Hollywood tells us that espionage is a dangerous game, played only by the cunning and fearsome, frequently resulting in car chases and the seduction of exotic women. But few spies live up to the lofty expectations of James Bond. All too often, they are subject to the same human failings as the rest of us, except in their case, the blunders result in international incidents more embarrassing than your high school yearbook.
#5. CIA Spies Cannot Think Up a Good Code Word
The Lebanese political party/wannabe terrorist group Hezbollah knew that spies working for the CIA were all over Lebanon, but they didn’t know their identities. Poor Hezbollah had nobody they could trust — ain’t it sad what the world’s come to?
Millions into secret handshake research, down the drain.
Finally, in 2011, Hezbollah caught a break. Through a few informants, Hezbollah found that the group of spies they were looking for met with their CIA contacts at a place referred to by a single code word. That word was “pizza.”
Well, that’s helpful.
“We have our new intelligence supercomputer, ‘Wikipedia,’ working around the clock.”
A code word, by its very nature, could mean anything to anyone unfamiliar with the code (that’s what “code” means, after all). Pretty much the only thing they could do was hope that the code word itself had something to do with the spies’ meeting place, but that was a long shot. That’s like hoping the computer you’re hacking is using the word “password” as an actual password. Still, if they were going to find the rats, it was up to Hezbollah to investigate every single pizza place in the country. All of them.
Yes, the code word for the meeting place was “pizza” and the meeting place was … a Pizza Hut in Lebanon. The logic is sound: Who could possibly suspect that the word “pizza” referred to a pizza place?
“Hmm … pizza … Pizza Hut … hut … Jabba the Hutt … they’re on Tatooine!“
We had a tighter security protocol for our grade school tree house. At least you had to climb a friggin’ tree to find it.
Sure enough, when staking out the Pizza Hut, Hezbollah quickly busted a meeting of double agents squealing to members of the CIA. The bust reportedly led to the capture of dozens of U.S. spies in Lebanon and the loss of its entire espionage foothold in the country. In his own words, one intelligence official admitted that they had to “fly blind” for several months on Hezbollah’s activities due to either the CIA’s laziness or their unflagging, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle levels of enthusiasm for pizza.
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Not to mention having to completely scrap “Operation Starbucks on Fifth and Cherry, Across from the McDonald’s.”
#4. A Whole Warship for One “Endangered” German
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In 1911, the German government decided to send a warship to the port of Agadir, hoping to either seize that part of Morocco for themselves or pressure the French into compensating them with land in the Congo.
However, they couldn’t just come out and say such a thing — a little light warfare is no excuse to be impolite. Instead, they decided to imply that the ship had been sent to protect German citizens. There was just one problem: There were no German citizens in Agadir.
And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for their extraordinary incompetence and that lousy dog.
Luckily, German intelligence came up with a plan: They had located a single German man called Wilburg in another part of Morocco. Success! They couldn’t just abandon Wilburg — everybody loves Wilburg. Clearly, if Wilburg were to suddenly find himself in Agadir, a warship would be necessary to protect him, at the least. So they sent Wilburg a coded telegram ordering him to head for Agadir and wait around until he had the adequate amount of warships to feel safe strolling about town.
Unfortunately, details of the secret plan had to be sent in code, and Wilburg was not a secret agent, so it took three telegrams before he figured out what the hell they wanted him to do. After he finally departed, the journey took longer than expected, and by the time he arrived in Agadir, the ship that had (apparently) been sent to protect him had been sitting in the harbor for three days, its crew presumably taking turns protecting each other from the Moroccan menace.
“An old woman off the starboard beam! Full broadside!”
To add a final touch of slapstick, after he arrived, Wilburg realized he had no way of contacting the ship in the harbor. Using all his ingenuity and cunning, he began running up and down the beach, waving his arms and shouting — presumably “I’m Wilburg! Protect me!” As far as the watching sailors knew, he was just some Moroccan with something to sell — rugs or peanuts, likely — so they ignored him.
Eventually, Wilburg’s resolve ran out, and he just stood glaring at the ship with his hands on his hips, at which point the crew immediately recognized his identity, because anybody can run around waving their arms like one of those inflatable fan guys outside of the mattress store, but no one gives bitchface like a middle-aged German.
Imperial Germany’s national sport was scowling.
This was all observed by reporters, who had, like the warship, also made it to Agadir faster than Wilburg. The hilarious story of him running around the beach, as well as the weak-sauce German attempt at deception, made headlines around the world. He became famous as “The Endangered German.” The British foreign secretary referred to the deception when he explained why Britain ultimately decided to support the French claims. But eventually tensions eased, the crisis was averted, and France, Britain, and Germany were never at odds again, except for all those world wars.
#3. North Korean Spy Ring Caught by Fishermen
In the 1990s, South Korea was having a bit of trouble figuring out how North Korean spies were getting into South Korea undetected. Despite more and more guards at the border, spies were constantly slipping through. Could the propaganda be true? Could North Korean soldiers really turn invisible by holding their breath and fly like eagles buoyed only by the Great Leader’s love?
The Great Leader’s love.
Then, in 1998, a South Korean fishing crew found out the truth. They were out at sea when their nets suddenly caught something that brought their boat screeching (or whatever the boat equivalent of screeching is — slopping?) to a halt. It was a struggle, but eventually they managed to bring their nets back to the boat and discovered their catch — it was a midget submarine, complete with a couple of angry North Korean crewmen struggling desperately to cut themselves free, presumably alternating between holding their breath and flapping their arms.
This random fishing crew just minding their own business accidentally thwarted North Korea’s new top secret spy program, which involved sneaking adorable li’l submarines into South Korean territory to rob them of their secrets … and probably thimbles and buttons and such. Despite the Northern government’s insistence that the sub had merely drifted off course, the vessel contained South Korean items that they couldn’t have brought from Pyongyang. It was unmistakably a spy ring, and it was unmistakably brought down by a fishing net.
Until it was discovered that North Koreans were out of season and had to be thrown back.
The incident led to a beefing up of South Korean naval security and alerted the South to the fact that negotiations between the two countries weren’t going as well as they had assumed. The North, on the other hand, presumably refocused their efforts on the “catapult ourselves over the border like Wile E. Coyote” stratagem.
#2. Secret Agent Caught Carrying His Secret Spy Notebook
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In 2007, an explosion suddenly rocked the local European Union headquarters in Kosovo, destroying the building in their perhaps optimistically named capital city of Pristina. The BND, Germany’s version of the CIA, sent out three agents to survey the damage. For obvious reasons, nearby intelligence agencies had a vested interest in any kind of attack in contested areas like Kosovo, but they didn’t want to upset the delicate political relations there by publicly poking their noses around. So even though they weren’t in direct conflict with the country, the Germans still needed to do some good old-fashioned skulking. The only problem was that a trio of mysterious men sneaking about the site of a bomb blast tends to attract attention. U.N. workers quickly showed up and detained the agents, then brought them in for questioning.
Even after asking if perhaps they would rather speak to Herr Gauss.
Unfortunately, the leader of the German spy team, a man named Andreas, was carrying a notebook filled with all his spy contacts and top secret information at the time. It wasn’t written in an unbreakable code — not even a little lock and key like a tween girl’s diary — just a plain language notebook that presumably said “NOT spy stuff” on the cover. In an age where most intelligence work is conducted via microchips full of encrypted files, or microwave beams, or nanobots living in our toothpaste, or whatever the hell DARPA is working on next, Andreas just wrote all his spywork down like a fifth grader taking notes at space camp. And then he carried it with him to sneak around a bomb site.
#1. The CIA Accidentally Gives Nuclear Plans to Iran
In 2000, the CIA reportedly hatched a devious plot called Operation Merlin whose aim was to set Iranian nuclear weapons research back years. They had recruited a defected Russian nuclear physicist and arranged to slip him the blueprints for the firing set of a nuclear missile, a key component supposed to be kept top secret. The Russian was then to turn the received blueprints over to the Iranians.
This wasn’t just an exercise in reverse psychology or some kind of really ballsy nuclear dare. Unbeknownst to anyone but the CIA, the blueprints had been altered to render the device totally useless. They had a better chance of producing a working time machine out of it than a nuclear missile. The Iranians would waste years trying to reverse engineer the technology, only to discover that it didn’t work. Plus, by watching how the Iranians reacted to getting the plans, the CIA would gain valuable information about the scope of their nuclear ambitions. Genius!
We’re no experts in espionage, but we have to imagine that the Iranian’s reaction would have been best described as “pissed.”
At least that’s how it should have worked. Unfortunately, the Russian scientist was familiar with the missile type in question and noticed that the blueprints were flawed. He actually pointed this out to his CIA handlers, who presumably shushed him and told him, “It’s cool — totally cool. Don’t be weird about it.” The scientist, being nothing if not helpful, thought he’d do everybody a favor and fix the little mistakes he saw, so he included a note telling the Iranians which parts were wrong. To clarify, what he wound up giving the Iranian government was most of an actual, working blueprint for the most important parts of a nuclear weapon, with all the non-working bits helpfully pointed out.
Maybe he was hedging his bets in case the Iranians found him out. Or maybe he was just trying to be neighborly. The end results are the same — the CIA straight up gave the blueprints for the firing set of a nuclear missile to people they really did not want to have them.
Things were not improved by the Russian scientist insisting that there was no need to thank him.
The CIA denied the entire story when a book about the incident came out, telling the press that its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist James Risen, should know better than to believe absurd tales from anonymous sources who might as well be crazy homeless people. But then the CIA quietly charged a former officer, Jeff Sterling, with disclosing the story to Risen, which seems like a pretty random way to discipline a crazy hobo.
Evan V. Symon is a moderator in the Cracked Workshop. When he isn’t trying to find evil in every famous person ever, he can be found on Facebook, and be sure to bookshelf and vote for his new book, The End of the Line.