Reviewing The Anatomy of a Spy

BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy of a Spy: A History of Espionage and Betrayal 

By Michael Smith / Arcade Publishing

Reviewed by Jean-Thomas Nicole

(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

The Reviewer – Jean-Thomas Nicole holds a PhD in contemporary diplomatic history. In November 2008, Dr. Nicole was recruited by the Canadian Government, through the Recruitment of Policy Leaders Program, where he has since held various analytic positions in strategic policy, international affairs, intelligence analysis, as well as emergency management and search and rescue policy development.

REVIEW — In his latest book on spies and special forces, The Anatomy of a Spy, former British military intelligence serviceman turned journalist and historian Michael Smith analyzes what makes someone betray their country or their friends, to determine why spies spy. The goal here is not to produce the most famous, popular, or even the most important spy stories in history. Rather, what Smith proposes is an interesting study of spy psychology.  He explains the history of espionage by focusing primarily on the agents’ motivations: sexual relationships, money, patriotism, adventure, fantasy, psychopathology, revenge, moral duty, or by being what the Brits called “unwitting,” or unconscious, agents of a foreign power.

Smith’s study revolves around the following questions: How do intelligence services induce ordinary men and women to spy for them? How do they ensure that the agents they recruit do what they want and produce the intelligence required? How can they be confident the agent will not betray them? What makes the perfect spy?

As Smith notes throughout his book, an “agent’s motivation is an extraordinarily complex issue.” He says it well at the outset: “Motives for spying are as varied as motives for not spying and sometimes genuinely change over time.” That’s partly what makes it so fascinating. Agents will often give different accounts of their motives depending on when they’re asked, just as we all do in other areas of life.

Significantly, he comes back to the same ideas at the end, like a mantra that sounds as precious as life’s experiences: “the reality is that there are often multiple reasons as to why spies spy.” And, again, on the variability and variety of an agent’s motivation: “Motivation frequently changes over time; an agent who initially betrays his or her country for one reason will often end up spying for a completely different one.”

Smith’s study extends from the time of the Old Testament, with the story of Samson and Delilah and extends through to the Trump presidency, with the Mueller Report and the the controversy that surrounded the Administration’s alleged ties to Russia. The book is quite ambitious in scope, even if the lion’s share of the author’s story is focused on two world wars and the Cold War.

That being said, as much as we love reading about the glory days of the British Secret Intelligence Service at the eve of last century, or about the multiple episodes of classic cloak and dagger games between Americans and Russians from the fifties through the nineties, we, the diverse readers of espionage history, study the past not for its entertainment value but to better understand the present and prepare for the future.

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Unfortunately, in that regard, even if some golden nuggets are indeed scattered through the pages, (the stories of the infiltration of the Islamic State by courageous MI6 agents and the elimination of Jihadi John will certainly send chills down your spine) considering Donald Trump or Edward Snowden as unwitting agents of the Russian power will give readers pause.

Where Smith’s study rings particularly sound and true is when he underscores, through the retelling of the Penkovsky story for example, the “prime importance of the human intelligence source, handled with professional skill and expertise.”

At this point, Smith is finally touching upon what constitutes, to me, the heart of the matter, the relationship of trust between a case officer and his or her agent. The author uses compelling words to describe this mutual respect:

“The agents whose roles are described in this book were for the most part putting their lives at risk. They needed to know, often desperately, that their case officers believed in them and would go to the wall for their agent, for “their Joe.” The intelligence officer handling them clearly had to make tough decisions, and the agent knew that. They just had to accept it. The case officer was often their only link to the real world. They knew that he or she was their only real friend.”

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Ultimately, as the author concludes this review of the many psychological reasons given for spying and tries to pinpoint the roots of betrayal within a complex personality, it is perhaps fitting to go beyond the multiple facets of trust and evoke a deeper emotion, like loyalty, a state of mind, the sanity, that paradoxically render possible the walk on the very edge of insanity. May we call it the primal ambivalence of any spy?

The words of Robert Hanssen, the “last person who would have been suspected of being a traitor”, perhaps illustrates it best when he wrote to the KGB:

“I have come about as close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you. One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say, insanely loyal. Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers. I have, however, come as close to the edge as I can without being truly insane”

Anatomy of a Spy earns a rating of 2.5 out of four trench coats


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