How ordinary people are convinced to become spies

<span class="caption">Benedict Cumberbatch plays British businessman Greville Wynne who gets caught up in espionage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Liam Daniel</span></span>
Benedict Cumberbatch plays British businessman Greville Wynne who gets caught up in espionage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Liam Daniel

A new film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, The Courier, tells the story of the salesman, Grenville Wynne, caught up in the murky world of espionage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This follows recent news that David Smith, a 57-year-old and apparently normal security guard at the British embassy in Berlin, has allegedly been spying for Russia. So why do seemingly ordinary people become spies?

In 1988 the KGB defector, Stanislav Levchenko, described an American mnemonic, Mice, which stands for “money”, “ideology”, “coercion/compromise” and “ego”. Susceptibility to these factors, he claimed, was a target’s key weakness that could be exploited.


Officials in debt are ripe targets for recruiters. For instance, in 1935, Captain John Herbert King, a cypher clerk for the British Foreign Office, had a problem. He was estranged from his wife, harboured expensive tastes, had a son and mistress to maintain, and only took home a small salary – and no pension. As such, he proved a ripe target for recruitment by Soviet intelligence. He was approached by Henri Pieck, a Soviet spy, who pretended to be a businessman and high-society flyer. Pieck convinced the cypher clerk that, if he wished to support his family, money was required.

King agreed to supply Foreign Office secrets, which he was led to believe would be used to provide Pieck and a Dutch bank a stock market advantage. King was promised a share of these profits amounting to £100 a month. The arrangement came to an end in 1937, when his handler was recalled to Moscow during Stalin’s purges. King was arrested in 1939 and sentenced to ten years in prison.


Some people are willing to risk life and limb for their beliefs. One such individual was Donald Maclean, who attended the University of Cambridge. Maclean already had left-wing views which grew into an ideological belief in the justness of the Soviet’s communist cause.

Photo portrait of Donald Maclean

In his final year, in 1934, he was recruited by the NKVD (a Soviet secret police agency, a forerunner of the KGB) and instructed to give up on his political activism and enter the British establishment. He soon sat the civil service exams and joined the Foreign Office, where he acted as one of the most damaging spies of his generation.

Maclean was not alone, he was a member of the Cambridge Ring of Five, which included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Each of whom was recruited into Soviet service during or shortly after their time at Cambridge. As a result of their orthodox, respectable Cambridge educations, each was able to enter the most sensitive areas of the British state, not least the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (GC and CS at the time). In 1951, with the net closing in, Maclean and Burgess escaped to Moscow.

Coercion or compromise

In 1946, John Vassall took a job as the assistant to the naval attaché in Britain’s Moscow embassy. He was, however, harbouring a secret. Vassall was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Those convicted of homosexuality faced custodial sentences.

The KGB discovered Vassall’s secret and orchestrated several compromising photographs to use as blackmail. Shortly after, in 1956, Vassall was transferred back to London and into naval intelligence.

From there he could provide a steady stream of secret information, including technical secrets regarding radar and weapons. This arrangement, for which Vassall was well remunerated, lasted until 1962 when Vassall was arrested following the defection of the KGB officer, Anatoli Golitsyn. In 1962, following a massive scandal that rocked the Macmillan government, Vassall was sentenced to 18 years in prison and was released in 1972.


For some, espionage is an opportunity to secretly manipulate people around them and to prove their superiority. An FBI agent and Soviet spy from 1976 to 2001, Robert Hanssen clearly fit that category.

portrait photo of Robert Hanssen.

Hanssen seemingly enjoyed an ordinary life as a happily-married suburbanite yet lived a double life as a spy – complete with an affair with an exotic dancer whom he lavished with expensive gifts. He also secretly filmed his sex life with his wife and invited others, without telling her, to watch.

Money was an initial motive, Hanssen received $1.43 million (£1 million) in cash and diamonds from his handlers. However, he was an attention-seeker who felt snubbed by an FBI which, in his estimation, failed to recognise his abilities. His two-decade career as a double agent, which included revealing the identities of at least nine US assets in the Soviet Union, was an opportunity for excitement and to demonstrate his superiority over his colleagues in the FBI.

Hanssen is currently serving 15 consecutive life sentences and his espionage has described by the US Department of Justice as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”.

While we might imagine James Bond or Jason Bourne when we think of espionage, real spies are ordinary people – albeit often with unusual problems and psychologies. Though a crude tool, Mice provides us with some insight into what motivates such dangerous and extraordinary behaviour.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Chris Smith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.