News & Politics

CIA vs. FBI: Which Is Better at Recruiting Russian Spies?

They're both looking for Russians disillusioned by the war in Ukraine. But the agencies' approaches on social media differ.

Photograph by yulenochekk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On Monday night, the CIA released a video—deftly produced, like a holiday pharmaceutical ad—in an attempt to recruit Russian spies. It depicts various Russian government workers in deep moral conflict as they go about their days. They grasp their heads, stare at ice-choked rivers, and pace about while the disembodied Russian voiceover poses provocative questions: “Is this the life I dreamed of? Is this the path I have chosen? Why are the lives of some people more valuable than the lives of others?” At the end, some of these Russians contact the CIA online—presumably to volunteer state secrets. “[My family] will live with dignity thanks to my actions,” the voiceover affirms.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the FBI has been running a similar ad, one that appears constantly on YouTube and Twitter throughout DC. The bureau’s version depicts a somber, wintertime journey from the Russian embassy in Glover Park to the FBI’s headquarters downtown. Over clinking piano music, the Russian voiceover emphasizes that listeners can “change [their] future” by talking to the FBI. (In other words, they can trade classified information for money or resettlement in the West.) Both videos target Russians who are upset about the invasion of Ukraine, and who might therefore be willing to spill Russian secrets to the United States. Back in March, we wrote an explainer of the FBI’s video—so if you’re skeptical that a Twitter ad might entice Russian intelligence officers to betray their country, that’s a good place to start.

But now, with dueling Russian spy recruitment videos rolling out across social media, we have a different question: Given the longtime CIA-FBI rivalry, who has made the better ad? The idea was to ask former FBI and CIA officials, but we could only reach Peter Strzok, the FBI’s former deputy assistant director of counterintelligence. (Note to CIA: You miss 100 percent of the potshots you don’t take.) The videos were judged by production value, narrative approach, messaging, and security consciousness. Our judge—despite his FBI loyalty—did his best to be fair.

Production Value: Win, CIA.

This category was not close: The FBI is giving us eighth-grade English project, while the CIA is giving us Hollywood. “It’s clearly got very high production value to it, in terms of everything from the music to the cinematography,” Strzok concedes of the CIA’s video. 

The FBI’s loss in this category was predictable. “In my experience, [the CIA] tends to be better funded and have flashier production capabilities,” Strzok says. “The FBI is like, ‘We got a grill and we made everybody hamburgers and hot dogs,’ and the next week CIA says, ‘Okay, we’ll host.’ So you go there, and they’ve got, like, oysters on the half shell and steak flown in from Japan.” The CIA has apparently always excelled at producing videos, charts, and infographics—Strzok says he’d watch that dynamic play out in the President’s Daily Brief, where the CIA would present gorgeous data visualizations and the FBI would simply have a PowerPoint. Is this because the CIA has more money overall? “Well, their budget is classified,” Strzok deflects.

Narrative Approach: Win, FBI.

The FBI video is quite clear: If you’re a Russian official who’s upset about Ukraine and wants to change the course of your life, you can hop on down to the Hoover building to tell the FBI what you know. In exchange, the United States might offer you cash, or perhaps even a permanent home here. It’s pretty straightforward.

The CIA video is muddier. We consulted multiple Russian speakers who all had different interpretations of what was going on. Is it an intelligence officer living a much less fancy life than an oligarch? Or multiple intelligence officers living different lives? Or an officer living separately from his wife and daughter who might be able to unify his family by selling state secrets? Unclear. So from the perspective of coherence, this one goes to the FBI.

Messaging: Tie.

The FBI video is pretty transactional (give us secrets, get a better life), while the CIA’s approach is moral. The Russians in the video are clearly upset by their government’s actions and the work they do that feeds the war. “We are easily swayed by lies,” the voiceover says, referencing omnipresent government propaganda. “But we do know what our reality is: the reality in which we live, the reality we talk about in whispers.” The text below the video underscores that if Russians value truth, they might find a friend in the United States: “The people around you may not want to hear the truth,” it says. “But we [the CIA] want to. You are not powerless. Contact us in a secure way.”

These approaches are pretty different, but Strzok insists that they work in collaboration, not in competition. “I think having two slightly different messages [is great],” he says. “Maybe one resonates with somebody more than the other, and vice versa. You’re giving people two flavors to choose from where before they had none.” 

Strzok adds that the CIA has done a great job of addressing a Russian audience. “Some people make the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, if someone wants to work with the West, that means they hate [their country],’” he says. “But most of the time, that’s not the case—these are people who love their country, but feel that the leadership has lost its way or whatever their grievance is.” The video addresses this directly: “I will live the true life. This is my Russia. This will always be my Russia,” the voiceover says. For Strzok, this is a deft way of framing dissent as patriotic while appealing to Russians’ pride.

Security Consciousness: Tie.

Both videos explain how to securely get in touch with American intelligence. This is key, since volunteers are most vulnerable to discovery while making initial contact. But the FBI and CIA use different methods: The FBI wants prospective spies to reach out through the secure messaging app Signal, while the CIA instructs Russians to use the Tor browser, which makes a user’s internet activity tough to trace. 

“I don’t want to get into a lot of detail about it,” Strzok says when asked which method is better. But he does note that the CIA gives a more robust explanation of how to make contact, even linking to a separate instructional YouTube video. It makes sense to him, since the CIA and FBI operate in different environments: The FBI is primarily targeting Russian officials who work in the United States (at the Russian embassy in DC, or the consulate in New York, for example), while the CIA is targeting Russian officials who work for the government in Moscow. 

“There’s a massive security apparatus in Russia,” Strzok explains. “The counterintelligence people who are going to try and stop Russian officers from volunteering to the CIA—we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people.” This means that officers in Russia have to assume they’re being monitored at all times. That’s not the case for people who work in the United States. “At the Russian embassy here [in DC], they certainly have a group who are monitoring their people, but it’s much [smaller]. They don’t have the ability to monitor at nearly the same level of scale.” So the CIA needs more robust security, because its recruiting environment is much more adversarial.

But in general, Strzok is heartened that both the CIA and FBI are taking secure communication so seriously. “If I’m a Russian who’s inclined to volunteer to the United States, and I saw some CIA YouTube video that didn’t include that level of detail, I’d say, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re not serious. You’re putting me at risk. I’m not going to stick my neck out and put my life literally in your hands.’” Neither video makes that mistake, which Strzok believes will put prospective volunteers at ease.

Overall Winner

“Of course the FBI’s video is better,” Strzok jokes. “It was the first to market. It was a good idea, and then [the CIA] wheeled out their little fancier version. Any good idea the FBI has, the CIA is gonna steal.” 

But his serious answer is that both videos are good, and he’s glad the CIA has finally come on board. “At the end of the day, as an American citizen and as a national security professional, I don’t care which agency a Russian intelligence officer might volunteer to,” he says. “It’s just the fact that he volunteers to the United States at all. So if something resonates from the CIA’s video, great. If something resonates from the FBI’s video, great. The main thing is getting the word out to as many people as possible, just to plant that seed.”

Strzok says the CIA-FBI rivalry is kind of a joke, but it’s one based on kernels of truth: “Traditionally, FBI agents might see CIA officers as posh Ivy Leaguers who go to diplomatic cocktail parties, and CIA officers see FBI agents as knuckle-dragging cops who are trying to arrest bank robbers and aren’t as highly educated as the CIA. But underneath, we’re all Americans. Everybody’s playing for the same team.” Given that, Strzok believes that the real winner of the dueling Russian recruitment videos isn’t the FBI or the CIA—it’s the United States. 

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer