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Dusko Popov, Real Life James Bond, Ran Afoul of the FBI

Dusko Popov, Pearl Harbor, and J. Edgar Hoover

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His name was Dusko (or Dusan) Popov; a flamboyant son of a wealthy and well-connected Serbian family. Code named Ivan, he was one of the Abwehr’s top agents. On Aug. 10, 1941, the German intelligence organization sent him to the United States to establish a German spy network. What the Abwehr didn’t know was that Popov, code name Tricycle, was a double agent working for the British Secret Intelligence Service’s XX (Double Cross) organization, and that all of Popov’s information to the Abwehr had been supplied by the SIS.

Popov carried a long list of intelligence targets the Germans wished to receive information about, some three pages of them. One entire page, however, was devoted to detailed questions about American defenses in and around Pearl Harbor. Such a detailed request for information strongly suggested Japanese plans for an attack on the American military bases in and around Pearl Harbor. SIS’s plan called for Popov to hand over to the FBI that intelligence and assist it in creating a “hostile” spy network. There was just one problem: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

“From where I sit, [Hoover] would be more suited to Hitler’s team than ours. And to all intents and purposes that’s where he is.”

– Dusko Popov to British agent Col. Dick Ellis

Upon his arrival in New York City, Popov discovered that instead of immediately meeting Hoover, he’d have to wait for an appointment. Well, if he had to wait, he’d do so in style, with a Park Avenue apartment and one beautiful, rich, and famous woman after another. To Popov’s surprise, this activity caused the FBI to threaten him with arrest and deportation.

Popov’s eventual meeting with Hoover was a disaster. As described by Hervie Haufler in his book The Spies Who Never Were, the FBI director began by shouting, “You come here from nowhere and within six weeks install yourself in a Park Avenue penthouse, chase film stars, break a serious law [the Mann Act], and try to corrupt my officers. I’m telling you right now I won’t stand for it.”

Dusko Popov

A screen capture of Dusko Popov, the inspiration in many ways for Ian Fleming’s character James Bond, on, of all old televisions shows, “To Tell the Truth”! NBC Universal photo

Stunned, Popov replied, “I brought a serious warning indicating exactly where, when, how and by whom your country is going to be attacked.” In addition to providing details about the Pearl Harbor raid, he tried to convince Hoover of the value of an enemy spy ring under FBI control. But Hoover’s prejudice against Popov was manifest. The Pearl Harbor attack warning was not forwarded to the military and the spy ring offer was rejected.

Popov did eke out some minor FBI assistance that justified his trip to the Germans, but Popov bitterly confessed to Col. Dick Ellis, his British contact in New York City, that thanks to Hoover’s prejudice and shortsightedness, the mission was a failure.

Though Popov’s playboy lifestyle offended Hoover, it had the opposite effect on naval intelligence agent Ian Fleming. Prior to the mission, Popov, then based in Lisbon, received eighty thousand dollars in cash for expenses. Before he left, Popov decided to relax at a local casino. At one point there he spotted at a baccarat table an acquaintance, an arrogant, wealthy Lithuanian. In his autobiography Spy/Counterspy, Popov wrote, “When holding the bank [the Lithuanian] would never set a limit, as was customary. Instead, he’d announce haughtily, ‘Banque ouverte,’ meaning the others could bet as much as they wished. It was ostentatious and annoying. . . .”

Popov was credited with being one of the inspirations for Fleming’s spy, James Bond, and the casino scene in its various permutations would become arguably the most famous scene in the Bond novels and movies.

When the Lithuanian again said, “Banque ouverte,” Popov decided to put a stop to the nonsense. The croupier called for bets that the Lithuanian as banker was obligated to match. Popov calmly announced, “Fifty thousand dollars” – about $1.4 million in today’s money. All conversation stopped as Popov counted out the bills. Popov, who knew Fleming was secretly shadowing him because of the cash, slyly noticed Fleming’s face turn chartreuse.

Pointing to the now silent Lithuanian, Popov said, “I suppose that the casino is backing this man’s bet, since you didn’t object to his ‘Banque ouverte.’”

“The casino never backs any player’s stake, sir,” the croupier replied.

Popov then collected his money and said, “I trust you’ll call this to the attention of the management and that in the future such irresponsible play will be prohibited. It is a disgrace and an annoyance to the serious players.”

As Popov walked away, he saw Fleming smile with amused comprehension. Popov was credited with being one of the inspirations for Fleming’s spy, James Bond, and the casino scene in its various permutations would become arguably the most famous scene in the Bond novels and movies.

After the war, Popov forged a successful business career, married, and had three sons. He died peacefully in his home in the south of France in 1981 at age 69.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

  • owendmd@gmail.com

    outstanding – simply love it!

  • What a cool story. But why was Flemming following him — not quite sure I understand.

  • Okay, read it again, and I’ve got it now. I am surprised Hoover kept his job after Perl Harbor though…I suppose he just never mentioned it to anyone inclined to nail him for it. Hoover was always a prig.

  • Everybody that was somebody was scared to death about Hoovers’ files and information. He wasn’t afraid to use this incriminating evidence on anybody, sometimes to reach his personal agenda. Can’t wait to see how Leonardo DiCaprio portrays him in the movie coming out.

  • Neither can I. My own impression of Hoover, based on what I’ve read, isn’t very favorable. Hoover embodied what can happen when one man has that much power to investigate people and conduct surveillance, whether legal or illegal. And while there isn’t currently any one person with as much power as Hoover had during his heyday, the state at large today, in my opinion, has far too much access into its citizens’ private lives and information, to an extent that would have delighted Hoover.

  • While not defending the odious Hoover there may have been another reason not to take this info.America already had plenty of info that it was about to be attacked at Pearl harbor. Britain had already supplied it along with codes, computers and radar. In order to join the war America had to be attacked first. It was important to keep the aircraft carriers safe so they were sent away leaving old ships to be bombed. Popov was a double agent, could he have been a triple agent in Hoovers opinion if so best to leave him with the impresion that America did not believe the story.

  • This man was awe-inspiring. You cannot help but love his approach to living life to the fullest, as well as having the largest set of brass ones…

    He may have left us years ago, but I raise a glass in his honour.

  • Phoenix Woman

    Read Popov’s book Spy Counterspy sometime. He points out that the Brits hated having to deal with Hoover and eventually went around him to work with Bill Donovan in OSS and FDR himself.

    Perhaps the biggest reason for the Brits’ hating Hoover is his reactions to the discovery of Axis spies in the US. The British method of dealing with German spies was to first decide whether to try to turn them or to just leave them in place and feed them bogus information, mixed in with just enough true-but-harmless intelligence to keep the folks in Abwehr HQ from getting suspicious. (The use of the latter technique is described by Ian Fleming in his short story “The Property of a Lady”.) Hoover instead preferred to immediately alert the media, then arrive in a flurry of publicity and arrest the spy or spies himself — thus not only depriving the Allies of a way to pump Berlin full of garbage intelligence, but alerting the other members of the German spy network that it was time to go to ground.