Belonging and betrayal

More evidence surfaced recently to support the truism that one country’s traitor can become another country’s hero.

In October, Queen Elizabeth honored Oleg Gordievsky, formerly a senior KGB officer and double agent for the British who defected to the West in 1985, naming him Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. After the ceremony Gordievsky was photographed with Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and the Cold War’s Iron Maiden managed a smile for the camera.

In November, in what The Times of London called “tit-for-tat,” Vladimir Putin’s Russia awarded the Order of Friendship to George Blake, a former MI6 agent who had spied for the Soviet Union. Blake was honored at his 85th birthday celebration in Moscow. (The Times described Blake as a “notorious traitor” in the lead sentence of his story, displaying an uncharacteristic lack of Anglo reserve.) “It is hard to overrate the importance of the information received through Blake,” explained Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Blake, who betrayed numerous MI6 operatives to the KGB before his 1961 detection and apprehension, escaped from prison and fled to the Soviet Union in 1966. He is apparently unrepentant about his role as a double agent, telling the English-language Russia Today cable television network:

I could have left the service, and I could have joined the Communist Party, and I could have sold the Daily Worker at a street corner, and many people would say that would have been a more honorable cause. But I felt that I could do more for the cause, make a far greater contribution if I set aside my scruples.

Also in November Putin saw fit to posthumously honor a previously obscure American double agent, George Koval, awarding him the Hero of Russia medal for his role in penetrating the Manhattan Project, which developed America’s atomic bomb. Koval, dubbed the “spy who came in from the cornfields,” had what William J. Broad of the New York Times called “an all-American cover“: born in Iowa, educated in New York, and by all accounts a decent baseball player (a sport also beloved by Fidel Castro).

Whether Koval’s spying actually “helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own,” as the Russians claimed, is unknowable, given that the KGB and GRU archives have been closed to Western scholars. Putin’s intelligence agencies are fully capable of trying to rewrite history to shield other double agents, even those long gone, or to obscure the true outlines of the conspiracy.

There is some irony here, of course; Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval all earned these national decorations for their treachery, for behavior (lying, double dealing, revealing secrets, betraying trust) that is normally considered beyond the pale in any other circumstances by all civilized communities.

Their betrayals are not completely symmetrical, however, for they betrayed different societies: Blake and Koval conspired against the tolerant liberal Western democracies of Great Britain and the United States, while Gordiesvsky’s covert work was directed against a totalitarian police state. Certainly we can judge Gordiesvky’s treason differently; an argument can be made that he chose the lesser of two evils in spying on his colleagues, even if we don’t fully endorse the 17th century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s belief that “treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny.” And history suggests that Gordiesvky chose correctly, in the broadest sense.

The complexity of betrayal

This may all be true, and yet “honoring” a double agent, even a Gordiesvsky, can be tricky, an exercise fraught with ambiguity. What is being honored? Motives or results? Many of these agents became spies for reasons more personal than political. If their treachery was spurred by circumstance, rather than conviction or principle, should it be judged differently? (Which brings to mind the words of Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the worst treason/ To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”)

Blake’s comments to Russia Today raised another complication for those who may be tempted to admire the “courage” of the double agent: Soviet moles in the West consciously chose to support the Communist cause covertly, instead of openly espousing their Marxist-Leninist beliefs. They could have opposed Western political systems directly and openly. Instead, they chose to “set aside their scruples,” as Blake did, and abandon those decadent bourgeois notions of patriotism, integrity, trust, and honor.

It is ironic, then, that some revisionist historians still try to find something honorable in the actions of those American Communists who spied for Stalin, arguing, as has Ellen Schrecker, that these men and women “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.” Gordiesvsky and other Iron Curtain spies, on the other hand, did not have the option of open political activism, unless they hankered for the Gulag or execution.

In considering the decisions made in the 1930s and 1940s, we should remember that many Americans and Britons opposed the rise of Hitler and Mussolini without volunteering to spy on their friends and colleagues. While the archival research of historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr has convincingly demonstrated the close connection between the American Communist Party leadership and Soviet-directed espionage, those who decided to spy for the KGB nevertheless had to elect to do so. The historical record shows that some refused to take that step; others agreed to disloyalty.

The mind of the traitor

What, then, compels people to betray their country? Historians, psychiatrists, and intelligence experts offer explanations which can be broadly grouped into three categories: betrayal for money; betrayal for ideological or political reasons; and betrayal linked to a spy’s personality. All of these factors can come into play in the making of a traitor.

The mercenary strain of double agent was prevalent during the last few decades of the Cold War: Aldrich H. Ames, Robert P. Hanssen, Earl Edwin Pitts, and John Anthony Walker, Jr., all accepted payment from the Soviets in exchange for classified information. These cases represented a break from the more ideologically-prompted espionage of the past.

Indeed, until the mid-1960s ideological commitment was the most common reason for spying against the U.S. or its Western allies. For example, historian Maurice Isserman, in his essay “Disloyalty As a Principle: Why Communists Spied” (published in 2000) argued that American Communists who doubled for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s did so because they felt they were “serving a greater cause,” what Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev called “romantic anti-fascism.” While Isserman conceded that some of this spying resulted from “the same complicated mixtures of reasons that almost always motivate people to break with accepted patterns of behavior and belief,” he nonetheless saw principle as a primary motivation.

Yet the more we learn about the psychology of the double agent, the less ideology alone appears to be a factor. The narcissistic excitement of wielding secret power, of revenging imagined or actual slights, of converting alienation into action, at some level seems more vital to the traitor than does “serving the cause.” Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, wrote in his now de-classified 1975 paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, was a characteristic quality found in many double agents; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” Thus being passed over for promotion often triggered the spying, as it did with GRU mole Oleg Penkovsky, whose career was blocked because of his father’s past as a White Russian officer. (Penkovsky was discovered, convicted after a show trial, and executed by the Soviets in 1963).

This narcissism is often coupled with feelings of isolation, alienation, and marginalization. As Harold “Kim” Philby, who betrayed both Crown and country during the Cold War, once explained: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” A sense of separation, of “not fitting in,” can arise from many factors: an awkward childhood; sexual orientation or behavior at odds with societal norms; outsider status (because of religion or class) in a closed community, such as a British public school or an Ivy League college; troubled family relationships; excessive drug and alcohol use; perhaps an innate aversion to authority.

Thus it is possible for even the most privileged members of a society, such as Philby and his fellow Cambridge Spies, Britain’s most infamous spy ring, to feel alienated, often for hidden or private reasons. The Cambridge Five were sexually rebellious in a morally conservative time: Philby and John Cairncross were drawn to adultery and sexual adventure; Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess were closeted homosexuals; and Donald Maclean struggled with his bisexuality.

Another example: while George Blake now claims that it was indiscriminate American bombing of villages during the Korean War that turned him towards Moscow, it is more likely that he was reacting to upper class English anti-Semitism. The son of a Spanish Jew, Blake was spurned as a suitor by the family of a proper English girl because of his background. Joel Barr, who was part of the Rosenberg spy ring, cited the eviction of his family from their Brooklyn apartment during the Depression as what spurred him to become a Communist, and later, a spy (Barr’s story is recounted in Steve Usdin’s Engineering Communism).

Secret compensation

There are compensations, primarily psychic, for becoming a double agent. Whether spying for the KGB, CIA, or MI6, the betrayer joins a welcoming new community, one that has not injured him and can help him settle old scores. The betrayer finally belongs. (Not surprisingly, intelligence agencies have often awarded secret medals and other honors, including high rank, to the double agent—recognizing that “insatiable appetite for recognition.”) In Alan Furst’s historical novel, Night Soldiers, the young Russians and Eastern Europeans recruited into the NKVD find they have joined a family of sorts, one that responds harshly to injustice and punishes its enemies. There is also the added pleasure of hitting back, secretly, at those who have wronged the double agent.

Intelligence agency talent spotters have long recognized the profile of the potential mole. As Ben Macintyre of The Times of London has noted, the KGB’s Pavel Sudoplatov looked for those “…who are hurt by fate or nature —the ugly, those craving power or influence but defeated by unfavorable circumstances. In co-operation with us, all these find a peculiar compensation. The sense of belonging to an influential, powerful organization will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them.”

Macintyre adds: “As a trade, espionage attracts more than its share of the damaged, the lonely and the plain weird. But all spies crave undetected influence, that secret compensation. Espionage may spring from patriotism or treachery, but ultimately it is an act of imagination.”

Timeless concerns

If the Cold War drama involving Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval seemed a trifle dated, news reports in November of the discovery of a possible mole in the CIA with ties to the radical group Hezbollah served as a reminder that the dynamics of betrayal are timeless.

Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese national who became an American citizen and had been employed by both the FBI and CIA, pleaded guilty to “charges of conspiracy, naturalization fraud and unauthorized computer access” and, according to court documents “at one point used her security clearance to access restricted files about the terrorist group Hezbollah.”

U.S. authorities said there was no evidence that Prouty had passed secrets to Hezbollah, but, as the Washington Post noted, Prouty’s “ability to conceal her past from two of the nation’s top anti-terrorism agencies raised new concerns about their vulnerability to infiltration.”

Whether Prouty’s crimes represented a serious security breach or not (and in a reflection of the inter-agency distrust endemic to Washington, the Daily News reported that former FBI and CIA officials disagreed on this question), her case is both disturbing and yet quite predictable. In fact, it’s safe to say it will not be the last time Western intelligence agencies confront their “vulnerability to infiltration.” Why should the “War on Terror” prove any different when it comes to the matter of betrayal?


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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