The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has posted a video on Telegram and other social media sites in an effort to recruit Russians disaffected by the war in Ukraine to provide information to the United States. The video comes complete with instructions on how to get in touch with the Agency anonymously and securely. More than a generation into the internet, the CIA is at long last seeking to recruit spies by crowdsourcing. But better late than never.
By Gregory F. Treverton
Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
A decade and a half ago I did a study for the RAND Corporation on the use of social media by US intelligence agencies. This was prehistory for social media, and so the study turned up some howlers: for instance, analysts at the National Security Agency were unaware of basics and so asked their colleagues, “What’s a hashtag?” But I did come across some impressive, if highly classified, ventures. My favorite was a group of young CIA analysts who had created an internal wiki, called Intellipedia. The business cards gave their title as “Intellipedia Evangelist.” I was impressed by them but worried that they would meet the fate of the original evangelists!
While Intellipedia was classified, the aspirations of the evangelists were not. They wanted the CIA to be out there on Facebook and Twitter, asking questions and openly identified as the CIA. As one of them put it to me: “Sure, we’ll get lots of fiction and disinformation, but we get that in any case. And there may be people out there who want to help.” The last line, especially, those people who want to help, has stayed with me ever since.
So, I can only applaud the recent initiative in crowdsourcing. If the timing is late, the initiative is audacious—“in your face,” as my friend and former intelligence colleague, Ron Marks, puts it. And the circumstances are propitious. We know beneath the veneer of support for Putin’s war and the heavy hand of repression, many Russians are disaffected. The video, wisely, doesn’t mention Putin or even the war in Ukraine. Rather, it seeks to reach Russians’ sense of doubt about what Russia is doing and play to their patriotism, with lines from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Before the CIA contact information appears, a woman in her car uses a phone to contact the CIA, while the narration says: “We will live with dignity, thanks to my actions.”
The target is, especially, young Russians, who are doing the fighting and dying in Ukraine. As those Intellipedia evangelists wanted to do long years ago, this bit of crowdsourcing seeks to escape the bounds of “spy versus spy,” seeking not to recruit informants from intelligence or security services but rather Russian who might have useful information based on their work in cyber, the military, high tech, finance, or diplomacy.
This bit of crowdsourcing follows on an earlier, blunter effort several months into the war. Then, the CIA posted step-by-step instructions on how potential Russian informants could evade Russia’s security services by using virtual private networks, or VPNs, and the Tor web browser to contact the CIA on the so-called Dark Web anonymously and with encryption.
Apparently, that initiative was successful enough to encourage this recent and more subtle crowdsourcing. Telegram is the social media platform popular as a source of unfiltered news in Russia, but the video also was posted on other social media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Those CIA social media evangelists I met with years ago should be proud!