The CIA, espionage, and profiling Trump

One of my all-time favorite books is Psychopathology and Politics, which offers insights now applicable to the endlessly fascinating current occupant of the White House to a degree that its author, Harold Lasswell, could never have imagined. For those unfamiliar with Lasswell’s work, the media has over recent months provided tutorials by psychologists and psychoanalysts venturing insight on Donald Trump’s complicated psyche.

Now the CIA has seemingly weighed in on the problem — though to be sure in the most oblique fashion imaginable and perhaps only inadvertently. The June 2017 issue of its Studies in Intelligence contains an article by Dr. Ursula M. Wilder on “The Psychology of Espionage.” Wilder, a psychologist with twenty years of government service, provides a crisp sketch of the three kinds of personality deformation displayed by Americans who have abused their access to top-secret information and betrayed their country: psychopathology, narcissism, and immaturity. (Extracts of the most pertinent sections of the article are supplied below; the the full version is available at Wilder’s crisp sketch of each of the three conditions speaks clearly to any layperson trying to make sense of the leader thrust to the fore by the 2016 election.

Aside from the insights it offers, the piece raises two fascinating questions. Why at this point has the CIA — or more exactly the editorial board that oversees Studies in Intelligence — decided to make public an updated version of Wilder’s classified 2003 study? A hidden agenda seems unlikely. But given the antagonism between the president and the intelligence community, it is not impossible to rule out malign intent. Or perhaps we have here the bureaucracy indulging a sense of mischief.

The other question: Is it an accident that a set of personality profiles that keep calling Trump to the reader’s mind appears in a study devoted to spotting and stopping those who would betray state secrets? Given the depth of concern within the intelligence community over Trump’s Russia ties, the connection is again not impossible to rule out.

So read on and judge for yourself to what extent the profiles of those prone to espionage also apply to the Trump presidency. My own own favorite for fit is narcissism, but elements of the other two disorders also seem unnervingly pertinent.


Excerpts from Ursula M. Wilder, “The Psychology of Espionage”

On the signs of the psychopathological personality: Psychopaths are predators, approaching life with remorselessness, manipulation, pursuit of risk and excitement, and sharp, short-term tactical abilities alongside poor long-term and strategic planning. They frequently leave people with a positive first impression. Over time and with extended exposure, the initial impression wears away as people become aware of, or are directly victimized by, the psychopath. Before they are unmasked, psychopaths can cause severe damage to individuals and institutions.

Psychopaths cannot consistently follow laws, rules, and customs and do not understand the social necessity of doing so. They have limited capacity to experience the feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse that are the building blocks of mature conscience and moral functioning. They are facile liars. In fact, many psychopaths take inordinate pleasure in lying because perpetrating an effective “con” gives them a sense of power and control over the person lied to, an emotional charge sometimes termed “duping delight.” Their glee in manipulating others may be so acute that it overrides judgment and good sense, causing them to take foolish risks simply for the pleasure of temporarily conning others.

Psychopaths are interpersonally exploitative. The condition is not infrequently associated with acute cruelty and the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others. Harming or alarming others is, to psychopaths, its own reward. They pursue these pleasures with relish irrespective of the risks involved or the limited potential for gain. . . .

Finally, psychopaths rarely learn from mistakes and have difficulty seeing beyond the present. Consequently, they have deficient long-term planning, and their judgment is weak. In contrast to their problems in strategic planning, psychopaths can be supremely skilled tacticians and exceptionally quick on their feet. Absent the usual prohibition against violating rules or social customs, psychopaths are tactically unbound and remarkably uninhibited. . . .

Because psychopaths thrive in an atmosphere of turbulence and instability, corporate cultures that tolerate risk taking and controversial or even abusive behaviors will provide congenial ground for them.


On the features of narcissism: Narcissistic personalities are characterized by exaggerated self-love and self-centeredness. Alongside an all-encompassing grandiosity runs a subtle but equally pervasive insecurity, into which narcissists have limited insight. Their internal world typically is built around fantasies about their remarkable personal abilities, charisma, beauty, and prospects. They are compelled to exhibit their presumed stellar attributes and constantly seek affirmation from others. Though their imaginings distort common sense or everyday reality, narcissists nevertheless believe in the accuracy of their daydreams and act accordingly. Others, therefore, often experience them as lacking common sense and twisting reality. When facts or other people contradict or interfere with their fantasies, narcissists become combative and vengeful. Their defensive hostility to criticism—even mild feedback—is often well out of proportion to whatever provocation sparked it.

Narcissists possess a careless disregard for personal integrity and can be very unscrupulous and manipulative in pursuing their own ends. They are, on the whole, indifferent to the needs of others, who in turn see them as having flawed social consciences. Narcissists feel entitled to special—even extraordinary—favors and status that they do not believe they have to reciprocate. They heedlessly exploit others emotionally and financially, or in other ways that suit their ends. They are deeply antagonistic to sharing decisionmaking with others, irrespective of the legitimacy of the claims of others for some degree of control. Convinced of their own inherent superiority, they blame others for their problems or for negative things that happen to them, including social rejection. Because they do not consider themselves at fault for any troubles or setbacks, narcissists feel at liberty to take whatever steps they deem necessary to redress wrongs or regain a sense of mastery and superiority.

Narcissistic self-absorption should not be confused with an inability to grasp the perspective of others. Their hunger for affirmation produces acute awareness of the reactions they are provoking from the people around them. This deep hunger for affirmation also makes them vulnerable to manipulation, particularly by people whose admiration or approval they desire. Narcissists are particularly sensitive to authorities or to otherwise socially prominent or powerful people. Conversely, they can be inordinately indifferent to or contemptuous of the feelings or needs of people whom they believe to be insignificant or social inferiors.

Narcissists are often magnetic because their supreme self-confidence wedded to their urgent drive to impress enables them to project the appearance of talent and charm effectively. Over time, the charisma wears thin as it becomes evident that this appearance is not built on substance, but rather on fantasies and fabrications. Furthermore, narcissists’ pervasive tendency to see others as inferior causes them to be needlessly sarcastic, belittling, or supercilious.

People around narcissists may note stark contrasts in their conduct toward different classes of people, depending on their social rank and usefulness. Furthermore, the hostile and vindictive attacks narcissists mete out when others challenge their grandiosity tend to provoke angry responses in return. The result is that narcissists frequently find themselves the recipients of antagonistic feelings at distinct odds with their view of themselves as infinitely superior and admirable. They have limited insight into their role in these dynamics and tend to blame others for their own lack of social success, in the workplace as elsewhere. Their managers will frequently have to intervene in the interpersonal conflicts they habitually generate.

In addition, narcissists often show a pattern of violating organizational rules and disregarding institutional or managerial authority. They trivialize inconvenient regulations or hold themselves superior and exempt from policies, directives, and laws. . . . Finally, narcissists will lie, fabricate information or events, willfully exaggerate accomplishments, and often believe their own fabrications, all in the interest of appearing successful or important.


On the tell-tales of immaturity: The most salient characteristic of immaturity is the ascendancy of fantasy over reality. Immature adults spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming, deliberately calling to mind ideas that stimulate pleasant or exciting emotions. In contrast to mature adults, immature adults do not readily distinguish their private world from objective external reality and, in fact, may expect reality to conform to their self-serving and stimulating fantasies. Their fantasies about their special powers, talents, status, prospects, and future actions can be so seductive that they become resentful of conflicting real-world truth

. . . Because the reasoning, judgment, and self-control of immature adults are underdeveloped, such individuals are less tied to factual reality than their mature peers and more dependent on fantasy to cope with events and to maintain stability.

Consequently, immature adults generally expect others to embrace what to them is the self-evident legitimacy of their personal ideas and longings. They often cannot understand why others do not share their perspective and fail to see that reality itself works against the validity of their fantasies. They frequently will act on their fantasies with little anticipation of consequences that to most people would be completely predictable. They are often genuinely shocked when reality intrudes on their plans and interferes with anticipated outcomes.

Furthermore, immature people are persistently egocentric, they see themselves as the epicenter of any crowd or event. They believe others are paying close attention to them personally in most contexts, and as a result they are acutely self-aware. When it becomes clear that they are not the center of attention and that others might, in fact, be indifferent to them, they often react negatively and take steps to bring attention to themselves.

Immature people have difficulty moderating their feelings. Rather than appropriately disciplining and channeling feelings, they are subject to them. As a result, they are given to dramatic displays of emotion when stressed or excited, and while these displays may be congruent to whatever stimulated the feelings—for example, they will become very angry at perceived injustices or delight in successes—observers will sense that the emotions lack proper proportion and moderation.

A significant consequence of poor emotional control is impulsivity. Immature people have difficulty restraining their immediate wishes in the interest of anticipating long-term consequences. When prompted by sudden feelings or urgent desires, they take precipitous action. They tend to have limited attention spans and need to be emotionally engaged with a task or a person to retain focus. They can be quite fickle and easily distracted.

Finally, like psychopaths and narcissists, immature adults have defective consciences, but they are capable of feeling real guilt and often have well-developed moral codes. Their egocentricism and impulsivity limit their capacity for foresight, but in hindsight they often deeply regret their impetuous actions. Though they may want to behave ethically and feel guilt and shame when they behave badly or hurt other people, their capacity to apply their moral understanding and desires consistently to control their behavior is compromised.