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The Brazen FBI Hunt for Russian Spies Ready to Betray Putin

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The FBI has been boosting its efforts to recruit Russians with access to classified information in recent weeks, The Daily Beast has learned.

In an attempt to gather more intelligence on Moscow and bring in more Russian assets, the agency has been running a social media operation since February targeting Russians who might be willing to spy for the Biden administration, The Daily Beast has learned.

The spy-hunting operation relies on a promotional video that depicts potential paths that an employee at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., might take through the city to reach the FBI at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. The video, roughly two minutes long, features music from Chopin’s haunting Nocturne No. 1, with various shots of buses and trains that can be taken to FBI headquarters, as well as footage of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the streets of Georgetown.

The video is circulating on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google, according to ads seen by The Daily Beast and ad repositories maintained by the social media platforms. A source familiar said the Google ads are appearing on YouTube.

The video ends with a message from Alan Kohler, of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, urging Russians to come forward. It’s the only portion of the ad in English, albeit with Russian subtitles.

“I look forward to building a brighter future with you. Do you want to change your future? The FBI values you. The FBI can help you,” Kohler says. “But only you have the power to take the first step.”

The operation is meant to lay out a vision for potential informants for how they can go about spilling Russian government secrets to the United States safely, a source familiar said.

The campaign is particularly aimed at Russians who have access to classified information, according to one description of the video seen by The Daily Beast.

“The FBI invites the cooperation of Russian officials with secret or classified information,” text accompanying one ad reads. “Do you want to change your future? Contact the FBI at Signal.”

That’s a wrap

It’s just the latest effort from the FBI to take advantage of the powers of social media to recruit Russian spies. Last year, the FBI ran other ads on social media targeting the area surrounding the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to recruit Russian informants, as reported by The Daily Beast. The operation was timed with what some in intelligence circles said was an opportune moment to recruit Russians that disapproved of the way Vladimir Putin was waging war in Ukraine, just as domestic dissent over the invasion bubbled up.

The FBI timed the release of the video ad with the one year mark of Putin’s invasion in Ukraine.

Previous ads have used images and text to try to persuade would-be Russian traitors to share information with the United States. One ad the FBI’s Boston division ran from July through September of last year said, “Information provided to the FBI by the public is the most effective means of dealing with threats,” alongside a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

This is the first time the FBI has relied on a video on social media to try to recruit Russian assets, according to a source familiar.

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The effort to recruit Russians with access to intelligence was timed as domestic dissent against Russian President Vladimir Putin has bubbled up.

The FBI is focusing its video-based recruitment efforts in the D.C. area and the Houston, Texas, area on Twitter in an attempt to recruit new informants. Video ads also appear in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Washington state, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, The Daily Beast has learned.

The FBI’s Newark Counterintelligence Division has also jumped in on the action, sharing ads on Facebook in recent weeks, although it has shared a different promotional message.

“10 minutes of your time with us can be the beginning of your new future,” the division states in Russian, with a link to a page describing how efforts will be made to keep Russian turncoats’ confidential.

It’s not clear how much money the FBI has spent on the ads in total, as some of the information provided online appears to be incomplete. On Facebook alone, the FBI appears to have spent between $13,000 and approximately $14,600 on video ads, with a reach of between 2.4 million and 2.7 million impressions.

The two ads in Newark each cost less than $100 with just a couple of thousand views.

The agency has been running the campaign since February, an official from the FBI Washington Field Office told The Daily Beast.

Hush hush

The FBI assures potential informants that their information will be kept a secret.

“If you would like to share sensitive information related to Russian intelligence or defense matters, please contact us,” one FBI website notes. “We will keep the information you provide confidential, including information that identifies you personally.”

The campaign, however, might be ill-advised, according to Robin Dreeke, a former FBI special agent and head of the Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. The campaign might scare off some of its would-be informants by being so obvious, in part because would-be informants might bristle at a digital operation like it, or think it’s a trap from their bosses to test their loyalties.

“People are always going to trust a person more than trust something cyber that you don’t know. Because they [Russians] do counter operations against their own people to test them all the time,” Dreeke told The Daily Beast.

For Russians and other foreign officials who might want to help the United States spy on their motherland, motivations tend to fall in a few categories, ranging from financial troubles to disillusionment with the government.

If they already have the motivation, a video online might not be the most helpful tool to build trust with assets that may be putting their lives or their loved ones’ lives on the line, said Dreeke.

“The whole point of recruiting is to make someone feel safe,” Dreeke said. “Put yourself in that situation. You have a challenge in your life you’re trying to solve whether it’s an ideology, or your children’s education, or elder parents that are having a hard time with health care, and you thought of an option. Maybe one of those options is to consider volunteering and cooperating with a foreign intelligence service like ours. The second part of that is, you know, do I feel safe in how they would handle me.”

Russian counterintelligence efforts to nab potential traitors might bump up just because of the video ad campaign, which would make it even harder to recruit Russian assets, Dreeke warned.

Dreeke doesn’t have knowledge of the planning behind the ad campaign and suggested the FBI likely had thought through all of the potential pitfalls.

“All these things are always well thought-out,” he said “Maybe they have a very specific reason and it’s based on a lot of evidence and data that they put together that said this would be effective.”