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Exploring the Mind of the Spy

By Dr. Mike Gelles
Naval Criminal Investigative Service

The US government has made a considerable investment in studying behaviors associated with the risk of espionage. In one inter-agency project, a team of federal agents and government psychologists and psychiatrists interviewed many individuals who had been arrested and convicted of espionage. The interviews focused on the spy’s motivation, their perception of security policies and procedures, and the means by which they committed their crimes.

This project sought to understand the behavior, motivation, personality, and mindset of the spy. The goal was to gather behavioral information that could be used by security and counterintelligence professionals to improve the early identification and handling of employees at risk of committing serious offenses. The project generated a lot of data and many insights that have since been incorporated into security policies, training, and publications.

Security professionals have known for many years that the principal espionage threat to classified information does not come from clever and devious foreigners. It comes from "insiders" -- Americans working in a position of trust within the government or defense industry. These are Americans who, after thorough investigation, have been granted a security clearance that authorizes them to have access to government secrets, but who then go bad and betray their employer and their country.

Of the 98 Americans arrested for espionage during the past 20 years, almost all were trustworthy and loyal Americans at the time they were investigated and first approved for security clearance. They changed over time. What is most surprising is that a large majority of those who became spies volunteered their services to a foreign government. They were not enticed, persuaded, manipulated, or coerced into betraying their country.

Through interviews with arrested spies, we have tried to understand why and how a loyal employee turns into a spy. To say that it is greed, that people spy for money, is too simplistic and doesn’t help us identify who is at risk. Most of us either need or want more money. What is it that distinguishes the few spies from all the rest of us who experience financial need or greed but remain trustworthy and loyal?

Selling secrets is seldom the result of a sudden, uncontrolled impulse. It is usually the last act of a long-simmering emotional crisis. In many cases, the symptoms of this crisis have been observable, identifiable, and even treatable before the damage was done. Typically, however, the potential significance of the "at-risk" behavior has not been recognized or reported at the time by coworkers or supervisors.

Spies are not "crazy," but they usually are emotionally disturbed or suffer from one or more personality disorders. A personality disorder is recognizable as a pattern of behavior that is poorly adapted to the circumstances in which it occurs, leading to conflicts in relationships, difficulties at work, and periodic emotional shifts. Behavior can become self-defeating and sometimes self-destructive.

Of the personality disorders found in spies, the two most common are antisocial personality disorder and narcissism. These two disorders have some characteristics in common and are sometimes found together.

A person with antisocial personality disorder tends to reject the normal rules and standards of society. (Antisocial, in this sense, is a technical term in psychology. It has nothing to do with not being interested in making friends.) The hallmark of people with antisocial personality is a lack of any feelings of guilt or remorse when they do something wrong. The values that in most people inhibit illegal behavior are lacking.

Antisocial personalities are usually manipulative, self-serving, and seek immediate gratification of their desires. They are oriented toward what they can get now, with little interest in the future and no interest in learning from the past. They have little capacity to form attachments, or to develop a commitment to anyone or anything. This suggests that their ability to develop any degree of loyalty is seriously compromised.

Many people with antisocial personality disorder have criminal records that make them ineligible for a security clearance. However, many with milder versions of this disorder are eligible and do receive clearances. On the job, they press the limits of rules and regulations to see how much they can get away with, or bend or break the rules when it serves their self-interest. They often have the con artist's ability to talk their way out of trouble.

The hallmarks of a narcissistic personality are unwarranted feelings of self-importance or self-esteem (grandiosity), a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy for others. Many successful over-achievers have narcissistic tendencies, commonly known as a large ego. The need to live up to their own high self-image may be what drives them to be successful.

A security concern arises only when a person's view of their own abilities or importance is so grossly out of line with reality that they are destined for disappointment rather than success. Such persons may be unable to accept criticism or failure, because it threatens their inflated self-image. When criticized by a supervisor or if they feel devalued by the organization, narcissists may react with anger, a temper tantrum, or extensive written appeals. A narcissist's relationship with others may turn rapidly from love/admiration to hate, or vice versa, depending upon whether the relationship supports or undermines the narcissist's compelling emotional need to validate a grandiose self-image.

Narcissists who feel undervalued by their supervisor or their organization generally need to defend themselves against feelings of inadequacy. They may respond in ways that are rebellious, passive-aggressive, or vindictive. They may also seek out some other source for validation and affirmation of their self-perceived abilities or importance. In some cases, they have turned to a foreign intelligence service to fulfill their emotional needs, gaining satisfaction from working as a spy and outsmarting the organization that devalued them.

Both the antisocial personality and the narcissist may engage in deliberate behavior that violates routine security rules and regulations, but they do this for different reasons. The antisocial personality rejects the rules. The narcissist accepts the rules but believes he or she is so special that the rules don't apply; they only apply to others.

This is why any deliberate security violation such as taking classified reports home or giving classified information to an unauthorized person is a serious security concern even if no real damage is done. Any deliberate violation is evidence of an unwillingness or inability to abide by the rules that can have broad implications.

Although antisocial tendencies or severe narcissism are associated with increased security risk, they do not necessarily lead to serious offenses. Three critical factors will usually have to fall into alignment before a previously trustworthy and loyal employee commits a serious crime.

  • First, there must be a personality or character weakness, such as antisocial tendencies or narcissism, that causes a predisposition to maladjusted, counterproductive behavior.

  • Second, a personal, financial, or career crisis puts an individual with these weaknesses under great stress, triggering more obvious counterproductive behavior often observable by friends, coworkers, or supervisor.

  • Third, the friends, coworkers, and supervisor fail to recognize the signs of a serious problem, decide they don't want to get involved, or assume that someone else will take care of it. As a result, no one intervenes to help resolve the problem, and the individual's behavior spirals out of control.

Most of us possess one or more character or personality weaknesses to some degree, but that does not mean we are a security risk. All security judgments are based on the "whole person concept" -- which means looking at a person's strengths as well as their weaknesses. A number of positive characteristics are commonly associated with individuals who are reliable, trustworthy, and loyal, and these strong points often counterbalance the weaknesses.

Positive characteristics include ability to take criticism without becoming defensive, ability to express anger and frustration in an appropriate manner, being compassionate and considerate towards others, respectful of the rights of others, able to cooperate and work as a team with others to achieve a common goal, and being part of a strong social support system.

Other positive characteristics include self-discipline in delaying immediate gratification of desires in order to achieve a longer-term goal, being dependable in following through on commitments, and recognition that life doesn't owe one anything -- one has to work for whatever one gets.

Anyone who possesses these positive characteristics in good measure is unlikely to engage in betrayal despite some obvious weaknesses and no matter what stresses or temptations they encounter in life.

The following are some additional observations of general interest from our interviews with incarcerated spies.

There was no single motivation for espionage. The true motivation was always deeper than what commonly appeared on the surface – money, ideology, or revenge. For example, spies value money not just for what it can buy, but for what it symbolizes – success, power, and influence. It is a balm for injured self-esteem. People commit espionage not just for money, but in a desperate attempt to fulfill complex emotional needs.

Money received for espionage was spent, not saved. Most spies were not paid enough for unexplained affluence to be a potential problem. The few who did receive lots of money still spent it rather than save it, and unexplained affluence was a factor in their detection.

One thing that most spies have in common is inability to accept responsibility for their own actions. They always blame others for their problems, and minimize or ignore their own mistakes or faults.

One example of blaming others was the frequent complaint that stealing information was too easy, because physical security was too lax. Perpetrators argued that if tighter security had been in place it would have been more of a deterrent, and they might not have gotten into trouble. In other words, they blamed the organization for their problems because it didn’t do enough to protect the information.

Surprisingly, espionage subjects tended to tell trusted friends about what they were doing. Sometimes this was for emotional support; often it was an effort to impress or to try to involve a friend in the espionage activity.

The spies felt no guilt about their betrayal while they were conducting espionage, and sometimes not even after they were arrested, because they engaged in self-deceptive rationalizations. They rationalized that the information they passed was unimportant. It was just a business transaction, not betrayal of country. Or they felt that their incompetent supervisors were the ones who were really to blame for their problems.

In summary, people change as they face the stresses of broken personal relationships, financial crises, or career disappointments. We need to be aware of our colleagues who are having difficulty dealing with these problems in an appropriate and effective way. Intervention by concerned friends, coworkers, or supervisor can often help prevent these problems from spinning out of control.

Related Topics: For analysis of three major cases from a psychological perspective, see Ames, Hanssen, Pollard, Walker.  Also see Reporting Improper, Unreliable, or Suspicious Behavior




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