Catchy title, right?

Traitors, or rather, a specific alleged traitor has recently been in the news after his arrest for posting classified documents he copied during his National Guard duty and then posted on a public gaming server called Discord.

The why seems somewhat improbable. To impress his friends?

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey — that term may or may not apply to me — what is it with kids these days?

Looking deeper at this young man’s case, it appears he may be from a political background where not only betraying his country’s secrets in our current political climate will bring him notice and notoriety but that he may be lauded as a patriot for doing so.

Quite the contradiction — someone betraying his country’s secrets being considered a patriot. However, sometimes that is the case. It all depends on your perspective. Except for laws. When laws explicitly forbid the public dissemination of classified material and you do it for whatever reason, the price to pay is steep.

An irony is officers in intelligence agencies spend most of their time encouraging people to become traitors, usually citizens of a country perceived as an enemy. Those traitors, while playing a dangerous game, quite often get paid handsomely, and if they ultimately defect, they get a new identity and continue to reap the rewards of their treason.

Of course, at the same time those intelligence officers are trying to create traitors, their enemy’s intelligence officers are trying to turn them into traitors as well. And sometimes they succeed. It’s an old, tried-and-true game that continues even as I write this blog post and won’t end for a long, long time, if ever.


Up until the present, the reasons for betraying your country’s secrets fell into four categories.

M – Money

This was often the key factor in betraying your country’s secrets. Sometimes, someone from an enemy country approaches you. You negotiate how much you’d take for doing something dangerous like selling classified information, set your deal, and work out how the information and money exchanges are to happen.Sometimes, you take the initiative and approach the enemy country, usually with a sample of what you can provide, and off you go. Either way, money is the motivation.

I – Ideology

Sometimes a person becomes so disillusioned with the direction in which their country is moving that they will go to extreme measures, short of a revolution, to try and change that. In the Cold War, though quite often money was a motivator for KGB officers to turn and provide secrets to the CIA, occasionally it was because they recognized socialism had been replaced by the cult of personality and they wanted to return to “pure” socialism, which never existed, by the way. They may take money or defect, but that wasn’t the primary motivator.

C – Coercion

Sometimes you’re forced into betraying your country by blackmail. The KGB was particularly fond of this tactic, called kompromat, and arranged with Moscow hotels to “donate” rooms and suites that the KGB would outfit with video cameras to film foreign dignitaries in compromising situations with women, or men. Those hapless saps would then be blackmailed to provide the KGB classified information. Threatening families was another form of blackmail.

E – Ego

Sometimes you sell your country’s secrets to feed your own ego: Look how smart I am for getting away with this. Or you feel your government has “done you wrong” in not giving you promotions or important jobs, or it’s not listening to your ideas on how to improve its processes. The “I’ll show them” method of treason. In the instance of this newest case, the E might stand for “enthusiasm” for one’s political ideals to the point where you betray secrets because the party opposite yours is running the country.

We might also now call it M.I.C.E.N., with the N standing for notoriety, i.e., how many clicks or views you get when you post your country’s secrets on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or, ugh, TikTok or public servers like Discord.

It’s Against the Law

Regardless of your motivation, in every modern country on earth, there are laws against stealing or disseminating or selling classified materials, and the penalties are steep. The act of treason in any form is considered a hostile act against one’s own country, because it can place the country’s national security, as well as members of the military or the intelligence community, at risk. It carries hefty fines and long terms in prison. In some countries, it’s an automatic death sentence, and in others, the death penalty comes into play only when the country is at war.

And sometimes, decades later, when you think you’ve gotten away with it, your country’s intelligence service arranges for you to die from the effects of a colorless, odorless toxin, or any number of other ways to exact revenge best served cold.

Or you can be stripped of your citizenship and kicked out of your country. In high school, we were assigned a story by Edward Everett Hale called “The Man Without a Country.” It’s about a man who hated the new country of the United States to such an extent that he was exiled, unable to set foot on any American territory or the U.S. for the remainder of his life. Other countries refused to have him, and he spent the rest of his life on various ships at sea. There’s a twist at the end of the story, but this is a spoiler-free space. Go read it.

Somehow, though, that story never stopped me from protesting in the 1960s even in the face of people telling me if I didn’t like it here to leave. I preferred to stay and work for change peacefully, from the inside, rather than sell my country’s secrets when I was briefly exposed to them. (I had clearance, by the way.)

I explore this topic more in a new episode of “The Real Spies, Real Lives Podcast,” coming this Thursday, April 20, 2023. You can find that episode after 1 p.m. Thursday HERE.