I’m Chloé Aeberhardt, a French journalist currently working for French newspaper Le Monde and the author of ‘Female Spies Tell All’: a five-year study detailing the secret lives of eight women spies who worked for the main intelligence services during the Cold War.

From Paris to Washington via Moscow and Tel Aviv, this investigation, which has now become a popular animated series on ARTE.tv, follows in the footsteps of leading secret agents. The stories of Gabriele, Yola, Geneviève, Ludmila, Jonna and Martha and their impossible missions take us far from the myth of seductress Mata Hari and are a definite case of truth being stranger than fiction. Whether its tracking down former Nazis in South America, the exfiltration of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia or the Soviet penetration of Western power circles, these espionage professionals, some famous, some of whose names were almost lost to history, worked for organisations such as the CIA, the KGB, MI5, the DST and Mossad.

In ‘Female Spies Tell All’ they recount the decisive role they played in the East-West conflict. As well as the book and web series, ‘Female Spies Tell All’ has also become a graphic novel. Before I joined Le Monde, where I am busy covering health issues for the Economy department, I worked freelance and wrote about many different topics, including: editorials on Hollywood’s Magic Castle, pro-abortion protesters in Texas, human cyborgs, nannies of the rich and famous, babies and work culture in Japan, the conflict in Northern Ireland, Icelandic literary trends and global street art. I also profiled actors, sportsmen, writers and TV personalities. I’m currently working on a new publication. AMA!

‘Female Spies Tell All’ is currently showing on ARTE.tv:

‘Female Spies Tell All’ is also available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfgEtdmLl-Q&list=PL-eZcc0GI8-X810K0SIuA07dYknL5kj74

Proof: https://i.redd.it/ojn4rug538u61.jpg

Comments: 48 • Responses: 21  • Date: 

In_shpurrs8 karma

Would you say women have it 'easier' as spies because they aren't as easily suspected. I'm not insinuating their job is easy, just if it's easier for them to infiltrate because they don't have the cliche (media(?) created) image of the possibility of being a spy. Am I right in thinking that it makes more sense that there are more women spies than men?

ARTEinEnglish7 karma

Hello, and thanks for this really good question! You are absolutely right. As long as people picture intelligence officers as men, female intelligence officers will be less suspected of being spies, which gives them a real advantage in the field. A former DGSE officer (the French foreign intelligence service) once told me that you wouldn't suspect a woman wearing stilettos following you to be a spy, contrary to a man looking like a military. It's a bit exaggerated/cartoonish to say thing this way, but it's true.As for your second question : the secret services around the world have long been mainly masculine. That's why the common image people have of a spy is masculine too. Even though it would make a lot of sense to have more women working in the field, the process of hiring them is very progressive and in the Western services women are still a minority in operation units.

In_shpurrs2 karma

bonne soirée!

the secret services around the world have long been mainly masculine. That's why the common image people have of a spy is masculine too.

Would you say this is a fact or a "fact". Is it possible that there is a para-intelligence service where women spies are employed.

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

I seriously doubt it, but let me know if you find any evidence of it!

CrassostreaVirginica4 karma

Of the 8, how would you rank them in loose terms of 'Wow, I can't believe this person actually managed to do [incredible/unlikely/etc. thing]?

Are there any standout anecdotes that you'd like to highlight?

ARTEinEnglish9 karma

Gabriele Gast has had an exceptional career as a mole. For 17 years she worked as a top analyst for the Western Germany secret service when in fact, she was loyal to the Eastern German (Stasi). She even managed to adopt a disabled child during these years! No matter what you think of the Eastern German regime and the methods used by the Stasi, such a career is a real accomplishment and she's considered one of the best spies East Germany has ever had. I would also mention Jonna Mendez, who was the equivalent of Q in James Bond for the CIA : she would train the agents in the field to use gadgets and disguises such as cameras hidden in pens, make up, etc. At the end of her career, she was head of the CIA Disguise Department and she received help from magicians and Hollywood make up artists to create the gadgets. Her husband Tony is very famous at the CIA : he did the same job and inspired Ben Affleck's movie Argo. In Jonna's profile, it seemed to me reality was even cooler than fiction.

orangejulius4 karma

what was life like for female spies in east germany?

ARTEinEnglish8 karma

I can only talk about Gabriele Gast because she's the only German female spy I met. She was highly respected by Markus Wolf, the head of the Stasi foreign intelligence service, because she was so valuable. East Germany was famous, at the time, for using male operatives, surnamed "Romeos", who were sent to West Germany to seduce single secretaries working for the government (a lot of women were single at the time, because of all the deaths from the Second World War). Some "fake" weddings were organized, with fake priests and fake bestmen. There are some stories about women who committed suicide when they learnt their husband was actually East German and hadn't married them out of love, but to manipulate them to get information.

kathakloss2 karma

How did you do your research on the graphic novel? I suppose it's a bit of a professional secret but was it easy to get in touch with former spies?

ARTEinEnglish5 karma

No, it wasn't easy! When I started my research I was a 27 year old journalist and I had never written about Defence or Intelligence matters. To start with, I decided to meet with male former military and intelligence officers to introduce myself and talk about women in intelligence in general. Once I felt they were confident enough, I asked them if they would help me find women who used to work in the secret services (retired women, I realized, are easier to talk to, because they are more likely to be "allowed" to talk). They would then put me in touch with former colleagues who would look for female colleagues... It's the logic of asking a friend if he knows a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend, etc. Because you have to remember that during the Cold War there weren't many women in intelligence, so finding them to set up interview was tricky. That's the method I used for the "unknown" women I wanted to meet. Other women were public figures, such as Jonna Mendez (CIA) or former MI5 director general Stella Rimington (UK). But for them too, it proved necessary to have a network to reach them. I had found Jonna Mendez's phone number on the internet, believe it or not. But I didn't feel confident calling her saying "hey I am a French freelance journalist, would you like to talk to me?" I thought it'd be more successful if a CIA colleague called her first on my behalf. And it worked just fine.

Security_Chief_Odo2 karma

Do you watch TV shows based on spy tradecraft? What are your thoughts about tv shows like The Americans ?

ARTEinEnglish4 karma

I really like The Americans for 2 reasons. First, Elizabeth Jennings is the strongest operative in the show (her husband Philip is more "soft"), and it's nice to see women can play this kind of role now in spy fiction. Second, the Jennings story is very similar to the one of Ludmila, whom I met in Moscow. Her fiance told her he was KGB just before their wedding in the 60s. To marry him and follow him abroad (he was to become an illegal spy in Argentina) she had to become a spy herself and do a pretty hard training. They moved to Argentina under false identities, him allegedly being Argentinian, her German. They opened a bar in the German area of Buenos Aires where a lot of former nazis had fled after 1945. Their job was to identify and report them to the KGB. They had 2 daughters who had no idea their parents were Russians and spies! The plan was for them to move to the US afterwards, but they got arrested before. This story shows how, during the Cold War, the Russians were good at long-term operations. Their agents didn't pretend to be someone else (a German bartender in Buenos Aires), they became someone else. Before she moved to Buenos Aires, Ludmila spent 2 years alone in Germany learning German, befriending with German people, becoming German...

berenika_w2 karma

What will be the subject of the new publication you are working on ?

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

I am hoping to write a novel (that would be my first) but it's too early to tell... There might be a bit of spycraft in it, but I'm not sure yet!

karkatgavemecancer2 karma

What were the biggest hurdles that female spies encountered when compared to their male equivalents?

Did/does the systemic presence of sexism mean that female spies were deployed to cases that were seen as "'less" important?

ARTEinEnglish3 karma

The female operative officers I met were, eventually, sent to missions that were "as important" as men's. Mainly because the services realized that it can pretty useful to have a woman in the field : she's less suspected of being a spy, she can be better fit to convince a female source to talk... More generally, the services now know they need diversity of gender, of age, of race. Depending on the mission, and the profile of the target/the person you need to manipulate to get the information you want, it's good to have the choice between a man, a woman, an Arab, an American looking guy, etc. For instance, if you want to convince a fervent Muslim woman to talk to you, because you fear her son might be preparing a terrorist attack, wouldn't you consider sending a woman rather than a man to do the initial contact?

maxToTheJ2 karma

Did women work in the more controversial programs like https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Condor or the various guns and drugs programs related to Nicaragua?

Did women have an impact in the culture ie put more long term and collateral damage impact to the US or the country they worked for in the agencies they worked for? For example agitating in the name of the banana industry in Guatemala caused a huge rush of migrants from Guatemala to the US and probably still has effects to this day

ARTEinEnglish3 karma

I am very sorry but I don't have the answers to these questions.

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

Dear all, thank you very much for all your interesting questions. Have a great day!

BrazenBull2 karma

What are the best "Honey Pot" stories?

ARTEinEnglish5 karma

I don't really know. I only interviewed female professional intelligence officers. As such, they never use sex to get information. Honey pots do exist (the Russians and the Chinese still do it for example), but to set them up secret services usually hire prostitutes (not intelligence officers). So I wouldn't know...

yParticle2 karma

What are your favorite nonfiction works about spycraft?

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

It doesn't deal exactly with spycraft but I really recommend The File, from Timothy Garton Ash. The true story of a man who walked into the Berlin ministry which now looks after the records of the Stasi (the East German secret police) and asked if there was a file on him. And there was... It's a fascinating book about how the communist society worked. I also recommend all the books written by CIA Tony Mendez and/or his wife Jonna (whom I interviewed, by the way). They were working at the CIA Disguise Department and were allowed to share a lot of their operations, which are always very exciting and easy to read.

Dontbecruelbro1 karma

What's your favorite fictional movie / tv show about a spy and why?

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

I'd say The Americans, for the 2 reasons I mentioned in a previous answer. The French series Le Bureau des légendes is pretty good too, it follows a DGSE department specialized in illegal agents. I also like the movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Gary Oldman, for the perfect Cold War atmosphere.

SpongeJake1 karma

I went looking on Amazon for your book but could only find the original French language version. Is there an English version in the works?

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

Unfortunately, no, not that I am aware of. I am still hoping for a English-speaking publisher to buy the rights... On the other hand the animated series is available on Arte's website with English subtitles.

SpongeJake1 karma

Thank you.

SpongeJake1 karma

Perfect. Thanks again!

ARTEinEnglish2 karma

No problem :)

[deleted]1 karma


ARTEinEnglish3 karma

All the women I interviewed suffered from sexism at work. Maybe because I only talked to retired female intelligence officers - they worked in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s at a time when women in intelligence were mostly secretaries. So all of the 8 I interviewed were pioneers in their own way. At first the head of the Mossad didn't want to send a woman (Yola) to exfiltrate Ethiopian Jews to Israel because he thought this several-year mission would be too dangerous for a woman. The same for Martha, who was sent to Panama to track dictator Manuel Noriega after the country had been invaded by the Americans in 1989. The same Martha was sexually harassed by a colleague. When the French analyst (Genevieve) took her job as an analyst at counter-espionage, a colleague said : cool, a woman, you'll wash the glasses after we have some drinks! 

[deleted]1 karma


ARTEinEnglish2 karma

Oh no! They're too clever for those kind of simplistic views...

berenika_w1 karma

How much time does it took you to gather all the testimony? I can imagine it was not easy to convinved some of your interlocutors !

ARTEinEnglish1 karma

It took me 5 years to gather the interviews and write the original book.

berenika_w1 karma

I’ve watched all of the series and I really enjoyed it! Are you planning to continue this research on some other female spies (like Polish agent of the British SOE Krystyna Skarbek)?

ARTEinEnglish1 karma

Thanks a lot, but I am afraid not... This project (from the first book I wrote to the graphic novel) has kept me busy for 9 years now, so I think I'll change topics in the future. But you never know, I can always change my mind !

guyfromthecityofgold0 karma

How ya doing?

ARTEinEnglish3 karma