Secret medals of CIA spy that were hidden in picture frames auctioned

The cold warrior who smuggled a MIG to America: CIA agent’s secret medals had to be kept hidden in reversible picture frames for decades

  • CIA officer Jim Fees masterminded the covert acquisition of the Soviet MiG-23MS Flogger fighter jet in September 1977 when he was the Cairo station chief
  • Because of the classified nature of his role in the Cold War, his medals were kept secret and hidden in picture frames for decades
  • Medals were put up for auction by his daughter and sold for £22,000 in London

The secret medals of a CIA spy who managed to smuggle a Soviet MiG fighter jet into the US during the Cold War have been put up for action after they were hidden in a picture frame for decades.  

CIA officer Jim Fees masterminded the covert acquisition of the MiG-23MS Flogger fighter jet in September 1977 when he was the Cairo station chief. 

The Russian fighter jet was loaded onto a US cargo plane in the dead of night and flown to the US after Fees negotiated the deal with President Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian government.

Egypt was in the process of changing sides in the Cold War after Sadat became president, and was becoming increasingly aligned with the US after throwing Soviet military advisers out of the country. 

Because of the classified nature of his role in the Cold War, his awards could not be publicly acknowledged and so Fees hid them in special picture frames in his home in Hasselt, Belgium. The medals have now been sold in Britain for £22,000.   

Fees, before arriving in Cairo in 1974, had been briefed by US Air Force Chiefs about the Soviet material that they most wanted to acquire – and the MiG-23 was at the top of the list. 

The secret medals of a CIA spy who managed to smuggle a Soviet MiG fighter jet into the US during the Cold War have been put up for action after they were hidden in a picture frame (pictured) for decades


Because of the classified nature of his role in the Cold War, his awards (right) could not be publicly acknowledged and so Fees hid them in special picture frames (left) in his home in Hasselt, Belgium. The medals have now been sold in Britain for £22,000

The secret medals of a CIA spy Jim Fees who managed to smuggle a Soviet MiG fighter jet into the US during the Cold War have been put up for action after they were hidden in a picture frame for decades. Pictured: Jim Fees (right) with George Bush Senior (left)

CIA officer Jim Fees masterminded the covert acquisition of the MiG-23MS Flogger fighter jet (pictured) in September 1977 when he was the Cairo station chief

The fighter jet had an advanced radar and fire control system which allowed it to fire missiles at targets beyond visual range. 

The US Air Force wanted to acquire the Soviet fighter jet so that they could learn the capabilities of its adversary. It would allow fighter pilots to acquire realistic combat training against the then state-of-the-art Soviet technology.  

In the 1970s, Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union had become strained – the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had removed their presence in Egypt in 1971. 

The Soviet Union had provided the Egyptian Air Force with MiGs since the mid-1950s and before they were ordered out of the country, they had given Egypt MiG-23 fighter jets.  

Fees, whose mission was top-secret, took advantage of the weakened relationship and spent three years building relations with Egypt’s leaders to try and acquire the MiG fighter jet.  

Without the Soviet Union to keep their MiGs in service, Egypt turned to the US.  

It was Fees’s stubbornness that eventually led to him convincing President Sadat to sell a MiG-23 to the US. 

The US Air Force wanted to acquire the Soviet fighter jet (pictured) so that they could learn the capabilities of its adversary. It would allow fighter pilots to acquire realistic combat training against the then state-of-the-art Soviet technology 

And on 21 September 1977, his mission was complete as Fees handed over the US Air Force its most sought after Soviet prize. Pictured: The MiG-23MS

It was Fees’s (right) stubbornness that eventually led to him convincing President Sumat to sell a MiG-23 to the US

Due to the sensitive nature of the mission and his work, his awards were kept secret. Pictured: Jim Fees pictured in Moscow 

And on 21 September 1977, his mission was complete as Fees handed over the US Air Force its most sought after Soviet prize.  

Due to the sensitive nature of the mission and his work, his awards were kept secret. 

Fees, who became US President Ronald Reagan’s personal terrorism adviser in later life, had hidden the medals in specially made picture frames which hung on his living room wall. 

The frames, which included a picture of the Middle East alongside the medals, were sold by his daughter who lives in England. 

She had no one to pass them on to so she wanted her father’s achievements not to be forgotten. 

The medals had been expected to sell for £3,000 but sparked a bidding war when they went under the hammer with London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb.

They were eventually bought for £22,000 by a London collector of spy memorabilia. 

Fees, who became US President Ronald Reagan’s personal terrorism adviser in later life, had hidden the medals in specially made picture frames which hung on his living room wall

The frames, which included the medals, were sold by his daughter who lives in England

Christopher Mellor-Hill, of Dix Noonan Webb, said: ‘The medals awarded to Fees by the CIA highlight the amazing stories of those undercover operatives involved in espionage at the height of ‘The Cold War’ and on the frontline in such places as the Middle East.

‘His acquisition of a Russian MiG-23 fighter plane for the US Air Force to understand and learn to combat with was an early highlight to his amazing career in which he also helped pave the way for Egypt to move out of Russia’s shadow into a much more pro-American position in the 1970s and ’80s.

‘When we talk of war heroes, he is one but as an agent of the Cold War, the era of great spying and espionage war games between the communist East and pro capitalist West as typified in that other great TV drama series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Sir Alec Guinness.

‘On looking at each of the hung pictures, one would be no wiser of their inside content unless they were opened up to reveal the CIA medals and citations.’

Some of the pictures hung in the living room were of scenes from the Middle East

But behind every picture there were the secret awards and medals given to Fees during his service 

Mr Fees joined the CIA in 1957 and went on to become one of its greatest intelligence officers.

He served undercover for most of the Cold War in Africa, Europe and the Middle East from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.

He impersonated a humanitarian relief worker to go undercover in Yemen and conducted top secret missions to rescue American hostages in Lebanon.

He was awarded the US Distinguished Intelligence Medal for ‘outstanding services and achievements of a distinctly exceptional nature’ and two Intelligence Medals of Merit.

In later years, he was chairman of an international trading group and wrote spy novels.

He died at his home in Hasselt, Belgium, in 2017.   

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