How Core Psychology Also Explains Why People Do Not Become Insider Spies

The question “why didn’t you do it?” can be asked of those millions of individuals who possess security clearances and who have access to sensitive information who nevertheless have not engaged in insider espionage. 

Their names are immediately recognizable to most of the public:

Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, John Walker, Julius Rosenberg, Benedict Arnold


Each name conjures images of darkness, duplicity and betrayal, as well as visceral reactions of contempt, anger, maybe even a disturbing fascination.  Each name takes on such a level of infamy that it transforms itself from simply being the name of a particular man into a symbol of the worst in human nature.

In the case of Benedict Arnold, it goes beyond being just the name of a notorious figure in American history.  It becomes a label in itself for all those who betray the trust placed in them, those who sell out their friends, their colleagues, their country.  They are no longer just people.  They are “Benedict Arnolds.”  They are Traitors.

Thankfully, they are also historical anomalies.  When they do arise, the worst of them cause immeasurable damage to national security, often to include the suffering and deaths of others.  Nevertheless, they remain a tiny minority when compared to those in a position to engage in treason, even though they may suffer circumstances that would incline them toward such ill-conceived and irrevocable behavior, but they choose not to do so.

From 1947 to 2007 there were only 173 confirmed cases of insider espionage,[1] representing an astronomically small fraction of US persons who currently hold security clearances (estimated in 2015 at about 5.1 million)[2] or who have held them in the past.

These rare insider spies normally receive a significant, if relatively brief, amount of media attention when they are caught.  Like the two-headed calf in a carnival sideshow, they are viewed with both revulsion and interest.  The public perception tends to be that they are not like “the rest of us,” that they are in possession of some fatal character flaw or of an intrinsically evil nature, yet somehow were able to deceive their way into positions of trust.  While this may be a comforting view, it is overly simplistic and of little value in countering future cases of insider espionage.

While acknowledging that to understand is not to excuse, counterintelligence and law enforcement professionals may take the more useful approach of examining the insider spy’s individual motivation.  Better yet is to look at the insider spy’s psychological state at the time he or she made the decision to turn traitor and examine the conditions that may have helped promote that decision. 

Psychiatrist Dr. David Charney has taken this even further and, through in-depth and lengthy interviews over significant time with several captured insider spies and a review of further research into the psychology of espionage, developed a theory regarding the fundamental psychological motivation involved in cases of insider espionage.  Dr. Charney calls this The Core Psychology of the Insider Spy and describes it as an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person.[3]

NOIR White PaperThis “core psychology” has practical applications that can proactively assist in ending current cases of insider espionage, mitigate the damage already done, and prevent future cases.  Dr. Charney describes this in great detail in his publication NOIR: A White Paper – Proposing a New Policy for Improving National Security by Fixing the Problem of Insider Spies.[4]

His work builds on previous efforts to understand the psychology of the insider spy involving such organizations as the Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) in Monterey, California, and the Community Research Center in Newington, Virginia, whose work was given the name “Project Slammer.”  These earlier efforts drew their conclusions from statistical research[5] and personal interviews[6] with imprisoned insider spies.

These efforts to understand the mindset of insider spies all faced one significant obstacle, however.  As researchers and pollsters are all too aware, the validity of conclusions drawn from analysis of a group is directly related to the size of the group; the larger the group, the more valid the conclusions.

Efforts to understand the psychology of insiders spies by conducting research on the (again, thankfully) small group of individuals who not only engage in espionage but are subsequently caught and imprisoned inevitably suffers from the fact that this is a very small research population.  The research to date is enormously useful and not to be ignored, but the problem with asking the question “why did you do it?” is that there are just so few individuals to ask.

There is another question that could be asked, however, and asked of a much, much larger group.  That question is “why didn’t you do it?” and it can be asked of those millions of individuals who possess security clearances and who have access to sensitive information who nevertheless have not engaged in insider espionage. 

More specifically, it could be asked of that sub-group of individuals who may have found themselves on at least one occasion in personal or professional circumstances where the temptation to betray was very real and perhaps even seemed an appealing option at the time, yet who made the decision not to move further down that path.

It is these individuals – those who faced the same intolerable sense of personal failure, the same overwhelming emotion, the same perception of losing efficacy or control of their lives, the same private or professional difficulties that lead the insider spy down the path of treason, yet did not choose to take that path themselves – who are best placed to answer the revealing, insightful, and extremely useful question “why didn’t you do it?”  Unfortunately, at present it is unlikely they will ever voluntarily answer that question.

Current practice in regard to counterintelligence and the process of obtaining and holding security clearances tends to be one of zero-tolerance.

The individual who possesses a security clearance is very aware of the reality that to admit that he or she had ever, even under the most difficult circumstances and for only a fleeting moment, contemplated divulging classified information (that is, spying) yet had made the morally and legally correct choice not to do so, is nevertheless very likely to lose his or her clearance, which means losing his or her job and perhaps bringing an end to an otherwise spotless career.  Without a reliable means of ensuring their anonymity and avoiding career damage, this useful research population group is likely to remain hidden and silent.

Therefore, we have little choice but to speculate as to why they chose not to take that fateful path.  Perhaps the obvious answer would be “I knew that getting caught would mean going to prison.”  While this seems a plausible response, it does not take into account the almost infinite human capacity to rationalize our behavior.

Those who do commit insider espionage also know that getting caught most likely means going to prison, yet they still make that choice.  The difference would appear to be that the insider spy is either more willing or more capable of rationalizing that he or she will not get caught and that it is, in fact, a reasonable course of action.  But those who do not chose espionage are probably equally capable of making the same rationalization, yet they do not.

Dr. Charney’s research suggests that the decision to commit insider espionage, to betray the trust placed in the individual by his or her company, agency, or country, is one made in a state of emotional and psychological distress.  He calls this state a psychological perfect storm, in which the individual is overwhelmed by circumstances and the perception of personal or professional failure.

Another individual may suffer the same psychological perfect storm, be in the same position in which espionage appears to be a way out, suffer the same or even greater level of emotional distress, yet does not make the decision to betray.  Why is it that under similar circumstances one chooses to rationalize his or her betrayal while the other does not?

To rationalize is not to reason.  Under extreme physical or psychological stress it is difficult at best to think logically and reasonably, but it is still not terribly difficult to rationalize.  In fact, one is more prone to making illogical and unreasonable rationalizations while under stress.

Intellectual capacity also probably has little to do with avoiding such rationalizations, since high IQ is more likely to simply increase one’s ability to form seemingly compelling rationalizations.  The rogues’ gallery of insider spies unfortunately includes some very smart individuals.  At any rate, even high IQ does not inoculate one against the effects of extreme stress.

Perhaps the answer is that those who do not betray are, for any number of reasons, better capable of dealing with the stress and not succumbing to such rationalizations.  This raises the logical question, what makes them better able to deal with the same stress, the same difficulties, the same sense of personal failure, or disgruntlement, or despair?  Moral judgments that they are intrinsically “better people” are superficial and of little practical value in preventing insider espionage.  The sad truth is that sometimes, under specific and often unforeseeable circumstances, “good” people become “bad.”

The more likely answer is that discernable rather than intangible or metaphysical internal and external influences create a psychological state in those who are tempted but do not succumb that somehow inoculates them from making the same rationalizations that the insider spy is tragically capable of.  What might those influences be?

CIA research psychologist Terrence Thompson suggests that loyalty, hardiness and resilience (in the face of “life’s unfortunate circumstances”), and character (the ability to “just say no”) all contribute to a personal psychological state that helps one avoid the temptation of espionage, even when the means and opportunity are readily available.[7]  Richards J. Heuer, Jr., CIA veteran and author of many notable works on intelligence analysis, makes the following observation:

“Most personnel with access to classified information have the opportunity to betray, and many have a financial or other personal motive to do so. Betrayal is so rare only because it is deterred by basic moral values; loyalty to country, employer, or co-workers; and/or fear of being caught. Moral values, loyalty, and fear are the bedrock on which security is built. The stigma commonly associated with betraying one’s country also plays a role. Any social changes that erode these inhibitions to betrayal are likely to increase its frequency.”[8]

These are useful observations, but perhaps they can be refined further, especially in the context of Dr. Charney’s concept of “core psychology.”  As suggested earlier, fear of punishment is probably not an adequate deterrent to insider espionage given our amazing ability to rationalize almost any of our own beliefs and behaviors.  The real reason some are capable of avoiding such rationalizations while others are not probably lies still deeper.

Hardiness and resilience help an individual deal with the stress that may lead to making such rationalizations, but they do not come into existence of their own accord.  Rather, they are the manifestation of what might be considered character.

Similarly, loyalty and its opposite, betrayal, are behaviors that are the manifestation of a given character.  This is where Dr. Chaney’s concept of the core psychology of the insider spy – an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person – helps point to what may be the key psychological difference between those who betray and those who do not.

Character is defined as the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.  This is somewhat redundant in that morality is also quite simply the expression of the mental qualities of a distinctive individual.  While there may be considerable external pressure to adopt a given moral belief or stance, in the end it is the individual’s choice as to what he or she considers moral belief or behavior.  That choice is based on his or her perception of self; the “kind of person” he or she is or believes him- or herself to be, would like to be, or thinks others consider him or her to be.  We are at best uncomfortable when our actions do not conform to our view of ourselves, when they are not “in character.”

What motivates the insider spy in Dr. Charney’s concept of “core psychology” is an intolerable sense of personal failure.  The failure is intolerable because it stands in opposition to the individual’s sense of self.  As it is intolerable it must be relieved by whatever means necessary.  In the case of the individual with access to classified information of value to an enemy of the United States, acting irrationally in a state of intolerable psychological stress, that escape comes in the form of espionage, which is then rationalized (at least temporarily, see Dr. Charney’s Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy[9]) as a reasonable, if not the only, choice.  In other words, at the time the decision is made it is “in character” as far as the insider spy is concerned.  In fact, the decision is made in defense of character.

This may be the psychological nexus between the two individuals (those who are tempted and do versus those who are tempted and do not), where one choses one or another sense of personal character, one or the other side of the same coin.  Failure is a subjective mental state.  One may be judged by others to be a failure yet not personally share that view.

Conversely, one’s personal sense of failure may be completely invisible or inexplicable to others.  We may fear being viewed as a failure by others, but the sense of failure is subjective.  Justifiably or not, failure is a mental state we inflict upon ourselves.

Betrayal, on the other hand, is a state we inflict upon others.  We may say we have betrayed ourselves or our beliefs, but the more accurate statement would be that we have failed to live up to our sense of self or our personal beliefs.  We may treat strangers badly or unfairly, but we do not betray them.  Betrayal is something we can only do to those who trust us.  In this sense, character is the coin and the two sides are defined by whether or not we are capable of making the rationalizations that justify our betrayal of others.

On the one side of the coin, the need to save one’s sense of self, of character, in the face of an intolerable sense of personal failure is such that betrayal can be rationalized as somehow justified and not out of character, at least temporarily.

On the other side of the same coin, betrayal is judged to be so out of one’s character that it cannot be justified, even under otherwise intolerable circumstances.  For that individual, and fortunately for most individuals, an even more personally intolerable outcome would be to have his or her name included among those of

Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, John Walker, Julius Rosenberg, Benedict Arnold

Loyalty, resilience and hardiness in the face of adversity, a sense of personal morality, are all expressions of the individual’s sense of self, of his or her character.  We as distinct individuals choose to exhibit these behaviors because they express who we believe ourselves to be.  We are neither born with them nor are they imposed from the outside.  We choose them based on our sense of who we are.  In this view, the difference between the insider spy and the individual who may have been equally tempted but did not choose that path may lie in the value we place on our relationships with others.

What may inoculate us from the lure of insider espionage, even when faced with the most seemingly intolerable of circumstances, may be our consideration of others, especially those who have placed their trust in our character.  The insider spy willingly accepts the possibility that he or she may be caught and labeled a traitor, one who has deliberately betrayed the trust placed in him or her.

In this ego-centric worldview, he or she may not consider, or may simply ignore, the impact that label may have on others.  Overnight, innocent people take on new labels; they become the mother or father of a traitor, the wife or husband of a traitor, the friends and relatives of a traitor.

Worse still, children may grow up into adulthood with the silent, constant fear that their friends, classmates, lovers, or employers will one day discover that they are the son or daughter of a traitor.  The stigma is thereby passed from the insider spy down to an innocent generation undeserving of such ignominy.

Perhaps someday that silent, hidden group of individuals who have been tempted by the lure of espionage and yet resisted it will be able to speak up without fear of retribution and honestly answer the question “you had the means, the opportunity, and maybe even the motivation; so why didn’t you do it?”  If and when that happens the consensus answer is less likely to be one that is based on fear of punishment or simply adherence to religious or societal concepts of morality, but one based on the psychological truth that we choose our own sense of character.  We decide who and what we are.

In that case the answer to the question is more likely to be the simple yet profound statement, “I wouldn’t do that under any circumstances, I’m just not that kind of person.”



[1] K.L. Herbig, Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947–2007. Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research Center; 2008. Technical Report 08-5.




[5] Fischer, L. (2013) Espionage: Why Does it Happen? Department of Defense Security Institute.

[6] Director of Central Intelligence (1990) Project SLAMMER Interim Report.  Washington, DC: Intelligence Community Staff

[7] T. Thompson, Why Espionage Happens, Florence, SC: Seaboard Press, 2009.




  1. I would be more specific in noting the pathology in the ‘caught’ spy, that is: they are/were all significantly character-disordered
    individuals. There is no question that they were enraged beneath their exterior and the espionage was a way to injure or ‘get back at’ whatever figure the organization or country represented to them. There is no question that some did it because of the need to try to ‘fix’ or ‘repair’ their corrupt government (Popov), but they were in the minority. The ones who did not engage in betrayal despite their own struggles had enough of a reasonable sense of ‘self’ to be able to persist despite the anger.

  2. An employee who believes he/or she was treated badly, even betrayed, by the employer is tempted to strike back at the organization. I never had the need to betray my employer because I know that my problems were self-caused or were the normal competition for resources and promotion.

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