In the Intelligence Community (IC), the term tradecraft is used to describe the various techniques and methods used by clandestine intelligence officers working to support human intelligence (HUMINT) operations through the spotting, assessing, development, recruiting, and handling of foreign sources.

Thanks to foreign policy experts over at War on the Rocks, I was reminded that a favorite show of mine based on Cold War-era deep cover KGB operatives, The Americans, had just started another season.  While a great show and definitely worth the watch, The Americans is loosely based on and inspired by the Russian “Illegals” program, a topic that SOFREP has previously covered.  But that was just a snapshot.  It’s time to enter a little deeper and take a look at some of the tradecraft behind the story.

While US and allied nations’ sources, methods, and tradecraft remain closely guarded secrets, as well they should, the same cannot be said of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) tradecraft.  It is through the Illegals program that a very rare and valuable opportunity to study and observe the classified tradecraft employed by foreign intelligence officials attempting to collect on US and friendly forces is made available for public consumption.

Anna Chapman, one of the more…notable Illegals

Code-named operation Ghost Stories by the FBI (the Illegals all used the identities of previously deceased individuals), the SVR had placed ten illegal agents in the US for long-term, deep cover intelligence collection.  While the event occurred in 2010, the FBI subsequently released a series of documents, photos, and videos from their 10+ year investigation of the Illegals.  With The Americans entering into a fresh season recently, I couldn’t help but comment on some of the SVR tradecraft revealed in the FBI FOIA release.

“The SVR was in it for the long haul. The illegals were content to wait decades to obtain their objective, which was to develop sources of information in U.S. policymaking circles.”

It is important to note that as SOFREP has previously covered regarding HUMINT, working with human sources is a complex business, and “requires a great deal of time and resources to gather assets and analyze information.”  The business of preparing an officer to conduct clandestine HUMINT operations is very resource and time-intensive, with officers requiring training in “foreign languages, conducting, detecting, or evading surveillance, recruiting skills and other…aspects of tradecraft, like the ability to handle various types of communications equipment and weapons training.”

How Technology is Changing the Future of Espionage

Read Next: How Technology is Changing the Future of Espionage

With that in mind, the FBI was able to uncover and identify multiple instances of HUMINT tradecraft being employed by the SVR’s Illegals, to include dead drops, brush passes, information exchange via wireless networks, and others.  Regardless of the fact that this tradecraft was revealed to the world in 2010-2011, it still remains a cornerstone of clandestine HUMINT operations and is unlikely to change over the course of a few years.  It is likely that the same types of techniques can be observed in use by certain foreign intelligence services today, thus reinforcing the validity and value of the FBI’s 2011 FOIA Ghost Stories release.

Brush-pass tradecraft revealed in CCTV footage, courtesy of the FBI

The FBI Records provide varying access to select information regarding operation Ghost Stories here, to include countless images of the SVR operatives, heavily/completely/not-so-redacted documents, and even surveillance footage of the operatives in action.  To include Anna Chapman meeting with an undercover FBI agent in a coffee shop to receive instructions from Higher.  Pretty neat.

And did you know one of the Illegals graduated from Harvard?  That should get you thinking.

Thanks for listening.