Who would imagine that good leadership could prevent espionage? It’s common to read about another spy captured or another program compromised. More sinister, we read that the FBI now says the greatest threat to cleared programs comes from the insider threat. So how can leadership mitigate such threats? What can be done now that hasn’t been tried before?

Motivation of Spies

Whole volumes have been written on the insider threat. Yes, we know the usual mantra, that a spy will do so for money, or perhaps an ideology (although this is less so in this modern age…as we say over and over.) But is this really true, or have the ideologies simply changed? Lately, spies have been arrested not for loyalty to a vague philosophy such as communism, but rather for a sort of loyalty to a new nationalism felt in China, or a resurgence of national pride among Russians who felt betrayed by world treatment since the Cold War.

Then there is compromise. Nowadays compromise tends to come after the potential spy has done some service for another government, whether the compromised person knows it or not. “Once a spy, always a spy,” is the falsehood the spy handler wants his target to believe. The spy handler always finds a way to sew doubt in his possible recruit’s mind. “Once you’ve done me one favor, there’s no going back. If you look guilty of sharing a list of company members with me, then you are doomed to work with me forever. No one will believe you if you ever want to quit.” Many spies believe this, and live on and on in this melancholic world of the constant fear of exposure. Then there was ego. I’m smarter than my peers, why shouldn’t I get some recognition or compensation my own government or company won’t give? After all, fair’s fair!

What Can Leadership Do to thwart Espionage

What can a leader do if he suspects this may be going on? The answer might surprise you. Few leaders can be faulted for not recognizing the spy among them. After all, the company compensation should match skills and talent sufficient to keep employees happy. Money shouldn’t be a temptation. No sensible leader would  limit political commentary or water-cooler discussions which show a healthy belief about American openness.  Ideology is whatever somebody wants to believe, right? ‘My workplace meets all social obligations, so who can be compromised,’ a leader may think. And after all, I reward fairly and openly. All true. So what more can a leader do, knowing he’s put a thumb in the dike of traditional threats.

Consider this. Think of the spy who tries to recruit your employee as the conman would, to make your employee a victim of a confidence game. Sure, all of us think we would know a three card monte scam, a telephone hoax, or computer deceit right away. We aren’t stupid, and neither are my employees. No, not at all. What happens in life is different, and spies know this. Oh, really?

Challenging Life Moments Lead to Increased Espionage Threats

Studies have shown that most people fall for a scam when they are at a critical moment in their lives. Let’s reconsider these ‘motivations’ listed above. I might be a totally loyal servant of my company and nation, but then I lose my job. Or my status, or my wife. I might consider suicide, having no one to talk to. I may have been passed over for promotion, or perhaps need money to show up my brother who is constantly embarrassing me with my wife. Or my wife demands too much of me, and withholds her love to show it. Or my company won’t honor my unique accomplishments. Then along comes this quiet, understanding guy from elsewhere. He certainly does understand me. Maybe I can talk to him, and he’ll listen. One of the finest traits of a good spy recruiter is they are good listeners.

I’ve just listed only a few social crises. These crises are taken from actual espionage cases. These can affect anyone. I mention them first because they are sensed with great urgency by the person affected. He might do something totally ‘unlike’ his normal behavior to try to make the pain of the crisis go away. One spy betrayed his entire investigative organization to the Russians because his wife constantly badgered him about his lack of money to give her the fine things his brother gave his wife. This actually happened. A man betrayed his colleagues, his family, and his country because he felt belittled in comparison to his brother in law.

Espionage is Thwarted with True Open Door Policies from Leadership

Make it your practice, leaders, to have your own subordinate leaders know their people. If there is a problem which arises, hopefully you will be the first to know about it. Make yourself available to your employees. Let them know that ‘open door’ policy you have really means something. Don’t rely on security personnel to be your only bulwark against the insider threat. If someone knows he can come to you, be honest and straightforward, you may do more to stem budding espionage than you’ll ever know. If your team member can open himself confidentially to your attention, perhaps for your help, and guidance, then the spy who hopes to recruit your cleared employee will just move along. After all, they go for the easy targets first. Once they see one chosen avenue is closed to them, they’ll try another. Hopefully somewhere else. Be proactive, make your presence as a caring leader known to those who work for you. Oh, and be sure your employees know that no matter how dark their story may be, there is always an escape hatch. Remember. The spy who recruited him wants him to think he’s eternally trapped. You want to show him a way to redeem himself.

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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.