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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Code of Trust

An American Counterintelligence Expert's Five Rules to Lead and Succeed

Robin Dreeke and Cameron Stauth; Foreword by Joe Navarro

St. Martin's Press




Trust in the Streets of New York

I AM GOING TO TELL YOU how to inspire trust, and rise to the rare level of leadership that only trust can confer. It’s a simple lesson, but not an easy one.

Here it is, fully revealed, in all its simplicity. First: Be eminently worthy of trust. Second: Prove you are.

Could anything be harder than that?

The first part is hard, and the second is even harder.

How many people in your life—and even in history—do you consider worthy of absolute trust?

Who would you trust with your life? The lives of your family? Your life savings? Your deepest secrets? Your career? Your reputation?

Would you trust your best friend? Would you place your full trust in our current president, a past president, or any current office holder? What about your doctor or attorney? Your boss? Your business partner? Your brother or sister? Your spouse?

Would you follow that person’s lead implicitly, and do whatever you possibly could for them, with minimal questioning?

You probably would do that for some of these people. That’s common—especially if they’re family—and it’s healthy.

Some of that trust may rest upon universal social agreements: “You’re my mother, so I trust you.” Even more commonly, though, your trust may stem in part from contractual agreements that imply at least a minor degree of uncertainty: a business contract, a confidentiality agreement, a prenuptial agreement, a living will that governs the treatment of your loved ones, or your citizen’s right to remove untrustworthy people from power.

There’s no shame in that degree of uncertainty. It’s not easy to grant someone your trust, especially when it concerns things you can’t afford to lose, such as your marriage, the well-being of your children, your job, your assets, your professional reputation, or your personal honor.

Often, it’s even harder to trust people than it is to love them.

That said: it’s just as hard for people to trust you.

I’m going to tell you how to make it easier for them.

When you do learn how—and you will—you’ll have the central quality of character that defines all great leaders. People are happy to follow those they trust, and rarely follow those that they don’t trust. That’s a wise and deeply embedded element of human nature.

Of course, from time to time, people that you don’t trust may temporarily have power over you. They might be bullies, or people who gambled, lied, or manipulated their way into power.

That kind of power doesn’t last, and the influence of those people fades fast. Bullies are overthrown, liars are exposed, gamblers lose, manipulators make mistakes—and trustworthy people inevitably take their place. The world isn’t perfect, but it does reward and empower those who have earned the honor of being trusted.

Those who inspire trust are the only people who can retain the power of personal influence for a lifetime, and wield it without revolt or resentment. They are the great people in history, and the great people in your own life: strong, humble, and dedicated to your own best interests.

Some people are natural born leaders who can inspire trust without even trying. But most people who inspire trust need to be taught, and they often learn the lessons through pain, failure, and humbling moments. If you’re lucky and smart, though, you can learn it from a good teacher.

I’m in a good position to teach you how to inspire trust, because I had to learn it myself. I’m not a born leader. I thought I was, until I finally looked at myself with unblinking honesty. Like most people who long to be great leaders but have to learn the art, I paid dearly for the lessons.

The only way for me to become the man that people now trust was to analyze every hard lesson I learned from the fine leaders around me, and characterize it, categorize it, prioritize it, test it, tweak it, and integrate it into a system.

I’ll teach you that system, and make the lessons easier for you than they were for me.

As I said, it won’t be easy, but I have to assume that you’re intelligent enough to grasp hard lessons, or you wouldn’t even be looking at a serious book like this. You’re probably also someone who sincerely yearns to inspire genuine, well-placed trust—or you’d be looking at books with a quick fix, full of tricks: Trust for Dummies. There definitely are books about how to manipulate people into trusting you, but this isn’t one of them. Manipulation is about pushing people. Trust is about leading them.

How do you achieve that lofty goal? Again, I can give you a simple answer that’s hard to do.

To inspire trust, put others first.

That single, central action empowers all legendary leaders.

It is so grounded in common sense that—like other self-evident truths—it is often overlooked.

It’s easy to lead people when you put their needs first—but it’s almost impossible when you’re only serving yourself.

If you adopt another person’s goal as part of your goal, why shouldn’t they follow your lead? If you don’t, why should they?

This philosophy, to some extent, goes against the grain of popular business and social culture, in which creating trust is often reduced to various forms of manipulation, and is typically referred to as “winning” trust, as if that sacred goal were a game.

Many books teach the dubious arts of manipulation—but there are no other books that offer the lessons in this one. Trust me. I looked for one before I started writing.

It’s also widely believed that the fast track to success is to carefully narrow your focus to your own goals. But that’s one of those lazy shortcuts that just slows you down. Success comes far faster when you inspire others to merge their goals with yours, and forge ahead with you, in unison.

For many people, therefore, this book offers a new outlook, and a new set of lessons.

We’ll start your lessons where I started mine: in the streets of New York City, among spies and counterspies.

If you can learn trust there, you can learn it anywhere.

It was 1997: a pivotal time in foreign affairs. The Cold War had ended, but it still had the potential, as simmering conflicts always do, to rage again—probably not as a military march toward mutually assured destruction, but as a battle for the true power of the twenty-first century: economic domination, backed by the dark swagger of limited but deadly engagements.

The new world order of that era had created both chaos and unlimited opportunity, and there was even less trust among the world’s superpowers at that time than there is now. No one knew where the countries of the newly disintegrated Soviet bloc were headed: to democracy, to dictatorship, to prosperity, to ruin, or to war. For America, it was a delicate tipping point in history, and it needed to be handled just right.

If, at that time, the direction of American foreign affairs had been up to me—a fledgling FBI Case Agent working boots-on-the-ground in national security—things probably would not have been handled right.

I had a lot to learn.

I didn’t know it then, but I would learn a great deal of what I needed to know on the first day of my first important assignment in the field.

I learned so much that at the end of that day, as you’ll soon see, I didn’t even know how much I’d learned. It took me years to break down the basics of what happened, and use that knowledge to develop my comprehensive system for inspiring trust.

When I eventually became the head of the Counterintelligence Division’s Behavioral Analysis Program, I presented this system to thousands of FBI agents and other law enforcement officials. I’ve also taught it to hundreds of military groups, corporate groups, law firms, financial institutions, and universities. In addition, I’ve counseled a select group of CEOs, academicians, public servants, and think-tank analysts.

My system is based on two straightforward, tightly linked components:

(1) The Code of Trust: a set of five rules of engagement that must be embraced by all who wish to inspire legitimate, lasting trust.

(2) The Four Steps to Inspiring Trust: an action plan that implements the Code of Trust. The Steps make the Code work in the real world. This world, however, is rightly skeptical—but the Four Steps also demonstrate your mastery of trustworthiness—to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and your supervisors. It shows people that you are a person to be trusted with the fates of others, and the responsibility of leadership.

Most people can master this system, but it presents a steep learning curve for those who are still trapped in the outdated but still common attitude that the best way to achieve compliance with one’s wishes is through crafty manipulation, appeals to emotion, velvet-glove coercion, and by outmaneuvering and out-thinking others. If some elements of that approach apply to you, you’re probably looking for a better way to lead: one that’s more effective, simpler, and more equitable and attractive to others. You want leadership that lasts a lifetime. We all do.

When you unlock the secrets of this fine form of leadership, you will naturally amass a group of people who trust you—a veritable tribe of trust—and they’ll all know other people who trust them. At that point, your reach and influence will expand exponentially, with leadership flourishing in its wake.

If you’re truly conscientious and self-aware, you may be questioning, at this point in your journey to leadership, if you really do deserve the full trust of others.

It’s very possible that, yes, you do deserve trust—but just haven’t yet mastered the ability to inspire it in everyone around you.

Or maybe, like many people, you’re still struggling, as a student of trust, to learn how to be 100 percent worthy of it. Perhaps you haven’t yet achieved the ability—or understood the power—of putting the needs of other people first.

Both of these challenges can be met.

If you’re worthy of trust but aren’t sure how to convey this to others, this book will help show you how.

If you really aren’t, at this point, fully worthy of everyone’s trust, you can learn to be. Character is never a constant in a world governed by change.

Inspiring trust is truly an interpersonal art form. But even in its complexity, it is—as you’ll see—the kind of art that can be achieved through the paint-by-numbers techniques that comprise my system. The techniques are derived from social psychology, evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, classic codes of morality, business tradition, historical fact, and common sense.

Most of the people who have learned my system have been professionals who apply it in their jobs, but the lessons of this system are not solely applicable at work. Even people who aren’t very career oriented still want to be trusted. We all want to be the type of person who makes friends easily, and keeps them. We all want other people to trust us enough to share their secrets. We want to be the type of adult that children naturally gravitate toward. We want to be trusted by our wives or husbands: in our relationships, and our partnerships. We want to lead our families without rancor, and show our children how to lead. And we want to be the person who gets treated in an equally friendly way by supervisors, subordinates, strangers, store clerks, and old friends.

None of this is possible if you don’t exude authentic trust. By the time you have internalized the five rules of the Code of Trust, and mastered the actions of the Four Steps, you will be the person that others naturally turn to for direction.

In this chapter, we’ll jump straight into the Code and the Steps. I’ll teach you the lessons of trust through stories about my career as an agent and program director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where I learned most of what I know about trust. Other examples of the power of trust will come from my days as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, an officer in the U.S. Marines, and also from my personal life, and my work as a business consultant.

All of the FBI stories are set in the arena of intelligence and counterintelligence, where I worked for about twenty years. In the profession of spies and counterspies, trust is a scarce commodity, even though it’s the currency of the trade.

This isn’t a spy novel—it’s about the qualities and techniques that will make you a better person, and a trusted leader. Even so, there’s a strong element of entertainment in it, because lessons don’t need to be boring. In these lessons, you’ll probably see yourself, partly because the favorite topic of most of us is—no surprise—us. A tenet of behavioral science is that approximately 40 percent of what we say every day is about ourselves. That’s natural and normal, and is absolutely necessary for the introspection that creates self-knowledge and growth. So to have fun, and get the most from this first chapter and all the others, look for yourself.

Here’s the first of many drills for you: as you read the story in the first chapter, try to figure out the five rules of the Code, and the actions of the Four Steps, before I spell them out at the end of the chapter.

While you do it, make a mental note of how many of them you already knew. If you recognize several of them as old friends that are part of your existing character, it’s a good sign. If you don’t, it means you’re learning, and that’s good, too. I’ll be brief. Your time is valuable, I’m grateful for it, and I promise to finish as quickly as possible. This book is about you, not me.

New York City, 1997

Jesse Thorne, my mentor on my first important day in the field, said, “When our guy gets here, I’m going to promise him that we’ll finish this as quickly as possible.”


“Because his time’s valuable, and I’m grateful for it. This is about him, not us.

“If he thinks we’ll drag this out, he’ll pull away. If we get to the point, it shows that we respect him—as a professional and as a person—and nothing opens the door to trust better than plain-old respect. So talk nice to him, and make a connection.”

“But we don’t know him, so we have no reason to respect him. Especially under our current, uh…”—I tried to remember some good spy lingo, but couldn’t—“circumstance.”

The circumstance was that we were tasked with uncovering espionage, and we were hoping that this guy would give us insight into a known spy.

“We’ll find a reason. There’s always a good reason to respect someone, and there’s never a good reason to judge them. But that doesn’t mean we have to be friends.”

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll ask him about himself, and figure out his context.”


“Spy talk: It means, what kind of guy he is, where he’s from, what he likes. We’ll ascertain his context. Learn important stuff. We don’t make small talk.”


“And then we make small talk: all of it about him.”


“To make friends.” The bewildered look on my face made him smile. Jesse loved to play the Jedi Master, and enlighten poor, dumb me with his paradoxical Zen insights. “You can never have too many friends,” he said.

When we walked into the restaurant to meet our Access Agent—the guy who knew the spy we wanted to expose—Jesse nodded slightly at some of the staff and they nodded slightly back. He often did business here because it was a controlled environment, owned by a former FBI agent, with a staff that knew not to ask too many questions, or come around too often. Choosing the right place for a meeting is part of an investigative technique called crafting your encounters.

The restaurant had an upscale Irish-pub atmosphere, and exuded comfort and security, with plush booths and soft lighting that was coupled with the inviting smells of well-oiled leather, polished oak, sizzling steak, and baking bread. It was the kind of place that made you want to stay, and it was out of the way, where our contact wouldn’t have to worry about getting spotted with FBI: a strong concern to some.

At the open grill, behind a bar as smooth and slick as a bowling lane, juicy top sirloins dripped onto charcoal and kicked up yellow spires of fire that lent further to the atmosphere of contentment. The creature comforts were critically important, because in a first encounter—or any other in which you’re trying to inspire trust—it’s important to treat people well.

That especially applied to Access Agents—another term for confidential human sources of information. Intelligence gained directly from a human being, referred to as HUMINT, is often considered more valuable in clandestine operations than information from any other source—such as imagery intelligence, called IMINT, or public knowledge, known as open-source intelligence: OSINT. In the final analysis, the perspective and experience of a person is the gold standard of information. That’s another reason why trust is so important.

This guy was not the subject of our investigation—but just an entry point to the spy—so he had nothing to fear from us. But he didn’t know that. He’d never heard of us until we’d called, might reasonably think we were trying to trick him, and owed us nothing: including his trust. Why should he trust us? He knew we wanted something, but didn’t know what it was, or who it might help—or hurt. And he wasn’t expecting us to give him anything in return.

In spite of that, most people—even total strangers—are cooperative: if you give them a good reason to be. In FBI investigations, this is especially true in the realm of national security, rather than crime. One of the nice things about working in national security was that we were usually dealing with highly intelligent people: diplomats, attachés, foreign policy experts, and business executives.

As a rule, these intelligent people were quite rational, and that’s always helpful in building trust. Rationality is the brick and mortar that creates a firm foundation of trust. It keeps things real, reflects only honesty, and helps you determine who people actually are, and what they really want. Emotion builds a foundation of sand, ever-shifting as moods change, creating sinkholes of confusion, doubt, and dishonesty.

Not that I knew even these simple things back then. I was a young buck fresh out of the Marines, thinking that I already knew what it took to inspire trust, and lead others. In actuality, all I knew was the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, I was such a newly minted, immature leader that I didn’t even know back then that leadership was my ultimate goal. And I absolutely did not know that the grand key to leadership is as simple as: it’s all about them.

(We interrupt this narrative to inform the reader that all five rules of the Code and all Four Steps have been revealed. Now back to our regularly scheduled reading!)

On this life-changing day in New York, I thought my ultimate goal was to have a good lunch, get some information, and go home to my wife and newborn daughter feeling like I’d done something important that would impress other people. That’s not even close to being an ultimate goal, or even a good one.

You don’t need to impress people—I later learned—if you put their needs ahead of your own. They’ll naturally trust you—and like you, too—because when trust comes first, people will feel good, and light up every time you walk through the door.

Getting people to like you is not how you make them feel about you, it’s how you make them feel about themselves.

We were there early, well before noon, in accord with Jesse’s plan, and his eyes darted around the room obsessively, seeming to note details, as he made minor adjustments to where we sat, who could see us, who our waiter would be, and what we were wearing. He wanted my sport coat off, and my tie in my pocket. He said that a more casual look provoked less defensiveness. He told me to keep my watch visible, though, because it was a Darth Vader watch that my daughter had given me for Father’s Day. Can’t beat that for casual. Jesse liked props. There was always a chance, he thought, that some prop, even if only used subliminally, could bring people together, on common ground.

“When he gets here, try to find something that we can do for him—some favor—anything that makes him feel appreciated. If he says something you disagree with, keep it to yourself. Because this is his meeting, let him take the lead, and don’t try to force any agenda. We’ll see what his interests and needs are, and then find goals we have in common. We don’t need to be manipulative, or even want to be.”

“Uh, isn’t all of that kind of manipulative, Jesse?”

“Bite your tongue!” he said. Or words to that effect. “It’s just good manners. We don’t judge people. We accept them. We validate them—for who they are, not for who we want ’em to be. That’s how everybody wants to be treated. Besides, this meeting is too important to be manipulative. That never works.”


“Cuz people aren’t stupid. You play them and they’ll play you.” Jesse was a born leader, and didn’t need to systematize the art and science of trust, as I later did.

These days, I think of him as a Beacon: the type of person who’s a shining light of safety. Beacons are humble and accepting, and inspire trust as naturally as sunlight signals each new day.

By the end of this book, you can be a Beacon—unless you’re one already, who needs only to learn how best to show it.

Jesse Thorne came up in the Bureau with the esteemed Joe Navarro—who graciously wrote the foreword to this book, and pioneered the application of behaviorism to espionage, as a cofounder of the Behavioral Analysis Program. Joe and Jesse were part of a tribe of trust that had an indelible influence on the Bureau, and I flatter myself to think that I eventually earned the honor of standing among their ranks.

Jesse was one of the most successful agents in the Bureau’s modern era, but one of the most humble. He’d received the FBI’s highest honor, the Director’s Award, but the only ornamentation in his office was a pen holder made out of a Tropicana orange juice can.

Jesse could tell that I was totally befuddled. “Just watch,” he said, making a hand movement like the Jedi mind trick, “and learn.”

He became quiet, still surveying the room, and I asked him what he was thinking. “I’m just smelling the room,” he said.

“You mean, like, casing the joint?”

“No, like, smelling. I love the smell of steak in the morning. Smells like … victory.” I looked blank—because he was usually too humble to even think in terms of victory—so he said, “That’s a joke. It’s from a war movie.” Jesse loved humor. It’s one of those universal things that brings people together.

Jesse was an ex-serviceman, like me. Lot of FBI guys are. It’s a natural progression for people who are serious about serving their country in national security, and it’s one of the American government’s greatest teaching and training institutions. Theoretically, a guy like me had already been fully trained in leadership—by the Marines. But that assumption was quickly becoming very theoretical.

As we waited for the Access Agent, I was thinking about this same early stage of my U.S. Naval Academy career, and my military career.

In my first semester at the Naval Academy, I became very adept at following orders—earning the ranking of #1 in my company—and became the Fourth Class Company Commander, the guy in charge of the other plebes. I became very full of myself. My second semester, when leadership became the determining factor in my ranking, I plummeted to number thirty. What’s that tell you? To me, it says: good followers aren’t always good leaders, even though they’re often promoted to leadership—and they’re never good leaders when they let it go to their heads.

I worked on leadership, and learned to get things done by enforcing my will. By graduation, I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about leadership. I had a rank sufficient to lead men into battle, and assumed that if I had the rank, I had the ability.

As a young Marine, my perception of the world was that I had finally become a fantastic, charismatic guy, a hardcore officer, a great friend to everyone, and a real solid professional.

As you may have noted, all of those perceptions about the “world” were really about me, with the blithe assumption that the world and I were one in the same. I still had a lot to learn.

I was an Air Support Control Officer—basically a combat air-traffic controller—at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a humid coastal training center you’ve probably seen in some movies. At Lejeune, there was about as much water in the air as in the bay, and there were mosquitoes that rivaled the size and maneuverability of Harrier fighter jets. Both of these burdens created the level of esprit de corps that comes only from shared suffering.

One night—a night I’ll never forget—we we’re getting ready for a bombing run early the next morning. We were out in the middle of nowhere—to enable us to sharpen our bombing skills without blowing up anything valuable—and the air out there was heavy enough to deliver not only all the oxygen we needed, but the water, too.

Depending upon the air to keep you hydrated is not a great thing, especially when the temperature range swings from way-too-hot to just-shoot-me.

Our unit was junior-officer-heavy, with about a dozen first- and second-lieutenants: all skilled Marines—in the rear with the gear—and we were all racking in one big tent. I was lucky enough at this time to have an actual cot—or manipulative enough, to be honest—so I went to bed early, with my head burrowed into my sleeping bag to escape the mosquitoes, listening to the quiet camaraderie of my buddies around me.

Half asleep, I heard shuffling feet, then I felt hands all over me, and realized I was getting duct-taped into my bag, and tied to the cot. I wasn’t fighting it, because: (1) nobody was beating on me, and (2) I couldn’t. I was lifted up, and all of a sudden I was going for a ride, hearing only the muffled chuckles of Marines and the engine of what sounded like an old Desert Storm dune buggy. About thirty minutes later I was lowered back onto mother earth, hearing only the hungry buzz of the plane-size flying vampires. I had the feeling I was facing a long walk back to the barracks.

I heard a huge blast from overhead, and someone cried, “Ohhhh, the humidity!”

At least somebody was having fun. Things grew quiet quickly.

Luckily, I had gone to sleep that night, for no good reason, with my Leatherman multi-tool in my pocket. So I hacked my through the sleeping bag, stuck my head out, and couldn’t help but notice that I was in the Gulf-Ten Impact Zone: the site of our morning bombing exercises.

A moment of clarity! I had been graced with a friendly Communications Exercise by my fellow Marines!

In short: as a newbie looie, I’d screwed up, and they’d sent me a message.

With what content? I had no idea.

It was another humbling moment: the priceless moments that teach humility. They’re best learned in books. In real life, you pay retail.

Back in the barracks, I learned fast. Turns out, one of the guys wasn’t happy with me, and that meant that his friends weren’t, either. And this guy was far more aware than me that you can never have too many friends.

The guy in question was the same rank as me, a personal friend, a comrade in arms: an equal—who was newly married, like me, and had taken a brief, proactive, self-selected leave to see his wife for a few hours. I, in contrast, had played by the rules, sucked it up, stayed where I was supposed to be—and in the interests of keeping the Corps strong and true—dropped a dime on my buddy to a superior officer, who reprimanded the good-husband, bad-boy Marine.

As night became day, I was informed that an officer does not build esprit de corps by diming-out a buddy. I learned that I was not a better officer than him, and that the title of our deployment was not Legend of Robin: The War Years.

The men told me that I hadn’t thought about the needs of my fellow married officer, and that if I thought that the ultimate goal of our training was to be Playground Leader, I was not the type of officer that Marines would follow into peril.

Thus endeth the lesson. I got it. Or thought I did. Let’s just say I got some of it.

Daydream over: as Jesse continued to scan the room, I had the distinct feeling that I was getting a refresher course on leadership, at a pace I could barely follow.

“Here’s our guy,” Jesse said.

I felt a surge of nerves. The stage was set and the curtain rose on my new life as a recruiter of spies!

The Access Agent, Steve—not his real name, but better for our purposes here than Boris, Yao, or Shirazi—was walking toward us. “So what’s my role?” I asked Jesse—perhaps a bit late.

“Your role is to listen to him. That’s my role, too. We’ll try to find a way to help him, and we’ll let him know what we need—but in a subtle way, without demanding anything. Then we’ll hope he helps us. So just be yourself. Don’t say anything that’s not true,” Jesse said. “Don’t put on a show. And don’t show off.

Jesse stood. “It’s showtime!” he said.

As Steve arrived, Jesse held out his hand and said, “Thanks for coming on such short notice. I appreciate the favor.”

Even that was a lesson. One law of behavioral psychology is that if somebody has done you a favor, it makes them more willing to do you another favor. They’re even more likely to do it than someone who owes you a favor. The theory is that if they’ve done you a favor, they assume that surely they must like you. Otherwise, it makes their brain tense with contradiction—the fancy label: cognitive dissonance. It’s called the “Ben Franklin effect,” after the famous American who figured it out, without applying the fancy label.

Steve stood by the booth with a telltale demeanor of what-am-I-doing-here? Jesse—an expert in nonverbal communication, like Joe Navarro—defused the awkwardness by tilting his head slightly and flashing a shy grin as he shook hands.

Steve was a senior executive at a major New York think tank: one of the companies that offers research and advice on military and other issues to the government, and to private industry. Among the most famous of the think tanks are the RAND Corporation and the Brookings Institution, but there are about five thousand of them around the world. Steve’s company specialized in European matters, so its services were in high demand in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nobody knew who to trust in Eastern Europe, and it was even hard to tell who was in power—or would stay there.

Steve focused mostly on military trends, and his area of particular expertise was the intersection between the American defense industry and the armies of the Eastern European countries. The governments and defense companies in the emerging nations, after years of being pawns in the Soviet’s game, couldn’t possibly build all of the military products they needed. So they bought many of them from America—or stole the secrets about how to build them. The thefts were usually achieved in the classic criminal manner: by an inside man—most commonly a defense industry executive, or government employee, usually for money.

For example, an Army officer named Clyde Lee Conrad earned more than a million dollars funneling military secrets to the Soviet bloc—before he met my friend Joe Navarro, and spent the rest of his life in prison, as a convicted traitor. Joe later wrote a book about it, Three Minutes to Doomsday, which at this time is being developed as a movie.

Conrad was one of the major spies Americans hear about, but an even bigger problem for America is the damage done by hundreds of minor spies—people who don’t steal very much, for very long, but who commit crimes that accumulate by the thousands. Not all of them get caught, even when they’re suspected—and many people are suspected.

Most of the thefts don’t even involve classified material, but just proprietary information that’s worth a lot of money—and could eventually be used by an unfriendly force.

Relatively less valuable is open-source material that anyone with enough expertise can access. This OSINT is often information that soon fades from relevance.

As a rule, the nexus of a large number of minor spies is one person: a recruiter, who’s working for another country. The primary recruiting tactic of these people is to build trust among the spies who steal for them.

It’s true that shady people can build trust—but it’s a weak, fake type of trust, built on lies, manipulation, and coercion, and it can topple overnight.

Most commonly, the spies that are recruited befriend people who have access only to open-source information, but who understand the OSINT so well that their perspective is very valuable. Because these well-informed people are quite innocent, and have nothing to hide, they’re often good Access Agents. Steve was one of those people. That’s why we were buying his lunch.

Steve knew a person that we suspected of being a recruiter and a spy. This person had become the subject of our investigation. He was therefore referred to, in spy lingo as—guess what?—the subject. Steve probably liked the subject, and had a certain degree of trust in him. But when I say a certain degree, I mean trust that was a mile wide and an inch deep.

I can’t give you any of the details that are classified, but I can tell you, without violating Bureau policy, that our subject was an ambassador for a former Soviet bloc nation that was scrambling to buy all the armaments it could, as were most of those suddenly independent countries.

Before the day was over, we wanted to leverage the mutual trust that Steve shared with our subject, and get a better idea of exactly what the subject was up to, and what his priorities were. Then, with enough patience and work, we could make sure our subject was out of business, and facing the appropriate consequences of his actions.

After Jesse finished shaking hands with Steve, he introduced me. “This is Robin,” Jesse said—no title, no last name—as if I were just a buddy. Casual in the extreme. “Robin’s gotta go pick up his daughter in about an hour, so we’ll wrap this thing up before you even finish your steak.”

We made small talk for about ninety seconds and then our waiter magically appeared, quickly took our order, and vanished just as magically.

“So,” Jesse said to Steve, “I’ve heard that you’re an expert on Eastern Europe. I’m really interested in that, too. I was hoping you could give us some insights and opinions on what’s happening over there these days.”

“I’m happy to,” Steve said. People love to talk about their own area of expertise: It makes the conversation about them.

As Steve outlined the issues and major players of Eastern Europe, Jesse seemed genuinely impressed, and gradually steered the conversation to the country that our subject worked for.

Jesse’s questions about the country were very nonjudgmental and open-ended—the verbal equivalent of an ink-blot test. He wanted Steve to feel free to speak his mind.

That’s not just common courtesy, but the only way to find out what people really think. If they censor themselves, you get pablum. It also prevents you from putting your foot in your mouth with a remark that someone finds offensive. Even in a casual conversation, a judgmental remark like “I love Kobe Bryant but hate the Lakers” can be a nonstarter. Especially in L.A.—even if you’re talking to Kobe.

“Do you know any other people who know the inside stuff on that country?” Jesse asked.

Steve rattled off a few names—including the name of our subject: Terrence Bonney.

“I’ve heard of Bonney,” Jesse said. “He’s one their diplomats, right?”

Steve said that, yes, Bonney was a diplomat, assigned to the United Nations—and Jesse dropped the subject.

The pivotal point is that Jesse acted as if Terrence Bonney and the other people that Steve mentioned were just names on a list that we had been tasked to compile.

Bonney was a military attaché, meaning that he was attached to an embassy, but worked outside of its standard diplomatic ranks. That gave him a bit more flexibility for the job that we suspected him of doing: recruiting, or co-opting, Americans who had inside information about U.S. military industries, or about government military operations, State Department policy, or executive branch intentions. These Americans are known in the coin of the spy-bureaucracy realm as not only sources, but also operatives, and co-optees. They are most likely to be employed by private industry—mostly manufacturers of military equipment or armaments, or by subsidiaries of those companies. Some of them, though, are government bureaucrats—or work for think tanks.

Their inside information can be something as mundane as the proposed completion-date for a project, or which products a certain country just bought.

To a busy defense-industry executive with a million things on his mind—much of it classified, or restricted for international export—the information in question often seems like just another factoid. It might be a piece of seeming trivia that he’s already knowingly or inadvertently leaked to one of his professional contacts—such as a buddy from his previous job, who’d picked the exec’s brain at a lunch just like this one.

In our current multinational society, corporations can be just as powerful as countries, and intellectual property—piling up piece by piece, as it forms a grand puzzle—is often the primary weaponry of domination that’s used by companies and governments.

Every bit of it is up for grabs, and—in the general spy world, but not my world—nobody really trusts anybody.

Sometimes it’s not even possible in these scenarios to know who’s the thief and who’s the victim, because a number of companies are usually pursuing the same essential goal. Not only that, trade journals and foreign policy organizations publish vast volumes of information. And forget about always being able to distinguish good guys from bad guys. If you’re Microsoft and I’m Apple, who’s the good guy? Often as not, the good guy is just whoever you happen to work for—or (more or less) trust.

So the job of superspy Terrence Bonney was to approach some executive or bored bureaucrat, buy him lunch or a few drinks, talk shop, share gossip, maybe mention a company that’s looking for somebody with his skills, and develop a relationship—of trust, naturally.

Mr. Bonney positions himself as simply an honest person who’s worked in the private and public sectors, and is now patriotically serving his country, free from the Soviet yoke, as a military attaché. His dream in life, of course, is to make his nation strong enough and safe enough to be a valuable ally to America, because he loves America.

Everything may feel quite innocent to the business executive until a particular, very specific favor is requested, and a consultancy fee is offered. Then that exec feels either one of two ways: repelled, because he has no intention of sharing proprietary information with a foreign nation—or excited, and feeling no more traitorous than he would for jumping ship to another company, and bringing along some facts and figures that are already indelibly embedded in his big, overworked, underpaid brain.

In reality, Bonney’s government is mostly just trying to save its own corporations—and thereby spare its own military budget—from the onerous burden of research and development. America leads the world in R&D, and America leads the world in getting its R&D ripped off.

Then another reality arises, and things get uglier. The foreign company that rips off America’s industrial information may well use it to build military products not only for itself, but to sell to other countries. Some of those countries may not like America. Those nations may wish to use these products to harm the American nation, Americans abroad, innocent people who support America, or people who are just in the way. The identity of those countries shifts from era to era, so it would be pointless and inflammatory to name names. Just use your imagination.

Bottom line: An American company suffers, and so do the people who work for that company, as well as those who invest their 401(k)’s in it. Innocent people in other countries suffer. And the United States ultimately faces an extra, unnecessary threat: militarily, and economically.

That’s why we were interested in Bonney.

We hoped that Steve would give us enough information about Bonney to enable us to know who he was trying to help in his own country, who he was trying to recruit in this country, who his American friends were, and what his primary focus of interest was. Some of those questions could be answered indirectly, by knowing what cities Bonney visited, who he saw, who his wife was, where she worked, and—if this was a spy novel—who his girlfriend was, and who his wife’s boyfriend was.

But it’s not a spy novel, and I, for one, am always more fascinated by reality than make-believe. Make-believe is always set in a world of strange new rules, but in real life, the rules remain the same, and a smart person can eventually learn all of them.

The rules of real life aren’t the only thing that’s constant and universal. People are, too. I’ve worked closely for many years with people from all over the world—primarily from the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe—and we are all, at our core, essentially the same. We all long to be appreciated and respected, and we all want people to understand our motives and goals, even if they don’t always approve of them.

If you accept that as a reasonable perception, good for you! Not everyone wants to hear it. Millions of people need to feel superior—usually because they have an inferiority complex.

It’s hard for these people to resist putting themselves above others, on a separate plane. Unfortunately, it prohibits them from getting what they need from others, including love, support, and community. As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top—but it’s lonely at the bottom, too. The only place where it’s not lonely is on the same plane as other people: in the everlasting, unchanging nest of human connection, where all people—identified without regard to wealth, power, or beauty—truly are equal.

This plane of equality is the proving ground for trust. It’s the place where people who meet as equals break down barriers, build bridges, and make connections.

It’s Action Central in this world, because nothing ever really gets done without trust. When trust is absent, people are stuck with carving out their own little niches, and fighting for the scraps of what already exists.

Trust changes everything, directing teamwork toward a common cause, and sparking the creativity of all involved.

When the power of many people is focused on a single challenge, anything can happen. Companies are created, fortunes are made, families grow strong and happy, and groups of friends build relationships that last for lifetimes.

Most important: when people work in tribes of trust, they make the dreams of those they care about come true, and achieve a feeling that transcends even personal glory.

As this occurs, one thing that’s certain to happen is the emergence of a few people, and sometimes just one, who are trusted above all. As a young man, that was the person that I wanted to be: the leader.

In my early years at the Bureau, I didn’t really succeed at this, and feared that maybe I was in the wrong business. Finally I realized that in this life there is only one business: the business of trust.

That’s the business I’m in now.

It’s the business you’re in, too, even though you might not yet know it.

In the business of trust, you’ll find the finest people you’ve ever met, and together you’ll create things that will last forever.

But you’ll also find manipulators who mimic the words and acts of trust, to subdue other people and build themselves up. You can do that, if you want. It’s your life, and it’s a short one. The choice is yours.

I can tell you on good authority, though, that if you make the mistake of cherry-picking the techniques of trust to serve selfish and manipulative needs, they will eventually backfire on you. People will sense your hypocrisy, turn away, do their business elsewhere, and fulfill their personal needs with other people.

That was the mistake that Mr. Bonney had made, as people like him always do. He wasn’t working for his country. He was, we’d learned, working for himself: skimming some of the money that his country was giving him to recruit spies.

Copyright © 2017 by Robin Dreeke