Why spies are not quite who you think they are

Far from the glamour of fiction, they tend to be troubled individuals with a clear narcissistic streak

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 trying 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.

Spy novels

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.

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, they have often enjoyed diplomatic cover, providing them with immunity from arrest and prosecution.

Russian intelligence agent Anna Chapman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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 10 Russians – among them Sergei Skripal, who would later barely escape a Russian assassination plot.

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 diplomatic circles in Tokyo in the 1930s.

Recruited spies

A bit like James Bond, he was described as having an irresistible charm.

Sorge became close friends with the German military attaché and 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 for what kind of information they have access to and are willing to hand over. They 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.

Unlike the intelligence officer, who can leave the life of espionage behind at some point, the recruited spy may have to spend the rest of their life looking over their shoulder.

Stig Wennerström spied for the Soviet Union. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In most countries, espionage is a serious offence, and carries a 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. Recruited spies work for an outsider, often an adversary.

While some of these recruited spies are coerced, others volunteered their services.

Among these, 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.

Callous disregard

The same goes for John Walker, who sold the secrets of the United States Navy and later recruited family members to work with him. Both men displayed a callous disregard for the safety and well-being 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. 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, those recruited 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.

Tony Ingesson is an assistant professor in Political Science at Lund University in Sweden.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.