There are a few citizens in democracies who hand over state secrets to foreign governments, or non-state entities, for money – but not many.

The FBI agent Robert P.Hanssen (born 1943) betrayed the United States for diamonds and cash provided by the KGB and its successor, the SVR, in the Soviet Union.

However, most traitors do not act for financial compensation. Many are alienated individuals who detest their own society and wish to see it overturned. This was the case with the likes of the British citizens Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt who spied for the Soviet Union. The members of what came to be called the Cambridge spy ring preferred Joseph Stalin to Winston Churchill when it came to leaders.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves from a window with Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino at Ecuador's embassy in London.

Burgess and his fellow spies took their alienation to an extreme conclusion, but they were not merely disillusioned with their own society. All four exhibited narcissistic characteristics. They believed their views were so superior to those of others that there was no point in making the compromise that living in a democracy entails.

Also, they had scant regard for the fate of the individuals in foreign countries whom they betrayed into incarceration, torture, even death.

Secrecy was part of a spy's lot in the Cold War since there were heavy penalties for treason. Today the likes of the Australian Julian Assange or Americans Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not beholden to any country or cause. Instead, they release information to any government or individual for them to do with it what they will. All in the name of the (alleged) right to know.

Manning, a member of the US military, did not volunteer his involvement in the dump of US documents. But Assange's WikiLeaks operation and Snowden's release of the US National Security Agency's material have been public acts of defiance.

Assange and Snowden are openly proud of their alienation and do not seem to regard any nation or any leader as better than any alternative. Moreover, both show evident signs of narcissism.

This was apparent when Assange was interviewed by Emma Alberici on Lateline last week. It is well known that, about a year ago, Assange sought amnesty in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

He is there because he refuses to travel to Sweden to be questioned about claims of sexual assault made by two left-of-centre Swedish women.

In other words, Assange's well-publicised plight has nothing to do with Australia. He is where he is because British authorities have approved his extradition to Sweden and he dishonoured his bail arrangements and refused to abide by British law.

Yet listening to Assange's story it is all someone else's fault. The list is long. It includes “the yellow press”; Prime Minister Julia Gillard; Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr; the Australian high commission in London and so on. Everyone, it seems, except himself.

Assange expects that Australian authorities will not only give him a passport but pay for his medical bills. He is heavily into entitlement.

He also seems to believe that he has widespread support in the land of his birth. Based on a poorly formulated opinion poll, Assange maintains that he can win between 25 and 28 per cent of the Senate vote in Victoria. It would be foolish to declare that Assange cannot win a Senate seat but these projections are heroic.

Sure, Assange has a fan club on social media and within universities and sections of the ABC, but it is far from clear that he has anything like the backing he claims.

In Australia, evidence suggests most citizens support the Gillard government's line on national security, which is broadly supported by the Coalition. The same is true of President Barack Obama's administration in the US and David Cameron's government in Britain.

During the Cold War, most citizens understood that communist totalitarianism was a threat to Western societies. Today, the evidence indicates that most citizens in the West accept that Islamist terrorism is a fact of life and that, in such a situation, some individual rights will be curtailed and some secrecy enforced to protect society.

Philby and his ilk set out to aid an enemy in the cause of ideology. Assange and his ilk set out to release information, irrespective of whether it benefits a foreign government or non-state enemy.

The Cambridge spy ring did not succeed because their narcissistic alienation was not shared by most of their fellow citizens. It is likely the WikiLeaks phenomenon will ultimately fail for similar reasons.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.