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How Do You Stop A Spy From Spilling Secrets?


Where there is classified information, there will be leaks.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is a leaking epidemic in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old whistleblower...

JOHN KERRY: Edward Snowden is a coward. He is a traitor.

MIKE POMPEO: Folks like WikiLeaks out there trying to steal American secrets...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Reality Winner faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly leaking classified information.

KELLY: Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the Trump administration is cracking down.


JEFF SESSIONS: This nation must end this culture of leaks. We will not allow rogue, anonymous sources with security clearances to sell out our country.

KELLY: Well, at the Central Intelligence Agency, they take that effort to combat leaks seriously, and we're going to spend the next few minutes meeting one person involved in that effort - Ursula Wilder. She's worked at the CIA for 21 years as a psychologist, counseling spies headed to or headed home from hostile environments. She's just published a paper called "The Psychology Of Espionage And Leaking In The Digital Age." It's declassified. Don't worry - no leaks here.

When I sat down with Dr. Wilder at CIA headquarters to ask what leads spies to spill secrets, she said it begins with a vulnerable personality facing crisis.

URSULA WILDER: And it could be just a basic human crisis - a divorce, bankruptcy and then an opportunity to leak or to commit espionage - either a handler or a customer, if you will, in the case of espionage or a platform for leaking.

And so the general change - massive change that's happening globally in human culture driven by technology - for healthy personalities, that can cope with that and manage it. But for those who are vulnerable, there is more impetus towards a range of behaviors that are damaging, including espionage and leaking.

KELLY: You're saying there are now just more opportunities because of the way technology has changed and information. And everybody is communicating more and in more ways than we did a generation ago.

WILDER: Yes. The big change is in opportunity.

KELLY: And you write about personality traits that people in your line of work - psychologists - see over and over and over. What are they?

WILDER: The psychology of sources has been studied since OSS days.

KELLY: The predecessor to the CIA.

WILDER: Yeah, the predecessor to the CIA, thank you. There are in the personality three broad areas that recur over and over again in cases of captured spies when they're studied. One is psychopathy, which is a ruthless, kind of cruel approach to life, and narcissism, which is egocentrism - that acute sensitivity to negative feedback. And the last is immaturity. And in cases of espionage, we see these strains in the personality appear over and over again.

KELLY: I was struck because as I was preparing to come out to interview you, I had a look at the NPR website. And if you look at the NPR home page right now, we've got a thing saying, got a news tip, you know, and here's a secure way to channel confidential information to an NPR journalist.

We call that protecting sources in the 21st century, and you in your paper call it leak-bait. What do you mean by that?

WILDER: So if a vulnerable person within the intelligence community is in a state of crisis which psychologically will have an effect on their judgment and on their capacity to control their impulses - if you add alcohol in the mix, that's not a good thing - they will be compelled to seek a solution to their inner state of stress and crisis. And it can appear to them that leaking is one way to settle their crisis, to make themselves come back to a state, if you will, of homeostasis, of calm. And so opportunities to leak through the kinds of mechanisms that you just described will be very appealing to them.

KELLY: When you look at somebody like Edward Snowden, who I realize was an NSA contractor, not CIA but who is one of the public figures who has come to light for sharing classified information with the media, was there anything that somebody could have spotted before that that might have triggered somebody like yourself to take a second look?

WILDER: I can't speak to current cases, but I can go back to the model that is public, which is that we know that there are certain warning signs that a person might be vulnerable - the personality issues that I've already described - psychopathy, narcissism and immaturity.

If I might comment that I just finished reading a biography of Benedict Arnold - Philbrick's book called "Valiant Ambition" - and he does an interesting comparison between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Benedict Arnold is distinctly narcissistic. But if you read the dynamic between Washington, who made mistakes but obviously a very strong personality, you see - you'll see these very dynamics play out. And this is long before technology kicked in.

KELLY: So this goes way back. Dr. Ursula Wilder - she's a CIA psychologist and author of the article "The Psychology Of Espionage And Leaking In The Digital Age." Dr. Wilder, thank you.

WILDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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