Political decoy

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A political decoy is a person employed to impersonate a politician, to draw attention away from the real person or to take risks on their behalf. This can also apply to military figures, or civilians impersonated for political/espionage purposes.

The political decoy is an individual who has been selected because of their strong physical resemblance to the person they are impersonating. This resemblance can be strengthened by plastic surgery. Often, such decoys are trained to speak and behave like their "target".

Decoying: theory and practice[edit]

The practice of decoying is essentially little different from the profession of celebrity lookalike, in which people mimic famous entertainers whom they resemble. The only difference is that the "lookalike" presents an acknowledged artifice. The decoy must conceal his or her imposture from the "audience".

In 2001, Poland hosted the first-ever doppelganger convention, to which lookalikes from across the country turned up, offering the unlikely spectacle of Joseph Stalin hobnobbing with Elizabeth Taylor. Nearly all the doppelgangers at the event had complemented their resemblance to a famous person by costume.[1]

The famous incident in which Charlie Chaplin (at the height of his fame) failed to get through to the final selection in a "Charlie Chaplin Look-alike" contest[2] suggests that preconceptions by observers can be just as important as any physical resemblance when it comes to impersonation.

Some "lookalikes" actually stop mimicking their targets and start pretending to be them. Comedian Robin Williams is one such victim, whose identity was allegedly "stolen" by professional look-alike Michael Clayton, for financial reasons.[3]

Political decoys in history[edit]

Since deception is the whole purpose of employing a political decoy, there are many instances of alleged decoying which remain uncertain.

Joe R. Reeder, an undersecretary for the U.S. Army from 1993 to 1997, has gone on record with claims that a number of figures around the world have or have had decoys, including Manuel Noriega, Raoul Cédras, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.[4]

Of Noriega's alleged four decoys, Reeder said: "They were good. They practiced his gait, his manner of speech and his modus operandi – what he did during the day and night."

Information on these instances of decoying is hard to come by. And falsely accusing an enemy of using a decoy can be an effective psyop tactic (making an enemy seem like a coward who dare not appear in person, for example).

This means that the confusion generated by the existence of real decoys is deepened by counterclaims of decoys where there may be none.

The case of Osama bin Laden is instructive. In the absence of confirmed sightings of the terrorist figurehead, many sources openly speculated that videotaped messages from bin Laden were in fact recordings of a double - either as part of a "frame-up" operation, or as part of a strategy of deception on bin Laden's part.[5]

Speculation in such situations is naturally liable to run high. For the purposes of this entry, only well-documented allegations or confirmed cases of political decoying are discussed. Instances which are still under debate will have section headings below in quotes.

Bernard Montgomery/Clifton James and "Tex" Banwell (1944)[edit]

The genuine "Monty"

Perhaps the most famous political decoy, soldier M. E. Clifton James successfully impersonated General Bernard Montgomery ("Monty") for intelligence purposes during World War II.[6]

In 1940, James acted in an Army production called When Knights Were Bold and his photograph appeared in an Army newspaper with a remark about how much he resembled General Montgomery.

As a result, he was approached by actor David Niven in May 1944. Niven, then a Colonel in the Army Kinematograph Section, told James he was wanted to impersonate "Monty", as this would allow Montgomery to be somewhere else, thus confusing the Germans.

James had to learn Montgomery's gestures, mannerisms, gait and voice and had to give up smoking.

Because James had lost his right-hand middle finger in the First World War, a realistic replacement was made.

Even his wife had to be deceived and was both kept in the dark and sent back to Leicester. Once he was trained, his trip as "Monty" was to Gibraltar and from there to Algiers. "Monty's" presence succeeded in confusing the Germans in regard to the invasion plans.

James was later the subject of a biopic called I Was Monty's Double starring James himself in (of course) the double role as Monty and himself.

The second (and less famous) "Monty's Double", Keith Deamer Banwell,[7] was serving with the land-based Long Range Desert Group.

Banwell was captured in a raid on Tobruk, but with a friend managed to steal a German vehicle and escape. During a subsequent raid on Crete he was taken prisoner at Heraklion and put under the personal supervision of former world heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling, who was serving in the German Army.

Banwell and a few of his comrades managed to slip away from their captors and then acquired an assault landing craft. With the help of some Cretan fishermen they made their getaway, but the craft ran out of fuel and drifted for nine days before reaching the North African coast. The privations of this voyage put Banwell in hospital for 12 weeks.

When he had recovered, someone noticed that he bore a resemblance to General Montgomery. It was decided that he participate in deception ploys, and so Banwell was sent to Cairo to meet Montgomery, given the appropriate clothing, insignia and General's badges and sent on trips around the Middle East to confuse enemy spies.

However, as he was considerably taller than Montgomery, he was told that on no account should he get out of the car. Banwell, finding the assignment boring, sought a return to the infantry.[8][9]

Adolf Hitler/unknown (?–1945)[edit]

Adolf Hitler is known to have employed at least one double and it has been alleged that he employed as many as six.[citation needed] One of these men, Gustav Weler, was later knowingly executed by guards as part of a disinformation strategy and his corpse was found by Allied forces who initially believed it to be Hitler.[citation needed] However, the British surgeon and historical writer W. Hugh Thomas reported in his 1996 book “Doppelgangers” that Gustav Weler was found alive after the war and that Allied troops interviewed Weler following Hitler’s death.[10]

Heinrich Himmler/unknown (?–1945)[edit]

The body of Heinrich Himmler, after committing suicide, 1945. Alleged by some to be his double.

Hugh Thomas claims that the man who committed suicide after his capture in Lüneburg in May 1945, was not in fact Heinrich Himmler.

This claim is based on a number of physical discrepancies, including the apparent lack of a dueling scar on the corpse. Himmler was known to have a 'Y'-shaped scar on his left cheek, left by an epee; the corpse had none. Thomas claims that the substitution was deliberate, in order to throw the Allies off Himmler's scent. It is known that British intelligence agents, including Kim Philby, did not believe the Lüneburg prisoner was Himmler. Thomas's book on this subject, SS-1: The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler,[11] sets out the alleged deception in great detail.

This theory is not generally accepted by historians.[who?][citation needed]

Joseph Stalin/"Rashid"/Felix Dadaev (1940s–50s)[edit]

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is alleged to have had a double, identified only as "Rashid". Officials at the KGB allegedly learned that Rashid was a "double" for Stalin and employed him to replace Stalin for some public functions after World War II. Rashid spent two years studying with Alexei Dikiy, an actor who played the role of Stalin in propaganda films. Rashid claimed there were other Stalin lookalikes employed by the KGB, although he never met any. He claimed to have heard of another Stalin double who was hired to live in the dictator's dacha outside of Moscow in the late 1940s and 1950s when Stalin was dying. This double filled in for Stalin for media events and at times when Stalin had to meet government functionaries and others. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.[12]

In 2008 another one of Stalin's doubles came forward, having written a book about his adventures as a political decoy. The Putin government gave Felix Dadaev permission to tell his story at age 88.[13] He appeared in a 2014 documentary about Stalin's last days on German television.[14]

Sukarno/unknown (1950s)[edit]

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had planned to bring down Indonesia's first president Sukarno by portraying him in a pornographic film in the late 1950s.

The agency put together a pornographic film starring a Sukarno look-alike in bed with a blonde playing a Soviet agent. The humiliation caused by circulating the film was supposed to drive Sukarno from office, but the plan was unsuccessful.[15][16]

Lee Harvey Oswald/unknown (1950s–1963)[edit]

Impersonation of Oswald has featured in various John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories for decades, based on Oswald's apparent use of aliases and conflicting eyewitness accounts of Oswald's behaviour. The first such claim was made in Professor Richard Popkins' The Second Oswald, published in 1964.

Some conspiracy theorists cite[not in citation given] an alleged Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) memo dated June 3, 1960, from J. Edgar Hoover, stating that "there is a possibility that an imposter is using Oswald's birth certificate."[17]

In 2004, conspiracy theorist John Armstrong published a book entitled Harvey and Lee, which claimed to have identified an Oswald impersonator as part of an intelligence operation. Armstrong bases his claims on photographs which appear to show discrepancies in Oswald's physique and facial features. Armstrong cites contradictory eyewitness testimony from the Warren Report, placing Oswald in two different locations at the same time.

Henry Kissinger/unknown (1971)[edit]

A former aide to Henry Kissinger has gone on the record with claims that Kissinger was impersonated at least once during his secret visit to China in 1971. Since no-one was allowed to examine 'Kissinger' at close quarters, the resemblance of the impersonator to his 'target' must remain under some doubt.[18]

Boris Yeltsin/unknown (1996–2000)[edit]

In 1998, Duma deputy Aleksandr Salii asked the office of the Russian Prosecutor-General to investigate claims that a double had been impersonating Yeltsin for official purposes since the real Yeltsin's heart surgery in November 1996. Salii told journalists that he and colleagues had examined some 1,500 photographs and gathered evidence showing that a "New Yeltsin" had appeared after 1996, with the supposed decoy frequently displaying his injured hand, whereas the real Yeltsin had always tried to conceal that hand.[19] Yeltsin had frequently disappeared from public view in preceding years, sometimes in circumstances that aroused widespread suspicion. In July 1995, Yeltsin disappeared from public view for weeks following a heart operation. A photograph of Yeltsin was released to dispel rumours about his health, which actually inflamed the situation when it emerged that it appeared to be a staged photograph based on a photograph taken some months earlier.[20]

Saddam Hussein/several unknowns (1990s–2003)[edit]

In 2003, German television network ZDF broadcast claimed that Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein was frequently replaced with doubles for TV appearances. This analysis was based on sophisticated measuring techniques, which detected discrepancies in the position of Hussein's facial features and blemishes from appearance to appearance. It was supported by the opinion of Jerrald Post, the man who created the CIA's Psychological Profile Unit.[21] It was also alleged that Austrian politician Jörg Haider had actually met a double when he thought he was meeting Hussein.[22]

This claim is however disputed. Dr Ala Bashir, Saddam Hussein's former personal physician stated "The stories about Saddam Hussein having body doubles, to foster the impression that the Iraqi dictator was everywhere, are nonsense."[23]

Voice-only decoys[edit]

These are generally exceptionally good impersonators, who are used to give the impression that their "target" is conducting a radio interview, telephone call or other vocal assignment.

Winston Churchill/Norman Shelley (1940s)[edit]

A recurring rumour holds that some of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches to Parliament during World War II were subsequently recorded for radio broadcast not by Churchill, but by Norman Shelley impersonating Churchill. Churchill is known to have commented that Shelley's impersonations were excellent. Although the rumour has been promoted by some historians, there is a lack of supporting evidence, and it is best classified as an urban legend. Shelley did however record a performance of Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but that was several years after the speech was originally made.

Harry S. Truman/unknown (1947)[edit]

Edwin Wright served the U.S. federal government under President Harry S. Truman as General staff G-2 and Middle East specialist, Washington (1945–46); on the Bureau of Near East-South Asian-African Affairs, Department of State (1946 onwards); country specialist (1946–47); advisor U.N. affairs (1947–50); and advisor on intelligence (1950–55).

According to Wright, an unknown individual impersonated President Truman's voice on the telephone in order to sway foreign leaders into voting in particular ways at the United Nations.

There are two documents from Truman himself alleging this, both currently lodged at the Truman Presidential Library.[24]

In the first, Truman wrote:

Something's going on and I don't know what it is. Somebody called up the President of Haiti and he said that it was I.... He said, 'We want you to vote for the Zionist program.' As a result the President of Haiti changed his vote to satisfy what he thought was me. I don't know who this fellow was that called him up.

Wright comments: "In other words, somebody impersonated President Truman and threatened the President of Haiti. There were people who used President Truman's voice and name and he didn't know who they were."[25]

Indira Gandhi/Rustom Nagarwala (1971)[edit]

In a cross-gender voice impersonation in 1971, a former captain of the Indian Army named Rustom Sohrab Nagarwala (male) was able to take out 6 million rupees from the State Bank of India by mimicking the voice of prime minister Indira Gandhi to chief cashier Ved Prakash Malhotra. Nagarwala was arrested, however, after Malhotra went in person to collect a receipt from P. N. Haksar, Indira Gandhi's personal secretary, informing him that the requested payment was done. A stunned Haksar informed Malhotra that Mrs Gandhi had instructed nothing of the sort and urged him to inform the police immediately. Later that year, Nagarwala died of a heart attack in prison.[26][27]

Political decoys in fiction[edit]

Many stories feature the replacement of a known figure with a lookalike. These may be conspiracy theories, proving the swap with the discrepancies, real or fictional, between the earlier and later personalities of the political figure. For example, there is a movie where the inner circle of Communists finds Vladimir Lenin's decoy better than the original, so the leader is murdered and the Balt decoy replaces him. A story by Jaakko Okker draws heavily on President of Finland Urho Kekkonen's real-life use of pseudonyms in his civilian trade, journalism, and turns it upside down so that Kekkonen is replaced multiple times during his careers by several lookalike journalists.[28]

Queen Elizabeth I[edit]

  • For many years, the story of the Bisley Boy tempted people into believing that Queen Elizabeth I of England was really a man. According to the legend, Elizabeth (then a princess) had died aged 10 while staying at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire. Her minders, terrified of the retribution of her father, Henry VIII, made a substitution. A lookalike boy from the nearby village of Bisley was put in her place and sworn to secrecy. This legend "explained" why Elizabeth never married or had children. In fact, the tale was invented as a joke by a local clergyman in the 19th century.[29]
    • This is referenced in the last episode of Blackadder II, where Queen Elizabeth I is indeed replaced with a man. She is poisoned (along with the rest of the cast) and "doubled" by the evil Prince Ludwig the Indestructible of Bavaria, a master of disguise.

U.S. presidents[edit]

  • The 1932 movie The Phantom President stars George M. Cohan in a dual role: as a dull banker who is eminently qualified to be President of the United States but who cannot get elected because he is too boring to campaign effectively; and a fast-talking song-and-dance man who has no political qualifications but who is an excellent campaigner because of his exciting personality. A political cabal hires the latter to pose as the former during the election campaign.
  • In the 1984 Clive Cussler novel Deep Six, a double is used after the U.S. president is kidnapped by Korean and Soviet agents.
  • The 1993 film Dave featured a look-alike (Kevin Kline) who is hired to impersonate the President of the United States, initially to give the President a chance to engage in a tryst, but later on an ongoing basis after the President suffers a stroke and is left in a persistent vegetative state. The impostor discovers and helps take down corrupt officials in the government, including the President that he is pretending to be.
  • The 1998 film Wild Wild West, a loose remake of the 1960s TV series of a similar name, also featured Kevin Kline as a decoy of the President; Kline plays both the President (Ulysses S. Grant) and his decoy (Artemus Gordon). In the original TV series, the Artemus Gordon character served as a decoy for the President as well, but different actors were used for Gordon and the President.
  • In the 2008 film Vantage Point, a decoy is used to help protect the president from a possible assassination threat (the decoy is shot). The film claims that "doubles have been used since Reagan."
  • In Irving Wallace's novel The Second Lady, the First Lady of the United States, Billie Bradford, is abducted and replaced by a Soviet look-alike, Vera Vavilova, in order to gain access to the President's bedroom and his deepest secrets.

U.K. prime ministers[edit]

  • In 1962, a Scottish newspaper, the Aberdeen Evening Express, accidentally used a picture of Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home over a caption naming a Scottish baillie called Vass. The satirical magazine Private Eye then affected to believe that Home was an impostor whom the newspaper had unmasked, and the magazine maintained this position until Home's death in 1995.
  • In Jack Higgins's book The Eagle Has Landed (made into a movie in 1976), German paratroopers try to kidnap Prime Minister Winston Churchill from a tiny English village in 1943. It is later revealed that Churchill was elsewhere, and a political decoy was visiting the village.

Science fiction[edit]

  • Lawrence Smythe ("The Great Lorenzo") was in Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction book Double Star (1956) hired to impersonate the politician and leader of the opposition Joseph Bonforte who had been injured in an attack by political opponents. During an election Bonforte died and Smythe had to keep on playing his role as the newly elected prime minister, the travesty having been discovered by the Emperor of the Solar System only when "Bonforte" failed to customarily scold him for his passion for model trains. Being an expert method actor, Smythe achieves full immersion in the role of Bonforte and comes to accept his political views (which he opposed initially).
  • The 1951 space opera novel Star Kings by Edmond Hamilton involves a 20th-century man, John Gordon, who has to impersonate the 22nd-century Prince Zarth Arn because his consciousness has been transferred through time in the Prince's body. John Gordon falls in love with a princess who used to dislike Zarth Arn.

Japanese examples[edit]

  • In the Japanese film Kagemusha released 1980 from director Akira Kurosawa, the noble warlord Takeda Shingen, who lived from 1521 to 1573, is occasionally impersonated by his brother Nobukado. Just before a public execution a thief is saved by Nobukado, because the man has an astonishing resemblance to Shingen. The thief becomes the Kagemusha, or Shadow Warrior, and easily learns the role of the daimyo Shingen, who is later killed by a sniper of an enemy clan. The Kagemusha is supposed to replace Shingen for three more years until his heir is old enough to rule. Even the concubines of Shingen do not see the decoy for many months. Eventually, in a crucial scene the false identity of the Kagemusha is revealed, because he cannot ride the favourite horse of the real Shingen. However, in the final battle at Nagashino, which is depicted by Kurosawa as an apocalyptic slaughter of men, the Kagemusha accepts his role and fights as the last man holding the banner of the Takeda clan until his death.
  • The anime series El Hazard: The Magnificent World, the main character and his friends are transported to another world where he bears a strong resemblance to a missing princess and reluctantly agrees to impersonate her.


  • Moon Over Parador, a 1988 movie set in the fictional Caribbean nation of Parador. Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss), an unemployed American actor on vacation in Parador, is kidnapped by Strausman (Raul Julia), the President's chief advisor, and is forced to act as the President's substitute after he dies of a heart attack. With the help of the late President's mistress, Madonna Mendez, he embarks on a series of reforms which win the hearts of the populace but gain the enmity of those supporting the regime. Eventually, he plots to fake his own death (substituting the original President Alphonse's body, which had literally been kept on ice during this time), in a way that implicates Strausman, allowing him to secretly return to the US while Mendez takes the presidency.
  • Georg Kaiser's 1917 play The Coral depicts a powerful industrialist whose male secretary is his exact double; among the secretary's duties, he is occasionally required to impersonate his employer at public functions. The industrialist's other employees are only able to know which man is which because the secretary always wears a coral watch-fob.
  • In the episode "Exit Strategy" of the comedy series Arrested Development (TV series), the main characters find a house full of Saddam Hussein lookalikes in Iraq. Watching the then current trial of the dictator, one of the decoys is especially angry by how the imprisoned Saddam carried himself. Later, it is implied this "decoy" is the real Saddam, as he is the only one with a telling scar absent from the rest.
  • In the 2007 film Hitman, the main character assassinates the Russian president, only to discover the hit was placed by the president's double in order to take his place.
  • New Zealand novelist Lloyd Jones' Biografi: A Traveler's Tale relates a fictional search for the rumored double of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
  • In the 2010 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops, there is a mission in which its main objective is to assassinate former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The mission turns out to be a success, but it is revealed that it was Castro's double that was killed, and Castro himself escaped unharmed.
  • In the 2011 Japanese game Gyakuten Kenji 2, it is not revealed until the very end that the president of the fictional country Zheng Fa is a body double who killed the original president and masqueraded as him for the past 12 years.
  • In the Discworld series, Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has a double (named Charlie) who has been known to take Vetinari's place when the Patrician wishes/needs to be elsewhere (e.g. In Raising Steam). Charlie was originally involved in an unsuccessful plot to depose the Patrician by framing him for an attempted murder (in The Truth).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "MEDIA REPORTS | Polish lookalikes limber up for congress". BBC News. 2001-05-22. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  2. ^ "Charlie Chaplin Dug Up". Snopes. 27 July 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  3. ^ "Celebrity News, Entertainment News, Celebrity Gossip - E! Online UK". Eonline.com. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  4. ^ "It's Bin Laden ... or Is It?". Fox News. 2011-12-01. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  5. ^ "A Double? A Fake? - msnbc.com". MSNBC. 2001-12-14. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  6. ^ http://aia.lackland.af.mil/homepages/pa/spokesman/Jan05/atc10.cfm
  7. ^ "Sergeant Tex Banwell". Pegasusarchive.org. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  8. ^ "Sergeant K. D. 'Tex' Banwell". Archived from the original on 2009-09-24. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  9. ^ "tex.jpg". Archived from the original on 2006-02-09. 
  10. ^ Thomas, W. Hugh, "Doppelgangers," 1996
  11. ^ Jonathan Glancey (2 March 2011). "Review: SS-1: The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler by Hugh Thomas | Books | The Guardian". Books.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  12. ^ "Stalin's Double / Gnarl 3 cluster / Very Large Array". Swarthmore.edu. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  13. ^ "The man who was Stalin's body double finally tells his story | Mail Online". London: Dailymail.co.uk. 2008-04-12. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  14. ^ "Stalins Tod- das Ende einer Aera". Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk. 2014-03-03. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  15. ^ "NYT reports CIA conspired to topple Sukarno in Indonesia". Financialexpress.com. 1998-05-26. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  16. ^ "Secrecy News 07/24/01". Fas.org. 24 July 2001. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  17. ^ "lhjeh.jpg". Archived from the original on 2008-02-27. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  18. ^ "CNN Cold War - Interviews: Winston Lord". Archived from the original on 2008-03-25. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  19. ^ "F&P RFE/RL Archive". Friends-partners.org. November 1998. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  20. ^ "Russia crisis | Yeltsin's health record". BBC News. 1999-10-09. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  21. ^ "CIA: Man On Tape Is Saddam". CBS News. 2009-02-11. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  22. ^ "iWon - News". News1.iwon.com. 6 October 2002. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  23. ^ London, Mar 28 (PTI) (2012-07-13). "Saddam didn't have body doubles: Doctor". Deccanherald.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  24. ^ Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Trumanlibrary.org. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  25. ^ "Edwin M. Wright Oral History Interview". Truman Library. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  26. ^ "WHAT". Indiadefence.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  27. ^ "A law unto itself". New Delhi: Frontlineonnet.com. 17 March 2001. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  28. ^ Kari Suomalainen, Jaakko Okker. Herran pelko on herran alku. Otava 1976.
  29. ^ BBC Factsheet
  30. ^ Espérame en el cielo at the Internet Movie Database