The Secret Life of Undercover Agents

The Secret Life of Undercover Agents

You might read about them in the newspapers, probably because they get caught. You might read their autobiographies, probably because they are unhappily retired. But you don’t read about them when they perform their duties for years in enemy territories, serving undercover in the most perilous situations. They spy, they lie, sometimes they have to steal and even kill. They live far away from their families, and headquarters assigns them most of their missions from a great distance using sophisticated communications systems. You might compare them to astronauts, who also have to leave behind almost everyone they know for long periods of time to serve their country, putting family life on hold for months or years. And they execute their orders knowing that they are only ones taking the real risk: dying.

What brings these men and women to the CIA, MI6, or the Mossad? Why are they willing to take such risks? Why do they volunteer to be part of a secret organization when no one will know of their incredible achievements?

Even for someone like me, who was part of the military intelligence community for over twenty-five years, spending countless days and hours with these remarkable people, it is difficult to answer these questions. It’s not that I haven’t asked them. Nor is it because I haven’t read their personnel files in search of the reasons they gave in the many interviews that each of them went through during their recruitment.

In my view, there are reasons other than those given in interviews. I’m not saying that these men and women are lying. Lies are easy to detect. Every candidate is polygraphed, so a lie would be discovered and he or she would be shown the exit. In most cases, they themselves are not sure why do they do what they do, but there are certain characteristics I have seen that most candidates possess. The first is obvious: they have a strong passion for their country. Whether or not it is the prime reason, patriotism is part of the package. Second, also a prerequisite, they are not simply willing to risk their lives—they have the desire to. They need that feeling of going to the edge, and they seek an environment in which they can do things that nobody is allowed to do.

Because they are putting themselves in harm’s way, agents are able to place a great deal of trust in their superiors. This is essential. Because of the need-to-know rule, they will know very little about the big picture and about the associated risks of their missions. So they have to trust the judgment of the control officer without reservations, and they must believe that the mission assigned to them by their commander justifies the risks involved. I have seen that this level of trust comes from a much deeper aspect of their personalities: they are looking for something they can trust, believe in completely, and be subordinated to. Often they have been searching, probably since childhood, for an authority figure of a certain stature that they found neither in their parents nor in an ordinary employer.

In spite of the risks involved, these men and women enjoy what they do. They want to enjoy it, to draw satisfaction from it. They are not there solely to sacrifice themselves. You might compare them to mountaineers: they like the effort and sense of achievement involved in what they do but not necessarily every part of it. And of course they enjoy the limited applause when they return home, even if only a few ever hear it. They are self-confident enough to be satisfied even if only they know of their achievements.

Unlike mountaineers, undercover agents also need their work to serve a greater purpose. With no TV cameras following them and no headlines when they are back, they want to know that they are part of something very important, something bigger than they are, bigger than any individual, stretching beyond everyday life and its ordinary meaning. The cause they serve endows their unrecognized existence with a rare significance. And when they find an organization that promises them this combination of a high level of risk with the satisfaction of serving a greater purpose, they are immediately drawn to it.

Perhaps most significantly, operating undercover enables agents to work without disclosing their true identity. Their identity is transformed, at least for a time, and they can lead a life that perhaps they wished they could lead but would never otherwise be able to. It allows them, in some strange way, to view the world from a distance. Once removed, they can bend what is normally rigid, things like their morals, their inhibitions, or certain aspects of their personality; they are enabled by their authority figure to lie, to pretend, to manipulate, and to be who they are not. Spies get to experience the thrill of being and not being. They get the freedom to move between two worlds: the real world, with family, friends, and personal history, and another world in which their identity is a fiction they create. They get to have this without being criminals or being insane. In undercover work, they are offered a license to lie for a greater cause, a unique and tempting opportunity to let vice and virtue go to bed together—and the temptation is hard to resist.

Order from the Strand!

Brigadier General (ret.) Yiftach Reicher Atir is a former intelligence officer in the Israeli military. His novel, 
The English Teacher, is published by Penguin.

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