Money, love and revenge: the motivations of spies through history

What makes someone betray a country or a cause? Is there one type of person that becomes a spy? Is there such a thing as the perfect agent?

In his new book Anatomy of a Traitor, Michael Smith considers the motivations and make-ups of agents throughout history…

Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer turned KGB mole; Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish Colonel
Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer turned KGB mole; Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel who spied for the USA during the Cold War; Belle Boyd, a spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. (Pictures by Jeffrey Markowitz/Getty Images/Apic)

 

The world of espionage continues to intrigue and thrill every new generation. It is not for nothing that espionage is described as the ‘second oldest profession’. The Bible tells us that Samson’s treacherous mistress Delilah has come to symbolise female infidelity, but her betrayal had nothing to do with adultery. She was a spy for the Philistines, working at their behest to bring down the leader of the Israelites.

My new book The Anatomy of a Traitor sets out to investigate why she and other spies betray their country or cause, putting their lives and those of their family at risk. The reasons Delilah betrayed Samson may seem simple; the Philistines paid her more than 5,000 pieces of silver, but closer examination suggests a range of possibilities, of which money is only the most obvious…

 

Why do spies spy?

Understanding agent motivation ‒ why spies spy ‒ is vital for the intelligence services. Agent is the correct technical term; the word spy is anathema to most intelligence officers, who understandably shy away from comparisons with Ian Fleming’s famous creation, James Bond. There is a key difference between an intelligence officer and an agent: the officer is on the staff of an intelligence service; the agent is a freelance operative recruited by an individual officer for a specific role.

In the case of this book, former CIA and MI6 officers had an agreement with me that they would only talk on the basis of anonymity. The CIA officer was a Cold War era officer. The MI6 officer worked during the later stages of the Cold War and into the more recent era, covering counter-terrorist operations.

Spies may be recruited because they have direct access to the intelligence that is being sought, such as a traitor inside the target country or organisation, or because they have access to a region where the intelligence officer cannot operate, such as a businessman selling his wares in a country like North Korea. They might have a specific skill that is needed to acquire the intelligence, such as the local knowledge and linguistic ability to impersonate an insider. It is these agents, and only rarely the intelligence officers themselves, who are the real spies.  

“The motivation of a continuing agent is, or should be, the subject of constant study on the part of his case officer,” one former CIA officer said. “Unless a case officer knows what it is that drives his agent, he cannot know to what lengths the man (or woman) will go, freely or under pressure, what risks he is willing to take, at what point he will break, tell another intelligence service what he is doing, or simply stop producing.”

“An agent’s motivation can be changed, either by circumstances or through the efforts of an interested and patient case officer,” the officer added. “Some of the less desirable motives – money, hatred, love of adventure, fear – can be redirected and tempered by a careful programme of indoctrination designed to bring out whatever finer purposes the agent has.”

Many people are prepared to spy for money. It is the simplest of motives, and it has a number of advantages. The agent knows from the start what he or she is getting, while if the handler obtains signed receipts confirming that the money has been paid this leaves an agent who has betrayed his employers with little choice but to continue providing information. “With an agent whose motivation is purely financial, it is generally easier to terminate the relationship when his intelligence is no longer of value,” one former MI6 officer said. “It is just a business relationship. With other motivational forces, terminating an agent can be far more time consuming and complicated.”

 

Who would be a spy?

But even with money there are complications. It is rarely the only reason that someone spies. Aldrich Ames, the so-called ‘Two Million Dollar Spy’, who betrayed more than a dozen top CIA agents to the Russians spied as much out of ego as for wealth. 


Aldrich Ames, an American CIA officer who became one of the most successful double agents for the Soviet Union and Russia. (Photo by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images)
 

Both he and his father, who was also a CIA officer, had been rejected as poor case officers and were stuck behind desks. Ames needed to prove to himself that he was a brilliant spy, a real James Bond, and the Russians gave him the opportunity to do so. In one revealing moment, Ames described how, while stationed in Italy, he travelled to Switzerland to stash his latest payment from the KGB in a secret bank account. Driving over the Alps in his Jaguar with his beautiful Colombian wife by his side, he said he pictured himself as a latter-day Bond.

The ‘second oldest profession’ attracts more than its fair share of people with inflated egos and other personality traits which would be considered a dangerous liability in any job, let alone one where lives – including very often the lives of the agents themselves – depend on getting it right. Espionage appeals to a myriad of adventurers, risk-takers, fantasists and egotists.

Most intelligence services employ psychologists to weed them out, but sometimes what seem to be flaws in their personality can make them surprisingly successful as agents. Sidney Reilly, the so-called ‘Ace of Spies’, is frequently derided as a fantasist who was nowhere near as good as the legend. In fact, he was one of the most successful spies of all time, but his risk-taking ultimately proved his downfall and, after mounting one too many missions into Russia, he was captured and killed.


Spy Sidney Reilly (born 1874 in Ukraine) who obtained Persian oil concessions and German naval secrets for Britain. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Sex and romance can also provide very powerful motivations for the spy and have produced a wealth of fascinating spy stories from Samson and Delilah right up to the present day. The female spies of the US Civil War who used their sexual charms to persuade Union officers to divulge secrets they passed on to the Confederacy included the 17-year-old Belle Boyd, who was described by one jealous love rival as “the fastest girl in Virginia, or anywhere else for that matter”. 

During the modern era, the Warsaw Pact’s intelligence services exploited the very human need for intimacy with another person to produce some exceptionally valuable spies. The East Germans excelled at this, using so-called ‘Romeo spies’ to seduce West German women working in government or NATO posts, including Gabriele Gast who, as deputy head of the Warsaw Pact section of the West German intelligence service, was one of the most influential spies of the Cold War.

But while in cases like those of Gast, Reilly and Ames, the motivations of sex, money, risk-taking and egotism worked spectacularly, they are ultimately unreliable. The most effective spies are motivated by revenge, patriotism, or ideology. 


Belle Boyd, a spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

 

The power of revenge

Revenge is extraordinarily powerful. Nothing carries someone across the line between simply thinking they might pass secrets to the enemy and actual betrayal more reliably than the intense and deep-felt anger created by some evil inflicted against them or their family.

One of the best agents run by the British secret service during the First World War was a German naval engineer who had the run of the German North Sea and Baltic dockyards. Karl Krüger spied purely out of revenge. His MI6 file says he was “very embittered with his country” and offered his services to Britain after being court-martialled for hitting a relative of the Kaiser. Krüger’s reports from Germany provided invaluable and highly accurate intelligence on the damage inflicted on the German Imperial Navy and the situation inside Germany itself.

Patriotism might seem an odd motive for betrayal, but one of the best western spies of the Cold War was Polish army officer Ryszard Kukliński, who betrayed Warsaw Pact secrets for the good of his country. 

Kukliński’s father had been a Polish resistance fighter who died in the Nazi Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After the Soviet occupation, Ryszard joined the Polish Army but became disillusioned with communism following the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

During a sailing ‘holiday’, designed to spy on naval bases in West Germany, Holland and Belgium, Kukliński made contact with the CIA; he wrote a letter to the United States Embassy in Bonn, Germany, offering to provide information about Soviet strategic plans. The letter eventually made its way to a CIA officer, who sent a cable to CIA headquarters recommending that the Agency try to make contact with Kuklinski. And so began Kuklinski’s double life as a spy, reporting on the Warsaw Pact preparations to crack down on the Polish independent trade unions which rose to prominence in the early 1980s.


The last Polish Army identification of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski before he escaped from Poland to the US.
 

Kukliński’s reports, passed to CIA officers using the using classic counter-surveillance tradecraft, covered preparations for martial law to counter industrial unrest. These led the US to warn Moscow against a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion, ensuring that his country escaped the fate of Czechoslovakia.

After being exposed and exfiltrated with his family in a daring CIA operation, a Polish military court sentenced Kukliński to death for treason. But following the collapse of communism, he was rehabilitated and the Polish Supreme Court absolved him of any crime, ruling that he had passed the Americans secrets in ‘a higher cause’. 

The only ‘higher cause’ to match patriotism might be ideology. The belief that sharing secrets with the other side is the right thing to do has been the motive for many of the most productive spies in history, including the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring.

Ana Montes, an American opponent of her country’s actions in Central America during the 1980s, was spotted by the Cubans as a potential agent while taking part in student protests. Once recruited, she joined the US Defense Intelligence Agency, where she became one of the leading experts on El Salvador, Nicaragua and Cuba. 

Montes passed her Cuban spymasters everything that crossed her desk, including the names of US agents who were executed as a direct result of her betrayal. The subsequent investigation described Montes as "one of the most damaging spies in US history", yet her story ‒ like many of those in The Anatomy of a Traitor ‒ remains virtually unknown.

Michael Smith’s book, The Anatomy of a Traitor, was published in June 2017 by Aurum Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group.

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