- China bought a spy inside a NATO marine research facility for just 17,000 euros ($20,000).
- We asked active intel officials to detail the finances required to run a double agent in the West.
- Spies are cheap, it turns out. Russia and China often pay less than the price of a luxury car for the services of traitors.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The spy had been a member of a scientific committee in NATO’s Undersea Research Centre, based in Italy, when counterintelligence agents began surveillance of him last year. The committee did research for NATO’s warships and submarines. Yet somehow, China had managed to install a double-agent – in the form of prominent Estonian marine scientist Tarmo Kõuts – as Vice President of the committee.
One of the first things Estonian agents did was run a forensic audit on his finances and personal economic activity. It turns out that Kõuts, an Estonian national, was a bargain: He cost the Chinese only 17,000 euros (about $20,000) over the course of two years.
Spies are cheap.
In the movies, double agents receive briefcases filled with unmarked bills. When James Bond chases a target, the pursuit involves high-end cars, five-star hotels, and glamorous locations.
But in real life, intelligence assets cost surprisingly little. On an annual basis even the most dangerous spies – those delivering Western military and security secrets to Russia or China – can cost less than the price of a luxury car.
Insider spoke to sources in the intelligence and counterintelligence trade to gauge the going price for turncoats and traitors.
China pays 17,000 euros for a scientist inside NATO
When searching for an asset who has been bought by a hostile power, officials try to see whether their targets are suddenly richer than they ought to be.
“You have to determine how much money the subject should have and what a reasonable lifestyle for their income would look like,” a Baltic intelligence official, who was briefed on the Kõuts case, told Insider.
“Then while they are under surveillance you can determine if they are living in a manner that suggests extra income.”
But the officer – who is on active duty and cannot be named in the media – points out that of course whoever recruits spies knows perfectly well how they’re caught, as they often work alongside their own domestic counterintelligence services.
“China is careful, in this case he had only been given about 17,000 euros so far, which is quite a bit for only a couple of years of work, but not enough to trigger any suspicion,” said the official of Kõuts, who was sentenced to three years in prison last week for spying for China.
“He had been given luxury trips and flight and hotel upgrades as part of his compensation and while this sort of thing is generally easier to hide from counterintelligence, once you really start watching it can send a flag when it’s clear the subject can’t afford regular first class upgrades and the like.”
Double-agents risk life in prison for as little as $40,000 a year
Betraying one’s country comes with tremendous legal and even physical risks. Serious traitors can expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Or their former handlers may target them for assassination (a solution favored by Russia’s Putin and Belarus’s Kadyrov).
But history shows that spies who take the risk do so for surprisingly little money.
There are only five known instances of Americans being paid about $1 million dollars to spy on their country, over careers that in each case spanned two decades.
Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI are considered the most devastatingly effective double agents in US history. Both were in senior intelligence positions. Ames was a CIA analyst who worked on the USSR; Hanssen was a senior FBI counterintelligence official.
More than a dozen CIA spies were revealed through their work – leading to multiple executions – and provided the Soviet Union its closest look at America’s top intelligence secrets.
Ames was paid about $1.4 million over 20 years and Hanssen slightly less with estimates between $800,000 and $1 million.
That works out at as little as $40,000 to $70,000 a year, per spy.
It is dangerous to pay a spy too much
To be worth so much, the target would have to be a top priority, if only because of the risks involved in delivering the money itself, and the fear the agent could spend it recklessly.
“Safely communicating with your agents is the most difficult, time-consuming and risky part of intelligence operations,” said a retired European intelligence officer, who doesn’t want their name used because of ongoing consultant contracts.
“So if it’s that stressful, it’s even more stressful and risky when giving them a large wad of cash on each pickup – but that’s what almost all of them want.
“So you have to reward them with enough cash that they feel important and can spend it on their lives in a way that’s nice. But never so much that it’s suspicious and never so much that they start thinking they can stop spying now.”
Agents prefer assets motivated by cash rather than ego or politics
Multiple current and former intelligence officials contacted for this piece repeated a version of the same thing: Agents that spy for greed alone are the easiest to manage because their handlers only have to fight about the slow dispersal of money. Agents that spy for ideology or ego become much harder to handle over time.
“Greed. I’ll take greed every time,” said one EU police official, who recruits undercover assets. “Legal leverage is the best but money is clear and simple. They will always want more faster than you want to give. It’s clear and logical and not about feelings and ego.
“Most of the time it’s not the money that’s a problem, it’s the hassle of running the agent,” said a retired American CIA officer, who rejected requests to go on the record.
“If they’re ideological or ego in nature it’s going to be an endless hassle of reassuring them they’re brilliant or whatever.”
‘Now we have to work out some very complex way to give them money they’re going to immediately take to a strip club or buy a car and get us both arrested’
Most intelligence services conduct detailed psychological profiles of potential recruits to determine the person’s motivation for defecting.”They want more money, fine, I got money but how do I get it to them? The same way I get the intelligence drops from them? Hell no, that’s not safe. So now we have to work out some very complex way to give them money they’re going to immediately take to a strip club or buy a car and get us both arrested.”
“My point,” explained the retired case officer, “is you’d really better have some good [stuff] and it be exactly what my bosses want from me for all that to become worth it.
“‘Are you worth my time?’ is a much better question than ‘how much money are you worth.'”
The spy who got paid $25 million
But all sources agreed that there is one area it is worth the investment and hassle.
“Pulling off the delivery of intelligence that leads to the arrest or death of a [High Value Target] on the Rewards for Justice list,” said the American.
“The asset that gave up [9-11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in 2003] got a $25 million payday and everyone was thrilled to pay him out,” said the official, repeating a well-known but unverified detail of that case.
“He even got millions more just for relocation for him and his family. Didn’t even have to spend any of the twenty-five on it.”