True Psychology of the Insider Spy

David L. Charney, MD, a practicing clinical psychiatrist in Alexandria, VA, was asked to serve as a consultant on the defense team of three insider spies arrested for espionage against the US. This unprecedented, long-term access to these spies provided him with a unique opportunity to understand the inner workings of the minds of insider spies. This article introduces his surprising findings.

True Psychology of the Insider Spy 

True Psychology of the Insider Spy, by David L. Charney, MDBy David L. Charney, MD

First published in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Intelligencer: Journal of US Intelligence Studies (AFIO); also posted on the US Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX)

The problem of insider spies has bedeviled intelligence services from time immemorial.

Over the years, government intelligence agencies have made significant efforts to preemptively screen away prospective traitors.

Nevertheless, all the world’s intelligence services have suffered penetrations, including our own.

Increasingly stringent security practices, such as more frequent follow-up background investigations, have been used to lessen the threat of insider spies.

Americans have particularly favored advanced technology solutions.

Nevertheless, these heroic measures seem to fail time and again.

Strongly motivated spies have demonstrated the capacity to successfully discern the seams between the most well thought out protective measures—and have insidiously slipped right through.

The intelligence community is no different from other domains in this respect.

Firms in the private sector, such as Microsoft, have tried to protect their products from the depredations of hackers, but despite their enormous resources seem to be fighting a losing war.

This reminds us that attention needs to be mainly focused on the workings of the mind of the insider spy.

And yet the mind of the insider spy remains obscure.

While many studies have focused on trying to understand what makes the mind of the insider spy tick, progress in this understanding has been slow, and making good use of it has not been particularly successful.

Efforts at predicting who will turn traitor have turned out to be mostly blind alleys.

The dirty little secret of spy detection has been that, almost always, insider spies have been revealed only when someone from the “other side” comes across bearing gifts of information to prove their bona fides.

If we were able to develop an improved understanding of insider spy psychology, we would have better chances of devising countermeasures that could succeed.

This would represent just good intelligence practice applied to an issue critical to the intelligence community itself.

My work has permitted me to advance further towards what I call the true psychology of the insider spy.

A decade of consulting as a clinical psychiatrist to some of our intelligence agencies, and treating employees from all corners of the intelligence community provided my initial immersion in the world of intelligence.

Then I was fortunate enough to be engaged as a consultant to the defense of three captured insider spies, including the notorious Robert Hanssen.

While at first I had mixed feelings about joining their defense teams, I regarded involvement in these cases as unique opportunities that would enable me to understand the inner workings of the minds of insider spies.

I received cooperation from all three spies because I was working for them on the defense side, and also because of my frequent access: I could visit each for up to 2 hours weekly over an entire year.

The primary basis of my findings derives from my unprecedented close-contact experiences with these three insider spies.

In addition, I intensively studied most of the other cases of insider spying in the United States that occurred during the twentieth century and up through the present that were reported upon in open sources.

I studied these additional cases from the vantage point of an experienced psychiatrist.

I also had the advantage of my familiarity with these kinds of cases based on my intensive exposure to the insider spies I met with personally.

Psychological patterns became apparent to me that might have escaped notice by others not similarly trained or experienced.

The ideas presented here spring from these combined sources.

I will put forward here a new paradigm for better understanding the minds of insider spies. . . . (read the rest)

True Psychology of the Insider Spy (.pdf)

Watch Video of Dr. Charney’s presentation, “What Makes Traitors Tick?”