What makes someone spy?


By Daniel Bloom

Why do people spy? What is it that drives a person to wake up one day and decide to risk their entire life and that of their family? This is a question that is frequently swept aside in the popular portrayal of spies and espionage in the modern media. Oftentimes, as an audience we are handed a ready-made spy who is willing to betray their country without the psychological depth and background that is necessary to explain their behaviour. We are given a protagonist who has already taken the first steps on their path of spying and thus we overlook a crucial element of the process. This psychological profiling and analysis is probably too slow, time consuming and just not terribly exciting for the general audience. Therefore, I would like to briefly explore the process by which a source is recruited by an intelligence service. In doing so, I hope to highlight and explore some of the psychological factors behind the process and extrapolate the individual’s decision to spy.

Firstly, let’s start with a mnemonic: MICE. This acronym is composed of four words – money, ideology, compromise and ego. Stanislav Levchenko, a KGB major who defected to the US in 1979, argued that these four factors are the primary motivators that drive someone to commit espionage. They can be viewed as four different levers that can be pushed at different times and at varying intensities. These factors can be used in the initial recruitment of the source and then manipulated to different degrees to keep the source active, i.e. willing to provide information. It might be helpful to think of a glass that can be filled with different measures of different liquids. These liquids can be poured into the glass at different times, and thus create individual combinations of different psychological factors that lead to the decision to spy.


Of the four, money is perhaps the most simple and easy to understand. The premise is simple: one gathers intelligence or passes information to an intelligence service and in return is  materially rewarded with something of financial worth, primarily money. The process can be simple, transactional and centered on greed or can be complex and multifaceted with higher levels of desperation and financial uncertainty. On one end of the spectrum there could be a disgruntled employee who feels undervalued and under-rewarded for the work they do, who might be susceptible to financial incentive. On the other end,  there  might be those who are extremely conflicted about the predicament they have found themselves in and they feel trapped by their financial difficulties. An example of this is Candace Marie Claiborne, a state department worker who was approached by Chinese intelligence service agents whilst working at a US consulate in China. Initially Candace rebuffed approaches by Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents on their initial approach. However, it appears that financial hardship is what pushed her to reestablish contact with the agents and begin the process of providing information to them. The MSS likewise entrapped a relative of hers that came to live in China who seemingly relished  the money and material opportunity that was afforded to him. Analysis of Candace’s possessions highlights that the money she was earning as a result of her activities was her primary motivator. Likewise, evidence of Candace’s communications at the time suggests she was clearly torn and understood that what she was doing was both morally wrong and dangerous. However, money is a potent motivator and in most instances of espionage there is some financial reward or incentive, even if it isn’t the primary  factor. Another interesting example from China is the case of Glenn Shriver, a US student who was groomed whilst studying in Shanghai. After responding to an advert for a political essay, he unknowingly began a relationship with an MSS  agent, who slowly groomed and introduced him to the idea of applying for state department and CIA roles upon his return to the US. Throughout their contact Shriver was given money in increasingly large sums and in the FBI video ‘Don’t be a pawn: A warning to students abroad’ Shriver states:

 ‘Wow I can just go to Shanghai, they’ll, you know, give me a huge wad of Chinese money when I get there and then when I leave they’ll give me another huge wad of American currency. The motivation behind it was definitely greed and money ’

Money provides intelligence services with a potent motivator, whether it be a tokenistic reward for providing intelligence, money to help with genuine living costs, or pure greed. In most instances some sort of financial remuneration will take place for the act of passing  information and this can also lead to application of the other elements of MICE.


Ideology is often one of the most potent motivators for spying, to the extent that it can potentially have the most favourable outcome, if harnessed successfully. Those who spy for ideological reasons are often very motivated and driven individuals who believe themselves to be acting with a higher moral purpose. Likewise, these sources often volunteer themselves to their country’s adversaries instead of being actively recruited. Those committing espionage with ideological motivations are often the most successful examples one can find of effective espionage. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five. The Cambridge Five refers to the five students that were recruited during their studies at Cambridge University in the 1930s by the Soviet Intelligence services. They were recruited by appealing to their ideological proclivities towards Marxism-Leninism as the superior political system. Once recruited, they then began to successfully embed themselves within the British establishment, the most famous and effective of which was Kim Philby, who climbed the ranks of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Ideology is a strong motivator as it is often internally driven and not externally motivated. They give information based on moral convictions and, therefore, the quality of the information  is more trustworthy, because of  the lack of ulterior motives unlike those motivated by money. It is believed amongst some that those sources who are ideologically motivated as a primary reason for their spying are often amongst the most valuable and successful assets.


The third letter, “C”, is for compromise. This is perhaps the most underhand way to motivate a source and we often attribute this style of manipulation to  certain intelligence agencies and states versus others. However, compromise is probably a key element of all source handling to some extent, in that once information has been given, it can then be used as leverage to blackmail and motivate a source regardless of their initial reasons for spying. These methods of compromise can be referred to as ‘hooks’ by which to trap and keep a source on the line. This type of motivation could take many forms, for example the infamous ‘honey-pot’ or ‘honey-trap’ is a method by which a target is approached by an individual with sexual intentions or  plans to start a relationship. The source can then be manipulated with evidence of the extramarital affair and so is compromised. Seemingly all intelligence services use or have used this method, as it appeals to a strong and primal desire and can thus be very effective on both genders. An interesting recent example of this honey trapping was in 2007, when Deniss Metsavas, an Estonian military officer, visited his relatives in Russia. Whilst in Russia he went to a nightclub and met an attractive Russian woman. After leaving the nightclub, he  proceeded to a motel with her where they then engaged in sexual relations. After this, Metsavas’ life began to unravel. He was approached the next day by plainclothes policemen who had a full video recording of the incident and an accusation of rape by the woman, carrying a possible 15 year prison sentence. This was accompanied with the promise that the case could be dismissed if he cooperated with the Russian military intelligence service, GRU. What followed was 10 years of spying based on this initial compromise, which ultimately led to the arrest of Metsavas in 2018 and his sentencing to 15 and half years in prison. What is interesting to note in this case is that, although compromise was the initial leverage used to entice Metsavas, he was further compromised in his second meeting with his handlers when money was exchanged for information. Then the GRU entrapped him even further by recruiting his father and thus creating another hook to manipulate him. His father was actively involved in the process and was used to handle communication between Metsavas and his handlers. When Metsavas tried to end the relationship with his GRU handlers, it was too late, he had already been so deeply compromised that there was no escape. Thus, compromise is often a slippery slope of dependency in which the source is manipulated into a position of submission and desperation. Compromise can therefore also be a very potent motivator, albeit a malevolent one with very dubious moral implications.


The final letter of the mnemonic stands for ego and is perhaps the most difficult and diverse psychological reason to explore and unpack. Ego is defined as being ‘your sense of your own value and importance’ and is very much dependent upon the individual circumstances and psychological make-up of an individual. The ego element of recruitment seeks to find that which is missing internally within the individual. If they seek power, give them power. If they seek revenge, give them revenge. If they seek glory, give them glory. Manipulation of the individual’s ego is about identifying this crutch or internal yearning and making it come true, providing them with a sense of belonging and fulfilment. Perhaps the most simple and straightforward example is that of an individual who seeks power and meaning through higher purpose. In this instance, espionage might be the fulfilment of the desire to feel significance and superiority over those around them. It is easy in this case to see how ego can be a motivating factor and working for a foreign intelligence service is a form of self-aggrandisement. Robert Hanssen is an interesting example of the role that ego can play in the continuing relationship with a source. Hanssen operated as a double agent within the FBI counterintelligence department for a significant period of time whilst passing information to Russia. Hanssen initially sought money for this information, but over the course of his spying career it became apparent that Hanssen’s ego developed and became a key driving factor. It was reported he felt under appreciated by the FBI and developed a superiority complex in which he felt superiority over his colleagues and superiority in the deception he was committing. Likewise, it appeared that Hanssen had fantasies about committing espionage from the age of 14, based on letters he had written in which he expressed a fascination with the world of espionage. In this regard, spying for Russia can also be viewed as the fulfiment of a lifelong fantasy. Ego can sometimes be overt in this sense but likewise it can have much more subtle nuances and, as previously mentioned, it can be a piece of the puzzle alongside the other factors we have discussed. Motivation of ego can allow a reticent source to feel that the information they are providing is valuable and that what they are doing is meaningful. Even if the source is acting from a compromised position and has no ideological inclinations and no overt desire for money, ego can be a subtle lever that is pulled in order to lull the source into a feeling of worth and can often provide a benevolent undercurrent to the relationship.

Each part of MICE does not have to be applied exclusively from the other parts. Each recruitment of a source is individual and as such should be approached individually.  We can return to the analogy of the glass with varying measures of different liquids. In this concoction we might have compromise as an overriding factor in the recruitment of a source, but over time money takes on a more important role in the relationship. Likewise, those who begin spying for ideological reasons might get stuck in the relationship due to the compromising information gained on them as a result of their spying. Ultimately, although MICE gives us an interesting lens to view the psychological factors in the recruitment of a source, it is important to remember that these  are by no means exhaustive or static, and the complex psychological make-up of an individual is something that cannot  be simply reduced to four letters. Instead, it is useful to view these four letters as four overriding themes with which we can begin to analyse the psychological reasoning and motivation behind espionage.

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