Russia knows how to use sex to get what it wants.

Perhaps more accurately, Russia knows how to use sex to blackmail its enemies. There’s no verified proof to the allegations that the Kremlin has a tape of President-elect Donald Trump participating in odd sexual behavior in Moscow. But there’s nothing unusual about Russia collecting compromising material in order to sway or blackmail enemies despite its denials.

“The Kremlin does not collect compromising materials,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin spokesman, said Wednesday.

But Peskov’s claim was proven false before it was even uttered. The practice of collecting compromising materials is even a Russian word -- “kompromat” -- and Russian intelligence agencies have been digging it up and dishing it out for decades.

“[The] gathering of kompromat is one of the primary working methods of Russian intelligence agencies,” Ilya Yashin, Russian activist and politician, told the Washington Post. “This technique is systematically used in Russia, and I have no doubt that it’s already used and will be used to achieve the Kremlin’s policy goals.”

In 1999, grainy footage of a top Kremlin official cavorting with two prostitutes appeared on national television, prompting the official to resign. And the man who is rumored to have delivered the tape to the state-owned TV station? Vladimir Putin, then head of the Russian Federal Security Service.

Then there was the case of Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian prime minister and an opponent of Putin. Last year, he was recorded in a bed rolling around with a woman who, as it turns out, wasn’t his wife. That video also made it to primetime on the state-owned TV station.

If sexpionage was an Olympic sport, Russia would no doubt get the gold. But the U.S. may not be too far behind.

American Kompromat

In November 1964, Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received a strange package in the mail. Inside was an anonymous letter addressed to the civil rights leader, along with a tape recording. Coretta Scott King thought the recording might be of one of her husband’s speeches. Instead, the tape apparently revealed his sexual indiscretions.

The letter was simply addressed to “King."

“In lieu of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr.,” the letter began.

The point was to blackmail King, and to embarrass him so ruthlessly so that he would take his own life.

“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do... You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

The letter did not work. King would not die until four years later when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. But the “suicide letter,” as it became known, was discovered in FBI files several years later -- the FBI had sent the letter to King.

King-FBI Suicide Letter A letter written by the FBI and sent to Martin Luther King, Jr, encouraging him to commit suicide. Photo: National Archives, College Park, Maryland

The suicide letter was part of a much larger FBI operation called COINTELPRO. This system of covert investigations targeted domestic political organizations, such as the Black Panthers, that the U.S. government considered disruptive or dangerous.

The FBI’s secret operations were verified in the 1970s, when the Senate put together the Church Committee to investigate the FBI and COINTELPRO. One committee member, Sen. Howard Baker, Jr. (R-Tenn.), stated, “[O]ur investigation uncovered many actions by agents of the FBI and of the CIA that I would previously have not thought possible (e.g. crude FBI letters to break up marriages or cause strife between Black groups and the CIA assassination plots) in our excellent intelligence and law enforcement institutions.”  

But COINTELPRO wasn’t necessarily the anomaly in U.S. intelligence agencies that Baker was making it out to be. Two decades earlier, for instance, the CIA was using sexual circumstances to play with the possibility of mind control in its conspicuously named Operation Midnight Climax, a subproject of MKULTRA.

Starting in 1953, the CIA tested the results of LSD on human subjects. Although Operation Midnight Climax originally used volunteers, CIA agents later secretly gave the drug to unwitting visitors of a San Francisco brothel. The project stopped in the 1960s.

The Sukarno case: KGB vs. CIA

Sex and intelligence agencies from both Russia and the U.S. became tangled up in the 1950s, when the CIA and KGB both went after the Indonesian president simply known as "Sukarno."

Sukarno sympathized with some communist tendencies, although he did not identify as a communist himself. As far as the Russians and Americans saw it, that made Indonesia fair game in the ideological battle of the Cold War. Both countries wanted materials that would give them leverage with the Indonesian leader. Russian agents set up a honeytrap, taping Sukarno’s indiscretions with operatives disguised as flight attendants. The CIA took a similar approach, creating a porn film where either a Sukarno look-alike or a man in a mask played Sukarno doing the dirty -- those details are unclear.  

Ultimately, neither plan worked. The American porn film was never distributed and when Russian agents showed Sukarno the tapes, he was unfazed. In fact, “Sukarno was apparently delighted,” wrote CNN journalist Tim Lister. “Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.”