Why Do Ordinary People Commit Acts of Espionage?


Political ideology and money serve as motivators for some people to commit acts of espionage, but they're not the only factors involved. seksan Mongkhonkhamsao/Getty Images

In mid-July, 2018, Mariia Butina, a 29-year-old assistant to the Russian central bank and long-time Vladimir Putin ally Alexander Torshin, was arrested in Washington, D.C., on a charge of "conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government," according to the U.S. Justice Department. Per the affidavit, Butina was allegedly involved in an operation lead by officials within the Russian government to infiltrate the Republican party, including members of the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association, for the purposes of aligning right-wing political interests with similar interests in Russia. Butina's actions dovetailed with continued efforts by Russian operatives to commit cyber espionage to influence U.S. elections.

According to the affidavit, two American citizens provided Butina intelligence and guidance on her efforts in the United States.

MI5, the intelligence agency of the United Kingdom, defines espionage as "the process of obtaining information that is not normally publicly available, using human sources (agents) or technical means (like hacking into computer systems). It may also involve seeking to influence decision-makers and opinion-formers to benefit the interests of a foreign power." As Butina and countless others throughout history, such as spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, have discovered, espionage is a dangerous game, one that can lead to imprisonment or even death. What motivates people to commit acts of espionage is as important as the ramifications of their actions.

Naturally, simple ideology serves as a motivator to commit espionage, but it's not the singular cause. According to a Spring 2016 article of The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, ideology "is adopted by an individual to the degree that it reflects the individual's ego. In that sense, an ideology is like another motivation – money – in that it serves as a vehicle for the individual to express a personal value or belief; an ideology is chosen in order to confirm conscious or unconscious beliefs the individual has already internalized.In the case of espionage, a particular ideology may serve as either the actual motivation for a spy to breach the trust placed in them or simply as a means of rationalizing that behavior."

A Combination of Factors

Three concurrent elements need to exist within an individual to make them prone to acts of espionage — a personality dysfunction, personal crisis and opportunity.

According to Dr. Ursula Wilder, a clinical psychologist with the Central Intelligence Agency, four personality elements are essential to the entry into espionage: psychopathy, narcissism, immaturity and grandiosity.

"A psychopathic person is a person whose approach to reality is ruthless and cold," she stated in an interview at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "They have no conscience, or they have very limited capacity to feel guilt. So, their whole approach to life is predatory. They're excitement seeking. They love to con people. It's a game. This is all they can do to connect with other human beings. So that kind of person will commit espionage either flat-out for self-interest or because it's fun, or both."

"The next is narcissism," she explained. "A narcissistic person is fundamentally ego-centric. They can only experience the world with themselves at the center. They are very much needy for and will provoke circumstances that will permit them to be at the center of attention. They believe that what they need, want and desire, is truth. They will get greedy for attention. That kind of person will commit espionage as a grab for fame. Someone like that will commit espionage because it makes them feel big and important."

Regarding immaturity, Wilder explained an individual prone to commit acts of espionage (in comparison to a professional intelligence agent), either for or against their nation, is "an adult who can only function as an adolescent. These people live their lives in a blend of fact and fantasy. They do have a conscience, they can feel deep guilt afterwards, but fantasy is much more real to them than it is to adults who are grounded to reality, so to them committing espionage is a bit of a game, a fantasy, and online they have this illusion that if they do it online, if they just turn off the machine it goes away. They have a fantasy about the implications of their actions, and although on some level they might grasp the reality of it, it's not real to them. The grandiosity applies to all three."

An individual must be up against some form of personal crisis that produces distress. According to a paper released by the CIA titled "Why Spy?", a survey of agency employees "identified emotional instability related to ambition, anger leading to a need for revenge, feelings of being unrecognized and unrewarded, and loneliness as the top vulnerabilities on the road to espionage. They ranked such problem behaviors as drug abuse and illicit sex as second, and various mental crises or stresses brought on by debt, work issues, or psychological factors such as depression as third." Regarding opportunity, access matters. An individual must have access to sensitive information of some caliber that could be of use to a foreign power. All three combined — the personality, the crises, and the access — serve as fertile soil for acts of espionage.

It's important to make the distinction between ordinary people who commit espionage and individuals who join intelligence services.

"People who join the intel community spent years preparing themselves — school, applying, screening — there's a huge amount of drive and ambition, identification, pride," says Dr. David L. Charney, a psychiatrist with the National Office of Intelligence Reconciliation, known as NOIR, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the intelligence community on the management of insider threats. This would include people with access to sensitive information who flip, such as Edward Snowden or Reality Winner. "They're not coming in to be spies; they join for loftier reasons. The question is what makes a person go bad. That's when you have to get more psychological."

According to Charney, at the core of espionage can be an intolerable sense of personal failure, and not necessarily a shifting ideology. "Going back to the ideological spies of the 1930s and '40s, we run across people all the time who you know have personal demons that are driving them, but they wrapped their demons into the current issue of the day to give it a higher-minded packaging. Any time you try to understand you have to dig a little deeper."


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