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A new style of turncoat

These days, spying for America's enemies is less about money and more about ideology.

April 27, 2008|James Bamford | James Bamford is the author of two books on the National Security Agency, "The Puzzle Palace" and "Body of Secrets." His most recent book is "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies."

During much of the Cold War, the typical American spy -- spy for the enemy, that is -- was a single, native-born, high-school-educated white male in his 20s, employed by a branch of the military and with top-secret security clearance.

Most of the time, he volunteered at a Soviet embassy or consulate and (at least since the early 1960s) was primarily motivated to spy by a desire for money rather than by ideological conviction. He would usually get away with it for at least a year or so before being caught, and then he would receive an average prison sentence of 20 years to life.

Among the spies of that period was John Walker. His capture in 1985 touched off what later became known as the "year of the spy" because of the 11 espionage arrests that year. A Navy radioman, Walker began spying in the late 1960s and passed on to the KGB top-secret key cards that enabled the Soviets to decrypt much of the Navy's most highly classified communications. In return, he received, by some estimates, more than $1 million over his 17 years as an active spy. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

Today's spies, it turns out, are different. The spies of the 1990s and the 21st century are more politically motivated and they have turned the Internet, the newest tool in espionage tradecraft, to their advantage. And they have "grayed."

These are among the conclusions of a new study, released in March, by the Pentagon's little-known Defense Personnel Security Research Center, which examined the changing nature of espionage from 1947 to 2007. According to the study, which compared 173 espionage cases after separating them into three groups based on when they started spying, the profile of today's spy is far more nuanced and harder to stereotype. Still overwhelmingly male, he is more likely to be nonwhite and married, in his 40s with college and graduate degrees, and also with business, friends or relatives overseas.

The modern spy is more than twice as likely to be a civilian than a member of the armed forces. And while the new-age spy will likely only be able to get his hands on secret -- as opposed to top-secret -- documents, he also will use much more ingenuity in acquiring the information, including conning others to get it for him.

The risky days of walking into an embassy to volunteer as a spy are also over. Both Walker and Ronald Pelton, who worked for the National Security Agency, took that route when, years apart, they walked in the front door of the Soviet Embassy in Washington. FBI cameras, hidden behind one-way windows in an office building across the street, captured only the backs of their heads. Embassy workers then sneaked them out of the compound in the back of a van.

Aldrich Ames also volunteered while in the embassy, but he was authorized to go there as part of his counterintelligence duties at the CIA.

Today's spy, according to the Pentagon study, is far more likely to use the Internet to contact foreign governments or terrorists and volunteer his services, as if signing up for Facebook. "Since 1990, the use of embassies has decreased," the study says, "while more individuals have chosen a new communications innovation: 13% of volunteers since 1990 turned to the Internet, including seven of the 11 most recent cases since 2000 that used the Internet to initiate offers of espionage."

Obviously, post-Cold War spies are finding new governments -- and groups -- to spy for. FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who passed secrets to Russia for more than two decades, until he was caught in 2001, may be the last of a dying breed. The country of choice for 87% of American spies during the Cold War was the Soviet Union, but by the 1990s that figure had dropped to just 15%.

The focus of spies has now mostly shifted east. The percentage who work on behalf of Asian and Southeast Asian countries has risen from 5% in the 1950s and 1960s to 12% in the 1970s and 1980s, and to 26% since 1990. Cuba, with so many exiles in Florida, has also become a key recipient of American secrets. Al Qaeda has made significant inroads as well -- with one American having stolen and passed classified documents and other materials to aides of Osama bin Laden, and four others known to have tried to spy for the organization or other terrorist groups since the mid-1980s.

For anyone at the CIA or the Pentagon who might be considering moonlighting as a spy, the report offers a warning: "Since 1990, American spies have been poorly paid." In fact, the proportion of those who received no payment at all for espionage increased from 34% before 1980 to 59% during the 1980s and to 81% since 1990.

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