Spies have always lived among us. (There are even spies in the Bible – most famously Caleb, sent by Moses to report back surreptitiously from Canaan.) By definition, they have the ability to fly under the radar and serve as channels of sensitive information between hostile world powers. Although there are potentially thousands of secret agents that have taken their identities to the grave, others have not been so lucky.
To determine the most famous spies in history, 24/7 Tempo consulted sources including Britannica, Biography, and History, as well as various news sites. Those on our list may not always have been the most successful spies in history, yet they have become famous – largely for being caught, either through their own errors or as a result of betrayal by a former colleague. (The most famous spy of all, of course, is fictional. Here’s a look at every James Bond movie ranked worst to best.)
From the American Revolution to the Cold War, many unmasked wartime spies were tortured or executed. Others escaped and started new lives in foreign countries.
Some of the most infamous spies in history are responsible for prolonging armed conflicts, giving away battle plans or nuclear weapons diagrams, or selling out dozens of their colleagues for nothing other than money. Some were double-agents who fed false information to one country’s government while giving credible intelligence to another.
Some spies, on the other hand, become renowned heroes after their wartime exploits came to light. Many agents who worked undercover during the Civil War or World War II, for instance, received medals and other honors for their bravery upon the war’s end. (Here are 50 of the most decorated war heroes in American History.)
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