Motives for spying

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There are many motives for spying. Espionage usually carries heavy penalties, with spies often being regarded as traitors, so motivating factors for it must usually be quite strong.

There have been various attempts to explain why people become spies. One common theory is summed up by the acronym MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise or Coercion (depending on source), and Ego or Extortion (depending on source). Another is the RASCLS framework: Reciprocation, Authority, Scarcity, Commitment and Consistency, Liking, and Social Proof.[1] Others have stressed the roles of disaffection, grudges, and personal links.


For many spies, the primary motivation is the prospect of financial gain. Spies may seek to supplement their existing income, or to remedy financial difficulties. Sometimes these spies are detected due to extravagant spending of the money they receive. John Anthony Walker is an example of a spy who worked for money.

Ideology, patriotism, or religion[edit]

Some people become spies because of their beliefs. These can include political opinions, national allegiances, and cultural or religious beliefs. This was particularly true during the Cold War, when many spies were motivated by their support for the ideologies of either the Western world or the Communist bloc. Examples of spies with ideological motivations include Kim Philby and Klaus Fuchs (communist), Fritz Kolbe and Juan Pujol (anti-Nazi), Nathan Hale (pro-American independence), Harriet Tubman (anti-slavery), and Ana Montes (pro-Cuban).


Not all spies enter into service willingly; sometimes they are threatened into providing secret information.

Threats of injury or death are the most direct forms of coercion. For example, Mathilde Carré, a member of the French Resistance, was captured by the Nazis and threatened with torture unless she became a double agent. Threats may also be made against the target's family or friends—Svetlana Tumanova was told by the KGB that her family in the Soviet Union would be harmed if she did not cooperate; and Ronald Humphrey said that he had helped North Vietnam in order to obtain the release of his Vietnamese wife.

A more subtle form of coercion is blackmail, where someone threatens to release compromising information about a person unless they provide them with secret information. A wide range of material can be used for blackmail, including evidence of extramarital affairs, homosexuality, and undiscovered crimes. The spies John Vassall and Colonel Alfred Redl were threatened with revelations about their homosexuality. Sometimes, traps of this sort may be laid to collect blackmail material; Vassall was almost certainly set up, as was Clayton Lonetree, who was blackmailed after an affair with a Soviet agent. William Sebold, a German-born American, was threatened by the Nazis with revelations that he lied in order to immigrate. Sebold, however, quickly betrayed the Nazis, indicating a major problem with the use of coercion: The target, with no loyalty to their blackmailers, will turn on them when possible.


Robert Hanssen's spying was described by a U.S. Department of Justice's commission as "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history"

The roles of ego and pride in motivating spies has occasionally been observed, but is often hard to demonstrate. In some situations, a person can be enticed to spy by the sense of importance or significance it gives them—they cease being a minor functionary, and have a substantial, albeit covert, effect. The target often gains a sense of superiority over his or her colleagues, whom he or she is outwitting. Robert Hanssen is an example of someone who, though paid handsomely, decided to spy due to arrogance.


In rare cases a spy may be motivated by the excitement of tradecraft alone. It is possible, although hard to observe and demonstrate, that excitement and thrills play a part in some spies' decisions, and seems particularly likely if they are bored with their life. Excitement is seldom a spy's primary motivation, but may be a contributing factor. One notable example is Christopher Cooke, who claimed to be fascinated with espionage, and who told investigators he specifically sought to involve himself in spycraft for that reason.

Disaffection and grudges[edit]

Some spies are motivated largely by personal, non-ideological hostility towards the country or organisation they are spying on. This may stem from some real or imagined wrong—a person may, for example, betray secrets to the enemy if they feel they have not received sufficient recognition or compensation, or that they have been treated badly. Liu Liankun, a general in the People's Republic of China, is believed to have begun spying for Taiwan after he was falsely accused of corruption and denied a promotion. Another case is that of Earl Edwin Pitts, who, in defence of his espionage, cited various instances of alleged poor treatment by his employer, the FBI.

Personal relations[edit]

A spy may be motivated by personal connections and relationships. In some cases, secret information may be passed on due to a family connection, friendship, romantic link or sexual relationship. The spouses and friends of active spies may be drawn into the spy's activities; an example is Rosario Ames, wife of Aldrich Ames.


Sexual seduction is a well-established means of spy recruitment. For example, Katrina Leung was accused of using this method to gain access to secret FBI counterintelligence documents.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burkett, Randy (March 2013). "An Alternative Framework for Agent Recruitment: From MICE to RASCLS" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency.

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