For those Russians on the edge of helping intelligence agencies chip away at Russia, a distaste for the war in Ukraine is the perfect moment to boost spy-recruiting efforts.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to wage war in Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community has a rare opportunity to help the United States and hurt Russia for years to come by doing one simple thing: recruiting spies.
Former CIA officials and current members of Congress told The Daily Beast that, as dissent grows in Russia, now is the perfect time for the United States to turn Russian assets.
In recent weeks the FBI has been targeting the area around Russia’s U.S. Embassy for potential recruits in particular, by using social media ads in the area to ply informants to work with the bureau.
“The information provided will be handled in a confidential manner, and the public’s safety and security is of the utmost importance,” the FBI’s field office in Washington told The Daily Beast when asked about the program, after The Washington Post first reported on the ads. “The FBI would like to speak to anyone who can help us minimize those threats and keep our country safe… Russia has long been a counterintelligence threat to the U.S. and the FBI will continue to adapt our investigative and outreach techniques to counter that threat and others.”
Former spies and current lawmakers emphasized that the United States needed to be actively trying to turn Russian operators, not just hanging back and hoping that Russians would come to them.
”We need to make our own luck,” said Doug London, a former CIA operations officer who has previously recruited foreign agents.
“A lot of that is being at the right place at the right time, being receptive and creating an atmosphere where Russians would be either receptive to an approach from U.S. intelligence community members, or in fact feel safe enough to approach U.S. officials under the right circumstances themselves,” London told The Daily Beast.
He noted that those in Putin’s inner circle—or those able to speak about Putin’s machinations—might be more willing than ever before to peel off and help Western intelligence services spy on Moscow.
What Putin has done, London said, ”has created conditions that will have those in a position to do something more willing than they might’ve been a few years ago.”
While there are numbers circulating that suggest Russian support for Putin’s war hovers between 65-71 percent, support may actually be much lower—closer to the 50 percent range—according to independent agencies, as the Center for European Policy Analysis noted.
And Russian assets that have helped the CIA spy historically have “almost always” been those that volunteer for ideological reasons.
”It’s propitious timing because our Russian assets… in the past have acted out of their own sense of nationalism because they have found their leaders to be illegitimate, and inflicting more harm and pain in their society,” London, the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, said.
The U.S. intelligence community should be stepping up to the plate and rerouting focus to scoop up some assets as they start reassessing their allegiances, said Rep. Ted Lieu, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“You already see people leaving Russia because of this war, and many of them are their best,” Lieu told The Daily Beast. “And so we should do everything we can to take Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin and welcome them to the United States, whether they are civilians or if they work for the Russian government.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), who previously worked for the CIA herself, told The Daily Beast that the U.S. intelligence community would be looking at certain Russians who might be “amenable” to either trying to stop a war or “provide clarity of information.”
“Certainly there's a lot of potential motivations out there for presumably Russian military leaders, diplomats, or intel members themselves,” Spanberger said.
When asked for comment on the increasing efforts to recruit Russian assets right now, a CIA spokesperson said it's only natural for the CIA to allow for a boom in recruitment at crossroads like these.
“CIA is committed to organizational agility in pursuit of our vital national security mission and that means being able to surge resources as needed to address crises as they arise,” the CIA spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
The need for better intelligence on Russia is at an all-time high, as Putin’s forces continue to go after civilian targets and rape and kill Ukrainians seemingly indiscriminately. And although the United States’ information on Putin’s planned invasion of Ukraine was spot-on in many ways—the intelligence community warned in advance that Russia might use false flag attacks to justify an attack on Ukraine, for example—the war also shows just how much the United States’ intelligence collection on Russia might be lacking.
In particular, the U.S. intelligence community seems to have a blind spot on some Russian military capabilities, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Early estimates of Russia’s invasion plot for Ukraine suggested Kyiv might fall in 72 hours. Instead, after more than a month of fierce Ukrainian resistance, the Russians gave up on their plans to take the Ukrainian capital in favor of a more targeted offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
“Nobody expected, as good as our intel was on what Russia intended to do… nobody really knew this scenario for the Ukrainians being in the game at this point. I don’t think… we had a plan for this scenario,” DesJarlais said, adding that we may have “overestimated Russia's capabilities.”
Part of the trouble is the U.S. spy agencies may have gotten tripped up interpreting the signals coming from Russia, and taken them without enough of a grain of salt.
“Their weakness might have been focusing too much on what the Russians think at a high level without allowing for what they got wrong, and that probably led to this embellishment of Russian capabilities,” London said.
A Ukrainian delegation, which met last week with staff from the White House National Security Council, told a small group of reporters in a briefing last Friday that they suspect America’s intelligence community has underestimated Ukraine’s capabilities, too, despite being allegedly so close.
Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, asked during the briefing why American intelligence was “so convinced” that Kyiv would fall in three days and why there was so much resistance to providing Ukraine weapons. “The response which we hear is that well, probably there was fear that if the weapons then would have been delivered in advance to Ukraine, and Russia takes Ukraine over three days and all this weapon will go to Russians. But why [was] there no scenario of Ukraine winning?” Kaleniuk asked.
Already, the U.S. intelligence community has started to shift some of its plans to account for Russians who might be teetering on the edge of helping the west spy on Moscow.
“I can’t speak for detail,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast when asked about specific resource shifts in the IC. “But I think that the investments and the resources we have are constantly being reevaluated to see if we are right-sized or we need to plus-up,” adding the administration is doing that right now.
Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast that the United States always seizes on an opportunity to “hire, train, and deploy more people in the intelligence space.”
“And this may just very well may be one of those opportunities,” Demings said, demurring when pressed for details.
Other officials and agencies were also cagey about providing too many details about efforts to recruit spies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for example, declined comment.
But concerns about intelligence on Russia aren’t just rankling those in Washington, D.C.
The head of France’s military intelligence unit, Gen. Eric Vidaud, was summarily fired for failing to provide adequate briefings on Russia’s invasion. Germany’s spy chief was actually stuck in Ukraine when Russia pulled the trigger and began the invasion. He had to be evacuated with special forces, Reuters reported.
And according to a briefing the CIA provided for U.S. lawmakers, China’s Xi Jinping has been peeved with his intelligence agencies’ failure to predict how the war in Ukraine would go down.
But while it might be a good opportunity for American spies to bolster spy ops on Russia, in some cases, it might be a game of spy versus spy in the coming days, lawmakers warned.
Russia is bound to know that the United States and allies will be seizing the moment to better collect intelligence on Moscow. Russia could seed would-be agents with bad information to muddy U.S. intelligence assessments further.
Putin “himself is a counterintelligence officer by background. So… he's always one with a [counterintelligence] mentality at play, and perhaps an overactive one,” Spanberger said