Saturday, November 13, 2010

Treason - The Motivation of Modern Defectors


Nidal Hasan
Only one year ago, a US Army Psychologist (Major, by rank) who was a militant Muslim-extremist, entered a pre-deployment processing center on Fort Hood, and proceeded to gun down everyone he could find.  The death toll was 13 (News 8 Austin 2010).  The incident sparked a tragic, but necessary, interest in countering the threat from within the ranks of not just the US Army, but throughout the Department of Defense and the Federal Government.  Since that terrible day, the buzzword has been “insider threat.”  A logical extension of this line of thought has also sparked renewed emphasis in Counterintelligence (CI).

By far the most often asked question following a tragedy as this is, “Why?”  The CI professional must ask a derivative of this same question.  What motivates a person to betray his country and its secrets?  This paper will seek to answer that one question for a particular demographic of betrayers:  the defector.  What motivates this ultimate betrayer of his country and people?  Why does this individual make so public a statement as to abandon all allegiance to his former life, family, friends, and countrymen?  This paper is not an exhaustive exposition on this subject, but rather a concentration on several case studies with an emphasis on their commonalities.

The standard theory behind why people commit espionage is summarized by the age-old acronym M.I.C.E. which stands for Money, Ideology, Compromise (or Coercion), and Ego1.  Though this author believes this largely holds true for simple espionage, this paper will demonstrate that the Ego is the primary motivating factor in the ultimate betrayal of defection.  Ideology plays a significant part in most of decisions to defect, but is not the deciding factor.  In simple espionage, M.I.C.E. may hold true, but for this irrevocable act, the ego is king.  Money and compromise are simply not factors in defection.  This paper will show the presence of ego in all case studies.  For brevity and simplicity’s sake, these case studies cover only defections that took place during the Cold War.  They include both Western and Soviet defectors.

Ideology as a motivator is most likely only a recent development in both espionage and defection.  Up until the overthrow of monarchial governments and institution of competing forms of what started as ‘popular’ forms of government (Marxism/socialism and democratic republics) aside from money and ego, the most likely contributing factor was nationality or a similar allegiance to tribe, race, etcetera.  Upon the installation of these competing ideologies in Western governments, ideological values that transcended borders and nationalities largely took their place as a factor in espionage and especially defection.

The human ego, is still the great unknown.  In this paper, the word ego and self will be used interchangeably.  This author will use the classical definition of ego, which simply put is the self.  The study of self is a never-ending one and no true unifying theory exists that can adequately explain the reasons for why people do the things they do.  The layman understands the M.I.C.E definition of ego as to mean the spy, or in this case, the defector having allegiance solely to himself, and that the dangerous game of espionage and defection satisfies the perpetrator’s massive sense of self.  This is partly accurate, but its simplicity misses many of the myriad of psychological issues that are usually present in individuals who defect.

The Cambridge Defectors

By far the biggest spy story of the Twentieth Century is the saga of the British citizens who spied for Moscow:  Kim Philby, Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross.  Because much has already been written on these infamous spies, this paper will only highlight several points of their enterprise.  Prior to Philby’s 1949 posting in the United States as liaison officer of the Secret Intelligence Service, he was read into the Venona project (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 155).  Startled, Philby realized the British knew of his ring’s penetrations.  Though no one was named in the intercepts, it would not take investigators long to discern their identities.  In 1951, after reading a particularly specific decrypt, Philby knew MacLean would be imminently identified; thus he sent word to Burgess for him and MacLean to escape.  Burgess and MacLean complied, and both traveled to Moscow, officially defecting (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 54, 55).  Following MacLean’s and Burgess’ defection, Philby was marred by suspicion in the entire debacle and fired from his position.  After evidence began to show his involvement, Philby too defected in 1963 (Haynes, Klehr 1999).
Guy Burgess

As their recruitment happened near the height of international Communist ideological attraction, the Cambridge spies were officially ideologues, providing states’ secrets for the furtherance of international Communism, however several underlying personal problems probably had more to do with their decisions to first commit espionage, and then defect.  MacLean, for example was frequently involved in drunken escapades.  In 1950, while at a posting in Cairo and following a night of severe alcohol abuse, vandalism, and acts of rage, MacLean was recalled to meet with a psychiatrist.  The diagnosis was “overwork, marital problems, and repressed homosexuality” (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 154).  Burgess was an alcoholic and a homosexual, and eventually died in the Soviet Union from his alcoholism (Gardham 2009).  As an aside, their comrade Blunt was a homosexual as well.

The NSA Defectors

In 1959 a National Security Agency (NSA) employee, Bernon Mitchell visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City and requested political asylum.  He rebuffed attempts by the KGB to remain in place and spy for them.  Instead, in the summer of 1960, Mitchell and his co-conspirator, William Martin, flew through Mexico and Cuba to the Soviet Union while on annual leave.  Once there, they supplied the Soviets with what they knew of NSA secrets, to include disclosure of a program in which the US eavesdropped on allied countries’ diplomatic communications (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 178, 179).

William Martin and Bernon Mitchell
 At the time of their defection, news reports blamed their decision on their alleged homosexuality.  Though this claim is possibly not entirely accurate (Anderson 2007), they did display some very abnormal sexual behavior and/or psychological problems.  Martin sought professional help in the late 1940s and “’[his] condition was diagnosed as a beginning character neurosis with schizoid tendencies. It was also believed that Martin was sadistic’” (Anderson 2007).  Mitchell as well, on his recruitment to the NSA, “admit[ed] to six years of ‘sexual experimentations’ up to the age of nineteen with dogs and chickens” (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 178).

Robert Lee Johnson

In 1953, US Army Sergeant, Robert Lee Johnson crossed from West Berlin into the Soviet sector and requested political asylum.  The KGB managed to persuade Johnson to stay in the West and spy for them.  For ten years, Johnson did so before defector Yuri Nosenko’s revelation of his betrayal caught up with him in 1964.  At the time of Johnson’s defection attempt he was “disaffected” and “a part-time pimp” (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 177).  Johnson also attempted to bring his “prostitute fiancĂ©, Hedy” with him (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 177).  Johnson managed to keep placement and access to information of interest to his handlers “despite his involvement in prostitution, alcohol abuse, and gambling (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 178).

Arkady N. Shevchenko

Arkady Shevchenko
Arkady Shevchenko was the Undersecretary General of the United Nations when he defected to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1978.  Shevchenko made certain the acceptor of his defection was aware of his motivations.  He stated that “it [wasn’t] money or comfort … [he and his wife had] a good apartment in Moscow filled with fine things; [they] had anything [they] want[ed].  [They had] a dacha … plenty of money, plenty… It’s that in exchange [he had] to be as obedient to the system as a robot to his master – and [he] no longer believe[d] in the system” (Shevchenko 1985, 8).

On the surface, Shevchenko’s motivation was entirely ideological.  He claimed his defection stemmed from his disgust at the Soviet system.  As he stated, his material needs were more than adequately provided.  So if his life was comfortable, why did he defect?  In this author’s opinion, it was a matter of control.  Total control of his life was something unattainable under the Soviet system.  Defection may have indicated an attempt to gain the control that he lacked.

Aleksei Myagkov

Aleksei Myagkov was a KGB Capitan posted to a Motorized Rifles Regiment in East Berlin when he defected to the West in 1974.  Myagkov’s decision to defect was the culmination of a lifetime of observation of the corruption, lies, and oppression of the Communist Party.  The first thing he mentions in his account of the defection is the organized persecution of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.  He states that contrary to the religious traditions of the common Soviet citizen, the Party indoctrinated Party members from youth to despise religion.  Any student in the educational system that was found to harbor religious views was systematically mocked, ridiculed, and denigrated (Myagkov 1976, 10).  When Myagkov graduated from his officers’ training school and he received his second lieutenant’s rank, he observed the vast difference of treatment, lifestyle, and food availability and quality afforded the conscripted privates of his unit to that provided his officer corps.  He further questioned the system that left so much of the local townspeople destitute and hungry while he was well paid and well fed (Myagkov 1976, 12, 13).  Myagkov knew better than to voice his concerns and instead planned his escape from the Army by seeking employment in the KGB.

Myagkov’s motivation for defection also appears entirely ideological.  His disgust over years of observing the abuses of the Communist system led to an incapability of tolerating it.2  This ideological compulsion notwithstanding, in this author’s opinion, Myagkov’s writing has a very arrogant, egotistical tone to it.  In his account of his escape, Myagkov criticizes the West German law enforcement personnel many times for not displaying a sense of urgency in aiding his flight (Myagkov 1976, 4-8).  This author is convinced, though he cannot demonstratively prove it, that Myagkov had an unhealthy high view of himself and no doubt this ego was a contributing factor to his decision.

Anatoliy Golitsyn

In December of 1961, Anatoliy Golitsyn, a KGB officer stationed in Helsinki, Finland, defected to the United States.  He was an officer of the CI discipline, was extremely paranoid, had a severely overinflated sense of self-importance, and had a history of sensational claims (Ashley 2004, 264-266).  For instance, Golitsyn claimed the recent Sino-Soviet split as well as the “Prague Spring” were KGB deception operations aimed at the West (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 185).

Anatoliy Golitsyn
Golitsyn’s paranoia and arrogance were certainly contributing factors to his decision.  Golitsyn demanded a personal audience with President Kennedy (Ashley 2004, 265).  He warned of a penetration named “Sasha” who was never found but was alleged to be in the highest strata of the CIA (Ashley 2004, 264).  At one point, even James Jesus Angleton himself, the head of CI at the agency was under suspicion of being this “Sasha” (Ashley 2004, 288).  Lastly, and most damagingly to the US Intelligence Community, he claimed that the KGB would send false ‘defectors’ as provocateurs to denounce him (Ashley 2004, 266).

Yuri Nosenko

Yuri Nosenko remains a seriously controversial figure in the Intelligence Community.  Nosenko is alternately seen as a legitimate defector or a controlled asset in a deliberate KGB-controlled offensive CI operation (OFCO).  What is clear is that Nosenko met with a CIA officer in Geneva in 1962 while he was posted there to participate in a round of arms negotiations.  He requested money for drugs for his sick daughter that he could not get in the Soviet Union, and in turn provided them with information on Soviet assets within Western governments (Ashley 2004, 267, 368).  Nosenko agreed to a communications plan for a possible future meeting should the opportunity present itself.  Two years later, it did.  In 1964, Nosenko returned to Geneva as part of another arms control negotiation team and provided further information to include the fact that the KGB had nothing to do with the recent assassination of President Kennedy (Ashley 2004, 273).  It was during this series of meetings, in which he also demanded to defect.

Yuri Nosenko and J. J. Angleton
 The prevailing opinion today is that Nosenko was a legitimate defector and that the inconsistencies and deceptions he displayed were indicative of a somewhat unstable man seeking to exaggerate his own importance and bona fides in order to accelerate his defection.  There are, however, many still today, including noted author, former CIA officer, and his first handler, Tennent Bagley, who believe Nosenko was a grand KGB OFCO operation.  In the appendix, this author provides his own belief and explanation on the Nosenko saga.

Nosenko’s motivation for defection, if one is to take it as legitimate, then is instructive for the purposes of this essay.  He sought to recover “squandered” money from a recent “drinking spree” and was driven by concern for the health of his daughter (Ashley 2004, 268).  Even at his first meeting with Bagley, Nosenko drank and asked for money (Bagley 2007, 6).  Further on in his debriefing (a loaded term in this case as it is most likely these interviews were conducted under hostile circumstances) process, Nosenko “turned to drink, heavy drink” (Ashley 2004, 279).  Nosenko also admitted to lying about his rank within the KGB (Ashley 2004, 282).  In short Nosenko had a severely unstable ego.  His case seems to provide the only counter-evidence to this author’s hypothesis that money plays no significant part as he sought to recoup the cost of binge drinking.  However, psychologist, Dr. Michael Gelles of the Naval Criminal and Investigative Service, says, regarding espionage, that all people have natural greed, or want for money, and that the decision to exchange information for money is not made due to this natural tendency, it is rather the end result of a long, contemplative process in which the person’s mental processes are the deciding factor (Gelles n.d.).


Frederick Hitz, retired CIA officer, draws on former KGB case officer Victor Cherkashin’s statement that “no spy does it purely for ideological reasons” to support his contention that the motivations for spying are far too deep, entangled, and tied to the complexities of the human psyche to be fully understood (Hitz 2005, 732).  No doubt ideology normally plays a significant role, as seen in these case studies, yet Hitz is very correct in his statement.  In each of these examples, the defectors share many common psychological abnormalities.  Clearly all were outside the mainstream culture.  Arguably Myagkov and Shevchenko displayed the least of these characteristics, though the source material this author used was written by them, no doubt, concealing some of their true ego.

Psychologists have also attempted to define a singular commonality that defectors share.  Dr. Humberto, Nagera from the University of Michigan links, at least the Cambridge spies, to poor father figures.  Nagera argues that the poor relationship with their fathers from a very young age developed into a narcissistic personality.  This nascent narcissism was then confronted in their early development by the Freudian view of the Oedipal conflict.  This view of Freud, simply stated, is a psychological explanation of childhood rebellion in which the developing boy seeks to usurp his father and posses his mother.  When the father does not adequately assert his authority over his son and keep possession of the mother, the normal sexual and mental development of the male child is altered.  Nagera argues that with a weak, absent, or resented male role-model, these Oedipal conflicts likely led to their sexually abnormal behavior (clearly seen in both the Cambridge spies and Mitchell and Martin cases).  This failure of the father-figures to give the healthy doses of love, discipline, and leadership to their children led these betrayers to have vast amounts of hatred.  This hatred combined with another heretofore unidentified quality (or defect) causes the spy to “act out” his hatred on the father-substitute – his government, business, organization, unit, or etcetera (Nagera 2002).

Nagera’s explanation does seem to fit at least the Cambridge and early NSA spies, and possibly the rest of the defectors who displayed abnormal egos.  But this simplification most likely could not be a unified theory on what motivates defectors.

What conclusions then can be made from the Cambridge and the early NSA defectors and their abnormal behavior?  Did alcoholism, homosexuality, or other abnormal sexual proclivities have a factor to play in their defection?  Liberal apologists such as the aforementioned Seattle newsman, Mr. Anderson, have tried to paint the revelations of Mitchell’s and Martin’s alleged homosexuality, to include private testimony of Mitchell’s psychologist to the House Un-American Activities Committee, as merely a front; a convenient ploy to cover up their true ideological issues with US foreign policy (Anderson 2007).  Anderson draws upon the support of history writer David K. Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare, a book that documents the alleged persecution of gays in the government during the 50s and 60s.  Johnson claims that “to make sense of the defection, [the government] turned to the alleged sexual perversion.

Yet the claims of these apologists do not stand up on their own logic.  They claim that no one was ever successfully black-mailed (Compromise or Coercion according to the acronym) for their sexual improprieties (Johnson 2004), yet how can the fact that Mitchell hid his sexual abnormalities be explained?  How does the fact that Johnson claims there was rampant persecution of homosexuals support the thesis that these very homosexuals would not be subject to blackmail?

Regardless of the validity of the Martin and Mitchell homosexuality claim, or the morality or immorality of societal norms, it logically follows that what is by, definition (especially in the conservative 1950s era), abnormal behavior stigmatizes a person, and the associated loneliness tends to fester within the person, causing feelings of shame, inadequacy, and self-loathing.  Without discussing the religious or traditional moral issues, homosexuality and other sexual abnormal behavior is highly exploitable.

Additionally, several of these characters exhibited excessive alcohol use.  Alcohol abuse does often occur because of guilt, or a desire to escape one’s circumstances or self.  Not every alcoholic drinks because of these factors, but these examples have shown defectors often display this characteristic at a higher rate than the average demographic.


Dr. Michael Gelles
Reflecting Dr. Gelles’ conclusion that mental abnormalities are what cause to person to commit espionage and/or defect, the increasing use of psychology in the granting of security clearances or admittance into special access programs, shows that the federal government is leaning in that direction as well.  Army doctrine for the majority of this author’s military career has stated that money is the overwhelming, number-one motivator for committing espionage (Fischer 2000, 3).  Yet, this paper and psychologists have shown that the financial factor is simply a symptom (at worse) or a non sequitur (at best) of a deeper, psychological disease.  Similarly, the fact that an individual has abnormalities or a potentially embarrassing history does not merely indicate his susceptibility to be compromised, but it points to the root-psychological cause of the said social abnormalities.  Also, ideology, which, in this study is a significant contributing factor, is simply the total of one’s values and beliefs, and therefore also an extension of the self.

The problem that Counterintelligence faces is identifying the factors that lead an individual to commit espionage and/or defect.  For years it has operated under the M.I.C.E. assumption.  This paper has demonstrated that despite the advantages this framework has, there is a fundamentally deeper, root-level, psychological phenomenon that causes these betrayals.  Dr. Gelle’s says spies “usually are emotionally disturbed or suffer from one or more personality disorders. … Of the personality disorders found in spies, the two most common are antisocial personality disorder and narcissism” (Gelles n.d.).  Though there may never be a single unifying theory on the reasons why spies spy or defectors defect, psychologists seem to be looking in the right direction.


Anderson, Rick. "The Worst Internal Scandal in NSA History Was Blamed on Cold War Defectors’ Homosexuality." The Seatle Weekly. July 18, 2007. (accessed November 6, 2010).
Andrew, Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield - The Mitrokhin Archive. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.
Ashley, Clarence. CIA Spymaster. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2004.
Bagley, Tennent. Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.
Fischer, Lynn F. "Espionage: Why Does it Happen?" Department of Energy. October 3, 2000. (accessed November 12, 2010).
Gardham, Duncan. "Harold Macmillan tried to keep spy Guy Burgess out of Britain." The Telegraph. October 28, 2009. (accessed November 8, 2010).
Gelles, Michael. "Exploring the Mind of the Spy." US Department of Agriculture. (accessed November 12, 2010).
Haynes, Klehr. Breaking the Code - Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Hitz, Frederick. "The Myths and Current Reality of Espionage." International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 2005: 730-733.
Johnson, David K. "Interview with David K. Johnson." University of Chicago. 2004. (accessed November 8, 2010).
Myagkov, Aleksei. Inside the KGB. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976.
Nagera, Humberto. "The Psychology of Treason and Self-Pathology." The Carter-Jenkins Center. September 20, 2002. (accessed November 8, 2010).
News 8 Austin. "Survivors share solemn remembrance at Fort Hood." News 8 Austin. November 5, 2010. (accessed November 6, 2010).
Shevchenko, Arkady N. Breaking with Moscow. New York, NY: Knopf, 1985.

1 The precise origin of this acronym is unclear though many writers, including the renowned historian, Christopher Andrew reference it.
2 In his book, Myagkov alludes to contact with a Western intelligence officer for an undetermined period of time prior to his defection.  He does not disclose any details of it to protect the then still-current operations.  This author came across a cached online article for Eye Spy magazine that claimed Myagkov did in fact work for this intelligence officer for two years.  This author has been unable to corroborate this claim however.  It does seem credible, because not much information on Myagkov is available other than his autobiography.


  1. Josh,

    Your article is spot-on with regard to what motivates someone to betray his country. Ego, narcissism, a feeling of superiority seems common. Here is an excerpt of a message I just today sent to someone researching fraud committed by company executives. (My background is in both CI and criminal cases at several federal agencies.)

    "Research of this sort is hampered by the fact that one can only study those who get caught. This leaves us with the unanswerable question of how many are never caught because they are such criminal geniuses that they go undetected, or they steal for a little while but are willing to settle for a smaller gain believing they would eventually be found out if they continue.

    So you can only study the subset of fraudsters who get caught, and like perpetrators of any sort of crime the longer they do it the greater the risk of detection, be they executives, child molesters, bank tellers, whatever.

    I don't believe I ever caught a smart criminal. And they always attributed their apprehension to their own greed combined with the arrogance of believing they would never be found out.

    It might be interesting to see how many of the people in Terry's study fessed up when they were confronted, or the cases had to be proven. It always helps to have a confession. If someone was confronted and they denied doing anything wrong would they have made it into the study?

    On a somewhat related subject, when my work was in the area of counterintelligence we (we being the intelligence community as a whole) were constantly trying to figure out what traits might be predictive of someone committing espionage. I was on a multi-agency committee that could never get beyond looking at the aspects of a person's life that should be glaringly obvious in a background investigation. We looked at all the people who had been caught and found things in their lives that "must" be indicators of an increased risk that they might betray their country.

    Martin and Mitchell, the two NSA employees who defected to the Soviet Union in 1960 were gay so therefore, the government decided homosexuals were higher security risks than heterosexuals.
    Some had financial troubles, or divorce, depression, alcoholism. Whatever was found out about traitors after the fact, became risk factors in the eyes of a lot of people on these kinds of committee studies.

    Forget the fact that there were many people in sensitive positions who led imperfect lives and would not consider turning against their own country.

    My theory, which never achieved any traction is that there is a more fundamental character or personality trait (probably some combination of narcissism, sociopathy, and who knows what else) that would predispose people to use their positions for dishonest gain. If the people who committed espionage worked instead in a retail store they would probably steal cash or merchandise. If they worked in a pharmacy they might be selling pills on the side."

    Doug Wolfe retired federal agent
    Private Investigator

  2. Doug,

    Complete agreement. The aberrant behavior in my opinion is simply a manifestation of the underlying personality abnormality. Or, the being gay, being a drug user, being loose with women and money, are symptoms of a deeper side.

    Thanks for the analysis.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.