Of the 285 species of squirrel, Sciurus secretus is most closely associated with the intelligence community. The reason for this is partly cultural and partly alliterative. As discussed previously at ClearanceJobs, the phrase “secret squirrel” originated in a Cold-War-era cartoon but would soon be associated with everything from Strategic Air Command bombing campaigns (Senior Surprise, 1991 in Iraq) to clandestine prisoner exchange negotiations (Project Ardilla, 2015 in Cuba). For all their glory, however, secret squirrels are not the only spy world rodents to be found dabbling in covert operations. Here are four other trench-coated members of the squirrel family tree.
The term “mole” was first popularized by John le Carré in his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If the secret squirrel is the good guy, the mole is the bad guy. (Unless it’s one of our moles, of course.) A mole is a sleeper agent. They’re recruited by foreign intelligence agencies in the early days of their (i.e. the moles’) respective careers, before anyone would even think to keep an eye out for suspicious activities. Once moles reach positions of prominence, gaining access to the most secret of secrets, they’re activated and begin stealing information for their patrons. Moles are particularly dangerous because anyone can be a mole. It’s easy to make sure the geospatial intelligence guy down the hall doesn’t get recruited by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. But how can you possibly know if the GRU turned him 20 years ago, when he was a freshman in college?
Why would someone become a mole? Indeed, why would anyone ever become a spy at all? Sociologists have come up with a list of reasons that one might turn to espionage, and fortunately for this article, that list forms the acronym M—I—C—E, which is short for money, ideology, coercion, and ego. “Money” is self-evident. A man will do a lot of things for a million dollars. Some men will, in fact, do a lot of things for a good deal less than that.
One example is Ronald Pelton, the former analyst with the NSA. When he left the agency in 1979, he found himself cash-strapped and decided to refill his coffers by way of the Bank of Moscow. He approached the Soviet embassy with a straightforward offer: money for secrets. The Soviets gave him $35,000, and Pelton gave them the keys to Ft. Meade. Among other things, Pelton revealed Operation Ivy Bells, in which the U.S. had successfully tapped an undersea Soviet telecommunications line. He also acted as a consultant to the KGB, helping them to decode other U.S. secrets. Today, Pelton is decomposing in a federal prison.
The I in MICE is best represented by George Koval, who stole America’s atomic secrets and slipped them to the Soviet Union. Why did he do it? He believed in the Soviet cause. So successful was his penetration and heist that both the U.S.S.R. and U.S. kept his exploits a secret until 2002. The Soviets didn’t want their “accomplishment” in building the bomb diminished. The U.S. didn’t want the world to know its recipe had been stolen.
The next letter in MICE—short for “coercion”—is the reason we have security screenings. Honeypots are as old as espionage itself. Step 1: Have a “swallow” seduce a spy, government employee, or politician, take photographs. Step 2: Threaten to release the photographs. The result: A shake-and-bake spy at its finest.
Ego is perhaps the most interesting of the MICE group because of how small a person must be to go to such lengths to feel important. Robert Hanssen is the alpha and omega of ego-driven spies. Hanssen felt unappreciated at the FBI and his self-esteem demanded satisfaction. As David Vise, author of The Bureau and the Mole, said in an interview, “Robert Hanssen had a fractured ego seeking recognition. He wanted to be a player on the world stage and felt overlooked by the Bureau.” He was paid, yes, but money “was a way to keep score and a trigger, but not the driver.”
If you’re a special agent with the FBI, you probably love rats. As anyone who’s ever seen a mob movie can probably explain, rats are the euphemism for people who inform to the feds. Perhaps the most famous rat of modern times—certainly the most colorful—is “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who cooperated with federal prosecutors and the FBI to help put John Gotti in prison. In exchange, Gravano got a reduced sentence and was placed into federal witness protection. (Of course, this didn’t stop Sammy the Bull from later forming a drug ring, getting caught, and being again sentenced to prison. You can take the mobster out of the mob…)
In 1950, the Air Force conceived an aerial reconnaissance platform to float over the Soviet Union and collect signals intelligence and imagery. The equipment would be mounted to balloons. (Right away, you can see this won’t be a successful operation.) As part of Operation GOPHER (later named GENETRIX) in the mid-1950’s, over 500 balloons were launched alongside legitimate weather balloons. (In total, 2,000 such balloons were released.) One month later, the project was canceled. Dubbed a “disaster” by the CIA, only 44 cameras were recovered, most of which had photographed only clouds and empty prairies. In exchange for CLOUDINT, the U.S. earned discovery and diplomatic protest by the Soviet Union.