Why People Betray Their Countries, According to an Israeli Expert

Clinical psychologist Ilan Diamant, who worked for the Mossad, talks about what turns people into double agents, and how the system tries to identify them before they can cross the lines

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Ilan Diamant.
Ilan Diamant.Credit: Meged Gozani
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Dr. Ilan Diamant, how does a clinical psychologist come to work for “the Prime Minister’s Office in Tel Aviv”?

I started my clinical studies and training relatively late. Because a novice psychologist doesn’t earn a lot of money, and because intelligence work intrigued me, I started to work assessing potential candidates for the secret services. At one point, I was persuaded to switch to working as a psychologist within the framework of Israel’s [foreign] intelligence services – what’s known as “the Prime Minister’s Office in Tel Aviv.” I worked there for more than a decade.

What was the job description?

Effectively, I covered two fields: assessment and evaluation, and therapy.

Therapy? In other words, the position includes providing psychological support to the organization’s staff?

All the clandestine organizations employ psychologists. People who engage in this type of work undergo an all-encompassing experience, so it’s right to have a psychologist on hand to work with them vis-a-vis the difficulties they encounter in their personal and professional lives.

What does the assessment part involve?

It serves a variety of functions, among them coming up with predictive analyses about the candidate. Does he have the requisite stamina to withstand the pressures entailed in this work? Is he capable of working in this sort of framework?

One of the aspects that’s examined is the level of danger a possible candidate poses to the organization itself: that is, his potential to “cross the lines.”

We try to predict the risk potential. Is this person capable of being loyal to the organization? Crossing the lines is not only treason against the state and the supply of information to the enemy: It can also take the form of sharing secrets he’s entrusted with, with friends or partners. Betrayal of the state is a more complex matter, about which not enough knowledge exists, unfortunately. I am writing a book about this subject together with Shlomo Peled, who is also a psychologist and involved in intelligence. We are translating the experience we’ve gleaned into written form, because there is simply no orderly protocol that deal with the subject. In any event, it’s important to understand that treason is more a declarative than a substantive term. Very few people in Israel have been [formally] accused of treason. If anything, they are accused of harming state security.

It’s hard to prove treason – and in any event treason, as such, is a relative term.

Nuclear spy Vanunu. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

I prefer to call that type of behavior breach of trust. We violate the trust of the people who have confidence in us. That viewpoint broadens the conception regarding people who possess the potential to be disloyal.

That potential exists in all of us, doesn’t it?

Freud wrote that, because we are born to two people – mother and father – the question of whom I am loyal to is part of everyone’s universal essence. If you psychologically deconstruct the concept of “loyalty,” it comes down to the basic relations between a mother and her infant. If infants can trust their mother to fulfill all their emotional needs as they develop, they will learn to be trusting of the world. Those people have a lower risk potential if they are employed by a secret organization, because they are capable of trusting the organization, of being loyal to it.

So anyone who had a difficult childhood or uncertain relationships is disqualified from the outset?

Heaven forbid. The question is not what happened in childhood, but what the person did with those experiences. How they have succeeded in coping with crises, in maturing. Because all of us, potentially, can be disloyal, we examine the candidates’ inner strengths and their ability to adjust, particularly during crises and transitions in life.

Can you give an example?

There are no happy traitors. No one does such things joyfully and wholeheartedly. All traitors act as they do out of genuine distress.

I will use the simplest example: Mordechai Vanunu [who spent 18 years in prison for revealing Israeli nuclear secrets]. Everything I say is based on open sources. Let’s examine the transitions in his life. He grew up in a religiously observant family but dropped out of his religious high school and abandoned religion; some say that because of this he was also compelled to sever relations with his family. After a few years, he moved from the right side of the political map to the left – even radical – side. At this stage he was already working at the Negev Nuclear Research Center and he was summoned for a reprimand because of his political activity. He chose to ignore this and thus demonstrated an inability to accept authority and a problem with adjustment. After he was fired he began to wander around the world and converted to Buddhism and afterward to Christianity. Of course, I do not purport to know what his pre-employment assessment said, but the sharp transitions point to a high risk potential, to disloyalty.

American psychiatrist David Charney took part in compiling a CIA report on the psychology of betrayal. Among the traits he enumerated that heighten the likelihood that a particular person will betray the organization are damaged attachment skills, a broken family, despair, impulsivity, sociopathy, narcissism – a broad range.

The range is broad, and that definitely raises the question of screening, because these are very common traits and phenomena. Dr. Charney interviewed the traitor Robert Hanssen [an FBI agent who spied for Russia in the 1980s and ‘90s]. He met with Hanssen once a week in prison, and from those meetings he arrived at the insight he put into his report. The most significant one, from my viewpoint, is that there are no happy traitors. No one does such things joyfully and wholeheartedly. All traitors act as they do out of genuine distress – psychological, emotional – but the betrayal solution is pathological in nature. It doesn’t provide them with what they need.

What about concrete motivations, such as material rewards, or a psychological one, such as revenge, a release of frustration – even the need for a thrill?

The professional literature cites four main motives for betrayal, with the acronym MICE: money, ideology, compromise and ego. But those are only the external factors. A person who knows who he is and what he is, whose identity is clear, who possesses a mature personality and is well adjusted, will be capable of rebuffing temptation. However, a person who has, let’s say, a powerful need for feeling self-esteem, because he didn’t get that as a child, is definitely liable to turn to betrayal in order to attain it.

Given the connection between a personality with such tendencies and possible motivations, what will tip the scales – personality or motivation?

What will tip the scales are the braking forces, which are part of the personality. In other words, the presence of inhibitors that safeguard a person from falling into the abyss. The ability to feel and understand that they are on the brink, and must stop doing what they are doing: trying to fulfill that pathological need. When [Aldrich] Ames, one of the major American traitors [a CIA agent who sold information to the Soviets, and was convicted in 1994] was asked why he did what he did, he said, after thinking about it at length, that it wasn’t for the money – as he had found it convenient to tell himself and his milieu – but that he simply didn’t really know why. And that is the answer.

At the moment of betrayal, the person doesn’t really think. They enter into a kind of dissociative state, they are detached from external circumstances, from the consequences, convinced that they will satisfy an urge, whatever it may be, and will feel good. Ames, who needed money, didn’t consult with anyone, didn’t consider other solutions, didn’t think what his action would do to his wife, his children, his superiors. He simply went for it.

As in a crime of passion.

Yes. He just didn’t think at that moment about the consequences of his behavior, about the price.

At the moment of betrayal, the person doesn’t really think. They enter into a kind of dissociative state, they are detached from external circumstances, from the consequences.

So betrayal is not a calculated act? It’s impulsive?

It’s an act that is impulsive because in effect it consists of not resisting temptation, and of a void in his personality that cannot be filled normatively and whose satisfaction is always pathological. By the way, it can be an act that seems to be rational, outwardly. All of us employ rationalizations all the time.

Betrayal is a relative term, and life itself is a kind of war of narratives. I can tell myself whatever story I wish.

That’s exactly the point: Anyone can do it. As the person doing the assessment, I will want to know the story you tell and to what extent you believe yourself.

If I tell myself, say, that I am a freedom fighter and not greedy for money, will that make it easier for me to be disloyal?

No traitor tells himself, “I am a traitor.” To start the betrayal engine he has to devise for himself a positive alternative narrative and bridge the cognitive dissonance he feels. Betrayal for money is relatively rare. The motives of most of the well-known traitors were ostensibly ideological. For example, Marcus Klingberg [an Israeli scientist who crossed the lines and spied for Russia].

Marcus Klingberg.Credit: AFP

The story of treason can also be one of heroism. I think Klingberg claimed he never received anything in return, that he only wanted to reward the Russians for having saved the world from Nazism.

He claimed he didn’t even want anything in return, that he only wanted to save the world. Vanunu said something similar at one point. That’s a matter of rationalization. And what are the layers that lie below? The experience of oneself as victim – and when I experience myself as a victim, I need to help the weak, because the weak are actually me. Those are exactly the psychological components we try to discover. Klingberg, who wanted to help the Russians and to prevent World War III, or [Edward] Snowden, who wanted to save the public and to leak secret information about the surveillance plans of the NSA [National Security Agency], are the ideological spies who construct in their consciousness the narrative of freedom fighters for an ideal world.

The thing is that self-deception is always in the eye of the beholder. Whoever does things for their country that go beyond fulfilling their own needs, is considered a savior in their own eyes. Betrayal for them is a heroic deed, self-sacrifice for the common good. But the hero of one side is the traitor of the other side.

Another report, issued by the U.S. Defense Department, collected and analyzed information about 150 traitors. Some of them underwent psychological tests and in-depth interviews. The report points to two personality patterns among traitors: a dominant, manipulative personality, and a passive, dependent personality.

What both patterns have in common is that they are characterized by egocentrism, by a heightened preoccupation with themselves and indifference to the difficulties of others. In addition, the biographical background of a large number of the traitors includes an experience of a significant conflict with a father figure. Take, for example, Ashraf Marwan [an Egyptian who worked for the Mossad], who had a dependent, passive personality. He married the daughter of [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, in spite of the latter’s displeasure. Nasser arranged a low-level [government] position for him that not only didn’t meet his expectations but was a serious blow to his pride. Nasser also instructed his confidants to keep an eye on Marwan, to ensure that he would not embarrass the president and his family.

Betrayal for money is relatively rare. The motives of most of the well-known traitors were ostensibly ideological.

After Egypt’s defeat in [the Six-Day War in] 1967, the affronted and angry Marwan approached an Israeli embassy and offered his services. After a long and complex process, it was decided to recruit him as an agent. His Israeli handlers understood that the way to utilize him was to fulfill his need for an appreciative and laudatory father figure, which Nasser refused to be. His need for such a person, who would esteem and accept him, led to the then-head of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, being involved in handling him. It’s rare for the head of the Mossad to handle an agent. Marwan’s need was that blatant.

What about a dominant, manipulative personality?

Biographers of Kim Philby, the British agent who spied for the Soviets, described the personality of an arch-megalomaniac – selfish, charismatic and conscienceless. He betrayed his sources, his own agents, informed on them to the Russians and led them to their deaths. Philby’s father was described as a colorful character, preoccupied with himself and with an impulse for adventure, which was manifested in a great deal of traveling, multiple mistresses and conversion to Islam. Philby’s mother was completely passive.

Because of his travels, the father was often away from home, and his young son experienced him in terms of a pompous presence and a physical absence – a relationship with a father who promises but doesn’t follow through, who was proud of him when he was successful and humiliated him when he failed. Philby himself was married four times. He cheated on his second wife and claimed that she tried to kill him. The psychiatrist who treated him testified that Philby subjected her to mental abuse and pushed her to suicide. She was found dead in her apartment, in circumstances that are not known to this day, but Philby was by then already in a romantic relationship with the person who would become his third wife, who was married to a close friend of his.

If I live an entire life whose essence is concealment – keeping secrets from my partners, my friends, my family – why would I not also conceal things from the person responsible for me in the organization? Lie to him? What will hold me back?

What will hold you back is the context of the way you are treated. Basic relations of trust with the system. Without such relations, there is no loyalty. If I suspect that the system is not telling me the truth, that can generate frustration and resistance, even a counterreaction. You won’t tell me and I won’t tell you. That is genuinely dangerous. The employee is meant to have a relationship with those in authority in which he can trust them implicitly, and if that doesn’t exist, there’s simply nothing to talk about.

Relations in which we feel that we are being used, in which there is no mutuality, are dangerous. When hitches like that arise they need to be corrected immediately, not at the level of the employee but at the level of the system. There’s also no shortage of senior figures who are not above reproach.

In other words, the way the organization is managed will determine in large measure whether there will be traitors in it.

The management of employees in the organization. Definitely. Snowden, for example, encountered difficulties when he was working for the CIA. He was in distress, he needed help, someone at his side. Did anyone check to see how far his superiors pressed him? Maybe that’s what pushed him to behave as he did?

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.Credit: REUTERS

But when everyone is playing mind games with everyone, it’s hard to know where the boundary lies. After all, his administrator or team head is also a person who lies and manipulates. That’s the job. How can I know that he’s not lying to me?

You can’t. Not really. But there’s a difference between a manipulative personality and a personality with manipulative abilities. The filtering and the assessment tests are intended to check that, too – whether I possess manipulative ability, but am not a manipulative person. I do what I need to do within the job framework, but I am not manipulative when I come home and I am not manipulative toward my friends. The manipulation is a tool; it is not who I am.

If we think about the need for thrills, the ability to maintain a life of lies and contradictions and concealment – in the end, there’s a correlation between people who are prone to betrayal and people who are prone, from the outset, to desiring to a career as a Mossad agent.

A correlation exists between people who are prone to betrayal and people who will be attracted to work in an intelligence organization. That’s true. The espionage world is a place of deceptive mirrors, reflections amid reflections, and when the agent has multiple identities and covers, he is liable to become confused. His anchor is judgment of reality. There’s a saying: “The traitor is the one who betrays himself.”

In the end, the traitor will be the person who fails the test of reality and believes that he is someone he is not. The healthy person working in intelligence will be the one who succeeds in executing the transitions between different identities and remaining the same person. Even when he’s on a mission in which he wears a suit and drives a Jaguar, he doesn’t forget that he’s an Israeli, lives on the third floor of an apartment building in Rishon Letzion and hasn’t finished paying off the mortgage.

Do you think that the degree of trust and commitment a person feels toward the state can affect his capacity to betray it? Is that temptation heightened in periods of crisis? Can anger or despair facilitate that choice?

Tali Fahima, a pro-Palestinian Israeli activist.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The degree of trust and commitment to the state can change if the state is caught up in anarchy and political and social chaos – the brakes grow slack, the opportunism increases, and “every bastard is a king.” There will be a higher probability that lines will be crossed, because the boundaries become blurred. Think, for example, of Breaking the Silence [the anti-occupation organization of former soldiers who speak publicly about their experiences in the territories] as an example that of motivation based on anger and frustration, in circumstances of a lack of transparency of the military and political leadership. Is it traitorous? No, because it doesn’t involve revealing confidential material that harms state security. Again, treason is an elusive concept, which is why we have the term “harming state security” or “passing classified information to a hostile source.”

Perhaps we can talk a little about the social function of the traitor. The sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda wrote that it’s society that marks the traitor, with the aspiration of making clear who is on our side and who endangers us. Who, then, is a traitor? Is Tali Fahima [a pro-Palestinian Israeli activist, convicted in 2005 of having ties with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades], for example, a traitor?

Treason is actually the shattering of a social taboo of commitment and mutual loyalty, which are a condition for belonging to a group, a community or an organization. The taboo emphasizes that one must act according to the rules of the collective, and even in a case of extreme disagreement, one does not shift sides and play in the adversary’s group. Tali Fahima, or for that matter people who abandon their faith, are not harming state security and obviously are not violating a legal commitment to maintain secrecy. They defy social norms. They do not meet the expectations of their group of affiliation, and as such they undermine the resilience of social consent.

If [soccer player Lionel] Messi moves from Barcelona to the Italian team of Juventus, millions of fans will undoubtedly be disappointed, but if he moves to Real Madrid, the nemesis of Barcelona, all the headlines will scream “Traitor.” Inflated use of the term “treason” for every disagreement renders it a blurred concept. If 30 percent of the community are traitors, then no one is a traitor. If every police officer who breaks up a demonstration is a “Nazi,” then who is [really] a “Nazi”?

I read a fine definition, cited by attorney Avigdor Feldman: A country’s level of democracy is measured by the broadness of the definition of the crime of treason in its law books. The more general the definition, the farther that country is from the values of democracy.

The more clauses a country’s penal code contains, the less democratic that country is. The Israeli Penal Code contains about 500 clauses, some of them in the nature of definitions. In other words, there are only 500, and perhaps even fewer, illegal types of behavior. Everything else is permitted. This is a democracy that minimizes criminal prohibitions. The question is, when does such minimizing turn the country into anarchy, because in such a country all offenses and all paths are permitted, in people’s perception; they think everything goes. At the other end of the continuum is the totalitarian state in which “what is not permitted, is forbidden.” That notion reinforces the position holding that the offense of treason should be reserved for extreme cases only, so that not everyone about whom there is controversy is branded a “traitor.”

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