A television series about the actual case of the notorious British spy Kim Philby is out. It is based on Ben Macintyre’s excellent book, ‘A Spy Among Friends’.

When Philby was finally exposed as a spy after 30 years of espionage for the Soviets, the closed British class system that allowed him to pass virtually ‘unvetted’ was undone.

He’d attended the finest schools, belonged to the right clubs, and was well-spoken, well-traveled, and socially well-integrated. His father was a famous ‘Orientalist’, and thus Philby was of a ‘good family’. He was a spy among friends. Thus his betrayal was so devastating.

As a British intelligence officer, significantly responsible for anti-Soviet casework, Kim Philby was a long-developed spy who was paid off handsomely by his Russian handlers.

A league of his own

One comparable case is that of Robert Hanssen of the FBI. His colleagues speak of him even today as an unbelievable traitor. How could someone with his long FBI career, traditional religious practices, and modest, solid family life sell out his country, his co-workers, his family and friends?

We read of such cases happening quite regularly, though of lesser consequence, in obscure reports today. Here in that cleared company, or in that government agency, trusted officials sell colleagues out.

How does all this impact our security measures?

As a consequence of these cases, we learn that increased countermeasures have been implemented to try to prevent such disasters again. Better said, countermeasures that have long existed are re-emphasized in clearance investigations. Financial stability, loyalty, discretion, and all the characteristics of an employee’s private persona need to be reviewed. Not pro forma, but seriously reviewed. Some reviews might require attention even to additional polygraph examinations, where authorized. Why do we do this, delving ever deeper into ‘private matters?’ When is enough, enough?

We do this because in the end, all cases could be as serious as with the spies discussed above. Consider a couple of facts just mentioned. Often, a recruited spy is a long shot taken by a spy recruiter. No one knew in 1935 that Kim Philby would rise to the heights of British intelligence. His Soviet recruiter saw potential in the young Cambridge student in the 1930s, however.

Philby became, in his later career, literally the counterpart of the senior counterintelligence officer of the American CIA. He was privy to all our activities directed against the Soviets. He betrayed them all. Philby, like Hanssen, like Aldrich Ames at CIA, betrayed real names to the Russians of those spying for the West. These people were executed.

How did all this happen?

Anyone who falls prey to possible recruitment by the Russians, Chinese, or any professional adversary, is ultimately identified by them in laser-like detail. The secret recruiters seek to determine, in astonishing detail, what the target’s vulnerabilities might be.

Do they like to drink too much, have money problems, or hidden sexual proclivities? Are they sexually active with other partners, closeted from the world about their indiscretions or preferences? Have they crimes or other secrets to hide, which if exposed would compromise them?

All recruiters try to nail the compromise coffin early on. Even an ideological spy, who serves because he believes in a cause, not for money, is compromised with something concrete by wily spy recruiters.

Recruiters always take photos that reveal the recruited accepting a package or an envelope. Sure, it might only be a ‘remittance’ “to care for ailing mother or sickly daughter”. (The reason the handler gives is oh-so-sensitive and understanding!) But when the potential new spy is shown the picture of his receiving a ‘document’, that photo confirms he cannot easily talk his way out of what he has done.

Currency, or gifts given, even in secret ways, are always there to be revealed. Such knowledge hangs over the head of any spy.

Expectations vs reality

Students who study abroad in adversarial countries are often requested to write biographies of their professors or colleagues at home. Likewise, conference attendees who engage in ‘casual conversation’ abroad might be asked who among their delegation is interested in ‘profitable activities’.

Nowadays, all of this can occur online. Social media is a godsend for espionage recruitment. What you tell about yourself will not remain a secret, particularly if you do it online. And in the world of deep fakes, compromise is even more possible.

socially criminal

So what to do? We are human, and people are social. In the security world, we must make our concerns about possible compromise clear and understandable to those for whom we serve.

If someone who works with us believes he, or someone he knows, may have suspicious contacts either online or in person, he must be confident his report to personnel security or an investigative element is treated professionally and confidentially.

If I come to you with concerns about my boss, the last person I want to alert is my boss. This is one of the reasons all cleared personnel are authorized to go outside their chain of command, or company authority chart, to report a security concern to the FBI or formal government investigative agency.

If you fear retaliation for an honest concern, then you may report directly and discreetly to your assigned Federal investigative element.

This last element must be stated clearly and often to those who work with you. Everyone must know his report matters, and how he gives it will be treated respectfully and discreetly. It is first a matter of professionalism and done because what we defend, protects us all.

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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.