Oops! We Killed the Wrong Guy! 10 Real Life Spy Bungles

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A Brief History

On July 21, 1973, Israeli agents of the Mossad killed a waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, seeking revenge for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes.  The hapless victim was innocent and had nothing to do with the terrorist event, and the murder was just another blunder by a country attempting to conduct spy games.  Over the years there have been some egregious errors by secret agencies, and here we list 10 of those “oops” moments.  

Digging Deeper

10. Soviet Gift to US Found to be Bugged, 1952.

The Soviet organization, Young Pioneers, gave the US ambassador to Moscow the gift of a large wooden replica of the great seal of the US in 1945.  It hung in the Ambassador’s study until it was discovered in 1952 to contain a microphone and radio transmitter.  The treachery exposed by a gift of friendship and peace having actually been a Trojan Horse was embarrassing for the Soviets and a propaganda coup for the US.

9.  US Caught Spying on Germany-Again, 2014.

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany was irritated by revelations in 2013 that the US NSA spy agency had been monitoring her cell phone and otherwise spying on her and Germany, when German security forces discovered the CIA was still spying on Germany.  Merkel expelled the CIA station chief and relations between the US and Germany became even more strained.

8.  Weapons of Mass Destruction, Iraq, 2003.

Convinced that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein must have a nuclear program in place and stockpiles of chemical and or biological weapons, the Bush administration pressured the CIA into producing evidence of such activity.  The CIA in an apparent desire to please the boss instead of properly analyzing data gave a false report that Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction.  The US congress authorized an invasion of Iraq based on this erroneous report and no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.  This blunder cost the US thousands dead and maimed, over a trillion dollars, worldwide respect, and killed well over 100,000 Iraqis in the process.  On top of it, Iraq is now a hotbed of terrorism when it was not before the invasion.

7.  Failed Attempts to Kill Castro, 1960’s.

Despite years of denials, in 1975 it was revealed that the United States had made 8 assassination attempts between 1960 and 1965 on Fidel Castro, communist leader of Cuba.  Not only did this show the world the US was lying, but also that we did not follow international law.  Some of the goofy methods attempted to take Castro out included exploding cigars, poisoned cigars, poisoned scuba suit, hypodermic needle disguised as a ball point pen, and blowing him up while visiting a museum.  To further the embarrassment, none of these attempts were successful. 

6.  Israeli Attacks US Spy Ship, 1967.

During the Arab-Israeli 6 Day War of 1967 the US had a spy ship, the USS Liberty, stationed in international waters off the coast of Israel monitoring the war with electronic devices.  The Liberty was attacked by Israeli fighter bombers and torpedo boats, repeatedly, despite the Liberty being clearly marked and flying the US flag.  Pre-attack overflights were so close to the ship that the crew and the pilots waved to each other.  Israel also claimed the Liberty was moving along at 30 knots, a high speed associated with combat vessels, when in fact she was only making 5 knots.  The ship was heavily damaged and 34 US sailors were killed.  Either Israel blundered severely on identifying the ship or they deliberately attacked her, resulting in strained US-Israel relations.

5.  Admiral Canaris Working for Allies, 1944.

Holding the critical and most trusted position in the Nazi regime as the head of German intelligence, Canaris not only was working with the Allies against Germany but also was actively involved with plots to depose Hitler and the Nazi regime.  Discovered as a double agent in 1944, he was sent to a concentration camp and executed in 1945. 

4.  German Agents Surrender/Are Captured in US, 1942.

A Nazi plot to land 8 spies/saboteurs on US soil by  U-Boat initially went well with the men being safely landed.  Things quickly went wrong, as an unarmed US coast watcher ran into one of the spies.  The spy threatened and bribed the American with $260 of counterfeit money, but the American immediately reported the encounter.  Realizing the mission was compromised, the German spy contacted the FBI and ratted out his mission and the other spies, all of whom were arrested within 2 weeks.  All 8 were found guilty by military tribunal and 6 were executed.

3.  Snowden Reveals US Spies on Allies, 2013.

A contract computer geek employed by the NSA, the US super secret spy agency, Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the US was spying on friend and foe alike, even normal Americans not suspected of terrorism and without legal warrants.  Highly embarrassing and giving terrorists a heads up on US techniques to monitor terrorists, Snowden’s revelations seriously compromised American anti-terror efforts.

2.  Israeli Agents Kill Wrong Guy, 1973.

In a revenge plot designed to kill all the terrorists involved with the terror attack on the 1972 Israeli Olympic team, Israeli agents killed an innocent man, causing some serious reflection about whether or not such revenge killings were morally justified.

1.  Francis Gary Powers Shot Down over USSR, 1960.

Shot down by an anti-aircraft missile the US thought could not reach his high flying U-2 spy plane, Powers was captured alive while President Eisenhower publicly denied the US had been overflying Soviet territory.  Eisenhower was embarrassed internationally when the Soviets produced a living Powers and U-2 wreckage, proving the president was lying.

Question for students (and subscribers): Which incidents would you add to the list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Volkman, Ernest.  The History of Espionage: The Clandestine World of Surveillance, Spying and Intelligence, from Ancient Times to the Post-9/11 World.  Carlton Publishing Group, 2008.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by SamWilliamsPhoto, is licensed under the Pixabay License.  The speech bubble by Amada44 has been released into the public domain worldwide by its author, Amada44.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.