Espionage and Counterintelligence

Peer inside the secret world of spies and their handlers. Hear about tradecraft, famous spies, and what happens when a spy betrays the organization he or she is supposed to serve.


Many governments engage in industrial espionage. In a business environment where winning a contract can mean enormous profits, some domestic and foreign corporations take extraordinary measures to ensure their success.

International Espionage

Since World War II, the espionage arena has expanded dramatically. The CIA and the National Security Agency are just two of the many intelligence agencies involved in the global hunt for information that can help shape policy or gain a competitive edge in the marketplace.

Although there are different types of espionage, they all have one common thread — a need to gather confidential and non-public information on an international scale. The goal is usually to steal a competitor’s formulas, technology or any other trade secrets. The information is often difficult to get a hold of, as it is usually hidden or kept by people who are unwilling to share the information freely. This type of espionage is often known as industrial or corporate spying.

In peacetime, this activity is almost always illegal. However, in wartime, it can be considered permissible, as belligerents need to know what the enemy has and what they intend to do with it. Espionage in time of war also allows for the possibility that combatants may enter enemy territory without revealing their identity, as long as they don’t cross into occupied territory or invade the sovereignty of the enemy. According to customary international humanitarian law, a combatant caught in the act of espionage is not entitled to prisoner-of-war status and may be prosecuted after a fair trial.

Industrial Espionage

The theft of industrial trade secrets is often referred to as industrial espionage, and it’s a common problem in the technology sector. Because of the enormous expense of research and development and the speed at which new technology moves into active markets, there’s a strong incentive for companies in this sector to spy on competitors to gain a competitive edge.

This is especially true if those competitors are foreign, because they may not be subject to the same laws governing corporate espionage as domestic companies. Industrial espionage is typically perpetrated by either a disgruntled employee who sees the opportunity for a new job at a competitor or a company that hires a mole to gain access to proprietary information.

Depending on the industry, industrial espionage can involve a wide variety of information: engineering designs for automobile or aerospace manufacturers; manufacturing processes and formulas used by pharmaceutical, food and beverage, vitamin supplement and cosmetic manufacturers; proprietary chemical formulations; pricing sheets; customer lists and more. In addition to the physical breach of a company’s premises with spies searching wastebaskets, looking through desk drawers and copying data from unattended computers, this type of espionage can also be accomplished electronically. Spy equipment allows for the unauthorized recording of conversations such as confidential board meetings, or even just listening to a phone call using a device secreted in a pens or eyeglasses.


The opposite of espionage is counterintelligence, the practice of thwarting enemy spies. Most sovereign nations have strict laws concerning spies, and they have many ways to catch them. Counterintelligence involves looking for holes in the defensive systems of an organization, identifying the individuals responsible for those weaknesses, and, in some cases, neutralizing them or expelling them by declaring them persona non grata.

It is also the practice of monitoring spies for signs that they are losing their focus. This can be due to financial stress, the need to prove they are still valuable, or a desire for recognition. The loss of focus can lead to disclosures of classified information or a breach of trust. It may also be the point at which a spy decides to turn in his or her secrets, as was the case with Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Otto John of Great Britain and Harold (Kim) Philby of the United States.

The rise of cyber-espionage is a significant challenge for both governments and companies. Using tools such as Trojan horses, remote access devices and phishing techniques, spies can gain control of computer networks, steal proprietary software and other intellectual property, and cause significant damage. In addition to the traditional foreign intelligence services that seek American military and political secrets, there are private sector spies, criminals, and hackers who view American industrial secrets and technology as a quick route to riches and long-term U.S. economic security.

Double Agents

A double agent is someone who pretends to work for one country while secretly spying for another. For example, if you were hired to spy on North Korea for the US government but secretly supplied information about that country to your own home government, you would be considered a double agent.

A person who becomes a double agent may have a variety of motives, such as money, revenge, or blackmail. However, the most common reason is that he or she feels guilty about betraying his or her homeland. This remorse can lead to self-reporting and attempts to provide intelligence to his or her spy masters.

Because of the need for discretion and secrecy, double agents must often operate away from their own home bases. This can add a layer of fear and danger to their lives. They also must meet regularly with adversary intelligence officers, who will be looking for signs that the double agent is working for the opposing service.

Defectors from rival intelligence services can be a boon to Western agencies, particularly in times of war. For example, Juan Pujol, codenamed GARBO, was a key figure in Operation Flipper during the Normandy landings of World War II, when he deceived German High Command by passing along both accurate and false information. He is regarded as the greatest double agent of all time.