spy_northkorea photo

In the 1970s, North Korean officials selected teenager Kim Hyon Hui – based on her good looks, intelligence and command of Japanese – to be a spy.Screen shot from “Secret Agent No. 1” by Journeyman Pictures for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

We here at the Center for Investigative Reporting and The I Files have the pleasure of coming across some fascinating investigative video reporting. The ones we’re finding most fascinating these days? Espionage. It’s hard enough to find out who these secret agents are, but getting enough good video to tell a story visually is difficult. (See the Israeli agent fail and North Korean female assassin below.) These two pieces got us thinking, what other epic spy stories have occurred in recent history?

Here’s our list of five spy cases that leave us scratching our heads. Are we missing any? Feel free to comment below or tweet me at @chenk_x.

1. The mysterious case of Prisoner X

On many levels, the story of Ben Zygier, better known as Prisoner X, begins where it ended: in 2010, at a maximum-security prison in Israel where the Australian (with ties to the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency) allegedly committed suicide.

To understand what happened to Prisoner X, you must first understand one thing about Israel: In all of Israel’s wars, only six soldiers who died remain unreturned to the country. The men and women who serve the country do so with the expectation that they will return home.

What happened to Prisoner X centers on an attempt to return the remains of three of the six missing soldiers from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That plan involved the Mossad recruiting a key Lebanese war hero to participate. It was working – until Zygier blew the Mossad’s cover.

Journeyman Pictures for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. tells the incredible story of what happened.

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2. New details link Prisoner X to assassination of top Hamas official

In 2010, a group of assassins drugged and suffocated top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel. On the team of 26 assassins was none other than Zygier, Prisoner X from above.

The New York Times reported that, according to liberal opposition newspaper Al Jarida, “Zygier had provided the authorities in Dubai with ‘names and pictures and accurate details’ in exchange for protection, but Israel kidnapped him from a hiding place and imprisoned him on charges of treason about a month after the Jan. 19, 2010, operation.”

3. The American in a blond wig

As Russia and the U.S. vow to develop counterterrorism partnerships in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, a peculiar story of the arrest of an American in a blond wig emerged. Russian officials arrested Ryan Fogle, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, as he was trying to leave Sheremetyevo International Airport. Fogle is accused of working for the CIA and trying to recruit a Russian counterterrorism officer.

4. Why is a London spy in a bag?

In August 2010, Gareth Williams, an officer in MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, was found dead and naked in a padlocked duffel bag in his London apartment.

Months into the case, investigators still were unsure whether he deliberately locked himself in the bag or whether foul play was involved. Details of Williams’ interest in sexual bondage later emerged, but his family and the coroner in his case have dismissed it as a theory in his death.

To complicate matters, forensic scientists eventually admitted that they botched DNA evidence, which sent authorities on a yearlong chase of a suspect who didn’t exist.

Another level of bizarre: To figure out how Williams could have locked himself in the body bag, a yoga specialist attempted to do the same. William MacKay “tried more than 100 times without success – but says that does not mean Williams could not have succeeded,” reports The Guardian.

5. Cyanide and the North Korean bomber

In the 1970s, North Korean officials selected teenager Kim Hyon Hui – based on her good looks, intelligence and command of Japanese – to be a spy.

“One day, a black sedan shows up at my school. They were from the Central Party and told me I’d been chosen. I wasn’t even allowed time to say goodbye to my friends. I was just told to pack,” Kim says through a translator in an interview with Journeyman Pictures for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I was given one last night with my family.”

After years of intense training, Kim planted the bomb that blew up Korean Air Flight 858, en route from Baghdad to Seoul, South Korea, killing all 115 people aboard. This was in 1987, a year before the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Just as Kim and her partner, both of whom were on the run, were trying to leave Bahrain, authorities realized they were traveling on fake passports. To resist interrogation and capture, both agents bit down on cyanide pills secretly stashed in their cigarettes. Kim’s partner died almost immediately. Kim, on the other hand, had a different fate: She survived and eventually was sentenced to death – and then pardoned – by South Korea.

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Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on cironline.org and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.