American People

Famous American Double Agents 

Ranker Crime
Updated November 6, 2017 17.2k views 15 items

The act of being a double agent is one of the most difficult and dangerous in espionage. To spy for an enemy nation while pretending to spy for your own nation requires courage, patience, and more than a little luck. American double agents, either born in the US or working for the US, provided information that led to key victories in the Revolutionary War and Civil War, destroyed a Nazi spy ring, and helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At the same time, double agents working against America, both foreign and domestic, have led to dozens of American spies being exposed, intelligence agencies left in shambles, and national humiliation. Some have been killed, others jailed, and a few disappeared. Their motivations have ranged from financial need to patriotism to revenge.

Here are the most famous double agents that have worked either for or against America.
Edward Bancroft
Edward Bancroft is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Famous American Double Agents
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/Public domain

Spy Profile: British citizen who turned double agent for the Colonies and played both sides.

Bancroft was born in 1745 in Massachusetts, a British citizen by both birth and loyalty. He became a doctor and eventually found his way to London. It was there that he was recruited by none other than Benjamin Franklin to spy for the Committee of Secret Correspondence, which was the intelligence and foreign relations arm of the Second Continental Congress.

While he sent documents back to the Colonies, Bancroft was alarmed at the idea of war between France and Britain over American independence. So Bancroft agreed to spy for Britain while keeping up the appearance of spying for the Colonies. He proved to be an ineffective spy, gathering little useful intelligence for either side. There's even some evidence Franklin knew Bancroft was a double agent and did nothing to stop him.
John Champe
John Champe is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Famous American Double Agents
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/GNU Free Documentation License

Spy Profile: Colonial soldier who pretended to defect to the British.

A sergeant in the Colonial Army, Champe was selected for a secret and dangerous mission: kidnap and return the traitor Benedict Arnold. It was arranged for Champe to "defect" to the British line, where he was captured, met Arnold, and sussed out that the rogue general was acting alone when he switched sides.

On the eve of carrying out his mission, Champe's unit was sent to New York, and he participated in the infamous Raid on Richmond that destroyed the entire city. Champe eventually escaped and returned to Colonial territory.
James Rivington
James Rivington is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Famous American Double Agents
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY

Spy Profile: Colonial loyalist who spied for the Continental Army.

Despite being the publisher of one of the Colonies' most fervent Loyalist newspapers, Rivington was a member of the famous Culper Spy Ring, passing information on British troop movements to George Washington. Rivington's furious screeds against the Revolution had earned him so much ire from patriots that he was burned in effigy, had his press destroyed, and his house burned down. Even so, he wrote in invisible ink on the walls of his print shop, and stayed in New York after the British evacuated it.

Rivington's motives for acting as a provocateur/spy remain unknown, but are speculated to be financial.
James Armistead Lafayette
James Armistead Lafayett... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Famous American Double Agents
Photo: flickr/CC0

Spy Profile: American slave who pretended to defect to the British during the Revolutionary War.

Lafayette was a slave who volunteered to serve the Continental Army as a double agent, pretending to be a runaway who defected to the British. In this guise, he befriended Benedict Arnold, and later General Cornwallis. These fake friendships got him access to British troop deployment plans at Yorktown - which played a key role in the American victory there. 

After the Revolutionary War ended, Lafayette remained a slave due to a technicality in Virginia's manumission laws. After four years, he finally had a petition approved that granted his freedom, and he became a wealthy farmer, who himself owned several slaves.