11 September 2023

How does a wonk become a spy?


One of the tricker aspects of writing spy fiction, Somerset Maugham observed, was that the clichés were also very realistic. Honey traps happen, dead drops exist, disguises aren’t unknown, and bright-eyed graduates with a keen interest in global affairs are rich pickings for hostile spymasters.    

This is the lesson that should be being drummed in to the thousands of international relations, intelligence and security, and development graduates in the wake of Chris Cash, a Parliamentary researcher and graduate from King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, being accused of spying for China.    

While these graduates undoubtedly brighten up the UK’s academic, corporate and political life, they are also incredibly vulnerable to approaches from rival intelligence services. Not because they’re true believers in despotic regimes in the mould of the Cambridge spies. These graduates will know more than most about the miseries inflicted by China, Russia or Iran. However, they will have other motivations which can be manipulated by a clever intelligence officer.   

International relations graduates, ironically, will tend to be unworldly simply due to their youth. On contentious subjects such as China or Ukraine they are likely to have an expert’s desire for nuance on a topic they follow closely which attracts strong opinions. Equally given they chose international relations and not business studies, they are likely to be less motivated by money than by helping to craft and shape policy by demonstrating expertise in their chosen field.    

This is why I find the allegations that Cash was recruited as a ‘sleeper agent’ while in China so hard to credit. His writings and podcasts for the China Research Group and others are still widely available online. Notably, in one article for City AM he calls Xi Jinping a ‘dangerous autocrat. He comments on the failure by UK authorities to sanction Chinese surveillance companies, Hikvision and Dahua, and notes their widespread use in CCTV across English councils. This is not someone who is unaware of the Uighur genocide and the stifling of democracy in Hong Kong. Can you hold this information in your head and still be a true believer in the CCP?    

Speaking to the international relations graduates I have worked with, there is another plausible explanation. As part of their degrees they may attend conferences by global bodies such as the UN and NATO where approaches from slightly suspect individuals are not uncommon. A nice Chinese academic might take a deep interest in your work and offer to be a source. They might require some English-language research on a completely innocent topic. It’s an obvious first step in a longer recruitment plan but if you don’t know to look out for it and if no one has ever mentioned to be on the lookout, you might just fall for it.     

It’s not as if the alleged recruitment of Cash is the first time an international policy wonk has been accused of being a foreign spy. Back in 2017 George Papadopoulos, a young US policy researcher who still listed his work for the Model UN on his LinkedIn page, was identified as the person who aided the Trump campaign’s leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails, a hack which was initially conducted by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR. Even more intriguingly, Papadopoulos’ source was alleged to be a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud who ran what he called the London Academy of Diplomacy. Almost the perfect cover for recruiting generations of students who would be entering fields where they would have access to high level information and not necessarily the wherewithal to realise who they were sharing it with.

Inevitably, following the outing of Cash there have been calls for Parliament to employ much more stringent vetting on researchers and their access to information and individuals around the Parliamentary estate. This would be a shame as there are a lot of strengths to the informal nature of sharing information across Parliament and developing policy by giving our brightest graduates a platform for their academic expertise to be heard. 

Instead, if only as a duty of care if not for the sake of national security, we might be wise to ask the various Intelligence and Security, and Politics and International Relations courses, universities such as King’s College, the LSE, Exeter and St Andrew’s, to inform their pupils that they will soon be working in the real world. They need to know that spies are real, that each time a spy makes an approach they are taking a gamble and it really is just like the films, and they need to know that the line between academic studies of diplomacy and the real thing is unfortunately vanishingly small. 

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Henry Williams is Head of Investigations at Themis.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.