Civilians have friends. Intelligence officers have assets. So when spy agencies need information about foreign countries they circle carefully looking for the right person, a loyal partner, someone who’d want to work with the Americans - even if the target doesn’t know it quite yet.
“In the recruitment cycle, there's what we call SADRAT,” ex-CIA operations officer Ryan Hillsberg told the SPYSCAPE True Spies podcast. “It's Spotting, Assessing, Development, Recruiting, Agent handling, and then Termination. That's the recruitment cycle from A to Z.”
And in between A to Z, there is M for Money. Effective and simple, money has the power to motivate and smooth the rough edges of recruitment. It’s not the only driver, of course. For that, espionage operatives have a different acronym: MICE. In addition to Money, some assets spy for Ideology, others are Compromised or coerced, and many do it to bolster their Ego.
But in the multilingual world of international espionage, money talks.
What really motivates spies?
Cash is king. American CIA or FBI turncoats with access to government secrets can demand a seven-figure payout.
“If the Russians or the Chinese recruit a CIA case officer or FBI agent… maybe $1 million per year, in that range,” said a former Western intelligence professional who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The amount depends on the quality of intelligence though. An Afghanistan asset might only earn £200 to $2,000 a month for low-level or economic intelligence, while a senior Chinese Ministry of State Security officer or a Russian ex-KGB or Federal Security Service officer could command a minimum of $200,000 a year.
Supply-and-demand economics apply, it seems, even to spies.
“We recruit a lot more of them,” the intelligence insider explained. “They have to offer us a lot more to entice us. That’s the way it’s always been.”
Show me the money
Barry Broman, an ex-CIA clandestine officer, once paid a retiring foreign asset several hundred thousand dollars - which goes a long way in some countries. The person was later called back and earned even more.
“Every case is different,” Broman told SPYSCAPE, but in his experience “millionaire spies are very much in the minority”.
Generally, American case officers have a long relationship with foreign spies who are paid a fixed monthly salary plus bonuses. A defector might also get a one-time payment and an ongoing stipend plus relocation expenses. Hard-target ‘penetrations’, usually involving Russian or Chinese spies, may earn top dollar for premium intel.
“The sky's the limit for technical information that can save us many millions of dollars. Similarly, critical-intentions intelligence could result in a huge paycheck,” Broman said.
Jackpot paydays are few and far between, however. Turncoat Jonathan Toebbe and his wife, Diana, were hoping for a $5 million payout after they leaked US nuclear secrets in a peanut butter sandwich dead drop, but experts say $5 million would be paying well over the odds. As it transpired, the Toebbes ended up in prison and no money exchanged hands.
The world of double agents & traitors
US-KGB double agent Robert Hanssen collected about $1.4m in cash, diamonds, and Russian bank deposits for 15 years of spying before he was jailed for life in 2001. Only four other American double agents are believed to have earned more than $1m for their crimes. (See below for The Millionaire Club of Traitors & Turncoats.)
There are traitors who haven’t been caught, however, so the risks and the financial rewards could be higher. Then again, not everyone spies for money.
Peter Debbins, the former Green Beret sentenced to 15-plus years for spying for Moscow, told the court he was motivated by ideology and accepted only a bottle of cognac, $1,000, and a Russian military uniform. Anna Montes, also known as The Queen of Cuba for spying for Havana, believed in Fidel Castro's social justice as did Kendall Myers and his wife. US Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan J. Pollard served 30 years in prison because he wanted to serve Israel.
Christopher Boyce, the so-called ‘Falcon’, spied for the Soviets to seek revenge against an America he believed had lied and damage the world in the Vietnam era. Andrew Dalton Lee, aka the ‘Snowman’, just wanted the cash. The Falcon and the Snowman - immortalized in the Senn Penn/Timothy Hutton movie - only netted the former altar boys about $77,000. The espionage cost them their freedom.
Running an agent
There's a lot of different reasons intelligence officers want foreign spies to accept cash. "Basically, it's a psychological motivation. Right? Like you're now indebted a little bit. It's a little bit of control...You want to see if that person is going to follow your directions or kind of fall under your spell, if you will," Shawnee Delaney, a former Defense Intelligence Agency agent handler and SPYEX consultant, told True Spies.
"When they sign a receipt - they can sign Donald Duck if they want. It doesn't have to be their real name - all of that is psychological," Delaney added. "You're signing: 'Okay yes, I'm taking money from you and I'm going to sign my name or an alias or an X or whatever.' But you're doing that. And so that is a big psychological thing."
The Millionaire Club of Traitors & Turncoats
1. Ohio-born Clyde Lee Conrad was a non-commissioned US Army officer who sold top-secret NATO war plans to Hungary. Conrad also sold the wartime general defense plans of many units with the precise description of where every unit would go in the case of war, and how they would defend. Conrad operated from 1974 until his arrest in 1988 and was convicted of espionage and high treason in a German court in 1990. The former sergeant is reported to have received more than $1m. He died of a heart attack in 1998 after receiving a life sentence.
2. US-KGB double agent Robert Hanssen collected about $1.4m in cash, diamonds, and Russian bank deposits for 15 years of spying before he was jailed for life in 2001. He admitted guilt on 15 counts of espionage and agreed to help the FBI to avoid the death penalty. He didn’t explain why he carried on spying for Moscow when he no longer needed the money but Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent who brought Hanssen down, thinks he knows the answer. “It was the thing that made him feel that he was the best at something in the world. No one was better,” O’Neill said. “And he knew that it was going to make him immortal. And it did.”CIA case officer
3. Aldrich Ames spied for the Russians for nearly a decade before his arrest in 1994. The CIA double agent was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 foreign assets. During at least one lunch meeting, Ames collected $50,000 in cash in exchange for two plastic bags full of paper - known as the ‘Big Dump’. In a note, the KGB said they’d paid him $1.88m in the first four years. Ultimately, Ames received $4.6m from the Soviets. Ames was sentenced to life without parole. His wife, Rosario Ames, was sentenced in 1994 to 63 months in prison.
4. Larry Wu-Tai Chin was a Chinese language translator for the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service who sold classified documents to China from 1952 to 1985. The intelligence leaks included Richard Nixon’s plans for normalizing relations with China two years before the president visited Beijing. In February 1986, the traitor was convicted of 17 counts of espionage, conspiracy, and tax evasion but he committed suicide on his sentencing day. China reportedly paid him more than $1m for his three decades of service.
5. John Anthony Walker Jr. was a US Navy chief warrant officer and communications specialist convicted of spying for Moscow from 1967 to 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. Walker helped the Soviets decipher more than 1m encrypted naval messages, organizing a spy operation sometimes described as the most damaging Soviet spy ring in history. Prosecutors agreed to a lesser sentence for Walker's son, former Seaman Michael Walker, also involved in the ring. According to a US government report, John Walker ‘possibly’ earned more than $1m.