China resorts to blackmail to recruit agents

Western intelligence agencies rarely use blackmail as a way of forcing people to become intelligence sources (agents). This is not because they are more moral than other services but because blackmail tends to produce agents who are reluctant, work poorly and who can be easily turned by the enemy if the opportunity arises. Western services often have other incentives available such as resettlement and ideology. Regimes such as Russia and China cannot offer the same freedoms and benefits as the West so when money and other inducements fail, the history of espionage in the 20th and 21st centuries shows that their spy agencies tend to resort to blackmail to recruit agents.

In Russia, the most common blackmail tactic is the “honey trap” – using either men or women as the bait. It used to be understood in the Soviet era that Western businessmen and diplomats would be approached in hotels by women (or men if their tastes went that way) and that nearly every hotel room was bugged by audio and video devices. If compromising pictures could be obtained then the blackmail would proceed. As an example of this sort of operation, Marine Sergeant Clayton J. Lonetree was stationed as a guard at the US embassy in Moscow in the early 1980s. While he was in the city, he was seduced by a 25 year old female KGB officer using the alias Violetta Seina. She was working as a translator at the embassy and so he thought he could trust her. Once he was drawn deeper into their relationship, he was blackmailed into identifying CIA officers stationed at the embassy and into providing blueprints of the building which could assist the KGB to install bugging devices. He was caught and convicted in 1987. He was jailed for thirty years (although he only served nine partly in recognition of the manner of his entrapment). Recent expulsions from the USA of Russian female agents such as Anna Chapman and Maria Buttina have shown that Russian use of the honey trap is alive and well.

In China, the blackmail route tends to be somewhat different. For example, this week the UK’s BBC News Service has been highlighting the plight of members of the Chinese Uyghur population who live in the West but still have family members living in China. They are first contacted by their relative in a surprise phone call from China. The call seems innocent enough but these calls are organised and closely monitored by the Chinese security service. Sometime aftrewards, the Chinese foreign intelligence service contacts the victim and the implication is that unless they assist the Chinese Intelligence Service then their family members held in China will suffer. But these “family blackmail” tactics are not just used on Uyghur emigrants but on all Chinese nationals who might have family back in China. According to the BBC, these tactics have been discovered in Norway, the UK, Turkey and the USA, to name but a few.

In the espionage trade this type of blackmail is known as “coercion by proxy”. But experience has shown that use of this sort of method can affcect the controllers as well as the controlled. Officers start to question the morality of what they are doing. It may only be one officer in a thousand, but these “conscience agents” can be a fruitful source of double agents for the other side (in this case, the Western intelligence services). The classic example is the KGB officer turned British spy, Oleg Gordievsky, who was revolted by Soviet tactics in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and decided that he could no longer support the Soviet regime. In the 1980s he provided intelligence that was so useful that some commentators credit his work as a factor in ending the Cold War.

So the Chinese should be careful: in the espionage world there is sometimes such a thing as karma.

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