Disloyalty Feeds on Cash, Flesh and Thrills


Feb 22, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on February 22, 2001.

Keep secrets, and spies will come. It is an endless game. Sometimes we benefit. Sometimes we lose.

A senior FBI agent is caught spying for the Russians. An informant helps get a conviction in the trial of those accused of sabotaging Pan Am Flight 103. Another informs on Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asks President Clinton to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich, who reportedly has been helpful to Israeli intelligence, and Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for delivering U.S. secrets to Israel.

Those who work for us are informants. Against us, they are spies.

Espionage has become more complicated since the end of the Cold War, when the bulk of our effort was devoted to turning Soviet agents. Today we confront a far more diffuse array of adversaries: thuggish states with an interest in weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, international organized crime syndicates, drug lords, intelligence services engaged in industrial espionage, cyberterrorists and cyberspies.

Every White House and congressional commission looking at these threats has called for more human intelligence. Its importance remains undiminished. Satellites, electronic surveillance and the most sophisticated hackers have not yet replaced the well-placed informant able to access that critical, well-guarded piece of information.

Why do spies spy? Research shows that the motives are mostly personal, tawdry and banal and mainly involve money. What is interesting is how cheaply spies sell themselves. Robert Philip Hanssen, the FBI agent arrested Tuesday, reportedly received $1.4 million over 15 years. If true, he bargained better than most.

Revenge comes in second as a motive. Illicit affairs are sometimes a factor, but blackmail doesn't promote long-term productivity. For some, the sheer thrill of living a secret life, on the edge, is a narcotic. With risk comes intensity. Some want to prove that they are smarter than everyone else. It makes for mistakes.

Ideology may once have been near the top of the list, perhaps in the 1930s and '40s, when people believed in great causes. But by the end of the 20th century, strong beliefs ranked well below a better lifestyle.

Most spies are traitors. Ninety percent of them are "insiders," people with legitimate access to the secrets they steal. No high-tech James Bond stuff is required. No break-ins. No safes cracked. No miniature cameras. The office copy machine suffices if the secret is on paper. A disk drive at home. A detail remembered and passed on.

Only a few betray their country. Many betray the companies they work for. Corporate loyalties are thin these days. High worker mobility in high-tech industries and corporate restructuring that lays off longtime workers have frayed the threads of loyalty. This would not seem to apply to the FBI or the CIA, but traitors there are rare.

Most spies go undiscovered for many years. Even when an institution presumes it is the target of espionage--as government agencies involved in sensitive activities must always do--or when a corporation has reason to suspect that its secrets are being ripped off, it is still hard to identify and catch the spy. It takes overt acts, foolish mistakes or a tip provided by a friendly competitor or another spy to make the connection. This suggests that a lot of espionage goes undiscovered.

Revelations cause shock and prompt inquiries. How could this occur? Reviews will reveal embarrassing security lapses. Wherever there are procedures, there inevitably will be violations of procedures. They must be dealt with, tightened up, but they do not explain why lapses occurred, nor will they prevent it from occurring again.

Some heads may roll. Things will tighten up. Moles already inside will hunker down. Patient recruiters will accept the setback. Yet it will not be long before quiet offers of cash, flesh or adventure find greed and discontent, and the game will be launched again.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior advisor to the president of RAND Corp.

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