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Daniel Craig as James Bond points a gun towards the camera.
Daniel Craig as James Bond. Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Spies are not who you think they are

The world is seeing a resurgence in the use of espionage as nations try to get inside information on each other. Beijing accused the United Kingdom of recruiting spies in China, just after British authorities charged two men with violating the Official Secrets Act on behalf of Beijing.

Meanwhile, two men were recently arrested for spying for Russia in Germany, and the US intelligence services are working hard to recruit Kremlin insiders who want to work with them.

For the vast majority of the public, their perception of intelligence work has been shaped by the ever popular genre of spy fiction. James Bond, an invention of British author Ian Fleming, was an intelligence officer, who worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, and was able to go undercover in various guises, often with the help of futuristic gadgets. Portrayals of spies and spying are still frequently associated with Bond-like suave characters who smoothly navigate diplomatic receptions.

In fiction, they use these (as well as more martial talents), to get to the secrets they have been dispatched to find. This archetype is familiar from spy novels, films and TV series. It is completely misleading, and at the same time not entirely removed from the truth.

Intelligence as a career

One problem is that in both news reporting and English vernacular, the word “spy” is used to describe both intelligence officers and those they recruit. It is not uncommon for (English-speaking) intelligence officers to accept the label and Bond comparisons. So, these mistakes are easy to make, but the intelligence officer and the recruited spy are not the same.

Perhaps the most crucial difference is that an intelligence officer has chosen a career. A potentially dangerous career for a few, but a job nevertheless. Traditionally, intelligence officers have often enjoyed diplomatic cover, providing them with immunity from arrest and prosecution.

Some have served without such immunity, and indeed been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But they have often been released to their home countries well before the end of their mandated terms by swapping them for people imprisoned by the other side. Such was the fate of Soviet intelligence officer Konon Molody, also known as Gordon Lonsdale in the 1960s, who was returned in a prisoner exchange after serving a mere three years of his 25-year sentence.

In 2010, Anna Chapman, a Russian intelligence agent and model, and her compatriots were exchanged for ten Russians (among them Sergei Skripal, who would later barely escape a Russian assassination plot).

A view across a lake of the Pentagon building in Washington DC.
The Pentagon building in Washington DC is the centre of US military intelligence. Joseph Gruber/Alamy

Intelligence officers have been selected on the basis of their talents and then trained to hone their skills. In particular, those tasked with recruiting sources tend to be socially adept, likeable and smooth talkers.

For example, Richard Sorge, a journalist with a doctorate in political science who was secretly a Soviet intelligence officer, used his German roots to successfully infiltrate German diplomatic circles in Tokyo in the 1930s. A bit like James Bond, he was described as having an irresistible charm. Sorge became close friends with the German military attaché (later ambassador) while simultaneously seducing his wife. Sorge also used to race around Tokyo on a motorcycle, in another reflection of the overlap between truth and fiction.

Recruited spies, on the other hand, are selected solely on the basis of what kind of information they have access to and are willing to hand over. Thus, recruited spies are typically expected to betray their own countries. Even if there is moral justification in some cases, such as Ryszard Kuklinski’s handing over of Warsaw Pact military secrets to the west during the cold war, it remains a more extreme choice than that of the career professional.

Psychology of spies

Unlike the intelligence officer, who can look forward to leaving the life of espionage behind at some point, the recruited spy may have to spend the rest of their life looking over their shoulder. In most countries, espionage is a particularly serious offence, and carries a correspondingly heavy penalty. Recruited spies have to lead double lives, presenting a facade of lies even to friends and family. Intelligence officers work for their own country, their own people. Recruited spies work for an outsider, often an adversary.

While some of these recruited spies are coerced, there are also many who have volunteered their services. Among these eager spies, research indicates a disproportionate number of people with psychopathic, narcissistic and immature personalities, as well as many instances of alcohol abuse and personal crises.

Robert Hanssen, who spied within the FBI on behalf of the Soviet Union and then Russia, has been described as a psychopath. The same goes for John Walker, who sold the secrets of the United States Navy, later recruited family members to work with him. Both men displayed a callous disregard for the safety and wellbeing of even their own families, as well as a total lack of remorse.

Stig Wennerström, a Swedish Air Force colonel who spied for the Soviet Union for decades, had a very clear narcissistic streak (which is evident from his memoirs, in which he claimed that he single-handedly preserved world peace during the cold war through his espionage).

While there may be some similarity between the spies of fiction and the real-life intelligence officers who mingle with diplomats, the recruited spies tend to be a very different breed. Far from the glamour of spy fiction, they tend to be troubled individuals. For them the ending is not likely to be a drive into the sunset as the credits roll, but rather a lonely prison cell.

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