I enjoy the study of espionage. This is not some quirk of personality, but comes from a distinct reason. I’ve been influenced over the years by some of the world’s most distinguished spy-catchers.

Conversation That Set the Course

I recall one rainy German winter day during the Cold War. While sitting at the office, I asked my older colleague, “What kind of professional development do you do regularly?” He responded, “I read about cases.” He gave me case histories and books I might study. I’ve followed his example from that day to this. To be sure, I started with the cases in our safe. I made myself acquainted with the events which our office had been involved with over the years. I came to know our area as best I could through these reports of investigations, or curious events ‘of counterintelligence interest.’ These latter seemed to have no particular conclusion. They were reported ‘higher’ of course, and kept on file in case some later development might shed some further light.

‘Later’ is a significant part of espionage investigations. Events from 30, even 80 years ago come to light through memoirs, investigative journalist reporting, or government releases of information. These events often cause further current investigations to develop, or previous research to be illuminated. But these developments are not always as you’d expect.

The Why Behind Studying Espionage

Why research old cases in the first place, you may ask? Why? Because many, many techniques for recruiting spies continue much as they did over preceding years. We can learn from the past and apply what we learn to the future. Of course, when we read books on this subject, we need to prepare ourselves to discern what we can learn which will make us more aware of possible similar approaches today. And there are many new books on espionage coming out regularly. I might go so far as to say that espionage, and its similar, though not perfect counterpart terrorism, are available to study and understand in quantities never before available. This is because wholly new cases are being brought to light which happened years ago, yet impact us even now. There are new means of study, too, such as the private investigation of online data through open source researchers.

Case Study in Book Form

I recently read Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre. Nothing will prepare you for this. Ursula Kuczynski spied on behalf of the Soviet Union from Hitler’s rise through the most brutal early years of the Cold War. She did so as a convinced communist, but remarkably, as a caring mother also. The interplay of these two compulsions, a grand cause and deep emotional attachments, hovers over her story like golden beams of continuity. Her almost unbelievable adventures carried her around the world. We follow her from her comfortable bourgeois upbringing in Weimar-era Berlin, to espionage missions in bustling, spy ridden Shanghai, pre-war Poland, neutral but intrigue-ridden wartime Switzerland, and Great Britain. Macintyre, The Times (U.K) writer at large, is a thoughtful and intense author of best-selling, well respected  books about the secret world. He does so through gimlet eye research of international intelligence and police records, private writings by Kuczynski, and the patient cooperation of her surviving family.

Code named ‘Sonya’ by her Soviet handlers,  Kuczynski entered the secret world enthusiastically. Always a precocious child, she sought adventure and thrills in preference to the staid, predictable life of a fully integrated German Jewish family. The social inequities, her own beating at the hands of a Weimar policeman, and her belief that the world could be better drew her to radical politics. With the advent of Hitlerism, she knew she had to fight back. Thus she entered a world populated by a host of talented, dedicated, mercurial, and conflicted spies. Richard Sorge, perhaps the Soviet Union’s most successful spy, was at once her lover and guide. Later combinations of mission and love affairs carried her through thickets of deceit, terror, secret police hunts, and memorable encounters which stun the reader on each page. Well written, to a degree which reveals how luck, wit, and grace carried her through a panoply of dangers, would be story enough. Yet superimposed on this is her incredible love for her children, fathered by various lovers and husbands. She never compromised a mission, and her children loved her intensely. Strange indeed how this developed, and Macintyre brings all of this to light. His mastery of the biography additionally evaluates much historical evidence. He renders convincing  conclusions about long simmering espionage debates. Was Director Hollis of MI5 a spy? How was Klaus Fuchs convinced to betray atomic secrets to the Soviet Union? What kept Agent Sonya safe when all her colleagues were purged and executed by Stalin and his myriad sycophants? In the end, what happened to Ursula? How did she come to evaluate her life? That revelation alone is utterly beyond belief. She was a marvel of professionalism, personal integrity, and familial concern. This book is alive with endless well-chosen anecdotes, factual discoveries which makes the reader pause in wonder, and the foibles, successes, and idiosyncrasies which populate the secret world. A spy who fought fascism and facilitated the Soviets getting the atomic bomb, while caring as best she could for her children, will leave you mesmerized.

Learning Espionage is the Key to Protecting America

As this book shows, the road to espionage is fraught with dangers. We learn what might draw a person to such a life, and what will keep them in it. Learn from the past, read, and read extensively. It will broaden your base of awareness which we as cleared personnel must develop. You can’t consider yourself a professional if you don’t ‘keep current’ with developments. Keeping current is to understand your operational environment. To do that requires learning from others, being open to discussion and  knowing what questions to ask. You’ve come a long way toward learning about this sign of a true professional, curiosity, when you expand your knowledge. More knowledge convinces you that you must learn even more. Read about developments in your profession, and keep at it. Keep at it because your adversaries want to know everything they can about you. Be prepared for the long conflict, in darker reaches of the world, with only vague lights to help you on your way. Perhaps you’ll be lucky, and find someone to guide you.

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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.