Reconciliation adds another tool to the counterintelligence arsenal.
The very worst mental state is uncertainty. Bad news is never welcome. However, after the initial shock, we can eventually accept even very bad news. We can begin to conceive of plans to deal with our new, difficult circumstances. By contrast, uncertainty leaves us twisting slowly in the wind, with no clear direction. We can’t plan. Anxiety, tension, and dread grow in our imaginations, and our energy drains away.
The agonies of uncertainty are the daily fare for any insider spy. Even if he considers his tradecraft to be brilliant, the insider spy comes to realize that his fate actually depends not so much on his tradecraft prowess, but rather more so on sheer luck. That’s because virtually all insider spies get disclosed when someone from the other side decides whether and when to cross over to our side. This new arrival, having to prove his bona fides, will reveal the identities of his intelligence service’s recruited agents-in-place, the ones we consider the traitors in our midst.
Since the timing of this is never predictable, the insider spy lives in a constant state of uncertainty, paranoia and anxiety that when he least expects it, he will hear the proverbial “knock on the door.”
To get a sense of this, imagine what it’s like for any of us having to wait only a few short days for test results telling us whether we must face the diagnosis of cancer. Now, multiply that uncertainty and dread by hundreds of times, spread over the course of years. That’s the truth of what’s constantly in the mind of an insider spy.
Actually, this is not news to our offensive team in the field, our clandestine case officer cadre. One of the most important jobs for any case officer handling agents that we have recruited is to constantly reassure them that every measure is being taken to protect their safety. Our agent can get spooked at any time because of his nagging fears and doubts—and there goes our valuable asset. So we already know from this alternative perspective how much worry about disclosure eats away at the minds of recruited agents.
Feeling profoundly stuck, trapped and helpless is an ego destroyer for the insider spy. History shows that the vast majority of insider spies are men. Stuckness goes right against male pride and dignity. The insider spy no longer feels in charge of his life, no longer the captain of his destiny. He would do nearly anything to get unstuck—if it were safe to do so. Sun Tzu said: Always leave your enemy an exit.
The stress and strain of leading a double life requires a level of energy that wanes with age. During Stage 4, the Post-Recruitment Stage, it may seem fun, exhilarating, filled with a secret sense of superiority. (“I-know-something-you-don’t-know.”) However, over time, the risk factors associated with spying begin to nag at the mind. If the operation were to go sour, the only one truly at-risk is the insider spy. Not his handler, who typically enjoys diplomatic immunity.
The recruited agent gets exhausted. He’s got his day job to do, plus the time demands of his secret calling. Tradecraft, rather than an exciting, fun proposition, becomes an unpleasant reminder of the fix he’s in. Eventually, he starts to make excuses to avoid it, he procrastinates, until his handler yanks his chain and reluctantly, he has to go back at it—which explains Stage 7, the Dormancy Stage(s). Spying began as a survival strategy, a seemingly perfect solution for his out-of-control inner life crisis. Now, the solution has mutated into an even bigger problem. Scary, and also, sheer drudgery.
A spy is the loneliest person in the world. There is no one who fully knows what’s on his plate. He dares not reveal the secret compartments of his life to anybody, even (especially?) his wife. That’s why a spy’s handler has such a hold. The handler seems to be such a sympathetic listener. He is the only one who knows about the spying. He showers praise on the insider spy for his productivity. However, that begins to wear thin as the insider spy senses that his handler’s high regard is not authentic. He comes to believe that mostly he’s being used and played. So it’s back to loneliness.
Spying is a young man’s game. Past forty, the world begins to look different. What the insider spy once considered acceptable risk he now sees as reckless. Relationships with his spouse and children, once relegated behind career excitements on his hierarchy of valued things now become more important. The truth begins to sink in that he is not invulnerable. If he got caught, he would risk losing daily contact with his loved ones. Now and then, he’s bound to come across news stories about other spies who did get caught—putting the lie to reassurances from his handler that he is absolutely safe. He really could get blown. Then what?
And all this to what purpose? His original reasons for turning to spying no longer seem so convincing. Even ideological beliefs that in his youth seemed so transcendent now seem ridiculous. Countries other than his own that he once viewed as morally superior begin to look less admirable. He begins to feel like a fool. And a tool. Imagine having to explain to his grown children the convoluted, antiquated motives of his youth—after he’s caught.
Another surprise. The insider spy seriously considers himself to be a patriotic American. Old-fashioned traditional values that were imbued in him in grade school stay alive within his heart. The insider spy’s beef was usually never with our country. His beef was really with himself. At his weakest moment, his way of handling overwhelming stress was to project his self-disappointment and anger onto the nearest handy target, typically his home agency. As Tip O’Neill famously said: “All politics is local.”
Years later in jail, the insider spy will spontaneously give voice to his residual patriotism. He will be full of advice about how to improve things in our country, including how to protect our nation from the likes of himself. His gratuitous advice is hard to take seriously, so it’s easy to dismiss this patriotic impulse as merely an artifact of capture. It shouldn’t be dismissed.
The theme of an American who temporarily gets overtaken by a spasm of disloyalty, which is then followed by a rueful return to his senses, is not new. It has been addressed in a number of works of literature, such as The Man Without A Country and The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Hope does spring eternal. The insider spy cannot abandon the dream of starting over and getting to make different choices. He can’t help wondering: “Will it ever be possible for me to live a normal life again?