Editor’s note: Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA’s clandestine service as a Russian-speaking senior operations officer for more than 30 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a chief of station and as the CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia. The views expressed here are his own. He tweets @douglaslondon5. Read more opinion at CNN.
Happy people don’t spy; angry people do. Last week, the CIA launched an initiative to find them. Specifically, the United States spy agency set out to find disgruntled citizens of Russia with access to sensitive information they could share with the US.
The CIA has created a new channel on the Telegram social media app, popular with Russians, on which it posted a video appealing to Russians with access to sensitive information to contact the agency, and provided instructions on how to do so securely. The two-minute, Russian-language production has also appeared on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
The outreach aims to appeal to Russian sentiments and culture, and takes advantage of the current dire internal political and economic challenges in the country. The narrator tells viewers that, “People around you may not want to hear the truth, but we do. You are not powerless,” the narrator says. “Connect with us in a safe way.”
This direct appeal is an unusual approach, but one which could prove effective in reaching a Russian populace with few options to express their discontent. Russians angry with the Kremlin’s state-sanctioned corruption and abuse, with no way to act openly, are left with few alternatives other than finding external support.
In the past, Russians who have spied for the CIA have largely done so over ideological differences with the government and out of patriotic devotion to a Russian or Soviet state they feared was being badly mismanaged – not, for the most part, for mercenary reasons. These “agents,” as they are known in the CIA, often have greater loyalty to Russia than to what they viewed as the illegitimate governments they were ruled by.
Some needed to channel their disillusionment or guilt at being part of the corrupt system. But many more were pushed to spy against their government – despite the risks – for more personal reasons, acting out of anger against the Kremlin for failings or actions that impacted them or their families.
There are any number of Russians with access to sensitive intelligence who are angry at the repression and kleptocracy that has flourished under President Vladimir Putin, and who are concerned about the future. But the decision to spy requires a trigger, or “precipitating crisis,” as veteran CIA psychologist Ursula Wilder writes. Potential spies also need the opportunity. Putin provided the crisis, the CIA is offering the opportunity, and today’s technology is providing the means.
The CIA video avoids criticizing Russia or Putin and makes no mention of Ukraine –- at least, not directly. It provides potential Russian agents affirmation, empowerment and hope. Rather than idly standing by while their country falls to ruin, the CIA tries to convince these Russians that partnering with the agency provides a way that they take back some degree of control.
I’m quite deliberate about the word “partnering,” since espionage is truly a joint effort rather than an employee relationship or one of indentured servitude. Affirmation, empowerment and hope are powerful motivators for many who come into the agency’s service. Money is rarely the key factor for Russian agents, with notable exceptions. Financial compensation is often a tool to achieve a goal rather than an end – a way to pay medical bills, the kids’ tuition, or purchase necessities for one’s family.
Russian agents have historically required relatively little cultivation or manipulation beyond assurances that they would be handled securely, and their secrets used appropriately. Some had long considered the prospect, their inclination ultimately awakened by circumstances and opportunity.
Once moved by whatever crisis that compelled them to act, Russian spies often seek to validate their handlers’ discretion and professionalism before pulling the trigger. The CIA video seeks to bridge that final obstacle, appealing to prospective agents much as an empathetic and non-judgmental friend might. (Incidentally, the FBI posted its own video appeal to Russians on Twitter in April, aimed more narrowly at diplomats and Russian personnel based in Washington, DC.)
Moscow has made it clear that it is aware of US efforts to recruit its nationals for espionage – and is determined to thwart them. “I am convinced that our special services are properly monitoring this space,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Putin. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry called it “a very convenient resource for tracking applicants.”
Perhaps, but the CIA has taken precautions against its recruits being detected. The agency’s video showed images of individuals using their own mobile phones, but also tutored viewers in the mechanics of using the TOR app, otherwise known as “the onion browser.” TOR, which can be configured for use even in countries that seek to block it, allows a user to surf the dark web in a way that cannot be traced back to them. Once contact is made, the CIA provides additional secure means of communications.
In November 2022, CIA Deputy Director of Operations David Marlowe said that the agency is “open for business” for Russians who are “disgusted” by the war in Ukraine. I expected that would be the case, as I wrote in a March 2022 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, but less because of broad Russian sympathy for Ukraine as much as the war’s economic and political consequences at home. Meanwhile, CNN reported that since the start of the Ukraine invasion, CIA contact with Russian officials offering to cooperate “was encouraging enough to launch this latest effort.”
The CIA’s messaging and instructions suggests its goal is likely intended to expand the potential agent pool beyond Russian intelligence officers, probably aiming to Russians in the military, scientific, economic, policy and technical fields, among others. Russian intelligence officers have the savvy and training to make clandestine approaches to the CIA that prospective agents from other parts of society lack.
What does all this do for the US, besides possibly embarrassing Putin, who is immune to shame and already perpetually angry with the West? It could yield important new troves of information and the intelligence gleaned might not just inform Washington’s decision-making, it could help expose Russian lies, illuminate truth and remind Putin of the fragility of his grip.
To fight Russian disinformation and inhibit Moscow’s would-be allies, the Biden administration weaponized intelligence. This was reflected by its unprecedented declassification of highly sensitive information which arguably was effective in galvanizing international support for Ukraine at the outset of the war, undermining Russian false flagscenarios, exposing Iran’s lethal support to Moscow and discouraging China from providing Putin with weapons.
In the shadowy world of espionage, the CIA’s open advertising might seem counterintuitive. But the intelligence business relies on a steady stream of new sources. Human Intelligence is about people and relationships. The CIA can only thrive by adapting to the times and the people it seeks to engage. History shows that one well-placed spy can very well lead to outcomes that change the world.