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Monday, February 6, 2023

The Real-Life Spy Who Inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond—and Ran Assassination Teams in the US During World War II

Like James Bond, British spy William Stephenson (aka Intrepid) had a "license to kill" and a taste for potent martinis. But his life also raises important questions about the methods of government spy agencies, including the CIA.

Image Credit: United Artists

In his 1987 memoir Spycatcher, former British counter-intelligence agent Peter Wright recalled a conversation he had with two legendary counterintelligence officers of the CIA—James Jesus Angleton and William K. Harvey—some time after the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba.

Harvey, a squat bald man who looked like a heavier version of Heinrich Himmler sans spectacles, said he was seeking input on British interests in the Caribbean, but Wright sensed he was after something else. Harvey was known to operate a group of assassins plucked from the ranks of criminal organizations in Europe, and the MI5 agent worried that anything he said would soon be “quoted around Washington by the CIA as the considered British view of things.”

After a bit of back-and-forth, it became clear to Wright that Harvey was looking for someone who might be tapped to eliminate Fidel Castro.

“They don’t freelance, Bill,” Wright said bluntly. “You could try to pick them up retired, but you’d have to see Six about that.”

The response irritated Harvey, who seemed to believe Wright was being deliberately unhelpful. Wright decided to throw Harvey a bone.

“Have you thought of approaching Stephenson?” Wright asked. “A lot of the old-timers say he ran this kind of thing in New York during the war.”

A Man Called Intrepid

Wright was referring to William Stephenson, a British spy best known by his wartime intelligence codename: Intrepid.

Stephenson, who was born in Canada, received the moniker from Winston Churchill. During his time as chief of the British Security Coordination (BSC), Stephenson—in addition to running hit teams—dished British secrets to FDR, trained agents in Europe, sent American secrets back to Churchill, and is credited with shifting US public opinion away from isolationism during World War II and toward interventionism.

Stephenson’s life inspired several biographies during his lifetime—including The Quiet Canadian or A Man Called Intrepid (1962) and A Man Called Intrepid (1976)—as well as a TV miniseries starring David Niven. Stephenson even is said to have inspired the most famous fictional spy in history: Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

“James Bond is a highly romanticised version of a true spy. The real thing is… William Stephenson,” Fleming once wrote.

Even Bond’s taste for martinis appears to have been inspired by Stephenson who, according to Fleming, “used to make the most powerful martinis in America and serve them in quart glasses.”

‘The Devil’s Chessboard’

Whether Harvey ever contacted Stephenson to pitch him on his plot to assassinate Castro is unclear. Stephenson died in 1989, taking with him more secrets than we’ll ever know.

What is clear is that the CIA for generations has been playing dark games that are often illegal. These include programs forcing prisoners to participate in mind control experiments against their will (Project MKUltra), the agency’s black history of torture, unlawful spying on Senate committees, drugging unsuspecting Johns and filming them with prostitutes (Operation Midnight Climax), and an unrealized plan to sink “a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida” and blaming it on Castro (Operation Mongoose).

Bear in mind, these are just the programs we know about, all of which have been confirmed by the government’s own records. While it’s tempting to believe that something like a “deep state” only exists in Hollywood movies or the imaginations of right wing television hosts, the historical record suggests otherwise.

In his bestselling 2015 book The Devil’s Chessboard, author David Talbot painstakingly chronicles the secret government within the US government. Talbot is no libertarian or right winger. The founder and former editor-in-chief of the left-leaning magazine Salon, Talbot is a New Deal progressive with somewhat romantic notions of FDR. Yet he offers an unflinching and chilling glimpse into the belly of the bureaucracy Roosevelt created—and into the career of Allen Dulles, the first director of the CIA.

When you read Talbot’s work, which pulls back the curtain of the largest and most-well funded spy agency in the world, so much of the world you see today makes more sense: former CIA bosses talking nightly on television networks; companies like Google filled with former CIA agents who monitor “misinformation and hate speech”; and as we found out just last year, unlawful mass surveillance operations of Americans that have been going on for years.

As the title of Talbot’s work implies, the CIA has a long history of playing its own game, and we should not presume its agenda aligns with that of a free and open society.

‘James Bond Is Not in Fact a Hero’

Whether the CIA ever employed William Stephenson to carry out any of its many failed assassination plots against Castro is unclear, but it’s safe to say “the Company” worked with countless people like him to carry out illegal tasks in pursuit of its goals: power and control.

Many Americans may not see this as a problem. After all, we’re a culture that loves James Bond, the Dirty Harry of international spy stories. Yet it’s worth pointing out that even Ian Fleming understood that his fictional creation was not a good guy.

“James Bond is not in fact a hero, but an efficient and not very attractive blunt instrument in the hands of the government,” Fleming wrote.

Fleming, who himself worked in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II, likely was aware that Stephenson was given carte blanche to, in Talbot’s words, “kill members of the Nazi network in the United States—including German agents and pro-Hitler American businessmen—using British assassination teams.” This likely is what inspired Bond’s “license to kill” tagline, and though he was an admirer of Stephenson’s charm and dash, Fleming seemed to grasp the unethical nature of such methods.

Many Americans would no doubt be surprised to learn the dark history of the CIA—the assassinations, the spying, the mind control programs, and its current efforts to suppress and manipulate speech. Alas, they shouldn’t be.

“The State, by its very nature, must violate the generally accepted moral laws to which most people adhere,” the economist Murray Rothbard famously observed.

That’s a great argument for limiting the power of the CIA—and the state. One suspects that even Ian Fleming would approve.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.