I’ll admit to having a bit of a fascination for spies. This fascination stems from having chased a few, thwarted a few and handled a couple during the course of my tenure as a Special Agent with AFOSI. Oh, and the fact that one of the most damaging spies to ever betray the United States was a personal acquaintance of mine before we discovered he was a spy. More on that later.
Chasing spies is sort of fun. Not to overly romanticize the experience, I have to tell you, following a real Russian spy through the cobbled stone streets of Trier at night, is an experience that lives on in one’s later years. But that’s only a small part of a much larger story that in truth is not nearly as exciting as one would think. At the time, with a lovely fellow agent on my arm, pretending to be my date so as to look natural in the surroundings, it was a night to remember.
Of course not all spies are the same. Someone who enters a clandestine service, which targets a hostile entity, could be considered a spy. We call these people intelligence officers, even if they go undercover to engage in the act of spying. We aren’t exploring these agents or their motivations. We are looking at individuals, who for whatever reason, were recruited to be spies because they already occupy a place within the targeted entity and something about their character or lifestyle can be exploited. Hollywood notwithstanding, few writers truly understand spies or what motivates them. While spies make for wonderful folklore, reality makes for terrible drama. With only a few exceptions, spies are a bit loathsome to their handlers and certainly – and understandably – detested by those who placed misspent trust in them.
Love, greed, ideology or coercion is the prime motivations of spies. Often, it’s a combination of more than one. If you ask a spy why they betrayed the trust placed in them, they will almost always, like the criminals they tend to be, make excuses that tend to offer some nobility to their efforts on behalf of whomever they were serving.
In truth, spies become spies because they have a character flaw. Now before you go all indignant on me for that statement, claiming that there are good spies who work to do damage to evil organizations or governments, let me say that regardless the entity being spied on, the spy – or asset – normally has some weakness that is exploited by the agency using them for that agencies selfish purposes. Of course, we applaud foreign spies who work for our intelligence agencies and provide valuable information at great risk for whatever motivation they might profess. We in the intelligence community also work very hard to try and protect them while in place and even go to great lengths to provide for them once their usefulness is at an end. But if one is to look at their behavior from the point of view of their countrymen, they become detestable creatures that deserve whatever punishment should befall them. For these reasons, I won’t differentiate between good spies or bad spies. There are only spies. They may work for what one person deems a righteous cause, or they may be considered an enemy. It doesn’t really matter.
I was never a full time spy hunter. I was an investigator within an organization for which counter espionage was but one mission out of many. Therefore, my involvement with spies was mostly limited to situations where their activities were suspected or came to light after the fact and an investigation was launched. With one notable exception as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, the majority of activities that resulted in or may have resulted in actual espionage were shut down before any real damage could be done to our government. I’ll explore that one exception as we progress. But first, I want to help fellow writers in understanding a little about the world of espionage, counter espionage and the assets or spies that this world revolves around.
Wars, be they cold or hot, cannot be fought without intelligence. We spy on our enemies or antagonists through many different methods as recent revelations about the National Security Agency have disclosed. I don’t care about signals intelligence (SIGINT). I care about Human Intelligence or “HUMINT”, as it’s known in the trade. Spies. The best intelligence is always human intelligence.
All spies are recruited. Whether they are developed assets or situationally recruited assets, there is a recruitment process that involves taskings and testing or vetting. An example of a developed asset would be a chance encounter between an intelligence officer and someone in a position to provide valuable information who is then cultivated. An example of a situationally recruited asset would be someone who offers information or is in a position from which they can be coerced to provide information. Of course this isn’t intended to be an all-encompassing essay on the art of espionage, but a few things need to be stated to help one understand the motivations of spies.
A spy cannot be trusted completely. The person, who will betray one entity, will betray another. Even those spies motivated by ideology, if discovered, will more often than not, work for whatever master holds the greatest power over them. Not every spy ‘wants’ to be a spy. The trick then, is to satisfy the need that causes them to be motivated to spy. Discover what that need is, and you have an asset to be exploited. The term ‘exploited’ has such negative connotations. The truth is, exploitation is exactly what one hopes to achieve with the asset and the information they provide. And while spies have to justify their actions in their own minds, so too do the spy handlers. Motivation and exploitation often involves a certain level of deception and dishonesty that makes the business a dirty one indeed. No truly good person can do it without a bit of self-loathing, for in the end, another human being is always going to be hurt. Always.
Love, ideology, greed or coercion, or combinations thereof are the fertilizer for cultivating a spy. As I said, they are the prime motivations. But there are others. I should add weakness. Let me be clear, I applaud anyone who has the courage of conviction to turn against what I consider to be evil entities or governments and accept the risks that this turning entails. To do so; however, they have to demonstrate a behavior that their contemporaries would consider to be a weakness. Let’s be honest, whether or not we agree with their ideology or motivations, a spy has to betray something. But what if they don’t feel like they are betraying anything? What if they’re the ones who feel betrayed? Now, we have to add revenge as a motivation.
Let’s take the case of Jeffrey Carney. Do an internet search for his name and you will find lots of interesting reading. Now known as Jens Karney, the name he affected once he deserted the United States Air Force and defected to East Germany, Jeffrey is living out his middle years in relative obscurity in Middle America, having once been a spy that did incalculable damage to the U.S. government. I knew Jeff before he became infamous. It may be that my meeting him at a party was the straw that broke his “camel’s back” of courage to do what he’d been doing for a number of years before our meeting. You see, Jeffrey was a spy for two governments.
Jeffrey was an intelligence specialist in the US Air Force, using his skills to spy on communist countries, most notably, Russia and East Germany in the 1980s. Citing ideological differences with the U.S. in his memoirs, he approached representatives of East Germany and offered to provide them with information of intelligence value. He became one of their most valuable assets for several years, both while he continued to serve with the Air Force, and after defecting, where his skills continued to help the East German government as he spied on telephone conversations emanating from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
In his memoirs, “Against All Enemies – An American’s Cold War Journey”, Jeff lays it all out. Jeff wasn’t motivated by money, love or coercion. He just didn’t fit in to the military society he joined, and this lack of belonging, led to revenge. To him, it was a way of poking a finger in the eye of people who he believed discriminated against him both for his station in life and for his sexual preferences. It’s sort of a sad motivation, but one cannot discount it as having the potential to wreak great harm. Jeff has paid his price and I’m satisfied.
As I mentioned, spying and handling spies is a dirty business. To be a successful handling agent, one has to make their asset believe that they have a value greater than the information they provide. Unfortunately, the sad state of affairs is that it isn’t the motivation of the spy that plays the greatest part in the drama, but rather, the motivation of the handler. All too often, the spy is nothing but a pawn to be sacrificed. When they finally realize this, they are the ones who have to live with the knowledge that the ones they betrayed, were probably their only real friends.