Rehabilitation From Heroism: Work With Internal Conditions to Prevent an Insider Threat

Image credit: Jan Saude (via Wikimedia Commons)

The insider spy, commonly referred to as a “mole” has from time immemorial been the scourge of intelligence services. Representatives of the American Intelligence Community note that no foreign intelligence officer, no matter how talented and effective, can compare with an internal source of information. In particular, former KGB illegal Jack Barsky, who spent many years seeking out American secrets, admits that the successes of Soviet intelligence can be explained not by the quality of preparation of illegals, but by having valuable sources among real Americans.

The Concept of Doctor Charney

The most vexing problem is the impossibility of early identification of a future traitor. According to American clinical psychologist David Charney, who worked several decades with representatives of the American Intelligence Community, practically no one joins an intelligence service or engages in secret activities with the initial idea of betrayal. In his words, usually the decision to move to the other side arises spontaneously, more often than not – due to “an intolerable sense of personal failure” coinciding with “a perfect storm of other, usually unfortunately timed, life developments.”

It may be unrealized ambitions or deep resentment combined with family or financial hardship. One way or another, if the feeling of personal crisis and the insolubility of accumulated problems is so great that it leads to a feeling of hopelessness, some people may decide that betrayal is the ideal way to resolve everything.

After many years spent speaking with imprisoned discovered spies, Doctor Charney even offers a revolutionary idea: an opportunity to avoid imprisonment for repentant traitors in the event of their timely “confession.” According to the psychologist, the damage from the long-term transfer of secrets to the enemy can be so great that, in order to prevent it, it is advisable to abandon the desire for retaliation and allow the guilty one to at least partially make amends for the harm caused.

The American psychiatrist bases his theory on the classification of the psychological stages that the insider spy has developed personally. One of them, according to David Charney, necessarily includes remorse, or the “morning-after” syndrome, when a traitor realizes that instead of a perfect solution to problems, he was trapped, and would be happy to break new ties, but decides that he already crossed the line, and he had no way out.

Guilty without guilt

However, it is obvious that the intelligence communities even of democratic countries will not soon be ready for such a humane approach to insider spies. In the specific ethics of intelligence services, betrayal is a mortal sin, and even if it does not entail death in the literal sense of the word, it deserves neither forgiveness nor condescension. But in today’s world, in spite of the perfection of technical means of counterintelligence, the insider threat, it seems, will only grow. This is determined both by the increasing level of stress in an increasingly unstable society, and by the trend towards individualism and atomization, which is increasingly penetrating modern civilization, including the special services.

As a result of these tendencies, in an atmosphere of ideological vacuity, an increasing number of people put personal interests ahead of country or organization.  This does not mean that all would prefer to work for the other side, but such people are capable of betrayal in the moral, if not the juridical sense of the word, i.e., intrigue, turpitude, corruption, lack of professionalism and other manifestations of human dishonesty. Confronting these phenomena, in turn, can instill in the victims of such behavior a desire for “payback,” revenge through real treason, which in moral terms can be perceived by a future “mole” only as an adequate response to someone else’s meanness. The tragedy of such situations is that, as a result, the victim himself turns into a criminal, and instead of compassion, as a result, he faces punishment and social ostracism. At the same time, the objective problems that led to this situation remain unresolved.

Escaping this vicious circle may require the creation of effective mechanisms for the prevention of insider threats. In practice, existing mechanisms are purely counterintelligence in nature, and consist of tracking “suspicious” actions or conditions of a person, for example, financial problems, disappointment, complaints, and so on. This leads to a double load on the psyche of an already vulnerable person: in addition to a tangle of personal problems and experience of perhaps a really unfair situation, he also has to bear the burden of suspicion of his potential “unreliability”. Moreover, it is precisely such an attitude that may eventually become the last trigger for a person’s decision to betray, so as not to “suffer without guilt.”

The “narcotic” of intelligence

Of course, in the event that for whatever reason when work becomes intolerable for a person, the most reasonable solution would seem to be to leave the job. However, the problem is that for many intelligence professionals, leaving is an unbearably difficult decision. As noted by Russian clinical psychologist Olga Podolskaya, who at one time was involved personally in the rehabilitation of law enforcement officers, frequently a decision to work in intelligence is preceded by the presence of unconscious psychological traits that define a sort of “hero’s path.” The choice of the type of activity is a direct consequence of these attitudes, and the possibility of abandoning it leads to a severe psychological crisis. As a result, the optimal way out for such a person may be the possibility of continuing to do what they love, even if on the other side.

In this case, we are certainly not talking about patriotism. However, there is a set of other qualities that are often formed from childhood and make a person especially susceptible to the “narcotic” of spy games. It seems to such people that they simply cannot live without the world of intelligence, although, as practice shows, in the case of high-quality psychological rehabilitation, dependence on an “unusual” profession can pass almost without a trace. The main problem here is that many of these attitudes operate unconsciously. Over the years, a person can rethink an ideology suggested on a conscious level on his own, while unconscious patterns of behavior most often do not lend themselves to reflection even in the most rational people.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the primary opponents of such rehabilitation are the intelligence and military services themselves. Practicing psychologists involved in rehabilitation programs for victims of PTSD, for example, complain that their employers expressly forbade them to make patients aware of the origins of their problems because they rightly feared that to do so would result in a massive layoff of employees. However, it is evident that the risk of routine dismissal and the return of a person to “normal life” is much more desirable than betrayal. Assistance offered in a timely manner can both provide opportunities for a tranquil and happy life, as well as protect the state from the risk of the loss of classified information.

The Hero’s Path

Let’s try to enumerate a few of the attitudes and psychological mechanisms that create psychological dependence on hazardous work, leading to the selection of the “hero’s path.”

  1. The need for meaning in any activity. Increased significance of each action is laid in deep childhood and is often associated with forbidden pleasures and on the manifestation of one’s own feelings. A child begins to feel quite early that he “has no right” to just play or enjoy life: he does must always carry some meaning and bring some benefit. In adulthood, this can lead to an increased need for high ideological motivation, especially if, due to some other attitudes, a person does not consider it possible to live only for himself and his loved ones. The search for meaning in combination with altruism creates a heightened need for a high ideal. Consequently, when disillusioned with some ideals, such a person begins to look for others.

Generally, as intelligence veterans note, in cases of betrayal the ideological motive is rare. On a conscious level it is useful to expose the manipulative mechanisms and propaganda of the enemy to demonstrate that the ideas he creates “for export” do not correspond to the realities of life in a particular country. However, if we supplement this with psychoanalysis of an individual helping him to see meaning in ordinary life, in love, in caring for people who care about him and other equally significant things, the effect of rehabilitation can be as complete as possible.

  1.  Hyper Responsibility. Loading a child with an excessive burden of responsibility and “non-childish” problems leads to that person while growing up feeling a responsibility for those around him, his country, and the entire universe.  In practice, this is expressed in a set of axioms that are not obvious to others, that simply do not allow him to ignore dangerous situations. A striking example of such an axiom is the attitude that “knowledge is responsibility.” A person is certain that if he knows something important, he already is obliged to take action since knowledge automatically imposes a burden of responsibility. A similar attitude may be expressed as “opportunity is responsibility,” i.e., if you have the opportunity to do something, you must do it. 

In fact, these bundles are far from one hundred percent. Actions should be determined by our internal desires and resources, and not at all by the fact that due to external circumstances we know something or are presented with an opportunity.

  1. The absence of unconditional acceptance and feelings of unconditional love for the child in the family. Growing up under such condition, children feel they do not deserve love “for nothing,” but rather must earn approval, sometimes doing the impossible. In adulthood this leads to a heightened sense of duty and the devaluation of normal human relationships. Indeed, for such people those relationships in which they are loved or accepted are not as valuable as those in which they constantly must seek love for their own merits because this reminds them of family.
  2. This logically leads to excessive attachment to the organization, which actually replaces the family: “harsh, but fair”, whose friendship is difficult to earn and easy to lose but which can provide a feeling of happiness and security. As psychologists note, the country in this case is often perceived as a mother, and the organization as a father with whom the son helps his too defenseless or too demanding mother.
  3. This gives birth to the phenomenon of “forbidden happiness,” in which happiness, if not a derivative of work is made dependent on it.  This phenomenon may be best described as a so-called “moral right:” ‘I have no moral right to enjoy life in this country if I do not defend it.’ Since the need to be happy is inherent in every person, the prohibition on “easy happiness” gives rise a complicated concept in which a person can permit himself to be happy only if he satisfies a series of conditions.  It is understandable that such an attitude greatly increases dependence on a particular organization or job.

So, the search for such attitudes, recognizing them and identifying their origins help a person at a deep level to accept and begin to appreciate “easy happiness” that is not associated with the world of intelligence. A genuine feeling of such happiness leads to a refusal to risk it for the sake of such a psychologically difficult, dangerous, and insane occupation as spying on another country. Simply put, yesterday’s “hero” will be able not only to force himself to live an ordinary life, but to really become in the good sense of the word an ordinary person – albeit not too sacrificial, but law-abiding, equally incapable of both feats and betrayal.

The problem is that in the world of intelligence, a slightly contemptuous attitude towards ordinary people is tacitly accepted. Spy games represent a realm of constant cognitive dissonance, when lofty slogans of sacrifice and patriotism are constantly proclaimed to the public, and the reality is filled with sometimes unprecedented cynicism. However, the way out of this dissonance should be sought not on the other side (often even dirtier and cynical), but in the golden mean of  “simple human normality”, which, with the right approach, can heal any wounds.