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Insider threat expert David Charney on why people spy

Spies often decide to betray their country out of an "intolerable sense of personal failure" that coincides with a "perfect storm" of other, usually unfortunately timed, life developments, according to Virginia-based psychiatrist Dr. David Charney.

The Brooklyn-born clinician has spent decades treating members of the intelligence community, some of whom have been convicted of committing damaging espionage against the United States.    

"The decision to spy by anybody starts off in the mind of a person every single time," Charney said, adding "roughly 95 percent" of spies happen to be men.

"What matters is what the man thinks about his own life and his own performance and success," he said. "We're talking about an eternal negotiation that people go through on this point."

Charney has interviewed some of the most well-known spies in American history, including former FBI agents Earl Pitts and Robert Hanssen, who both passed secrets to Russia. Pitts is currently serving a nearly three-decade prison term; Hanssen was sentenced to life.

In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Charney offered a general profile of spy psychology that he has developed over the course of his career. He also outlined the key deliberative stages a person considering committing espionage may go through.

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

"If you feel like you're a loser, that you're a failure, how do you handle it? Well, some people will drink too much. Some people will have affairs. Some people will quit their jobs," Charney said. "For the few that become spies, clearly they are embedded in the intelligence community, and that's where they can play out their internal trouble in the workplace setting, because it offers them a chance to do it that way."

While employee frustration is not uncommon at any number of government bureaucracies, Charney said, externalizing self-dissatisfaction within the intelligence community can take the form of institutional retribution.

"It can be, 'Oh, I know what will-- I'll show them. They think I'm stupid? I'm much smarter than they are. Gee, I'm a little tight with money. I'll get money.' And so on and so on. Then all of a sudden everything makes sense to take that move of crossing the line," Charney told Morell.

But almost universally, what begins as euphoria morphs into regret, he said, and a subsequent feeling of being trapped between responding to the demands of a hostile foreign intelligence service and the risks associated with coming clean. Most often, that means scorn from one's peers and the specter of jail time.

"The theory that these are evil, horrible people that just can't wait to harm us all the time is brought into question by the fact that, 'Well, why did they stop then?'" Charney said. "Answer: Because they secretly are dying to stop. It's a wishful desire to end this horrific state that they are living in."

"They're always worrying about the other shoe dropping; a knock on the door," he said.

Charney has called for a solution, thus far rebuffed by most in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, to allow spies an "offramp" that, controversially, involves taking jail time off the table.

"Why? Because I've seen what happens when that's still left on the table. Most spies will say, 'If that's what I've got to do and it's uncertain what will happen to me, I'll take my chances,'" Charney said.

"But all other punishments would have to be in place, such as you lose your job in the IC. You lose your clearance. You pay back the monies that you got that were badly acquired. You have lifetime financial scrutiny so that you can't tuck things away. You may even have to acquire a new identity because you might be worried about the KGB coming after you, like the witness protection program. A whole lot of bad things, except you don't go to jail," he said.

Charney has started a non-profit organization called the "National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation" that he says would more effectively address the problem of insider threats, but admitted he had encountered little appetite for the plan from current officials.

"People who are still inside the government are not so quick to express support from this idea because they have to adhere to the common wisdom that's inside the building right now," Charney said.

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Dr. David Charney, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.

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