DECEMBER 12, 2014
– JAMES BOND was exactly the sort of spy that J Edgar Hoover hated. The prickly and prudish FBI boss had no time for womanising, high-living secret agents, either in fiction or reality. The veteran American crime-fighter believed the only good spy was a dead one.
New evidence of that antipathy emerged this week with the release of secret files revealing that Hoover went to considerable lengths to dissociate the FBI from the film of Goldfinger in 1964. The FBI noted disapprovingly that the James Bond stories involve “beautiful women presenting themselves to him in scanty attire”, while Ian Fleming’s 007 books are “generally filled with sex and bizarre situations”. The Miami office of the FBI was instructed to contact Harry Saltzman, the producer of the Bond movies, and “vigorously protest any mention of the FBI or portrayal of its agents in his proposed movie”.
But Hoover’s aversion to the world’s most famous fictional spy, and his real-life progenitors, is more than just movie trivia: it played a crucial and almost completely forgotten role in world history.
With war raging in May 1941, a dozen years before he created James Bond, Ian Fleming travelled to Washington DC with his boss, the chief of naval intelligence, Admiral Sir John Godfrey — who would later become the model for “M”. Their mission was to try to persuade the Americans to create a single intelligence agency on the British model. They were granted an audience with J Edgar Hoover. The meeting did not go well. It lasted exactly 16 minutes.
Fleming described how Hoover — “a chunky enigmatic man with slow eyes and a trap of a mouth” — listened to what Godfrey and Fleming had to say, “and then expressed himself firmly but politely as being uninterested in our mission … With a firm, dry handclasp, we were shown the door”.
Hoover did not like spies, or Brits, and he certainly did not like British spies encroaching on his patch. The FBI chief regarded agents and double agents as merely another species of criminal, to be captured, interrogated and, if possible, executed, with maximum fanfare.
Three months after this unhappy encounter, MI5 dispatched one of its most valuable spies to America. Dusko Popov, a Serbian businessman, had been recruited by the German intelligence service at the start of the war, but had immediately offered his services to the British as a double agent. Codenamed “Tricycle”, he had proved spectacularly successful and in August 1941 his German handlers sent him to the US to set up an agent network; here was an ideal opportunity to doublecross the Germans, but as he would be on US soil, he would be handled by the FBI.
Popov was a glamorous ladies’ man of expensive tastes and extraordinary courage. Fleming knew him, and partly based the character of James Bond on this daring, dashing but dissolute figure. Fleming is said to have witnessed Popov in a Lisbon casino, when he placed a vast bet in order to force a rival to withdraw from the baccarat table, an episode later adapted into Casino Royale.
Hoover instantly detested Popov: promiscuous, extravagant and foreign, the Serb spy represented everything the FBI chief loathed. Popov claimed that Hoover told him: “Like all double agents … you’re begging for information to sell to your German friends so that you can make a lot of money and be a playboy.”
To Hoover’s mounting fury, the Serbian double agent ran up vast bills and began affairs with a number of beautiful women. Hoover even threatened to prosecute him when he took a girlfriend on holiday to Florida, since transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes” was technically illegal under the puritanical Mann Act.
The FBI’s attitude ensured that Popov’s mission was a complete failure, but in one respect it might have changed history. Popov had brought with him a long questionnaire from his German spymasters, concealed in a microdot on a telegram — a tiny speck, barely visible to the naked eye, which could be enlarged under microscope. The most important part of Popov’s instruction sheet asked for a detailed report on the defences of Pearl Harbor — apparently indicating that Germany’s Japanese allies were planning an imminent attack on the US naval base on Hawaii.
Hoover ignored the questionnaire; it was never properly analysed or passed on to the president. Popov’s British handlers accused the FBI of rank incompetence for failing to draw the obvious conclusion. “No one ever believed Hoover would be such a bloody fool,” said one MI5 officer. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese duly attacked Pearl Harbor, and America entered the Second World War.
Debate has swirled around the Pearl Harbor questionnaire ever since: was this FBI ineptitude, or was Roosevelt’s government playing a double game, deliberately ignoring the warning signs to ensure a cast-iron casus belli? The truth is probably much simpler: Hoover disliked Popov and chose to dismiss the evidence he had supplied.
History turns on the smallest moments. If Hoover had given Fleming a less frosty reception in 1941; if he had been more receptive to Popov’s intelligence — then America might not have entered the war in the same way. And there is another, rather unexpected accolade for James Bond: years before he was created in fiction, 007 might, in fact, have changed the course of the war.
– BEN MACINTYRE The Times