A new style of turncoat
During much of the Cold War, the typical American spy -- spy for the enemy, that is -- was a single, native-born, high-school-educated white male in his 20s, employed by a branch of the military and with top-secret security clearance.
Most of the time, he volunteered at a Soviet embassy or consulate and (at least since the early 1960s) was primarily motivated to spy by a desire for money rather than by ideological conviction. He would usually get away with it for at least a year or so before being caught, and then he would receive an average prison sentence of 20 years to life.
Among the spies of that period was John Walker. His capture in 1985 touched off what later became known as the “year of the spy” because of the 11 espionage arrests that year. A Navy radioman, Walker began spying in the late 1960s and passed on to the KGB top-secret key cards that enabled the Soviets to decrypt much of the Navy’s most highly classified communications. In return, he received, by some estimates, more than $1 million over his 17 years as an active spy. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Today’s spies, it turns out, are different. The spies of the 1990s and the 21st century are more politically motivated and they have turned the Internet, the newest tool in espionage tradecraft, to their advantage. And they have “grayed.”
These are among the conclusions of a new study, released in March, by the Pentagon’s little-known Defense Personnel Security Research Center, which examined the changing nature of espionage from 1947 to 2007. According to the study, which compared 173 espionage cases after separating them into three groups based on when they started spying, the profile of today’s spy is far more nuanced and harder to stereotype. Still overwhelmingly male, he is more likely to be nonwhite and married, in his 40s with college and graduate degrees, and also with business, friends or relatives overseas.
The modern spy is more than twice as likely to be a civilian than a member of the armed forces. And while the new-age spy will likely only be able to get his hands on secret -- as opposed to top-secret -- documents, he also will use much more ingenuity in acquiring the information, including conning others to get it for him.
The risky days of walking into an embassy to volunteer as a spy are also over. Both Walker and Ronald Pelton, who worked for the National Security Agency, took that route when, years apart, they walked in the front door of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. FBI cameras, hidden behind one-way windows in an office building across the street, captured only the backs of their heads. Embassy workers then sneaked them out of the compound in the back of a van.
Aldrich Ames also volunteered while in the embassy, but he was authorized to go there as part of his counterintelligence duties at the CIA.
Today’s spy, according to the Pentagon study, is far more likely to use the Internet to contact foreign governments or terrorists and volunteer his services, as if signing up for Facebook. “Since 1990, the use of embassies has decreased,” the study says, “while more individuals have chosen a new communications innovation: 13% of volunteers since 1990 turned to the Internet, including seven of the 11 most recent cases since 2000 that used the Internet to initiate offers of espionage.”
Obviously, post-Cold War spies are finding new governments -- and groups -- to spy for. FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who passed secrets to Russia for more than two decades, until he was caught in 2001, may be the last of a dying breed. The country of choice for 87% of American spies during the Cold War was the Soviet Union, but by the 1990s that figure had dropped to just 15%.
The focus of spies has now mostly shifted east. The percentage who work on behalf of Asian and Southeast Asian countries has risen from 5% in the 1950s and 1960s to 12% in the 1970s and 1980s, and to 26% since 1990. Cuba, with so many exiles in Florida, has also become a key recipient of American secrets. Al Qaeda has made significant inroads as well -- with one American having stolen and passed classified documents and other materials to aides of Osama bin Laden, and four others known to have tried to spy for the organization or other terrorist groups since the mid-1980s.
For anyone at the CIA or the Pentagon who might be considering moonlighting as a spy, the report offers a warning: “Since 1990, American spies have been poorly paid.” In fact, the proportion of those who received no payment at all for espionage increased from 34% before 1980 to 59% during the 1980s and to 81% since 1990.
And that’s not all. At the same time that the ability to make money from spying has decreased, the chances of doing time in prison have increased -- dramatically. During the 1970s, when the Justice Department attempted to turn American spies working for the Soviets into double agents rather than jail them, 22% served no time in prison. The idea seldom worked, so by the 1990s, 94% of those convicted ended up in the slammer. On the bright side (for the spies), there has been a trend toward judges imposing shorter sentences.
But the biggest change in espionage is in the motivation to commit the act in the first place. The multinational, globalized spy of 2008 is less tempted by money than by ideology and “divided loyalty” -- loyalty to both the U.S. and another country. “Spying for divided loyalties is the motive that demonstrates the most significant change of all motives since 1990,” the study notes, “with 57% spying solely as a result of divided loyalties.”
Among the most recent cases cited in the study was that of Lawrence Franklin, a South Asia specialist with a top-secret/sensitive compartmented information clearance who worked from 2002 to 2003 in the Pentagon for Douglas Feith, one of the key neoconservative architects of the Iraq war. Franklin fit the profile of the 21st century spy. He was well-educated, earning a doctorate in Asian studies, and was uninterested in making money from spying. Instead, he represents a dangerous new type of spy -- someone who uses espionage to try to change U.S. foreign policy for his own purposes.
“In the 1990s, he developed a strong disagreement with the trend of American foreign policy toward Iran,” says the study. “Starting in April 1999 and continuing until August 2004, Franklin tried to manipulate foreign policy by sharing classified information with various Israeli contacts, including Naor Gilon, the political officer in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and two lobbyists for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman.” Both Franklin, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison, and the Israeli lobbyists, who are awaiting trial, wanted the U.S. to adopt a much more aggressive policy toward Iran. To help accomplish this, the two senior AIPAC officials allegedly hoped to turn Franklin, who had taken up Israel’s cause after spending some time in the country, into an Israeli agent-of-influence by placing him “by the elbow of the president” in the National Security Council, according to an FBI wiretap.
And that was also what Franklin wanted. According to the report, “his self-importance, taking American foreign policy into his own hands by leaking classified information to the Israelis in hopes they, in turn, would influence the NSC, was bolstered by other motives, including his ambition to get a job with the NSC.”
When spies attempt to secretly manipulate U.S. foreign policy to benefit another nation in the most dangerous part of the world, the Middle East, actions that could easily trigger a nuclear war, the old days of dead drops and microdots don’t seem so bad.