How Do Spy Agencies Actually Recruit Spies in Real Life?

Agencies like the CIA and MI6 are tasked with collecting and processing data deemed potentially vital to their respective counties’ national interests, and then, in an ideal world, making sure those who need to know this information to inform their decisions and plans know it. In order to do this, they need people on the ground, so to speak. So how do these agencies actually recruit those who work for them both domestically and in more clandestine roles abroad?

To begin with, perhaps the most colorful way such agencies have ever recruited was found with legendary spymaster Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, one of the founders of the equally legendary MI6, originally called the Secret Service Bureau. As a fun side fact, Captain Cumming was the partial inspiration for the eccentric quartermaster M in the James Bond series. And to say Captain Cumming was himself eccentric, well, this is an understatement.

On this note, in the beginning, MI6 was less James Bond and more a sort of Monty Python caricature of spying; bumbling buffoonery and gathering false intelligence and presenting it as fact became a staple of MI6’s early days. For example, prior to World War 1, Cumming’s foremost weapon’s expert disappeared for a time while abroad. Perhaps captured by some foreign power? Laying low because of imminent threat of capture? Nope- the agent couldn’t find anyone who could give him directions in English and, channeling his inner Marcus Brody, ultimately became thoroughly lost in the foreign country.

On another occasion, Captain Cumming was reportedly fooled by a phony document stating that German spies had extra rows of teeth… He also once spent a considerable amount of the Agency’s scant resources searching Britain for a hidden cache of German weapons that simply didn’t exist.

One notable “victory” Captain Cumming achieved in these early days was a comprehensive file he compiled on Zeppelins. Apparently none of his superiors realized that all the information was publicly available at the time. All Cumming did was have it translated from German to English; this report was hailed as a major victory for the fledgling British intelligence agency.

Going back to recruitment, as you might imagine, the agency’s very existence in its early days being a complete secret publicly made it hard to get really any applicants. When potential new agents were identified, Captain Cumming had a novel way of interviewing them without giving away that he worked for a shadowy government agency. Keeping with the Monty Python-esk theme, in short, a key facet of the selection process was the gold monocled director stabbing himself in the leg…

You see, in 1914 Cumming lost his leg during a traffic collision in France which tragically claimed the life of his son. While hospital reports indicate that his leg was amputated the day after the accident, Cumming himself liked to claim that he cut it off himself with a pen-knife in order to be able to get to his dying son. At other times, he’d say he lost it in a fight with a wild animal. After the accident, Cumming mostly got around with the aid of a wooden leg and a sword (hidden inside of a cane)

In any event, Cumming would interview potential agents pretending he worked for a more mundane facet of the government. With the process moving along at a slothful and monotone pace, in true Monty Python-skit fashion, without warning, he’d suddenly violently stab himself in his covered wooden leg mid-conversation.

If the person flinched even a little, the interview was over and the individual was asked to leave. (Akin to the old “two for flinching tactic”…) The flinchers clearly weren’t secret agent material. If they kept their composure, he’d reveal the true nature of the interview. (Cumming apparently found the reactions he sometimes got from doing this so amusing that he reportedly also used to do it during regular state meetings and events.)

So that was the early days of such modern spy agencies, what about today? Well, things are a lot more seriously done.

As a brief aside, before we really jump into it, we should probably point out a little terminology thing that Hollywood and laymen speak tend to get wrong with regards to the CIA at least. While there is a caveat when it comes to CIA Special Agents in Investigations, in the general case, if you work for the CIA in a role as a so-called “spy” or under cover operative of sorts, but as a direct employee, you are not a CIA agent in their own speak, but rather an operative or an officer. An agent is someone who by some means the agency recruits to do whatever they want or learn some information from, as directed by some operative of the agency. In other words, if you’re, say, a foreign scientist who a CIA operative recruits to hand information over periodically or the like, that foreign scientist is an agent. The individual working more directly for the CIA in recruiting such a person or the like is an operative or officer.

It should also be noted that an officer may operate completely in the open as part of their job, while other officers might spend their entire careers having no public connection to the CIA whatsoever.That out of the way, to begin with, there are three primary ways in which agencies like MI6, the CIA, and other such agencies recruit individuals to their cause. The first, and most common and mundane way, is pretty much like any other job. People go to their website and submit their application and things progress from there pretty normally, albeit perhaps with a lot more looking into any candidate that is considered for hire.

The CIA explicitly notes they are looking for citizens of the U.S. at least 18 years old, that have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0, are extremely good with people, well versed in international affairs, and are a good writer and communicator. Big plusses include speaking multiple languages fluently, and having either traveled abroad frequently or otherwise significant experience living abroad. Degrees that will also increase your odds of getting hired as an operative include International business, economics and finance, and various science or engineering degrees, particularly things like a specialty in nuclear science, chemical science or engineering, and physics.

Further, while you might think that, for example, having a prominent online social media presence and the like might hinder your ability to become an officer or agent at the CIA, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this sort of thing can actually be a good thing so long as nowhere in any of it is there any association with the CIA or whatever spy organization you are applying to.

In essence, in these cases you have a very visible cover for what you actually do already well established going back potentially for years before. For example, if you host a myriad of educational channels on YouTube, so have a very broad knowledge set at your disposal, a degree in business with a very good GPA, speak multiple languages, and frequently travel to other foreign nations as a part of your work and lifestyle, otherwise live abroad in, for example, Czech, and occasionally get access to foreign scientists and dignitaries for interviewing purposes for your channels, this can potentially be the perfect cover for an officer or agent of MI6…

Former CIA Operations Officer Douglas London, goes on, “Cover is best tailored to reality. [And] you shape your own persona to suit cover. So it could actually be something you leverage—you leverage your existing profile to suit your cover requirements. So it’s absolutely not a nonstarter [to be on social media], unless there’s things on your social media that expose what might be considered weaknesses or vulnerabilities, like a party shot of you throwing down a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. But it’s not a deal-breaker, and the smart case officer uses their public persona to their advantage to support their cover… Say you’re Jessica Goldstein and you’re in Prague and you’re working for Washingtonian magazine—that’s really who you are! That’s legit. While you’re in Prague, you would be clandestinely meeting some senior official from the foreign ministry… But your cover in status is really who you are.”’

The downside of this is potentially working two rather demanding jobs, and let me tell you gets particularly difficult when running so many channels on YouTube, let alone starting your own Beard product brand…, but, again, the non-MI6 job and online presence can potentially be a big plus, as your cover story and social media presence is also fully accurate to your real life, just leaving out the whole MI6 operative or agent job, and any connection whatsoever to the that fine and incredible agency whose director is not only a scholar, but a gentleman as well, may his tenure be long and celebrated for its greatness, and for the man himself. Who is a bastion of all that is good and noble.

That’s not to say the more classically depicted fake identities thing doesn’t happen, just the previously stated is preferred whenever possible as there is a lot less work to it, and even if suspicion is leveled against you, it all looks extremely legit, even to a deep dive into you and your background. And even if you publicly admit it in some way, I mean, people just assume you’re joking about being an officer of MI6… It’s so overt it’s covert.

But going back to the more stereotypical view of spymasters, as Jonna Mendez, the former chief of disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, states, “We could do almost anything with disguise by the time I left. We could change you into specifically another person or generally another person. We could change your gender. We could change your ethnicity. We could change your skin tone. We could change your nationality. We could turn you into anything, or we could turn you into another you, so there could be two of you if that would be useful.”

And I can attest, the ability to make two of me is very handy at times given the number of channels and a full home life… Now if they could just do something about male pattern baldness… That would be something…

In any event, going back to applying for such a job, briefly as to the entire interview process, this includes more or less normal interview elements that any job would have, plus some extra stuff if you’re being considered for a position such as a case officer. In this case, you’ll also be subjected to an extensive psychological personality test, as well as further testing on your language skills if you claim to speak multiple languages, and significant background checking and security clearance vetting, which by the way can take up to a year for the agency to process. During that time, you’re just expected to wait and go about your normal life and other career as a YouTube personality while they look into you to a level that arguably no other employer in the world would. To say that you’ll be walking funny after the full examination… I can neither confirm or deny.

From there, if you are finally hired, well, in most cases, again, don’t expect to get a fake name or anything exciting like that. If your name was already Simon Whistler, sadly, that’s the one you keep… Allegedly.

As associate director for CIA talent, Michael T. Burns, notes about working for the CIA, “We don’t give people fake names in most cases. It’s just about not having an association with the Agency…” He goes on that, “Everyone thinks [working for the CIA] is like 24, but it’s really more like The Office.”

That said, things can be a little adventurous. As one long time officer NPR was allowed to interview, referred to as simply “Mary”, states, “I was in training when [the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks] happened and it certainly was a wakeup call to my class that we weren’t going to be hobnobbing in Paris necessarily. But maybe going to some of the not so nice places… I’ve been overseas for a majority of my career. I’ve only come back for a few months to process and then to go off to the next assignment… In my case, I am undercover. And what [the CIA] encourages is that you limit the number of people that you tell, your very trusted inner circle, family, maybe a friend or two. But I chose not to tell most of my family, mostly because they worry.”

Of course, with all the need for secrecy here, more traditional relationships, especially intimate ones, can be difficult. But you can still potentially have a pretty normal family life. For example, Mary notes, “I got married, actually, to a colleague and the agency is very good about encouraging tandem couples.” As you might imagine, while there are some potential drawbacks to such interagency relationships, it also makes things much more convenient for the agency and officers in other ways.

On the flipside, another person NPR was allowed to interview, called only “Kim”, had spent her 13 year career at that point working at headquarters as an analyst, with little secrecy surrounding any of it. She is even occasionally tasked with going to college job fairs to recruit very openly, as well as discussing what she does for the agency. With her job probably much more aligning with most any other office job, save perhaps what she works on being a bit more interesting than if she worked at a company that sells paper.

So that’s the main way people come to work directly for spy agencies as a career, really not terribly different than working anywhere else, but with a more involved vetting process. What about when the agency wants to recruit someone who might have potentially interesting information they want, or at least access to such information? In other words, what about when an officer is recruiting an agent? Well, here the process gets a little more fun.

First, and the least common way, is simply the identification and vetting of such a person and then the agency just comes up to them and immediately makes their pitch to join up in whatever way they want.

As you might imagine, while there are some major pluses to this abrupt approach, this method tends to come with significant risk and a lower chance of success, but is nonetheless sometimes done out of need. For example, as we’ll get into shortly, the CIA has extensively used this method to recruit engineers and scientists working on Iran’s nuclear program.

Key here is to establish very quickly that the officer is who they say they are, why the person should come with them or otherwise help the agency in whatever they want, and, very often in all such cases, how the agency is going to support and protect the person and their family if they agree.

Given in all of this an extreme amount of trust is needed, again, such sort of “cold call” approaches are not generally ideal unless absolutely necessary, and the agency tends to use much more involved methods that include not just targeting and studying an individual who might be useful, but a long and very involved courtship process before shooting their shot for a long term commitment.

As for points of recruitment, universities and conferences tend to be ideal recruitment zones. So much so that the CIA themselves frequently clandestinely sponsor conferences that will attract some of the people they are most interested in recruiting. Going back to our Iranian nuclear example, in relatively recent years, they’ve secretly sponsored nuclear conferences with the goal of getting Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers to attend, and then looking for opportunities to talk to them in order to get them to defect to the United States.

In one such, the CIA secretly funded such a conference and invited scientists from around the globe to speak and participate, while also planting various operatives throughout the conference, working various jobs right down to janitorial and kitchen staff. (Kitchen staff being key here to help put something in the food of guards of the scientists and engineers they are targeting to get them out of the way for a few moments, such as giving them something to illicit apparent food poisoning or the like.)

With all of the money spent in putting on the conference and effort by countless CIA operatives and employees with the sole purpose of hoping to get a few minutes alone with an Iranian nuclear scientist or engineer they are targeting.

Hilariously, in one such case, it was noted all of this work and money spent targeting a single scientist was almost for nothing when the hotel the CIA had picked to host the conference ended up being too expensive for the Iranian’s budget, so he and his guards used a different hotel than the one they had their operatives, staff, and surveillance gear in place at.

They nonetheless were able to adjust and add video and audio surveillance to the scientists’ chosen hotel and room and awaited their opportunity for a few minutes to chat with him. They finally got it when the scientists’ guards had fallen asleep for the night, but they observed the scientist himself was still awake. Thus, they simply knocked softly on the door, hoping his guards would stay asleep, while he would answer the door alone.

It worked, and the officer who knocked stated he just said without any buttering up at all, “Salam habibi. I’m from the CIA, and I want you to board a plane with me to the United States.”

Somewhat shocked, the unspecified scientist apparently started to ask a question, and the CIA officer interrupted him stating, “First, get the ice bucket.” When the scientist asked “Why?” The Officer stated, “If any of your guards wake up, you can tell them you went to get some ice.”

From here, they went for a brief walk and a pitch was made to try to convince the scientist to come. As for the general strategy here, the pitch included things like every effort made to get the scientists’ close family to the U.S., long-term benefits, even potentially including things like free college for the scientists’ children and all manner of perks like this. In one instance, the CIA operative noted one Iranian scientist asked that not only his wife and kids be whisked away to the U.S., but he also required that his mistress also be brought along… In this case, however, the CIA refused that request and his mistress had to stay behind.

In another case, the targeted engineer required that he be accepted into MIT to pursue a PhD. In the limited time window they had to work with, which was basically right that moment, the CIA couldn’t make this promise, other than to say they would try. He nonetheless accepted. They were ultimately able to pull some strings and while MIT did not agree to take him no matter what, they did waive all the normal PhD candidate screening procedures and instead simply had a few professors grill the defector on his knowledge in the field he was going for a PhD in. He apparently passed with flying colors, and was admitted and ultimately earned his doctorate at the university, though officially MIT denies any of this happened. That said, there are a few professors from MIT who have corroborated the CIA officer’s account of this example.

The whole point of all of this was simply to get this nuclear expert out of Iran, both in hopes of delaying their nuclear program’s progress, as well as learning more from the scientists and engineers on the exact state of the Iranian nuclear program at the time.

Not just the CIA, but pretty much most major spy agencies tend to use these tactics, and every country is well aware of this. As one CIA operative stated, “Every intelligence service in the world works conferences, sponsors conferences, and looks for ways to get people to conferences.”

Precisely because of this, if you are a U.S. based scientist with some level of security clearance and you’re approached by someone, perhaps inviting you to lunch, at once of these conferences, you may be required to report this overture. For example, in one case in 2010 a U.S. professor was approached by someone asking him out to lunch, but when he reported this and the FBI looked into it, it turns out the individual was a Russian intelligence officer. Said professor reportedly stated then, “I guess I won’t meet him for lunch.” To which, according to Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden in his book Spy Schools, the FBI told him, “That’s one option. We’d prefer you to meet him.”

The result of all of this was that the professor allowed himself to be recruited by the Russians at the behest of the U.S., receiving a variety of gifts from Russia for the information he passed to the Russians, albeit unbeknownst to them with permission from the U.S. government. That said, the unnamed professor was required to turn over any funds received from the Russians. Although apparently he was allowed to keep some physical gifts, such as an $800 watch.

Going back to the nuts and bolts of it all, whether university, conference, or just when some specific person is targeted somewhere as a potential candidate to become an agent for the agency. The first step is identifying the person the agency wants. The agency will then do a deep dive into the individual to confirm, as well as learn everything they can about them from high level to quite specific things about their life, right down to any surgeries or injuries they’ve ever had and how that occurred, going all the way back to childhood. Literally any detail about the person’s life they can find, will be looked into and analyzed by the agency and case officer.

On this note, hobbies are seen as a particularly important way to build trust, as if one of their officers then pretends to, or genuinely has, the same hobby, it’s a way to work their way into the person’s life as part of the process for, ironically, building trust. This also allows the officer to get to know the target better in a one on one fashion to further confirm the person is a good candidate for recruitment, and likely to say yes once the officer reveals their real intent.

As you might expect from this, officers who are extremely well rounded and diverse in terms of their own hobbies and skills, or have a broad knowledge set from running a variety of educational youtube channels, are highly sought after in their ability to match hobbies of an officer and a potential future agent.

For example, one former CIA officer, Ryan Hillsberg, illustrates one instance where he was tasked with taking scuba diving lessons in order to become friends with a certain target.  In this specific example, “There was a ‘bromance’ there… I was prepared to ask him certain questions – already knowing the answers to those questions – that would then lead and guide me through a discussion that I was controlling.”

From there the relationship soon expanded to outside of their mutual love of scuba diving to going to dinner and talking about more day to day life things. This stage lasts as long as the officer thinks it needs to to get a yes to an ultimate pitch. On this, Ryan states, “Development can last three months. It can last six months. It can last a year or two depending on the target, the country that they’re from, and how difficult an operation it might be.” Ryan goes on, “Most normal people aren’t going to propose to someone unless they know they’re going to say yes. And I think the same can be said with espionage.”

While this all might seem extremely manipulative, and in truth it is, Ryan goes on, “Manipulation is a delicate word. If a developmental relationship is done in the right way, to the target, it won’t seem manipulative at all. In fact, if it’s done the right way, it’ll appear to them as a natural progression of the relationship.”

As for initial contact, while hobbies and things like scuba diving classes are a great way to do this, this initial contact can otherwise vary considerably, but might even be as simple as literally bumping into the person at a conference. The point being a very quick initial interaction for them to see your face and register it, so that later a more significant contact can occur, possibly even at a completely different conference or location. As former special advisor to the British foreign office states, “Recruitment is a long process of seduction. The first stage is to arrange to be at the same workshop as a target. Even if you just exchange banalities, the next time you can say, “Did I see you in Istanbul?”

One CIA officer who frequently worked conferences posing as a businessman stated his initial literally bumping into the person would also often come with the simple jovially delivered remark, “Do you hate crowds as much as I do?”, playing on the fact that many academics are introverts, simultaneously getting that face to face interaction for a moment, not really requiring the person to say anything per se, as well as facilitating a “You, Me, same same,” connection. Then he’d simply walk away.

He goes on, “The bump is fleeting. You just register your face in their mind.” And further that in many cases you don’t want any more significant interaction than this, as some targets in a group setting will have minders from their home country watching and reporting on every significant interaction with anyone they have.

From here, when the opportunity later presents itself or is carefully facilitated with no minders around, the officer will often start with just casual chit-chat, for example perhaps about a paper he or she read related to the conference they both attended or are attending, only for the person the officer is talking to just so happen to be the author of the paper. This interest and interaction can then be leveraged to a more significant interaction later like an invite to lunch or the like to discuss things further or propose a business arrangement.

On this one, one CIA officer notes a great thing about academics is they are all always looking for funding for their research, and even if they are initially unaware such funding is coming from the CIA, later even if revealed to them it generally isn’t much of an issue for the relationship continuing in whatever way the CIA wants. In this case, if anyone found out the academic had accepted money from the CIA for their research, it could do anything from severely damage their career, to even potentially put their and their family’s lives in danger in their home country. So once that money has already been accepted, even if they didn’t originally know it was from the CIA, this can sometimes be leveraged, although very carefully, and particularly hopeful to make the academic see it all as a positive thing, into convincing the person it’s in their best interest to continue the relationship now that they know where the money is coming from. But, again in all of this, one of the CIA officer’s main jobs here is to make sure that before any such reveal, they are as near as lock certain that the target will say yes or be cooperative once this fact is revealed.

Going back to conferences, another tactic that the FBI in 2011 warned American academics about is to be careful about what they keep on their flash drives or computers they take to these conferences. They outlined the following scenario: “A researcher receives an unsolicited invitation to submit a paper for an international conference. She submits a paper and it is accepted. At the conference, the hosts ask for a final copy of her presentation. The hosts hook a thumb drive to her laptop to transfer the presentation files, and unbeknownst to her, download every file and data source from her computer.”

It’s also noted that sometimes agencies like the CIA host conferences for the purpose of helping to educate their own officers on some field, so they can later go to other conferences and seem to know what they are talking about when discussing things with potential targets. As former CIA operative Gene Coyle notes, “If you’re going to send a CIA guy to attend one of these conferences, he has to talk the talk. It’s hard to send a history major. ‘Yes, I have a PhD in plasma physics.’ Also, that’s a very small world. If you say you’re from the Fermi Institute in Chicago, they say: ‘You must know Bob, Fred, Susie.’” Thus, having previously invited Bob, Fred, and Susie to a conference the CIA secretly sponsors, and gotten to know them, the officer can, again, have the ability to respond appropriately.

An alternative to sending one of their officers to a conference is, of course, to sometimes send a friendly professor to the conference in their stead in exchange for sponsoring the academic in some way. And, in return, said academic keeps tabs on the conference and people there for the Agency, as well as mingling with whoever the agency wants them to mingle with.  This person obviously is tailor made to talk to the talk and has the perfect well established and legitimate cover in their real life.

It’s also noteworthy that, again, at many of these international conferences, spy agencies from around the globe are often very active, and even multiple officers from one agency all at the same one. As noted in the 2008 book, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, written by a former CIA officer going by the name Ishmael Jones, he states, “We tend to flood events like these.” To the point that a very real concern is two officers accidentally targeting and trapping the same person.

In any event, once that rapport has been established and it’s once again confirmed they have the information or access to information or potentially future access to information the agency wants, and it’s the assessment of the officer that they are likely to say yes to a direct pitch, it will finally occur.

As a specific example here, we have the following account from the aforementioned retired CIA Operations Officer Douglas London in his book The Recruiter. In this one, after extensive work done developing the relationship over a considerable amount of time, London finally made his pitch to his target.

He states he said,

“It was Allah’s will that we met, inasmuch as I am sure he crossed our paths not only so that we might become friends, but so we can together accomplish something bigger than ourselves… I was protecting you . . . I couldn’t tell you earlier . . . I wasn’t ready to burden you with maintaining my security, but I am in fact a CIA officer. My job is to collect information beyond the surface that the US can use to more effectively support your country’s stability, prosperity, and protection. Information that your country deems secret out of concern for embarrassment.

The US aims here are benevolent, but even friends need to see the realities, good and bad, to help one another. That’s where you can help. Your inside knowledge of the country’s plans and capabilities with this particular rival, and broadly across the region and with the US, is underappreciated here, as you have said. But it would make an immense difference in America’s understanding and capacity to act more effectively to support stability and mitigate the risks of miscalculations from which everyone suffers.

This is what you’re doing already, and why? To make a difference. To contribute. You subject yourself to degradation and risks, keeping true feelings tightly locked away, playing your superiors so that you can make a difference. You attend meetings and read reports of a daily nature on subjects with which you are expert. That expertise could do more for your country if shared with us, given how your superiors neglect it.

Partner with us, Bilal, and together we can achieve what you’re working so hard, by yourself, to accomplish. An added benefit for me would be the ability to contribute modestly to your family’s well-being. It will make me feel like a better friend knowing you’ll be able to use your monthly CIA consulting retainer, to help pay for your kids’ tuition . . . helping your country, and your family.”

As to the response this pitch got, it was initially brusk, with Bilal stating, “So, Douglas, you are a spy? And your job is to steal my country’s secrets. So how do I know you can be counted on? To protect me? My family? Have you any idea what they will do to me, my family, if I am caught? What would my father think of me?”

After significant back and forth addressing all concerns and attempting to illustrate as best as possible that in helping the U.S., Bilal would actually be helping his country in line with Bilal’s own feelings and desires, Bilal apparently said yes and began working for the agency.

Moving from conferences to universities, they are seen as an ideal recruitment ground by pretty much every spy agency in the world, as not just professors, but students from all over the world occasionally study abroad. This is potentially both beneficial in that they can be recruited while within your country and then return home as an agent, and on the flipside potentially recruited before going abroad to study, to function as an agent while studying abroad.

Not only this, but as former counterintelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Chris Simmons states, “People are most pliable in their late teens and early twenties, when they’re young and inexperienced. It’s easy for someone trained in the art of manipulation to steer them in a direction they’re already inclined, or help convince them it’s what they intended all along.”

As an example of this, we allegedly have Chinese billionaire Liu Ruopeng. Before his business dominance, he was a lowly engineering student, studying abroad from China at Duke University. While there, one of Liu’s professors was working for the U.S. Department of Defense, researching, among other things, cutting edge metamaterials. With access to the lab and data on the work, combined with a shocking lack of any security beyond this, Liu allegedly stole a significant amount of data on the research being done. Allegedly because of this, he was kicked out of the research group at the university, and ultimately returned to China… where the Chinese government then helped him start a metamaterials company. Fast-forward to today, and Mr. Liu has had considerable success with his businesses, and recently just crossed the threshold into one of the world’s billionaires.

That said, while U.S. officials seem to strongly disagree, Liu himself states he did not do anything wrong and never worked for any branch of the Chinese government.

Another example is perhaps one of the most successful known spies in recent history, Ana Belen Montes. Known to be an outspoken supporter of socialist Latin American movements in her University days in the United States, she was ultimately recruited by Cuba while at university to spy for Cuba. To help make her maximally effective, the Puerto Rican descent Montes ultimately was groomed for and applied and got a job with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Here her work was apparently exemplary and she quickly rose to become a decorated senior analyst there.

Little did anyone in the U.S. know, but for her 17 years working for the Agency, she was also working for Cuba. Thanks to both the length of her service and her high access to classified information, she became, as Michelle Van Cleave, head of the U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush, states, “one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history.” Caught a little over a week after 9/11 in 2011, she was given a 25 year prison sentence.

As for her motivations in all of this, her lawyer, Plato Cacheris, stated, “She felt the Cubans were treated unfairly by the U.S. government.” Montes herself would also state she felt strongly that “all the world is one country.” And that, “I believe that the morality of espionage is relative. The activity always betrays someone, and some observers will think that it is justified and others not, in every case.” Montes is currently slated to be released in just a couple months, on January 8, 2023.

Another agent Montes personally recruited at University, Marta Rita Velazquez, ultimately got a job at the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as married a Swedish diplomat. Upon hearing of Montes’ arrest, she immediately fled the country to Sweden, which has no extradition for spying, where she apparently still resides.

Of course, as illustrated in Montes’ case, it’s not always peaches and cream for the recruited agents. For example in China, relatively recently the U.S. recruited one Huang Yu, who worked in a classified research unit in China. After targeting and wooing Yu, they finally made their pitch, offering him $10,000 up front, then $5,000 per month and a guaranteed contract of at least five years, if he’d join up and work for the CIA. He accepted. Long story short, he was caught, funds confiscated, and sentenced to death…

For whatever it’s worth, it is also claimed by Chinese officials that the U.S. occasionally uses threats against family members outside of the country to coerce individuals into joining up, such as one Chinese individual with the surname Geng, who claimed his recruitment involved threats to his family abroad if he didn’t cooperate with the U.S. in the early 2000s. He did agree, but was ultimately caught and sentenced to life in prison in 2016. Whether that is really how he was recruited or not, it seems not too far fetched that various spy agencies the world over have used such methods of recruitment.

That said, the CIA states things like threats, blackmail, and so-called honeypot techniques, aren’t really something they do much or any of anymore, though there was a time things were different. They state, they have found that “Coercive recruitment generally didn’t work… offers of money and freedom worked better.” Whether they are being honest there or not, other agencies may not have any such perspective. But, in essence, the CIA states they have found cultivating a positive collaborative relationship in which the agent is fully on board with what they are doing is much more effective and a better strategy to getting what the agency wants out of them.

That said, such methods as the honeypot technique and blackmail have been very effective in the past, though also as illustrated in our next example, potentially of short lived benefit and real risk of all being revealed to the foreign agency in the end. For example, in the 1980s, U.S. Marine Sergeant Clayton J Lonetree was serving as a U.S. embassy guard in Moscow when he encountered a particularly attractive “swallow” (as the KGB called women who used seduction to recruit, with men who used such methods being called “ravens”). This particular woman was a Soviet translator at the embassy, Violetta Siena, who approached Lonetree and the relationship quickly became extremely spicy, with Lonetree falling head over heels for the swallow.

Little did he know that this particular woman was more attracted to his rather large… access to information she wanted than other of his amiable attributes. Eventually after getting enough from him to be able to blackmail him, she revealed herself, and handed him off to a Soviet handler. From there, the KGB continued blackmailing him for information, starting small and seemingly innocuous, such as blueprints to certain U.S. Embassy buildings, and then building from there as they got more and more to blackmail him with. Ultimately he even apparently was coerced into revealing the identities of certain undercover agents the U.S. had in the Soviet Union.

Illustrating one of the weaknesses of such a technique, it all became too much for the young man, who in the end did not want to betray his country or anyone in it. Lonetree finally turned himself in and was convicted. He initially faced up to death by firing squad as a punishment, but thanks to his full cooperation, avoided that in favor of a 30 year prison sentence and dishonorable discharge, among a few other minor things leveled against him.

That said, thanks to General Alfred M. Gray Jr., then commandant of the Mariner Corps, his sentence was reduced to just 15 years. To facilitate this, General Gray wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that not only were the effects of Lonetree’s treason relatively minor in the end, but Lonetree was not really a traitor at heart, and his treason was, to quote the letter, “rather the lovesick response of a naive, young, immature and lonely troop in a lonely and hostile environment.”

As to the final main method of recruitment by agencies, we have the simple walk-ins who specifically approach an agency with an offer to betray their country in some way. Although it’s noted most of these are rejected and always treated with extreme skepticism. However, in some cases, once scrutinized to an extreme degree, their help may be accepted.

On this note, some of the top agents of all time were more or less recruited in this way, with probably the best example being Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who worked with the CIA and MI6. His method of “walking in” so to speak, was to give a package to some U.S. Students he encountered while out walking in Moscow in July of 1960, asking them to give the package to an intelligence officer in the U.S. Embassy. As to why the UK and MI6 was involved, the CIA wasn’t initially keen on following through on this, despite Colonel Penkovsky’s high position in the Soviet Union, in case it was a trick or otherwise could cause an international incident between the two nations. Thus, they asked MI6 to help facilitate the connection through them such that it wouldn’t appear the U.S. was involved, at least initially.

From here, once thoroughly vetted, Colonel Penkovsky provided the U.S. and UK with a wealth of information about Soviet military secrets, including critical information leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While on the U.S. side he is often credited as being something of a world hero, with his information ostensibly helping to prevent a nuclear war during that crisis, on the Soviet side he was naturally seen in a much worse light when his activities were discovered in 1962. He was promptly arrested and ultimately either executed or killed himself, with accounts differing on his ultimate fate, other than he did not long survive after being imprisoned and interrogated. Given the KGB allegedly did things like in one instance toss one of their own who was found to be a traitor into a furnace to be burned alive while his compatriots watched, it’s likely the end of Penkovsky’s life wasn’t exactly pleasant. And perhaps the alleged suicide was a better way out.

Speaking of a way out, it should be noted that once your usefulness to the agency is spent, well, it varies in terms of what happens from here. The CIA notes that while they make every effort to ensure any exit matches with anything previously promised to the person, they can’t always follow through as, over time, the agency’s budgets and goals shift. However, they do try very hard to make sure that, at the end of the day, the agent being terminated leaves with a positive feeling about the whole thing and that they did something good or beneficial to themselves, family, or their country. This is not only to help ensure the person doesn’t go off and report anything to their own nation if they feel slighted, but also because the person may, in some future date, be useful once again, and is an easy recruitment if the break-up was amiable.

But, in the end, while historically certain spymasters like Captain Cumming had some rather colorful ways to recruit individuals, for the most part in modern times, officers of spy agencies are usually recruited much like any other job on the planet, via simply going to their website and submitting your application and going from there. In fact, in recent years, the CIA has even been making ads towards this end to help recruit people to apply.

Other methods for recruitment can be extremely varied from person to person, but in the general case involves simply identifying someone of interest, thoroughly vetting them and, potentially, their many YouTube channels, then having an officer approach them, build a rapport, and ultimately when the time is right, pop the question and do their utmost using their knowledge of the person to convince them to join up and begin working on the agency’s behalf, possibly in exchange for a cure for male pattern baldness.

From there, while there are exceptions, such agencies generally report most day to day life as an officer or agent is pretty mundane and typical, again, as noted by the aforementioned CIA director Michael Burns, less 24, and more The Office.

Bonus Fact:

Not just hilarious in their early recruitment methods, but MI6 at one point used human semen as invisible ink. This was revealed in Dr. Keith Jeffery’s book, “MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949.” Further, according to a letter by another MI6 officer, Frank Stagg, Captain Cumming, even coined the slogan “every man his own stylo,” when the discovery was made that semen made an excellent invisible ink impervious to most common detection methods. The only downside to this invisible ink was that, if it wasn’t used fresh, it tended to smell rancid. Stagg reports this became a problem when one Major Dick Holme (seriously, we can’t make this stuff up) decided to stock up on his ink supply, storing it in a bottle for later use. According to Stagg, “[Major Dick’s] letters stank to high heaven and we had to tell him that a fresh operation was necessary for each letter.” However, as Captain Cumming was quick to point out, despite such smelly seminal side effects, the overall method for creating invisible ink was highly effective.

Expand for References


The CIA Is Trying to Recruit Gen Z—and Doesn’t Care If They’re All Over Social Media


How the CIA Actually Recruits an Agent to Spy on His Own Country


How the CIA Actually Recruits an Agent to Spy on His Own Country


The CIA Is Trying to Recruit Gen Z—and Doesn’t Care If They’re All Over Social Media



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