The Spy Who Spoke French

A Parisian playboy, a Foreign Legion veteran, and a French gangster on the run in Florida were just a few of the identities used by French-American agent Marc Ruskin, who worked undercover for the FBI in the United States for 25 years.
Marc Ruskin.

Jean-Marc is wearing a long woolen coat and a cap similar to the one sported by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the movie Breathless. He is holding a briefcase that hides an automatic pistol in one hand and a sports bag containing 200,000 dollars in small bills in the other. The time is 8:45 am, January 2007. He makes his way to the roof of a parking garage at Knoxville airport in Tennessee. Camped out in a hotel opposite, a group of FBI agents are watching his every move.

The mark for this operation is a man by the name of Roy Lynn Oakley. He stole uranium rods from the nuclear research center where he works, and is looking to sell them to the French. The FBI caught wind of his scheme, and called on special agent Marc Ruskin to apprehend him. Ruskin was born in Paris and speaks fluent French, making him the ideal candidate for a spy tasked by his government to acquire stocks of American uranium.

With the transaction concluded, the FBI bursts onto the scene and seizes the mark. To keep the special agent’s cover, Jean-Marc is also arrested. He plays the role to perfection, cursing the masked men leading him away: “I am a tooreest! You have no right… I want to call the quonsulattte!” Marc Ruskin breathes a sigh of relief; his mission could have ended in bloodshed. “Throughout our conversation, the mark kept his right hand in his pocket,” he remembers. “He was armed.”

The Only French-American Agent in the FBI

Special agent Ruskin retired in 2012. Today he runs a law firm in Manhattan, teaches criminology at John Jay College, and gives conferences about his career in the FBI and his undercover missions in the criminal underworld. He also recounted his adventures in a book, The Pretender, published in 2017 (and translated into French in 2022 as Le caméléon). He received us at his home in Manhattan. The table in the family room is strewn with files, and his children’s toys cover the floor.

Ruskin no longer has a Parisian accent, but he is still the only French-American ever recruited by the FBI. His father, an American, and his mother, a Franco-Argentinian, met in Paris and moved to New York in the 1960s. After going to school at the Lycée Français and studying psychology at university, he originally planned to study economics before finally going to law school. He joined the FBI in 1985.

“They say that undercover agents have more in common with criminals than with the police,” says Ruskin. He has angular features with piercing blue eyes and can’t keep his hands still. “It’s not a cliché. Undercover agents believe in their missions; they want to fight crime and protect society, but they also resist authority. They like to work alone.”

Building a Convincing Identity

Undercover agents are often on their own in the field, but their identities are the result of painstaking teamwork. This part of the job is called “backstopping.” Each agent needs a rock-solid identity if they want to infiltrate a Wall Street trading company, a mafia crime family, or a network of Côte d’Ivoire counterfeiters. “That was the creative side to my job,” says Ruskin with a smile. “I had to come up with a realistic character capable of earning the trust of a mark, with their own personality, background, manner of speaking, and style.”

Jean-Marc Haddock was a French surfer in Puerto Rico; he had long hair and wore a T-shirt baggy enough to hide a Smith & Wesson revolver. Henri Marc Renard, a graduate of a prestigious university on the East Coast, was a banker in Manhattan and rented a luxury apartment near Washington Square Park. Alex Perez, a long-haired petty crook from the Bronx, had a penchant for Gucci shirts, Rolex watches, and Cartier sunglasses.

Ruskin had more than a dozen aliases throughout his career, and just as many pagers, cell phones, wallets, driving licenses, credit cards, social security numbers, business cards, degrees, email addresses, library cards, and even gym memberships. “At one time I had four different cell phones. I was in demand because I spoke fluent French and Spanish!”

A Glock Under His Shirt

One of Ruskin’s final creations was named Pascal Latour (“A touch of class without the pretention of a hyphenated last name”), a Parisian businessman who loved money and beautiful women, who bought his suits in Buenos Aires and wore ties by Hermès. In this role, he helped arrest 22 corrupt arms dealers in what was known as Africa Sting.

There is little chance of businessmen looking for revenge after a mission, but there is less certainty with heroin dealers, for example. “Criminals are angry when they are apprehended, but they know it’s not worth taking out an FBI agent and spending the rest of their life on the run,” says Ruskin. Although that does not stop him sliding an automatic Glock pistol into his belt when he leaves his apartment. “I don’t want to find myself in a situation where the bad guys are armed and I’m not.”

The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI
by Marc Ruskin, Thomas Dunne Books, 2017.