Underground, a Warner Brothers movie from 1941, was among the first American films to explicitly show the evils of Nazism. Among their notorious deeds in the movie, the Nazis released a prisoner from the dreadful Oranienburg concentration camp. To gain his release, he was forced to identify his fellow conspirators in the German underground by leading the Gestapo to their hiding place. It is said this same espionage technique was used some 40 plus years later when a convicted Baader-Meinhof political terrorist gang member was released. He was let go only on the condition he show where his former comrades were hiding. 

If It’s Not Broken, Don’t Fix It

In the clandestine world, little changes. Little changes because it works. By works, of course, we mean that espionage is never its own reward. Unless intelligence is gained on an enemy or the enemy is prevented from eliciting information, it isn’t worth it. No one invests the immense time, money, highly trained personnel, nor risks the incredibly damaging potential of ‘blow back’ of controversial news coverage if exposed, for little reward. Consider for instance, the effect of the poison attack against the former Russian government official in the United Kingdom. Was the message to defectors worth the result?  Huge worldwide blow back against the Russian government took place. All these calculations are considered. Rumors of a Russian assassin in Florida several years ago fueled the fears of such happening on our own soil.

Technology Increases Espionage Casualties 

Those who work in the world of classified programs know to be on their guard, because whatever they know, or have access to, is constantly being sought by opponents. No one lives in a bubble. Clearance holders constantly interact with others who might know what we do, or have a general sense of what we are doing. Few keep their secret lives compartmented completely. This is why traditional approaches work so well. However, growth in technology does change things. Nowadays, if you get something remotely, it is far easier than risking a living spy who could be compromised, interrogated, or turned back against you. Of course, remote access often still requires initial access. So, how does that happen?

Access Gained By Making Friends on the Inside

A study of Soviet collection (spying) shows how they got access to much of what they sought. Typically, the Soviet trained spy would recruit someone with access to others, who in turn could provide him with information. These cells of yesteryear have been largely replaced by single agents, reporting directly to their espionage handler. But how did they get to the potential recruit in the first place?

Secretaries would, as in one case of a Canadian embassy official, pass letters of contacts between offices. Even better for spies, a human resources person could spot who was having financial, personal, marriage, or otherwise potentially compromising problems. All of these weaknesses could be exploited, and a potential spy approached with ‘answers to his problems.’ Contacts who might not even know they are being exploited often give information to espionage agents.

One man, a curious busybody, would talk at length about his colleagues at work. He would ramble on about where they’d been, if they had problems, and even provide descriptions of what they did. He would virtually give entire biographies of friends, not to mention their family situations, needs, and so on. For security professionals, it’s another reason to stop office gossip in its tracks. 

Be Wary Of Those Strangers With Listening Ears

Why would some spy recruiter need to painstakingly seek out a cleared employee? It’s better and easier for a spy to just find someone to point the cleared employee out. This potential spy’s colleagues, even friends who knew of his work, would do quite nicely. Our spy recruiter could ask them, and they’d tell him all about the person, making his job so much easier. Today, we see this same technique used online, where China recruits a single contact and then encourages that person to share his network and build new contacts on social networking sites like LinkedIn.

Perhaps the most valuable skill for an espionage handler is his humility, best manifested by his willingness to listen. Who doesn’t often feel frustrated? A caring, listening ear is always welcome. That friendship can develop over work contacts, or even casual meetings at a bar. One young man, approached by spies in recent years, could not resist telling his long, intriguing story to a casual acquaintance at a bar. Sounds almost like a Hollywood setting, no? By such means are spies still recruited, or even exposed. 

Espionage Thwarted Just the Beginning in The Detection Game

If your company, or federal agency, was recently subjected to a suspected espionage approach, that’s not the end of the affair. Espionage thwarted is never the end. It could, though, be the tip of an iceberg long present but unseen issue. It is known that no espionage report is worth it unless ‘confirmed by additional sources’. One spy who reported on a massive American military project was often considered less valuable than another by his ‘handlers’.  The spy never knew that, but his ‘leads’ to others were his real value. He had little access to the classified information, but he was able to unwittingly point out the scientists (in this particular case those who knew about a uniquely capable monitoring device) who did. So pay attention to your friends. If something makes you uneasy, report it. It might be 2020, but a key way to detecting espionage is to follow your instincts and protocols.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.