Legendary former CIA officer Jim Lawler, celebrated for taking down the infamous A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network, is fond of telling audiences he had to be a sociopath to succeed in his line of work.
He’s not entirely kidding.
In a recent interview, I asked him why he said that. After all, sociopaths have “a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience,” according to one definition. “Symptoms may include disregard for others, a lack of empathy, and dishonest behavior.”
Dishonesty, of course, is a highly regarded attribute in the spy game, which requires intelligence officers to live under false identities and recruit foreigners to commit treason. Think The Americans, the TV drama about a family of Russian spies just outside Washington, D.C. CIA officers do the same in foreign countries.
But what about those other nasty personality traits?
“Well, my psychiatrist friends argue with me about whether I’m truly a sociopath or not,” Lawler told me. Maybe “dark empath,” as another shrink put it, is more accurate, he said, “because I do go to dark places but I have a high degree of empathy when I’m recruiting people.”
An author of spy thrillers himself now, Lawler says his own favorite genre of novels “are thrillers that involve hit men. So, you know, maybe I was a hit man for the CIA—not a violent hit man, but a recruiting hit man.”
A successful CIA recruiter places him or herself is a position to meet foreigners of interest to the agency, such as Russian, Chinese, Iranian or North Korea officials, military officers, scientists or business people. The opportunity often comes at international conferences or gatherings where their targets are far from home, under less scrutiny, a little more relaxed. Operators like Lawler look for cracks in their lives or personalities to exploit.
“I was looking for stresses in their lives,” Lawler related. “I always tell folks, you know, I never recruited a happy person. Not once in my life. You don’t recruit happy people. You recruit people under stress.”
Needless to say, foreigners from hostile nations are on guard when they meet an American of any kind, especially when they suss out that he’s up to no good. But some also saw a welcome opportunity. Most of those say they want to defect—now.
“Our job is to try and convince them, if possible, to stay in place and work in place as a clandestine source,” Lawler said. But the mortality rate for spies can be very high in police states like China.
Lawler says he’s never lost one of his.
“Jim,” a CIA friend once told him, “you know you’re not doing these people any favors when you recruit them.” He responded that he’d quit “if I actually thought that I couldn’t do that in good conscience.”
Listen to Lawler and I talk more about how the espionage trade is really plied on the SpyTalk podcast, on Apple or wherever you listen. And do leave a comment. We love talking with our listeners and readers.
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