Gina Haspel may be the first woman to head the Central Intelligence Agency, but the distinction of America’s first female foreign intelligence officer belongs to a Baltimore woman who was dispatched to Berlin 100 years ago.
The Military Intelligence Division, the forerunner of the CIA, sent Marguerite Harrison to Germany in December 1918 to gather information for U.S. negotiators during the World War I peace talks. Working undercover as a Baltimore Sun reporter, Harrison spent eight months collecting data on the economic and social conditions in Europe and monitoring the rising threat of Communism.
She was not a steamy seductress like Mata Hari stealing secrets from her lovers. Harrison was a professional intelligence officer. She was a keen observer who knew Europe well and could speak four languages fluently (and later mastered Russian as well). At a time when American women could not vote, she wrote reports that influenced the decisions of military commanders and the president.
U.S. spymasters initially were reluctant to send women on overseas assignments, believing they were unreliable and prone to falling in love with their targets. Harrison changed that perception.
She was a 39-year-old widow writing music and theater reviews for the Baltimore Sun when she applied to become a foreign intelligence officer. After being turned down by the Office of Naval Intelligence, she wrote to Marlborough Churchill, head of the U.S. Military Intelligence Division. “Employment as a special foreign agent is the only work that would justify me in giving up the work I am doing now, and I believe my qualifications and training would enable me to be of real service,” Harrison said.
Churchill agreed and hired her for $250 a month, plus expenses.
Harrison received little or no training, but she took on her assignment with gusto. When she arrived in Berlin, factions were fighting in the street, and she used her suitcase to shield herself from the bullets as her frightened driver sped to the hotel.
Over the next eight months, Harrison used her Baltimore Sun credentials to gain access to political and military leaders, as well as revolutionaries plotting insurrection.
Commanders in the Military Intelligence Division were so impressed with her work, they argued among themselves where she should go next. The head of The Hague spy ring lobbied to put her in charge of East European networks. Churchill also considered requests to send her to Mexico and Japan, but ultimately he chose a riskier assignment in Moscow.
America’s spy network in Russia was in shambles in 1919. The Bolsheviks had captured several operatives and others had fled the country. Churchill sent Harrison to gather information on the viability of Lenin’s regime and to learn the fate of American prisoners.
But her mission was doomed before it began. A mole in either the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Army had leaked her intelligence reports, and the Bolsheviks knew the woman posing, by then, as an Associated Press correspondent was actually a spy.
In April 1920, the Reds threatened to imprison her unless she provided reports on foreigners in Moscow. For six months, Harrison worked as a double agent, giving information on left-leaning visitors, while still sneaking documents to the Military Intelligence Division.
When the Bolsheviks discovered her ruse, they arrested her and placed her in Russia’s notorious Lubyanka prison. She was held captive until August 1921, when she was released along with other Americans in exchange for food aid to Russia.
As with Ms. Haspel, Harrison’s actions were controversial.
A British woman imprisoned in Russia blamed Harrison for falsely accusing her of espionage. When Harrison returned to the United States, she alienated a number of American leaders by speaking in defense of the Bolshevik government.
Harrison was free from prison only a few months when she began making plans to return to Russia. The Bolsheviks arrested her again as she traveled through Siberia in November 1922.
Harrison insisted she was not spying. Nevertheless, she had sent reports to both the U.S. Army and the State Department describing political and economic conditions in the region. The Bolsheviks eventually released her, although the reasons aren’t entirely clear.
Harrison continued her world travels almost until her death in Baltimore in 1967 at age 88.
Today her groundbreaking work in foreign intelligence has mostly been forgotten. Because of the light-hearted way in which she described her adventures, she has been remembered as a frivolous socialite who dabbled in espionage and was foolish enough to get caught twice.
But that view grossly underestimates Harrison’s contribution to the foreign intelligence service. The men who ran America’s spy agencies acknowledged her abilities even though they were divided over her motives. Some believed she was a patriotic American, while others suspected she was Red agent.
To this day, documents that could answer the question of whether she was a loyal American or Bolshevik spy remain classified.
Whatever the truth, one thing is clear: Harrison proved a woman was capable of being a foreign intelligence officer, paving the way for women, like Ms. Haspel, who followed.
Liz Atwood, a former reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun, is an associate professor of journalism at Hood College and is writing a biography of Marguerite Harrison. Her email is email@example.com.