Inside the Mind of the Spy: Agents Struggle in the Shadows

Every few years, major news breaks about spying, with stories of spectacular heroism and shocking betrayal. What goes on in the mind of those who inhabit the clandestine world?

In early May, the world learned of a real example of heroic espionage. Intelligence officials foiled an al Qaeda plot to bring down a plane by having a suicide operative smuggle on board a nonmetallic exploding device concealed beneath his clothing. It has been widely reported in the media that the plot failed because the operative chosen by AQ was in fact a agent of British or Saudi Intelligence Services. For those of us in the business, it was rare to see an agent’s heroism come to light, though we get to witness their bravery covertly on a routine basis in our daily work. What do people outside the clandestine world not see?

Many Spies Are Not Heroic

Intelligence officers who handle espionage sources—variously called informants, assets, or agents, to distinguish them from the professionals—and the psychologists they consult with study the motives of agents closely. These motivations are often self-serving. Some want money, or the excitement of a James Bond adventure, or to believe they are playing dramatic, if hidden, roles in historical events. Some are aggrieved and seek revenge. Some agents spy as a kind of sport. They like sneaking around and manipulating others, and feel superior to their oblivious targets drawn into hidden games of secrecy and deception.

In Some Places, Only Heroes Will Spy

Heroic spies are an entirely different type of human being, set apart from ordinary clandestine players not by the tradecraft they use—which is universal—but by their fundamental values. Their motives are not self-serving—the risks of espionage in the contexts they serve in are too high to draw in selfish people. They are morally revolted by their targets’ conduct and dismayed at the future they’re intent on building or have already actualized.

It is nearly impossible for intelligence professionals to keep agents safe when they are spying against groups such as the current terrorist targets—as was also the case with Soviet Russia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Most sane prospective spies realistically assessing the ruthlessness and counterintelligence capabilities of targets like al Qaeda choose to stand down from entering espionage. Heroic agents are the small group of sane people who make the same assessments, but make a different choice.

The Losses and Stress Can Be Punishing

A case-officer colleague of mine, formerly a member of an elite military combat unit, was handling a source who was captured and then killed in the village square in front of friends and relatives by terrorists using the drawn-out methods worthy of medieval torturers. As we discussed the nature of his lost agent, my colleague remarked that the world had lost that day an unrecognized prince, a noble and civilized man whose war flag—if the work of spies permitted such emblems of service—should have been flown high at his funeral and included symbols of both an eagle and a dove. Another case officer in the war zones called me late one night at headquarters to ask if there was any way he could demonstrate human sympathy or emotional empathy and concern to his agent, without “unmanning” him, in the scant 15 minutes of furtive conversation they could manage for their clandestine meetings. They worked in an operational context in which all meetings between intelligence officers and sources were high-threat and therefore necessarily infrequent and swift. Despite these working conditions and ever-mounting dangers the agent continued his espionage unabated, such was his dedication to countering the extremists taking over his religion and his homeland and murdering people at will, such as his son.

The Psychological Toll May Linger

Just as they face outward physical dangers, agents face many inner psychological adversities. These pressures in the psyche are as taxing as physical hardships. Furthermore, while physical hazards and hardships disappear once the active espionage is over, the psychological toll can linger.

The Cost of Secrecy: the Solitary Self

Intelligence agents lead double lives, requiring them to regularly deceive other people, and not just their targets. It is not easy for a person with a solid social conscience to sustain a lifestyle that involves covertly influencing or controlling others through lies. Agents can come to feel subtly detached or separated from other people, feelings that may persist even when they resume their normal lives once their espionage is over.

These psychological burdens of detachment and loneliness are acute while the agents are deployed and living their covers among their targets, where the seemingly trusting social relationships they have built with targets are mostly false, based on lies and manipulation. Sometimes they frankly despise the targets they are pretending to admire. Their real personalities are buried under layers of clandestinity; there is no one there who is aware of their true status, other than themselves. One particularly self-aware agent described his psychological situation while deployed as a form of solitary confinement, with his own skull his prison cell.

Maintaining Cover Persona Is Psychologically Demanding

Furthermore, the fictional cover personas created for espionage contexts are more often than not unpleasant. For example, for counterterrorism operations the extremist personas built by agents are often gullible and weak-willed in relation to ideological indoctrination, cruel, arrogant, intolerant, and neglectful of personal responsibilities toward dependents outside of the group. Agents must find within themselves the seeds of unattractive qualities such as ruthlessness, selfishness, and hypocrisy in order to credibly create and carry off cover personalities, while remembering that the “person” they are inhabiting is not their real self. Manipulating the mechanisms of one’s personality in this manner is very psychologically demanding, requiring layers of self-awareness, self-monitoring, and self-discipline.

Maintaining Cover Is Paramount, No Matter the Test

Agents in today’s counterterrorism contexts are frequently required—in order to fit in with their target groups—to watch gruesome extremist videos, while the audiences are reveling in the violence. The agent would have to play along with the mood of the crowd to maintain cover, irrespective of personal feelings and reactions. One deeply religious agent struggled with powerful feelings of rage, disgust, and sympathy while watching such a video with his target group. It included scenes from the 9/11 attacks—of people jumping to their deaths from the top floors of the twin towers in New York. While the people surrounding the agent greeted each jump with laughter, cheers, and applause, he took internal comfort from the fact that some of the people in the video were clearly composing themselves by praying before leaping— closing their eyes and joining their palms, or crossing themselves. Some held hands with others and leapt together. The dignity these people demonstrated—in such contrast to the jeering crowd around him—calmed and sustained the agent internally, even while his “cover persona” was cheering along at the thrill of watching victims jumping to their deaths out of burning skyscrapers.

We Owe Them, But We May Never Know Them

We need to remember that we owe many of our spies respect and understanding. We should contain our illusions that they are in pursuit of exciting adventures in espionage. Their real work in espionage is physically and psychologically unforgiving and anything but exotic. Heroic spies lie and manipulate, they pretend to be what they are not, and they face terrible reprisals if detected. They perform their clandestine term of service among the worst of humanity in order to protect what is best, and do not expect to enjoy public applause when their espionage is complete. They play a direct role in saving anonymous lives—those who will never know they were saved, let alone who saved them. This is a singular form of heroism, that is ongoing on our behalf, in the shadows, all over the world.