It is a scene ripped from Hollywood spy thrillers: Russian agents living and working among everyday, American citizens as cover for their true mission of stealing state secrets.
In the real world, it is highly unlikely that your neighbor, coworker or mailman is actually a clandestine Russian operative working under a false identity. But that certainly does not mean the art of espionage has gone out of style in the world of international intelligence gathering, particularly between the United States and its former Cold War foe.
Amid all of the accusations and speculation pouring out of the investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, the notion that foreign spies are using old-school tactics and personally recruiting agents to divulge sensitive information is actually widely accepted among intelligence officials.
There is no doubt that the rise of information warfare and cyberespionage has changed the spy game in the years since the Cold War. But the playbook on how to target, recruit and manipulate sources has generally stayed the same.
Spy recruitment strategy
These “Spy 101” type tactics are spelled out nearly step-by-step in the FBI court filings from a 2015 case that names a person identified only as “Male 1.” While the government has never revealed his identity, Carter Page has acknowledged to CNN that he is the individual the documents refer to as a target of recruitment by three Russian intelligence agents.
The FBI has never accused Page, who would later become a Trump campaign adviser, of having been successfully turned as a spy. He has repeatedly denied any allegations of wrongdoing and said he wasn’t aware he had been approached by Russian spies.
“Consistent with the politically motivated unmasking standards seen in the Obama Administration which have recently been exposed, my personal identity and earlier assistance of federal authorities in the 2015 case of U.S.A. v. BURYAKOV, SPORYSHEV and PODOBNYY was framed in an easily identifiable way that amplified the reputational damage against me,” Page said in a statement to CNN.
He has also called a FISA warrant on his communications reported by The Washington Post “unjustified,” and rejected suggestions that he may have been acting as a foreign agent.
But what the FBI documents outline is the strategy behind how Russian agents marked him as a target. The techniques used in the attempt to recruit Page are similar to those employed by Cold War-era KGB operatives, a former counterintelligence official told CNN.
Step 1: Building a relationship
The beginning stages of the recruitment process are built on the same principles as positive human interactions like friendship or dating.
The first step of the process involves determining whether an individual qualifies as a likely target based on his or her personality, occupation or connections and then initiating a relationship, according to the former counterintelligence official.
In the case of Page, Russian agents allegedly opened a line of communication over email after meeting him at an energy symposium in 2013, according to FBI documents.
The interactions that followed were textbook recruitment tactics, according to the former official, who said a foreign spy will attempt to develop a casual relationship with targets, learning about their background and probing to determine whether or not they would be willing to share any type of information, even if it can be accessed publicly.
In the world of espionage, spies will look to identify any vulnerabilities that they can use to apply pressure or entice an individual into doing what they ask — such as threatening to expose a secret or offering them payment.
In the 2015 case, the court filings outline a discussion about a Russian spy setting up a face-to-face meetings on occasion with Page and highlight his frequent travels to Moscow for business as an area of interest.
“He writes to me in Russian so he can practice the language. He flies to Moscow more than I do,” the two Russian agents said about Page, according to the FBI documents citing phone surveillance. “It’s obvious he wants to make a lot of money.”
Step 2: Suitable target?
Ultimately, the Russian agents determined that the combination of Page’s professional ambition, connections to Russia and general enthusiasm for communicating indicated he was a suitable target to pursue as an intelligence source, according to the FBI’s assessment in the filings.
The discussion then shifted to methods of enticing Page into sharing information with them, according to the documents.
While the sharing of publicly accessible documents is legal, the willingness of a target to share signals a willingness to cooperate and an openness to proceeding with the relationship, the former official told CNN.
“You promise a favor for a favor,” the transcript of a conversation obtained by FBI surveillance between the two Russian agents reads. “You get the documents from him, and tell him to go f*** himself.”
According to FBI testimony, investigators concluded that this conversation reflected a “recruitment method, which includes cheating, promising favors, and then discarding the intelligence source once the relevant information is obtained by the SVR,” the Russian Federation’s foreign intelligence service.
According to the former intelligence official, a successful recruitment of an intelligence source hinges on the final step of the process involving the spy’s decision to co-opt the target by finally making the pitch for him or her to share sensitive information.
At this point in the process, a foreign spy will use the information gathered about a target’s background, either appealing to individual passions, offering favors or money, or resorting to blackmail to get cooperation, according to the former official.
In the 2015 case involving Page, the FBI said that his interactions with the individuals under investigation did not progress to the point where the bureau felt he had successfully been recruited as a spy or intelligence source.
The three defendants in the case were charged with participating in a conspiracy to act as a foreign agent in the US without informing the Attorney General.
Two of the men left the country before the court proceedings and both had diplomatic immunity because of their jobs for the Russian government. The third individual was arrested by US officials and sent back to Moscow earlier this month after pleading guilty to his crimes in 2015.
Page, who has consistently said that he did not know the Russians were spies, maintained in statements to CNN that he only “shared basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents,” providing “nothing more than a few samples from the far more detailed lectures” he was preparing for his students.
“We’ll see what comes out in this FISA transcript,” Page told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Thursday.