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Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring

por Peter Duffy

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An account of a virtually unknown pre-World War II counterespionage operation describes how naturalized German-American agent William G. Sebold became the FBI's first double agent and was a pivotal figure in the arrests of 33 enemy agents for the Nazis.
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A nice little true spy story from the last years of peace and first months of war for the United States. It is mostly the story of William Sebold, born in Germany but a naturalized U.S. citizen, who returned to Germany in 1940 to visit his mother and recover from ulcer surgery. He was blackmailed by the Abwehr into returning to the United States to run a spy ring, but got word out through the U.S. consulate what had happened and requested that FBI agents meet him when he came ashore. It took some time for the Americans to convince themselves he was for real, but once they were satisfied, he was put to work by the FBI to ferret out the rest of the spy ring, working from an office in which the Bureau had set up hidden microphones and a two-way mirror. Eventually some 30-odd German agents were swept up.

And "odd" is probably the word. These ranged from a flamboyant South African who had hated the British since they killed his family during the Boer War and claimed personal responsibility for the death of Lord Kitchener, to a brilliant Norden engineer who seems to have been in it purely for the money, to a Austrian Jewish high-society prostitute who seems to have been in it for the thrills, to the most careful of the bunch, a technician who quietly stole the complete blueprints for the Norden bombsight and took some time to be coaxed by Sebold into making a sufficiently incriminating statement where the FBI could hear it. Turns out courts of the time did not accept audio recordings as evidence; the testimony had to come from Sebold and his handlers who personally heard the statements. Most of the spies were German-born naturalized American citizens; a few were not citizens, a few were native-born Americans, and a few were not German.

The subsequent trial was everything Hoover could have hoped for, attracting tremendous press attention and ending in convictions for all those charged who had not already copped a plea. (About half did so.) Sebold was a nervous man who had never enjoyed good health, but he seems to have been fairly intelligent, and it seems he genuinely loved America and was determined to fully live up to his naturalization oath: "It was a sacred thing." He managed to stand up under fairly brutgal cross-examination; many of the defense attorneys had ties to the isolationist movement and to the German-American Bund. At one point the presiding judge rebuked a defense lawyer whose line of questioning had degenerated into a not-so-veiled threat of retaliation against Sebold's family in Germany.

Sebold went into an early version of the witness protection program, moving to California and trying to make some kind of career for himself. However, he grew increasingly mentally unstable, a situation not helped by the fact that there were apparently really were former Abwehr agents looking to settle the score. At one point a prominent German paper ran a series of stories on his case in which he was, shall we say, not the hero -- and this was well after the war ended. Sebold finally died of a heart attack in a mental sanatorium.

A touching and sad story. Giving Sebold his due was clearly part of the author's motivation for writing the book.

This book tends to reinforce the picture I've been getting from various readings: The Germans were so inept at human intelligence that even American counterintelligence was capable of foiling their efforts. It was the Soviets who excelled at human intelligence and counterintelligence, giving them one other thing besides mass slaughter that they were good at. The British were a distant second in the human intelligence game, on par perhaps with the Japanese. Technical intelligence is of course a whole different matter; the Americans excelled at it, the British were not bad, the Germans had occasional triumphs, and everyone else pretty much stank. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
ARC provided by NetGalley

The moment Hitler came to power in 1933, German spies were active in America, particularly in New York. In 1937 a German national living in Queens stole the blueprints for the Norden Bombsight and delivered them to German military a full two years before World War II started in Europe and four years before the US joined the fight. Upon discovering a Nazi spy ring in the US FDR declared Hoover America’s spymaster. All of this leads to William G Sebold...a German American who was recruited by the Nazi’s to spy on the US and who instead, became the first double agent in the history of the FBI.

This a fast paced story, well researched and readable, telling the story of one of largest espionage busts in American history. The book centers are Sebold, the unlikely hero of the story, and a colorful cast of characters including a Jewish socialite, who managed to stay alive by being a spy herself, and a host of others. Duffy does a good job of keeping things paced well and relatable to the average reader to craft and fun and entertaining story on a largely lost part of history. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars. ( )
  zzshupinga | Jan 8, 2015 |
"No suspect gets his reputation ruined by having his name splashed in the headlines unless Hoover has the goods on him. There are no raids on the private or political files. Hoover is tough, but respects the rules—especially fundamental liberties." Pearson concluded, "The nation is lucky to have him on the job."

This book covers the little known story of how one German born American, William Sebold, partnered with the FBI to take down German spy rings in New York City. Sebold when he went back to Germany to recuperate from an illness found himself being recruited by the Germans to spy on America. Sebold, who had become an American citizen, took his oath of allegiance to America seriously and got in contact with American authorities and found himself becoming a double agent.

It took me a little while to really get into this book (about around 35% of the way through is when I really started to get into it). I think that is because this book not only covers Sebold and his takedown of German spies but also does cover some history of WWII. I probably would have been more interested in the unrelated to the Sebold case history of WWII if I hadn't already known most of it. I was really interested in learning about all of the people relevant to the operation and their histories before and after the events that took place. The book does tend to mention the Norden bombsight a lot, and while it was important to the Sebold operation the parts mentioning it (especially after the trials of the German spies took place) could be a bit long and hard to keep interested in.

It is really a shame that what Sebold did for America is not well known and it is also a shame where Sebold ended up before he died. For a man that was an integral part in the first big counterespionage operation of the FBI you would think that more could have been done to help him. He seemed to be in such a fragile mental state towards the end of his life which is quite understandable with all that he had been through.

I would definitely recommend this book if you are interested in learning about a little known man who contributed a lot to the takedown of German spy rings right before WWII. I am also interested in learning more about WWII and I am glad that I got the chance to read about William Sebold. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the galley. ( )
  dpappas | Jul 6, 2014 |
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An account of a virtually unknown pre-World War II counterespionage operation describes how naturalized German-American agent William G. Sebold became the FBI's first double agent and was a pivotal figure in the arrests of 33 enemy agents for the Nazis.

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