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 was 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]

The impersonation of Lee Harvey Oswald has featured in various John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories since Richard Popkin published the The Second Oswald in 1966.[17] The theory states that two people — one the son of Marguerite Oswald and a second who was a imposter groomed by the CIA or some other powerful and secret organization — lived as Oswald for about ten years prior to the assassination of Kennedy.[17] John Armstrong, a contractor and oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been described as "the leading proponent" of the "two Oswalds" theory.[17] According to Armstrong, some of the evidence pointing to an Oswald impersonator includes witness reports that contradict the Warren Commission's report and a 1960 memo in which J. Edgar Hoover stated "there is a possibility that an impostor is using Oswald’s birth certificate".[17] He has claimed that most of the evidence pointing to an Oswald impersonator was ignored, suppressed, or withheld by investigators and/or the FBI.[17]

Conspiracy critic Vincent Bugliosi wrote: "The way the conspiracy theorists have it figured out, if the sightings were truly of Lee Harvey Oswald, the things he was doing, or the people he was with, were of such a nature that they went in the direction of a conspiracy. And if the sightings were not of Lee Harvey Oswald, since it could be proved he was somewhere else at the time, then this means there was a Second Oswald, someone impersonating him, which again goes in the direction of a conspiracy."[18]

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.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] It was also alleged that Austrian politician Jörg Haider had actually met a double when he thought he was meeting Hussein.[23]

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."[24]

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.[25]

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."[26]

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.[27][28]

Other alleged decoys[edit]

Queen Elizabeth I and the Bisley Boy[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. Proponents of the "Bisley Boy" story included Bram Stoker in his 1910 nonfiction book Famous Impostors.

It is likely that the tale was invented as a joke by a local clergyman in the 19th century.[29]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ "Charlie Chaplin Dug Up". Snopes. 27 July 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
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  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. ^ a b c d e Patoski, Joe (November 1998). "The Two Oswalds: It’s the theory to end all theories. And the theory to begin all theories.". Texas Monthly. Retrieved May 12, 2015. 
  18. ^ Bugliosi, Vincent (2007). "The Second Oswald". Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 1021. ISBN 0-393-04525-0. 
  19. ^ "CNN Cold War - Interviews: Winston Lord". Archived from the original on 2008-03-25. Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  20. ^ "F&P RFE/RL Archive". Friends-partners.org. November 1998. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
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  23. ^ "iWon - News". News1.iwon.com. 6 October 2002. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
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  25. ^ Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Trumanlibrary.org. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  26. ^ "Edwin M. Wright Oral History Interview". Truman Library. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  27. ^ "WHAT". Indiadefence.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  28. ^ "A law unto itself". New Delhi: Frontlineonnet.com. 17 March 2001. Retrieved 2012-07-17. 
  29. ^ BBC Factsheet