Book Review: The Anatomy of a Spy by Michael Smith

The Anatomy of a Spy

Michael Smith

January 21, 2020

Focusing on the motivations, The Anatomy of a Spy by Michael Smith tells the story of why spies spy, presenting a wealth of spy stories—some previously unknown and some famous—from the very human angle of the agents themselves.

I used to be a big fan of spy stories, à la James Bond, where dashing men in tuxedos ran around European capitals with guns and fancy cars while gorgeous women swooned over them. I’m not sure when that love of glamour and explosions gave way to a greater appreciation of how intelligence gathering is done in real life, but books like The Anatomy of a Spy are tailor-made for readers like myself. While it’s nice to watch an action hero perform absolutely ridiculous, if entertaining, stunts on the big screen, it’s even better to be able to sit with a cup of tea and dive into the psychology of why everyday people decide to become spies.

And by “spy,” Michael Smith here generally means an agent who—as he defines in the helpful glossary at the end of the book—is someone who is not an official member of the intelligence agency they’re sending information to or otherwise assisting. Thus, Bond himself would not qualify unless he was informing on Great Britain to another country. The spies considered in this book are the ones in a unique position to pass along state secrets or otherwise influence their government’s policy-making, and Mr. Smith takes a deep dive into the motivations they may have in clandestinely assisting one nation over another.

Mr. Smith breaks these motivations down into seven separate categories, though he acknowledges early on in the book that motivations often overlap or shift as a spy’s illicit career progresses.

“Motives are often mixed or become mixed even if they aren’t to start with,” one former SIS officer said. “Motives for spying are as varied as motives for not spying and sometimes genuinely change over time. That’s partly what makes it so fascinating. Agents will often give different accounts of their motives depending on when they’re asked, just as we all do in other areas of life, for example: why did you marry X, not marry Y, become a journalist, move to Scotland?”


So, why do spies spy?

Unsurprisingly, the most common motivation is money, though this is often helped along by a spy’s desire for deeper emotional satisfaction. Whether that comes out of a sense of patriotism or justice or from a place of revenge or fantasy, Mr. Smith covers it all with plentiful examples from the acknowledged history of espionage.

One such is the case of Aldrich Ames, one of the most infamous spies in American history. A CIA man with an underwhelming résumé and a ton of personal debt, he decided to sell information to the KGB, in part because he believed that the CIA did not fully appreciate his skills:

He persuaded the KGB to pay him $10,000 a month, more than double his CIA salary, further validating his belief in himself as a master spy. But the cash payments gave Ames a problem: disguising the origins of the money. He could not simply deposit it in his Italian bank account without raising suspicion, and so he opened a Swiss bank account at Credit Suisse in Zurich and made occasional visits to Switzerland to pay the money in. After his conviction, he told the joint FBI/CIA team debriefing him, without any apparent sense of irony, that he had bought a second-hand Jaguar car in Rome and, as he drove over the Alps with [his beautiful wife] by his side, he pictured himself as the new James Bond.

Bond himself, of course, would be properly disdainful of such ridiculousness.

The Anatomy of a Spy focuses mainly on the events of the past 200 years, primarily where the interests of Western powers were at play. This is unsurprising given both Mr. Smith’s background in British intelligence as well as the relative openness of Western history and governments in declassifying information. While the book is rich in historical anecdotes, it also tackles current affairs, including chapters on what may or may not be going on in American halls of power today. It’s a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in traditional spycraft, both past and on-going.

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