Monday 16 August 2021 1:00 pm

The spy case in Berlin is a reminder that money will always be the greatest temptation and weapon

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Spying almost always makes headlines whenever it hoves into public view.

There is something inherently fascinating about the idea of nations engaged in cloak and dagger operations against one another, trying to find a weak point they can exploit for their own advantage. All the more so when an intelligence service employs dramatic tactics like poisoning dissidents with Novichok or hacking Whatsapp messages of the great and the good. Indeed, the more unconscionable and horrific an espionage activity, the more coverage it sometimes draws. 

But such spectaculars are few and far between. The more mundane form of espionage occurs every day, and involves attempts to recruit individuals to act as human intelligence sources to provide information of use to the nation seeking to spy. Computers may well be rich in data to mine for cyber hackers, but there is often no substitute for the intelligence yield a well placed person can bring by bringing human abilities of discernment to bear on the material passed on. 

Over the years, Western spy agencies have wised up to attempts by others – principally the Soviets and their modern day successors – to siphon away key assets. 

Of the four common motivations for spying – money, ideology, compromise and ego – our efforts to block foreign entreaties have undoubtedly been aided by the collapse of a coherent ideological competitor that can inspire adherence in the way Communism did for some. Gone are the days when Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five could be seduced by an idea to betray their nation.

Equally, compromise is a much harder artform to perfect in an era when aggressive security clearances ensure that blackmail opportunities are few and far between, with officials’ pasts and presents being sifted through to ensure that any and all foibles are accounted for.  

Ego of course remains a problem. There is always a subset of people who enjoy the idea that they are pivotal to history in some way, and that their actions help create eventualities that otherwise would not exist. However, the modern employment of psychological assessments somewhat mitigates against the eventuality of such characters finding their way to places where they can exercise their desire to elevate their self-importance.

It is therefore money which remains the weakest link in the armoury of the West in its ability to defend its secrets. The lure of personal enrichment for what may seem an innocuous act in passing over just a few documents remains undimmed by the passage of time or the changing nature of the regimes offering financial incentives. If the person involved is of a low enough security grade, they may also not be picked up by measures designed to test an individual’s probity.

It is therefore of little surprise that the discovery of David Smith, an alleged Russian spy acting as a security guard contractor in the British Embassy in Berlin, revolved around the exchange of classified counter-terrorism documents for money. As a local contractor and in common with other low level embassy staff, Smith was not subject to the same security clearances demanded of higher placed diplomats. But he was clearly able to gain access to areas and information that he should not have been able to, and to transfer his knowledge to his Russian handlers in exchange for an unknown level of remuneration.

While this episode rightly raises questions about whether our counter-espionage security measures are tough enough for those perceived to be in low-risk vocations in even sensitive locations, it also raises the discomforting reality that those seeking to damage our national interests are enjoying some success in doing so. The Cold War may be ancient history now, but foreign spy agencies remain committed to finding out as much about our activities and secrets as they are able to. We, in turn, are doing the same to them. 

Russia’s latest spy may well have been outed, but if proven guilty he will neither be the first nor last to fall for the temptation of greed, and to shock his fellow citizens into remembering that the Kremlin’s arm extends far into our affairs. As Western intelligence agencies rush to shut the stable doors after the horse has bolted, the story of David Smith is an uncomfortable reminder that there are nations in the world who wish us ill, and will use any and every trick in the espionage playbook to get exactly what they want.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.