Popov Gets His Start in Espionage
Popov’s German friend, Jebsen, sought to recruit him as an Abwehr agent, and the British urged him to play along, recruiting him as an MI6 double agent. He eventually turned Jebsen, and recruited his German recruiter into British intelligence as a double agent. Popov also fed information to his native Yugoslavia’s intelligence, making him a triple agent. He moved to London, and his family’s business activities gave him cover to travel back and forth to neutral Portugal. There, Popov met his Abwehr contacts, and fed them information provided to him by the British service that ranged from harmless truths, to half truths, to the outright misleading.
The Abwehr was pleased as punch, and although some of Popov’s handlers grew suspicious, their suspicions did not make their way up the chain of command. For one thing, an assignment to German military intelligence in Portugal was a cushy gig compared to less attractive ones, such as a posting on the Eastern Front. For another, many in the Abwehr, from its chief Wilhelm Canaris on down to lower officials such as Johnny Jebsen, disliked the Nazis and did what they could to undermine them.
In 1941, the Abwehr sent Popov to the United States, furnishing him with a small fortune and tasking him with gathering intelligence on Amrican defensive measures. The information sought included an extensive list of question about the defenses of Pearl Harbor, in which Germany’s Japanese allies were keenly interested. The British worked with the FBI to handle Popov while in the US, but J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men lacked the vision and finesse of their British counterparts. Instead of using Popov as a double agent to suss out German intentions and feed them misleading information, Hoover simply wanted to use him to catch German spies.
Hoover failed to pass on Popov’s Abwehr questions to American military authorities – particularly the ones asking about Pearl Harbor’s defenses. After the Japanese attack wrecked the US fleet there a few months later, Hoover’s oversight would have wrecked his career, but he buried it so deep that it did not come out until after his death. In the meantime, the prissy FBI Director, whose private life was even more scandalous than Popov’s, got moralistic about the double agent’s partying and playboy antics. Hoover even threatened to have Popov arrested under the Mann Act for travelling with a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”.
While Popov was in the US, the British assigned a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming to watch his every move. The future author of James of Bond followed Popov around as he made the rounds of American night clubs and casinos, womanizing, splurging the cash furnished him by the Abwehr, and making a killing on the roulette tables. The style and panache left an impression that would find expression years later in Agent 007, and some famous scenes from Casino Royale were based on Fleming’s observations of Popov in American casinos.