Double Agent The First Hero

Title:                      Double Agent

Author:                 Peter Duffy

Duffy, Peter (2014). Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring. New York: Scribner

LCCN:    2013050801

D810.S8 S378 2014


  • The object of the bombardment — The highest humanity — Almost single-handed — Happiness in other climes — With the resources we have on hand — To lead an organization there — In this solemn hour — “You are Harry Sawyer” — A vile race of quislings — And you be careful — Room 627 — The trusted man.


Date Posted:      September 14, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

The trial of 33 men and three women on charges of espionage began in September 1941, and ended a week after the Pearl Harbor attack. All were found guilty and Nazi espionage in America was decimated. The key witness at the trial was a naturalized US citizen, William Sebold. Double Agent tells his story.

Sebold’s role in the case was more than that of just a witness. Born in Germany, he served in the German army during World War I. Seeing little hope in the postwar economy, he signed on with an oil tanker bound for Texas, where he jumped ship. After months working odd jobs and learning English, he stowed away on a ship bound for Germany, where his mother needed help. He would repeat this cycle twice more. The next time, after traveling via South America, he stayed long enough in the US to marry and become a citizen in 1936. While the reasons for his third trip are not certain, it is known he returned again in February 1939, leaving his wife in New York. In Germany, Sebold found work in a steam-turbine factory, a move that suggested to author Peter Duffy that “he had no immediate plans to return to his wife in New York.” (p. 112) Then the Abwehr took over his life.

Duffy tells how Sebold was recruited as an agent and trained to return to America where he would con-tact other agents. Sebold said he cooperated because of implied threats to his family and the prospect of being called up to serve the Nazis. In any case, he managed to alert the embassy of his situation and, on 8 February 1940 when he landed in New York, the FBI met him. Once he was able to convince the Bureau of his predicament, they recruited him as their first double agent.

Sebold gave the FBI the names of Nazi agents and the contact instructions that he brought with him on microfilm. One of most important names was that of Hermann Lang, who had already given the Nazis some drawings for the very secret Norden bombsight. The Bureau put all the agents under surveillance and created a cover job for Sebold that included an office wired for sound and facilities for filming through two-way mirrors; this ensured all meetings with agents would be documented. They also established a radio site so he could communicate with his Abwehr masters.

Double Agent describes these events and Sebold’s ultimately depressing life after the trial as the first member of what became the FBI’s witness protection program. In this regard the author adds much new to the story, which he interweaves—sometimes to excess—with historical events of the times.

Although the espionage part of Double Agent has been told elsewhere, including a fantasized version in the movie The House on 92nd Street, Duffy has drawn on family interviews, FBI documents, and court records to produce the most accurate version to date. But he doesn’t quite make the case that Sebold was a hero, since Sebold clearly acted out of self-serving expediency. Nevertheless, it is an important case, well told.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 122-123) Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

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