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  • Writer's pictureNick

What Motivates a Traitor? A Story of MICE and Men

I’ve been meaning to write something about this for some time, so when I saw the breaking news in all major newspapers today about the British embassy employee in Berlin who was arrested for spying for Russia, it prompted me to put pen to paper again. Well, tap away on an iPad keyboard.

I’m not for a second suggesting that “David S” is guilty, as we must let the investigation and judicial process run its due course, but it did get me thinking about this and other similar cases. Throughout my professional career I’ve been trained on this topic, or was involved in real cases concerning spying or industrial espionage, so I’m more than familiar with the aims of an investigation. Often my role was to understand how it happened, identify which vulnerabilities were exploited or which security controls were circumvented. Or, in the case of an employee who has turned to the dark side, how they used their legitimate access to grab what is wanted and get out, preferably without raising suspicions. That way, we learn from potential mistakes and weaknesses and put processes and controls in place to prevent it happening again, or perhaps detect it and raise alarms sooner. We also need to assess the actual or potential damage caused by the leak or compromise, for example loss of competitive advantage in a corporate environment, or endangering the success of an operation, and therefore potentially lives, in a military setting.

Further to this, we must also assess why they did it, what motivated them to turn their backs on their employees, their company, possibly their government and country. Put simply in this case, why did David knowingly pass sensitive documents to a foreign, arguably hostile, intelligence service? It is this that intrigues me most (today, at least), and is the subject of this rather short (but clearly fascinating) article.

So what may motivate an otherwise model employee to turn up to work one day with a spare 2 TB external hard drive and download her entire working documents folders to it before heading home? Why might a junior soldier in a Military Intelligence Section photograph or photocopy hard copies of secret reports locked in the section’s filings cabinets, during a routine accounting exercise, then pass them to the press? I’ve done that job, by the way, and it’s pretty tedious. The accounting bit, not the photographing or photocopying and selling to journalists!

To keep things simple and memorable, we can talk about four main motivating factors using the handy acronym MICE, shown here in a list so I get the break up otherwise dull block text:

  • M - Money

  • I - Ideology

  • C - Compromise

  • E - Ego

I was introduced to this concept and model many moons ago, back when I was a trainee Op MI in xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (details redacted by UK government counter intelligence officers so as not to compromise sensitive information in an article about how sensitive information is compromised).

We used this model for ‘talent spotting’, looking for potential human intelligence (HUMINT) sources or informants who could be worked over time to help support whatever operations we were involved in. In essence, this, and the subject of the article, are two sides of the same coin. In those days I worked for the good guys, so we could recruit sources and get them to work for us. Now, I’m hired by corporations who want to stop their employees being recruited by the bad guys. From an understanding standpoint, the same principles apply.

Money, of course, is the obvious, and arguably most common, factor. Greed may play a role, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about individual’s selfish behaviour. Employees and contractors can fall on hard times, through factors out of their control. Debt consumes them, and they’re offered an easy way out by passing on information, documents, whatever, for the promise of financial reward, luxurious gifts, stays in fancy hotels, or other services or goods unaffordable to them, given their current position. That said, there are those who are simply that greedy, and will do anything to maximise their gains, so you can’t accuse me of sympathising with everyone. Alas, the media and literature are full of examples of spies who fell into this murky world looking to make a quick buck, got caught up in the tide of it all, took it too far and got caught.

Ideology is a rather interesting one, in my opinion. This is someone who knowingly (probably) got into a certain line of work, for example government or corporate, then decided at some stage they disagreed with whatever it is they were doing and opted to work for the opposition. OK, that’s a huge over-simplification, but to those not familiar with the idea it might help form a picture. Whilst the exact motivations behind the betrayal of the British MI6 officer Kim Philby, who worked as a double agent for the Soviets, isn’t clear, ideology was thought to be the major driver. In a commercial setting, I’m aware of attempts by activist groups to gain inside information by exploiting employees who are increasingly sympathetic to their causes. I also know of at least one example of an activist group identifying a security or facility management employee who happened to be a subscribing member of their organisation, who was then persuaded to allow access to uninvited guests to a location prior to a shareholder event, leading to a rather embarrassing publicity stunt.

Compromise is a reasonably straightforward and understandable motivator, so I’ll keep it short. You receive a letter, email or phone call with the terse message “If you don’t want those grainy photos of you in that Sao Paolo strip club to be shown to your employer, your wife and elderly Presbyterian grandmother, who is currently leaving her entire estate to you in her last will and testament, please provide me with …”. There is much more to it than that, but you get the idea. When I was interviewed for my highest security clearance I had to say whether I had enjoyed or engaged in all sorts of thrilling and exciting activities and pastimes for the same reason; is there anything I’m trying to hide from my nearest and dearest that could be held against me. The answer was no, my life was quite pedestrian. That reminds me, when discussing this topic with friends who were put through the same process, someone commented on a particularly lively and interesting soldier, saying “he’s got that many skeletons in his closet he can’t shut the f*cking door”! That indeed would have been true if he wasn’t so open about his deviances, so couldn’t be blackmailed. He got his top secret clearance with the rest of us, and I’d like to think is still as deviant as ever.

Ego is the final motivator we shall touch on briefly. Very briefly. In short, they do it to feel good about themselves and possibly boast about it, literally as a boost to their egos. That’s it really.

So, now you know what motivates people who may otherwise have been perfect employees or servants, then one day they decide to betray the trust and loyalty of their comrades. If the four-letter acronym MICE is too much for you, I recently heard a simpler version discussing turning terrorists into informants in the Middle East. According to a spokesperson from a particularly effective security service, they could be turned by one of the three Ps - praise, payment or pussy.

As for the case with David in Berlin, the media report that he received payment in the form of “an unknown amount of money”. So there we see the simplest and most common motivator in action again; money or other payment.

No cats were involved in the making of this spy or this article.




1 Comment


Arnaud Diemer
Arnaud Diemer
Mar 17, 2022

Great article thank you, you should write more!

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