Jason Matthews on How to be a Spy

Written by Jason Matthews

For those readers who aspire to become spies operating in exotic international locales against dangerous foreign operatives, there’s a bit of bad news. Real spies do not drive fast cars, do not carry concealed weapons, and do not regularly charm beautiful women.  In reality, the work of a spy is mostly accomplished in an office, doing research, collecting data, and making plans.

So what is it that spies actually do? Espionage has long been called the second oldest profession. A less saucy definition might be that espionage is the process of stealing secrets undetectably.  And the best way to steal a secret is to recruit a foreigner who has access to protected information.

The process of recruiting a foreigner to become an agent (“agent”--the specific word we use for a source) involves spotting the foreigner, assessing his access to secrets, identifying his individual motivations and vulnerabilities, and developing a true friendship based on mutual interest. This may sound complicated, but in reality we all regularly do this with the people around us:  A teenager manipulates his parents to buy him a new laptop; a young woman divines how to attract an interesting young man; wives in a long-term marriage know their husbands’ preferences (and do the exact opposite to pay the bastard back.)

Developing a symbiotic relationship with a human target is not always easy.  And whatever in the world compels any foreign official to collude with a spy from another country?  Accepting a recruitment proposal is illogical, irrational, and counterintuitive.  An intelligence service is asking a recruit to break the laws of his country, to commit treason, and in some cases to risk his or her life. No one in their right mind would agree to become a spyfor another country.

But it happens, with regularity.  It has happened since Biblical times.  The lofty definition of an intelligence recruitment is that it is a complex psychological and metaphysical event, during which human need eclipses the instinct for self-preservation.  A less lofty definition might involve a bank account in the Cayman Islands, or an envelope of blood diamonds, or a weekend in Las Vegas.  Intelligence services therefore take great care and time when assessing a prospective recruit and his or her motivations and vulnerabilities.

The rapacious Russian intelligence services were known to assess the motivations of a recruitment target by using the acronym MICE, which stands for the four basic human motivators: Money, Ideology, Conscience, and Ego. We all have these in some combination or another, and it is the job of the intelligence officer to complete a quite detailed assessment of the person he is targeting. 

The Russian services were also not above using sexual entrapment and blackmail to compel a target to accept an intelligence pitch. During the Soviet era, young women (Sparrows) and young men (Ravens) were trained in the art of “sexpionage” to compromise Western targets. With the fall of the Berlin wall, and the advent of reality TV, the infamous Sparrow School was eventually closed.  But the modern Russian services still use the technique:  The modern Sparrow in Moscow is now an independent contractor driving a BMW.

Once a foreign intelligence source is recruited, the real work begins. The intelligence officer must take great care to conceal the relationship between himself and his source.  We use “tradecraft” to protect our sources, which is a fancy word for “skulking after dark.” It also means knowing whether someone is following you, specifically hostile surveillance from the opposition service. 

Surveillance detection is not voodoo; a lot of it is common sense, but “knowing the street” is a critical skill for spies.  A city street is a constant stage with endless characters.  Intelligence officers always assume they are in walking in enemy territory.  They keep a constant eye out for someone following them.  During tradecraft courses, trainees are taught to develop their powers of observation, and to ratchet up their awareness levels. People are all different when walking along High Street.  Which are you?

--Are you like a cow in a field, oblivious? (Level One)

--Are you like a drowsing house cat, ears swiveling at any noise, even in sleep? (Level Two)

–-Are you a grazing antelope on the African plain, looking around after each bite of grass? (Level Three)

--Are you like the lion, stalking the antelope through the tall grass? (Level Four)

Note:  Though some of my supervisors behaved like carnivores, these animal analogies are only meant to be illustrative.

Besides foreign diplomats, there is another kind of spy amongst us, the long-term sleeper agent otherwise known as an “illegal.”  An example: A highly-trained Russian intelligence officer is smuggled into the UK with an watertight alias identity.  The illegal will live as a British citizen, work in a non-descript job, raise a family, socialize with neighbors, and plant marigolds in the garden.  It could be five or twenty years before the illegal is “activated” to fulfill some intelligence function required by Moscow, which he or she can accomplish in complete anonymity, without fear of being monitored by the authorities.  Deploying illegals is wildly expensive, usually inefficient, and must be a frightful strain on the officer, living a double life in a foreign country for years on end. During the Soviet years, an illegals officer was customarily assigned a younger “operational wife” from Scandinavia or the Baltics, while the real wife remained in Moscow.  This may have accounted for the long list of volunteers for the illegals program during those years.

Are there Russian illegals living amongst us in Britain and the United States? The answer is yes, possibly even next door. So if your neighbor makes beet soup more than once a month, pick up the phone and call for help because, in the words of Vladimir Putin himself, “Russia didn’t lose the Cold War. It never ended.”

PALACE OF TREASON, published January 28 2016,  Michael Joseph  Hbk £10.00  BUY IT.
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Jason Matthews



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