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Why Do People Spy?

By Edited May 15, 2015 0 0

In the world of intelligence and information gathering, it always helps to have someone on the other side willing to assist you. Specific reasons why someone would betray his own country or company are numerous but often fall in one of four categories summarized by the acronym MICE: money, ideology, compromise, and ego.


Money talks and when the conversation is about classified material the expense can be high. Often a recruitment by a case officer can come down to pure greed. No matter which part of the globe you are from, government employees are not the best paid group of citizens and intelligence services are more than willing to supplement someone’s income for a few favors.

Aldrich Ames(47454)
Aldrich Ames was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who fell on hard times and made an initial sell of information to the Soviets for $50,000 in order to payoff some debts. After getting a taste of easy money, he continued to sell secrets to augment his and his wife's luxurious lifestyle. By the time he was arrested in November 1993, Ames had received $4.6 million for his spying efforts. The CIA finally caught on to his exploits after they realized that he lived in a house that cost over $500,000 and drove a jaguar on an annual salary of $60,000.

Another spy known for his monetary exploits was CIA employee Larry Wu-Tai Chin. Chin had been spying for China ever since he was a translator for the US Army during the Korean War. After the war, Chin joined the CIA and immediately started passing information. In return China paid Chin handsomely. He laundered his money by buying low income houses in Baltimore and by portraying himself as a high stakes gambler. Few CIA employees and friends suspected him as being a spy even though his lifestyle was so lavish. In fact many of them had seen him have large winnings at the gambling table.


Some agents are not lured over to the opposing side but rather come wholeheartedly because they feel that their own cause, country, or government is no longer the right or superior side. These agents can be seriously damaging because they require no recompense and as such can operate for years without detection. This was the case with Russian defector Vasili Mitrokhin.

Mitrokhin had grown tired of the Soviet system of corruption and injustice but loved his Russian homeland. After being assigned to work in the KGB archives, he found numerous examples of the KGB's repression of the Russian people, so in 1972 he began systematically coping classified reports and storing them in a seasonal home 20 miles outside of Moscow. This lasted until 1984 when he retired but continued to piece together his own archive from personal notes. In 1992 MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, helped Mitrokhin and his family escape along with his personal archive.


Clayton Lonetree
Intelligence agencies will sometimes resort to blackmail in order to secure the information desired. By finding someone who is having financial problems or marital issues, or going through hard times, a case officer can leverage this information to ensure compliance. Clayton J. Lonetree had fallen into separation and loneliness.

Lonetree was a Marine security guard assigned to the US Embassy in Moscow. While working at the embassy he met Violetta Sanni, a local translator. Against policy, the two started seeing each other and Lonetree fell in love. Violetta was quick to introduce Lonetree to “Uncle Sasha.” Sasha, also known as Alexi Yelsimov, would later follow Lonetree to his next post in Vienna and used the Marine's relationship with Violetta to get information about the embassy's personnel and layout. Soon after Lonetree turned himself in to the CIA.


Robert Hanssen

Flattery will get you anywhere! Appealing to an asset's sense of vanity is sometimes all that is required to get needed information. A potential agent may feel neglected or underutilized at his job. He may also feel as if he is an intellectual superior among his inferior coworkers. A good case officer will make the potential agent feel as if he is making a difference and that his services are prized by all. The case officer will also exacerbate the assets feelings that he is under-appreciated by his government or company employers.

Robert Hanssen spied for the Russians on separate occasions throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The first time was for money but the second was because it appealed to his ego and his desire for money. Hanssen had felt under-appreciated by his FBI bosses. It was said that as brilliant as he was, he couldn't relate to his coworkers. A former colleague once said, “If you had entered him in a trivia contest or tested his IQ, he would have won, but he couldn't deal with people.” Being a spy allowed Hanssen to live out the James Bond image he had of himself and appealed to his sense of importance and intellectual superiority.

The Mixed Bag

Often times a person's reasoning for becoming a spy can land in several categories. Sometimes an intelligence agency may compromise someone, yet still pay them money for completing a task. Again, an asset may get into the spy game because of their ego and sense of self importance but will take cash for reimbursement because it is a measurable way for them to keep score. For the case officer, he is equally willing to appeal to any route in order to get the desired effect.



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