For weeks now, an oddity has been popping up in social media feeds across DC: a promoted Tweet from the FBI’s Washington Field Office that’s all in Cyrillic.
Отмечая первую годовщину российского полномасштабного вторжения в Украину, ФБР приглашает к сотрудничеству сотрудников РФ, обладающих секретной или закрытой информацией. Вы хотите изменить своё будущее? Связаться с сотрудниками ФБР можно в Signal по номеру +1-771-201-4210.
— FBI Washington Field (@FBIWFO) February 24, 2023
The ad can also be seen on YouTube—it’s set to melancholy, tinkling piano music and depicts a journey from the Russian embassy in Glover Park to the FBI’s headquarters downtown, overlaid with a monologue from a disembodied Russian voice. At the end, an unslept-looking G-man faces the camera and says, in English, “Do you want to change your future? The FBI values you, the FBI can help you, but only you have the power to take the first step.”
Very mysterious. Smells like espionage. And espionage it is.
What you’re witnessing are the FBI’s nascent efforts to recruit spies online. About a year ago, at the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Bureau ran a similar ad that reminded disgruntled Russians that they’re free to tell the United States what they know. This newer video, pegged to the first anniversary of the war, makes a similar pitch: If you know juicy Russian secrets, you can give them to the US in exchange for a new life. The ad also provides a secure method of contact—the FBI can apparently be reached through the Signal app. In years past, betraying your country required a trip to an embassy or contact with an operative. Now, you can simply text.
Recruiting spies on Twitter is not the stuff of John le Carré, and we at Washingtonian have lots of questions, including “What does this ad even say?” and “Could this possibly work?” Below is our attempt to answer the obvious questions—and the less obvious ones—about the FBI’s relentless presence in your feed.
First off, what does the Russian part of the ad say?
Per our consultation with two friends who speak Russian, here is the monologue from the video: “Do you want to change your future? On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the world is watching as two countries are devastated by war. I turn to you to help change the future. Walk into any regional FBI office and tell them that you would like to change your future. Come visit us, or talk to American friends of yours that you trust and tell them you’d like to talk to the FBI and we can create safe conditions for communication. You can securely contact the FBI through the Signal app using this phone number: (771) 201-4210.”
That’s pretty oblique. What does the FBI actually want?
Well, the video’s caption (also in Russian) is more direct: “The FBI invites the cooperation of employees of the Russian Federation who possess secret or classified information.”
James Olson, the CIA’s former chief of counterintelligence, tells us that the ad’s meaning should be obvious to Russian personnel. “We’re asking for secrets in return for a better future. That means money, or it might mean resettlement in the United States.”
Who is this ad’s target audience?
The FBI is “big game hunting,” Olson says—it’s after high-level Russian intelligence officers, the folks who know the best secrets.
But the Bureau is interested in lower-level people, too. “The advantage of [this ad] is that it’s very broad,” says Peter Strzok, the FBI’s former deputy assistant director of counterintelligence. All kinds of people—from members of the Russian military to peons at Siberian troll farms—might have information of value, so Strzok thinks it’s deft to cast a wide net.
Okay, but will recruiting spies through social media actually work?
Strzok and Olson think so.
Strzok calls the ad a “helpful new tool in the toolkit.” Traditionally, recruiting human sources is expensive and laborious. Intelligence agencies will identify a foreign official then slowly develop that person over time, learning their vulnerabilities and desires while figuring out how to make cooperation enticing to them. That method is valuable, and it’ll continue—but running a social media ad is quick and cheap. “The cost is so comparatively low,” Strzok says, “that if you’re getting any benefit whatsoever, it’s worth doing.”
Olson is also bullish on the ads. For years, he’s been arguing that our intelligence agencies should be more aggressive in their efforts to recruit foreign spies. “I call it ‘hanging out the shingle,’” he says. “We have to let people know that US counterintelligence is open for business and we have deep pockets, so let’s make a deal.” He argued for this strategy in his 2019 book To Catch a Spy, and he says he’s “just so delighted that the FBI is doing this. My only complaint is they should have done it sooner.”
So, spies haven’t been recruited with social media ads before?
Not that Strzok or Olson have seen. Olson calls it “innovative,” and Strzok calls it “a good, novel use of social media.” Among Twitter users, it’s certainly making a splash.
Why is the ad pegged to the war in Ukraine?
Because many Russians are mad about it, which may make them more amenable to American overtures. “I guarantee you there are Russian intelligence officers who are disillusioned, who are ashamed of what their country is doing,” Olson says. “They are disgusted by the fact that Putin is killing their brother and sister Slavs in Ukraine, so there’s going to be ideological motivation to strike back against what they see as evil from their own country, to correct it by cooperating with US intelligence.”
Strzok adds that there may also be professional incentives. “Putin is valuing loyalty over competence,” he says, “so if you’re a competent person in the Russian intelligence services, there’s probably some disgruntlement.” In other words, if you keep losing promotions to Putin’s blundering goons, you might find some professional fulfillment (and vengeful satisfaction) in spying for the United States.
What kinds of secrets does the FBI want?
“An extraordinary number of things,” Strzok says. That includes what Russia is planning in Ukraine, what Putin is thinking and hearing from advisers, and what kinds of weapons the Russian military is developing. Information about Russian intelligence services would also be valuable, like how officers are trained, what kinds of operations they’re running, and what technological capabilities they have. “The more we know about their intelligence services, the easier it’s going to be for us to counter them,” Olson says.
For Olson, the holy grail is to learn the identity of American spies—government employees who are passing our secrets to Russia. And the best way to root out American spies, he argues, is to recruit foreign intelligence officers to betray them. “We don’t give resettlement in the United States away to just anybody. You have to really give us the crown jewels. But if you’re a foreign intelligence officer and you identify one big American spy, that will buy you a lot.”
So, will this ad also scare American spies?
“Oh, yeah,” Oslon says. “They’re shaking in their boots.” Americans who are already spying for Russia may go dark for a time, and Americans considering volunteering might put those ambitions on ice. A counterintelligence recruiting bonanza would elevate the risk to American spies, given the incentives for newly-recruited Russians to prove their bona-fides by handing over disloyal Americans.
Is the ad also about scaring the Russians?
Certainly, that is a perk. “It’s going to make them paranoid,” Olson says. “They’re going to wonder, Who’s seen that ad? Are people wavering in their commitment to Mother Russia? Do we have anyone who’s secretly anti-Putin? That’s gonna make them goosey.”
Strzok agrees. “If you’re a Russian counterintelligence person, you’re in a horrible spot right now, because a lot of people are unhappy. So if you’re trying to prevent people from volunteering to the FBI, this is just one more thing to worry about.”
A year ago, the FBI ran a similar ad that was reportedly geotagged to the Russian embassy. Why is this ad appearing all over DC?
Olson’s take is that the ad isn’t simply relevant to Russians—if officials from nations like China, Iran, or Cuba see it, they can contact the FBI, too. “Regardless of where the initial ad buy was, it’s going to get disseminated and get impressions from everywhere,” Strzok says, which is good for US intelligence. Foreign officials in New York and Miami and Vienna and Beijing also know secrets. They might see a retweet and get to thinking about their options.
The ad shows a physical journey from the Russian embassy to the FBI’s headquarters. Can Russians just walk in the front door of the Hoover building to spill their secrets?
It’s not recommended—contacting the FBI through Signal is definitely more secure. But if a Russian official walked into the Hoover building, Olson thinks they could probably get away with it. “The FBI is very protective of the integrity of its neighborhood,” he says, so it’s unlikely the Russian government could consistently surveil the building to see which of their people are going inside.
The mood of the video is pretty gloomy—it’s riding public transit through drab, wintertime DC. Wouldn’t Rockettes and fast cars make defecting look more attractive?
Well, maybe. But a lot of work probably went into figuring out a good approach. “Best case is they took a bunch of behavioral profilers and said, ‘What’s the best way to appeal to Russians?’ and this is what they came up with,” Strzok says. “I’m sure they had psychologists and Russian experts who were consulted,” Olson adds.
For Olson, a “flashy” video would not have been right for the occasion, since choosing to betray one’s country is a “serious, somber undertaking.” He believes the “mood was appropriate” and that it was “very skillfully done.”
So, this is a good ad that’s likely to net us some spies?
“I give the FBI an A+,” Olson says. “I think they’re going to get a lot of calls.”