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Poking the Bear: Social Media and Human Intelligence Recruitment

Recent CIA social media campaigns have shown how the past can be weaponised to encourage modern-day potential agents to work with the West. The UK’s intelligence agencies would do well to take note.

Innovative tactics: the UK's agencies could learn from US efforts to target disillusioned Russians for human intelligence recruitment

The CIA recently released a video appealing to Russians disillusioned with their government to spy for the US agency. It is the third time that the agency has produced such a video, aiming to capitalise on concerns within Russia’s intelligence agencies and wider government over the implications of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

A CIA spokesperson said that two previous campaigns, launched in 2022 and 2023, had been extremely successful, being viewed more than 2.1 million times across multiple social media platforms including Telegram, Facebook, X (previously Twitter) and Instagram. The CIA joined Telegram, the popular Russian social media platform, in May 2023, having previously issued instructions in 2022 on how disaffected Russians could contact the agency on the Dark Web.

This latest Russian-language video, titled ‘Why I contacted the CIA: the motherland’, follows the story of a fictional officer in Russia’s military intelligence agency – the GRU – reflecting on the legacy of his father, a Russian paratrooper, and his own son’s future. ‘My father was a practical man –[he] believed in Russia’, the official says, ‘He talked of cosmonauts and scientific achievements that the whole world admired’. Now, the narrator says, the real enemy is Russia’s leadership.

‘Our leaders sell out the country’, he says, ‘for palaces and yachts while our soldiers chew rotten potatoes and fire ancient weapons’. At the end of the video, the narrator says he wants to save Russia by contacting the CIA for his son’s future. ‘The people surrounding you may not want to hear the truth. We do’.

The video now has over 22,000 views on the CIA’s dedicated Russian-language feed.

At the very least, CIA and MI6 attempts to troll their Russian counterparts serve to stoke the paranoia the latter already feel

The attempt was naturally mocked by the Russian government. ‘Somebody should tell the CIA that VKontakte is much more popular here than the banned X’, said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. The CIA’s use of social media has also not been without problems; a cyber security researcher was able to exploit flaws in the agency’s Telegram channel to redirect users to his own site.

But the video is an innovative way of targeting disaffected officials. Last July, CIA Director Bill Burns told the Ditchley Foundation that Russia’s invasion created a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ to recruit agents. ‘We’re not letting it go to waste’, he said.

It also echoes similar statements made in July 2023 by Sir Richard Moore, Chief of the UK’s MI6. Speaking at the UK Embassy in Prague weeks after the rebellion by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, Moore encouraged Russian officials to reach out to his agency. ‘There are many Russians today who are silently appalled’, he said. ‘Our door is always open’.

Whether such campaigns have led to high-level human intelligence (HUMINT) recruitment remains to be seen. Yet at the very least, CIA and MI6 attempts to troll their Russian counterparts serve to stoke the paranoia the latter already feel. Famously, counterespionage is a ‘wilderness of mirrors’, and stoking that paranoia can only be a good thing – as Russia knows from its previous successful campaigns against Western intelligence during the Cold War. Fear of penetration can be just as debilitating as real agents passing information to the other side.

But the videos also tell us a lot about the use of history and nostalgia as a weapon. The CIA’s latest video plays on Russians’ love for the good old days of the Soviet Union to encourage reflection. Equally, while MI6 (rightly) does not reveal the identities of former agents, Moore’s most recent speech draws on the lessons of the past. Prague was chosen as the site of the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, an event that – like the earlier Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 – did much to help Western HUMINT. Then, as now, Russian officials ‘had no wish to be on the wrong side of history’. Soviet actions became an important ideological driver serving Western intelligence. One of those Moore certainly alluded to, yet never named, was Oleg Gordievsky – MI6’s most prized asset in the KGB, recruited in 1974. ‘The totalitarian world was’, Gordievsky wrote, ‘blinded by prejudice, poisoned by hatred, riddled by lies’. It was worth betraying – and others followed.

In today’s world where the UK’s agencies have a growing media profile, perhaps history should be used more fully than it has been up to now

History is not just a feel-good thing. It can be weaponised. Russia’s intelligence agencies know this already, having fully exploited the legacy of the Cambridge Five. The KGB’s successor organisation, the SVR, has openly exploited past successes for propaganda value. The SVR today holds ‘Kim’ Philby as the ‘true example of noble, courageous and principled service’. The stories of the Five are openly celebrated. ‘Putin has provided a financial grant to a project which is cooperating with the press bureau of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’, says Berenice Burnett, a researcher at King’s College London, whose research focuses on the legacy of the Cambridge Five. The aim is to ‘preserve and promote information on the Five’. It remains likely, she tells me, ‘that Putin’s personal interest, and presidential cash, will continue to flow into expanding the legacy of the Cambridge Five’.

The CIA itself recognises the importance of the past. The case of Oleg Penkovsky, jointly run by US and UK officials, is told through documents available online. The agency has also previously pushed the story of Penkovsky publicly, as well as disclosing the cases of others who followed in his footsteps.

The UK’s role in running Penkovsky, while an open secret, is not officially acknowledged. For MI6, it remains policy not to disclose the names of agents or officers. Only in a few cases has this policy been waived, most notably for Keith Jeffery’s authorised history of the service. The cut-off, however, is 1949, when the service was still finding its feet against the Soviet Union. The service, while undoubtedly having its disasters, has also had significant successes, running several high-level agents inside the Soviet Bloc. Some, like Gordievsky, are known; most are not.

It is right to protect the names of those who volunteer information to the UK’s foreign intelligence agency. But, as even Moore alludes to, the past can be used to encourage modern-day potential agents to work with the West, or even stoke pre-existing paranoia in Russia.

The names of agents will always be hidden – and rightly so. Agents supply information knowing their identity will always be a secret, protecting their families and future generations from harm. But in today’s world where the UK’s agencies have a growing media profile, perhaps history should be used more fully than it has been up to now. We should also play on the past, as our opponents have done. History can be weaponised – let’s poke the bear some more.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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