The Boston GlobeThroughout American history, from the time Nathan Hale's only regret was that he had but one life to lose for his country, the people who have spied against their homeland have done so typically because they believed in some mighty cause. For much of the last century, that generally meant they either embraced the socialist world vision of Karl Marx or wanted to prevent it from becoming reality.
February 25, 2001
Why They Spy
Be It Ideology, Ego or Disaffection, Almost AlwaysBy Adam Pertman
A Thread Connects Motive and Money
The common denominator today among people who export their nation's secrets, however, can be better described with a line from a Hollywood screenwriter than from a German philosopher: "Show me the money."
That's not to say all turncoats are out solely or even principally to enrich themselves. Indeed, FBI analysts, psychiatrists, and researchers agree that an array of reasons prompts men and women to betray their country. The rationales range from disenchantment with specific government policies or disgruntlement with their own jobs, to self-esteem problems or fantasies of living a flamboyant life, to competing loyalties because of their ancestry or religion.
But money is the common denominator; it works in tandem with other forces to lure someone to the other side -- especially in the absence of any grand ideological constructs since the end of the Cold War. For example, Jonathan Jay Pollard may have spied for Israel out of solidarity with his fellow Jews there, but the former naval intelligence analyst also admitted being paid $10,000 by the time he was caught in 1985. And he reportedly had been promised $345,000 if his operation had continued.
Even in circumstances where greed isn't the primary catalyst -- as appears to have been the case with Robert Philip Hanssen, the veteran FBI agent accused last week of selling secrets to Russia for 15 years -- financial rewards seem to have become the most basic measures of both a spy's self-worth and of his value to his handlers.
"People usually spy for some combination of emotional gratification and remuneration," says John Pike, the director of a Washington-based policy organization called Global Security.org and a specialist in intelligence issues for several decades. "But whatever their reason, in almost all cases today, money is how people keep score."
In 1985, US intelligence agencies conducted a joint inquiry into the motivations of people who turn against the country. The agencies' methodology was simple: They interviewed the spies who had been caught, in their jail cells.
Although the study remains classified, among the principal findings of the Slammer Study, as it is called, was that a traumatic event typically sends people over the line, whatever the other contributing factors; for instance, one of the most damaging American spies of all time, John Walker, was deeply in debt because of his gambling. The study also showed that its subjects felt under-appreciated in their lives and were initially terrified about being caught, but that their fear gradually gave way to euphoria.
William Pollack, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School's department of psychiatry and the author of "A New Psychology of Men," cautions that just because double agents are paid handsomely does not necessarily mean they act mainly for economic reasons.
"Someone doesn't have to do something like spying . . . to accumulate wealth, in order to buy expensive homes or cars or something like that," says Pollack, who has extensively studied antisocial and criminal behavior. Instead, he added, "Money in our society is an icon for power and importance."
Its symbolic worth is particularly meaningful, according to behavioral specialists, to people whose values are shaped by a society in which financial success is often perceived as the most accurate barometer of personal and professional success. And that applies most pointedly to individuals who suffer from a condition called "grandiosity," or what is frequently referred to as narcissism: They believe they are smarter, more talented, somehow greater than the people around them ever understand.
Specialists say such individuals sometimes take risks to validate their self-assessments. But they typically do so privately, because they feel fundamentally insecure about the possibility that others will think less of them if they fail. "This person feels empty inside and, because money is involved, he essentially tries to fill himself up with it," Pollack explains.
Based on what's known so far about Hanssen, he seems to have exhibited this trait, along with a number of others that have motivated spies in the past.
Nearly all of the $1.4 million he reportedly was paid by Moscow remains in bank accounts, for example, and there's no evidence that he had expensive tastes, abused drugs or alcohol, or indulged in money-sapping habits like gambling. Moreover, friends have described him as deeply religious, fueling the view that he might have convinced himself that he had some superior qualities or comprehension of the world around him.
And some colleagues have privately suggested that he not only had been passed over for promotions, but also had worked in the FBI office in New York -- where morale was low during the 1980s because of a pay dispute -- at just the time he volunteered to work for the Kremin.
"I think if there had been no cost-of-living issue back then; if everything had been hunky-dory in terms of pay and benefits, this individual would not have had money as a component of his ill-defined motivation, and therefore, I believe, wouldn't have done it," says a colleague of Hanssen's who asked not to be identified because he is still on active duty.
"It's very hard to believe he did this just because of some fascination with cloak-and-dagger intrigue," says the FBI agent. He was referring to reports that Hanssen essentially was living out a longtime fantasy, striving to achieve the notoriety and glamour of the infamous spy Kim Philby, who turned against his native England and to the Soviet Union out of an ideological devotion to communism.
This agent, among others, also touched on another characteristic shared by many if not most intelligence operatives (other than those who are simply sociopaths without any sense of right, wrong, or loyalty) who sell their own countries' secrets: They rationalize their behavior, deny it's taking place or has important consequences, or tuck it away in some recess of their minds.
"It's a mystery to us what kinds of psychological devices he must have used after he made his fateful decision, the ongoing rationalizations or compartmentalizations he must have made so he didn't suffer from daily dread," said the agent. "Those of us who have consciences intact wonder how he could sleep at night."
Pete Earley, the author of "Confessions of a Spy: the Real Story of Aldrich Ames," says the CIA defector whose life he chronicled told him that the operatives who were executed as a result of the information Aldrich sold to the Kremlin knew they were playing on dangerous turf when they started -- and therefore were responsible for their own fates. John Walker, the Navy warrant officer who sold top-secret encryption codes to the Soviets for almost 20 years, evidently convinced himself that he was engaged in global political gamesmanship that had no significant fallout.
"Every day, that person has to justify selling out his country," says Clint Van Zandt, a former senior personality profiler for the FBI who now operates a crisis-management company in Virginia. He echoes the view that, in order to seem "normal" to those around them, people like Hanssen necessarily have inflated views of themselves and of their abilities.
"Money may be the icing on the cake, but you have to have the personality, you have to have the ego, you have to have the arrogance to believe you can get away with it," says Van Zandt. "You have to believe you are going to teach this country, bring this country along, [that] not even your colleagues know how smart you are; you're this superspy."
"This guy," he adds, referring to Hanssen, "is Walter Mitty squared."
Spy handlers in Moscow told Earley, who is one of the only civilians to have seen the so-called Slammer Report, that every American they employed over recent decades had come to them rather than having been recruited. And they said all but one, a small-time operative, made a single demand when they volunteered for duty.
"There's no romance here," Earley quoted one top Russian official as telling him. "Americans do it for money."
Earley says that trait once characterized spies from the United States in particular, though their counterparts in other nations also chose their undercover jobs for primarily the same reason. But he adds that, as ideologies other than democracy have abated and capitalist values have spread throughout the world in recent decades, money also has grown into a more pervasive factor for spies everywhere.
"There is certainly an element of our commercial culture that encourages people to do nearly anything for money," agrees Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
He points out that, amid the public shock and outrage over Hanssen, it's clear the United States engages in precisely the same kinds of activities of which he stands accused. In fact, he was not caught because he made some fatal error or because some savvy person in the US intelligence community found him out, but because a Russian agent, presumably well paid by Washington, turned him in.
Copyright 2001 Boston Globe