Rupert Cornwell: Cold War rules still apply in tricky game of switching sides

Related Topics

Their most recent heyday was the Cold War. But defectors have been around as long as states have been fighting each other. Think, for example, Benedict Arnold or Rudolf Hess. Now this eclectic company has been joined by Moussa Koussa, until lately foreign minister of Libya, and now a guest at a "secret undisclosed location" of Her Majesty's Government.

His immediate debriefing will surely focus on the power structure around Colonel Gaddafi, as the British seek "live" information about Libya's government, intelligence and military.

But why has he changed sides? Defection is a treacherous business. People cross sides for many reasons. Some do so because they truly believe their country is in the wrong, and that to continue to serve it is immoral. The very bravest (or reckless) of these such as Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, perhaps the most important of all Cold War spies, do so without leaving their country, and pay for it with their lives. Others defect from spite, after a career setback or spurred by a feeling of being overlooked. For some, it is the only way to save their skins; others are driven by a love affair. A few, like Hess, defect out of delusion.

For the recipient country, most defectors are good news. But some are not. One of the most famous post-Cold War specimens is Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, the Iraqi scientist known as "Curveball". His false information about Saddam Hussein's biological weapons programme was swallowed hook, line and sinker by anti-Saddam hawks in Washington as justification for the 2003 invasion.

Nor are all defections forever. An example of immense consequence was that of a former US Marine private named Lee Harvey Oswald, who in 1959 renounced his citizenship and settled in the Soviet Union, then changed his mind and returned home in May 1962.

And the Yurchenko affair is still among the most puzzling. When he approached the Americans in Rome in August 1985, Vitaly Yurchenko was touted as one of the most important KGB officers to cross to the West. Just three months later, he slipped his CIA handlers and re-defected to the Soviet Union. For this successful "infiltration operation", he was reportedly awarded the Order of the Red Star. It is unlikely any such honour would await Mr Koussa in Tripoli, if he returned home.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth