This question is NOT about any one country. It is about whether there is an accepted convention about whether former employer countries are responsible for future actions of their would-be retired intelligence officers.

The premise is that spies lie for a living (quite literally). So any designation of spies as "former" or "retired" can always serve as a "cover" unless there is any legal framework precluding this from happening. It can happen even if such a framework does exist, but if such a framework (akin to prohibition on using Red Cross for military transports) were in place, it would make claims that spies are "former" spies more credible.

There is a number of "former" spies who are very active in public life and actively work to change or shape public policy. I would like to know how their claims of not working for their former employers can be evaluated (really, if they can be evaluated).

Here's some examples of "former" intelligence services employees who are active in shaping public policy (and who may or may not be still active members of their former agencies):

  • Igor Ivanovich Strielkov, (presumed former) GRU colonel. Reported to be (or to have been) in charge of the Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Christopher David Steele, (presumed former) head of the Russia Desk at MI6. Known to be the author of an anti-Trump (often disputed) dossier created in stages through three different commissions by Bill Kristol's son-in-law, HRC Presidential campaign, and the FBI.
  • putting this one on this list maybe controversial, but still... Edward Snowden, (presumably former contractor at) the NSA. Snowden revealed existence of NSA's program to collect meta data of most calls made in the US. The construction of the building structure doing the surveillance was known to a very large group of people (some with and some without any clearance) and the building structure is large enough to be visible from space. The revelation of its existence split public opinion (which was uniformly against blanket surveillance) into the anti-surveillance and anti-"treasonous"-Snowden camps.

These are just some of the examples of controversial "former" intelligence services employees. There are many other examples of publicly-active ones which are par for the course.

I realize that I am making claims which many people may wish to contest based on news reports and based on their own views. But, please, keep in mind that most of the "questionable" claims I made are part of the context. The question itself is whether there is any legal internationally-adapted convention against identifying active spies as "former"? And if so, whether these conventions make it incumbent upon their past employers to "rein them in" if their actions interfere with public good of other states after their retirement.

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    The question is in desperate need of some pruning cause it looks like you're going off on a rant about people who worked in intelligence services and have become prominent.
    – hszmv
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 17:45
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a rant that's masquerading as a question whose answer is no. Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 17:55
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    @Denis de Bernardy, why is a question, which desrves a "no" answer, not a valid question? How do you know that the answer is "no"?
    – grovkin
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 17:57
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    @hszmv, what's the "yes" answer?
    – grovkin
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 17:57
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    no other country can ever fully trust them. I think you are romaticizing the work of spies. If a former KGB agent goes near a sensitive place, he would not be allowed forward. But the fact is that nobody without a good reason would be allowed in sensitive places. And also, "former" is not always a permanent status. People can be re-recruited. And if a -truly- retired CIA agent received word of some matter of national security for the USA, I would expect him to notify it back to Langley, even if he is not longer getting paid for it...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 18:51

2 Answers 2


The question itself is whether there is any legal internationally-adapted convention against identifying active spies as "former"? And if so, whether these conventions make it incumbent upon their past employers to "rein them in" if their actions interfere with public good of other states after their retirement.

There is no such convention. Spies are inherently acting extra-legally (according to the laws of the country they are spying upon) when they are doing their business as active spies, although sometimes by having an official diplomatic cover, they are insulated from exposure to criminal consequences due to their diplomatic status.

There are some unofficial cover identities (like the Red Cross, Peace Corps members, and journalists) that are legally disfavored or prohibited. But, "retired spy" is not one of them.

After they (actually) retire, they are subject to non-disclosure agreements for which their former employer can sanction violations, if it decides to do so, under the former employer's domestic law (but not necessarily internationally enforceable law). But, they are no longer employees and are not subject to the control of their former employers, nor are they the responsibility of their former employers.


So in your first two cases, these are cases where the spy retired from government employment and then used their connections and skill sets for other legitimate purposes. I cannot speak to KGB and successor organization policies, but within the U.S. and presumbably UK, you are still under a non-disclosure agreement about the work you did for the agency and will need to submit any material you intend to publish to your agency for Pre-Publication Review, so they can make sure you're not speaking about something you shouldn't be. As the years tick away, your "value" to adversary agencies becomes less and less because what you worked with becomes date and you no longer have access. Other than that, you do not have any restrictions or controls placed on your life.

With respect to Snowden, he is charged with Espionage in that he gave classified information to unauthorized persons. It's important to point out that he is not charged with Espionage that he gave information to known agents of a foreign power which is a more serious offense (Snowden could face a maximum of 10 years in prison for all three charges, where as a charge of giving information to a foreign agent carries a maximum of the Death Penalty).

Finally, your claim that a "former" agent could be a cover for an active agent is not good tradecraft. As a rule, you don't want your active spies to be publicly known, even if they are claiming they are retired and do not do that. Again, I cannot speak much on your first case other then the man you named is officially worked at the FSB, not the GRU (though Russian military tactics do employ deception as part of any operation) and there could be two separate people discussed (the claim is made on wikipedia and I am repeating it with a grain of salt).

Steele is retired and there is nothing saying he can't use contacts to write the dossier though we do know he was let go by the FBI for discussing his work with the media.

As for Snowden, as discussed, he is wanted for criminal offenses for the methods by which he changed public policy.

  • I was using en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_pro-Russian_unrest_in_Ukraine as the source for listing Strielkov as GRU colonel. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igor_Strelkov_(officer) claims that (1) Ukraine regards him as a GRU officer, (2) BBC reported him to be an FSB officer, (3) Girkin (his presumed real last name) claimed that he was with GRU in a radio interview.
    – grovkin
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:17
  • dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1351868/… says that most MI6 retirees are 55. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Steele lists his birthday as June 24, 1964. Which would make him 53 years-old today. Also, while there is an agreement to share data between US and UK intelligence services, UK intelligence officers are outside of the chain of command of the US executive branch. He is also repoted to have refused to testify before US Congress' intelligence ovesight committee.
    – grovkin
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:27
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    @grovkin: The United States and UK intelligence agencies generally would have the same policies. I can't speak to the UK entirely, but such controls would not be unreasonable given the influence of both systems on each other. He could be compelled to testify for his time working for the FBI as he was an employee of the US Government during that time, having left MI6. Early retirement is not unheard as are career changes to non-Government entities.
    – hszmv
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:44

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