decade or so until the Bureau of Investigation morphed into the FBI(Federal Bureau of Investigation) in 1935 giving Hoover even greater powers, he dealt with leftist figures like Emma Goldman and Marcus Garvey. In Hoover’s mind they were considered dangerous and that was enough. Starting in the early to the mid-1930’s Hoover successfully fought and defeated the Public Enemy’s of the era. Violent bank robbers like Pretty Boy Nelson and John Dillinger met their end due to Hoover’s improved tactics of police intelligence. As the years and decades passed, Hoover grew increasingly aggressive in his methods, at times violating the constitutional rights of citizens he deemed dangerous to society. Employing methods like outright blackmail and warrantless wiretaps, Hoover’s legacy, despite the invention of revolutionary methods in apprehending criminals has been tainted by his disregard for civil and constitutional rights afforded to every American.
3. Laverntiy Beria
Having a position in Stalin’s cabinet was hard to survive given his penchant for paranoia and frequent outbursts of…murderous activity. Being the head of intelligence was considered a curse. Most NKVD directors under Stalin barely lasted two to three years at the helm before being disposed of in ironic circumstances. The more orthodox their implementation of Stalin’s orders were, the worse they seem to end up. Often being labeled the same as the people they were tasked with eliminating. One such director though, did outlast Stalin’s paranoid purges: Lavrentiy Beria, a fellow Georgian. What made Beria unique to the task was that unlike his predecessors who acted like Stalin’s lap dogs and were political appointees (in other words chosen for their ideological fervor rather than their brains),was that Beria was a professional secret policeman. Having studied Mathematics and Petroleum Chemistry, he was known to be very methodical and precise. By the time he inherited the job of NKVD director in 1938, Beria had had a good twenty years experience as a secret policeman, thus knowing all the dangers and potential pitfalls that came with the job, the ones that plagued his predecessors, especially since it was Beria who set them up to fail in the first place. Armed with invaluable experience, ruthlessness and a conniving persona, Beria went on to become one of the most effective Soviet Intelligence figures in history. His crowning achievement being the infiltration of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, thus enabling the Soviet Union to successfully construct a nuclear weapon of their own.
2. Sir Francis Walsingham
The Catholic-Protestant rivalry has been an ongoing theological dispute for over five hundred years, that has often led to violent clashes and war. With the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne of England, the nation reverted to the Protestant faith of her infamous father, Henry VIII. By doing so, Elizabeth incurred the wrath of the majority Catholic continental Europe. In a triple alliance; Spain providing the military might, The Vatican lending its theological seal of approval and Florence its banking monopoly, a holy war was declared on Elizabeth. Numerous plots were hatched and attempted to assassinate Elizabeth and place in her throne her Catholic half sister, Mary Queen of Scots. In charge of thwarting these plots was a quiet and unassuming man named Francis Walsingham. Having studied in Italy, Walsingham had developed extensive networks in the continent and poised himself to utilize them to his advantage when his Queen tapped him with the job of protecting her and England. Taking a low-key and patient approach (a legacy of his puritan upbringing), Walsingham went to work infiltrating Catholic spy rings in England and all over Europe. He set up his own spy rings right in the lion’s den; Spain, Rome and Florence. With revolutionary techniques in cryptography and his spies in well placed positions in foreign royal courts, Walsingham was in the privileged position of knowing about the plots before they were even set in motion. For these spectacular feats in intelligence gathering Sir Francis Walsingham has been labeled the first modern Spymaster, saving Elizabethan England from the zealotry of the Spanish Inquisition.
1. Markus Wolf
Despite the amazing espionage skills and results the other spymasters on this list have produced, I’m reserving the number one spot for none other than East Germany’s Stasi director Markus Wolf. To look at him, one would not think much, but that is one of the first lessons learned in espionage trade craft, not to attract attention. The Stasi in East Germany have been labeled by their intelligence peers all over the world as the most effective intelligence agency in modern history. At the helm of such superior success was Markus Wolf. His father was exiled to the USSR by Adolf Hitler for being a communist and Wolf grew up and came of age in the Soviet Union. There he was recruited and trained as a spy, and upon his return to East Germany now under Soviet control, he was tasked with running the most efficient and dreaded intelligence service, the Stasi. His methods were so effective that not until 1978 did western intelligence agencies know what the director of the agency looked like, labeling Wolf as “The Man Without a Face.” By staying obscure and in the shadows, Wolf’s crowning moment was when one of his best spies infiltrated so deep into West German political circles in 1974 that he was elevated to be the closest confidant and assistant to Willy Brandt, West Germany’s Prime Minister.