In a story seemingly pulled right out of a modern espionage novel, the FBI has apparently been paying to run targeted ads on Facebook aimed specifically at Russian speakers that live and work in Washington D.C. The ads feature Russian language captions and a link that refers the user to a website that offers details about the FBI’s counter-intelligence team and includes an address to the FBI’s local field office along with encouragement to “visit us in person.”
The ads themselves appear to be aimed at younger Russians who may not actually work for Russian intelligence gathering agencies, but have knowledge of their behavior none the less. One ad shows a young woman attending her graduation alongside adults that seem to be her parents, along with a Russian caption that reads, “For your future, for the future of your family.” Another ad shows a chess board with a king lined up across from rows of pawns, along with a caption that reads, “Isn’t it time for you to make your move?”
CNN first noticed the D.C.-specific, Russian language ads and reached out to the FBI for comment.
“We cannot comment except to note that Russia has a large number of intelligence officers based in Russian diplomatic facilities around the world. They are very active and pose a security risk to the US and our allies,” Alan E. Kohler Jr., special agent in charge of the Washington field office’s counterintelligence division told them.
“The FBI uses a variety of means to gather information, including the use of sources. The FBI will use all legal means available to locate individuals with information that can help protect the United States from threats to our national security.”
This is the first publicly spotted attempt by the FBI to recruit Russian intelligence assets within the American capital but is likely not actually the first such effort. Intelligence assets employed by American and foreign intelligence agencies are often walk-ins, or people that voluntarily approach the agency with information that could be beneficial to one of their ongoing operations. While it may seem rather overt for the FBI to use Facebook to encourage Russian national to approach them, the goal may truly be something as simple as planting the seed of dissent in the mind of a potential asset.
“The thing with Russian spies is 99 percent of them are walk-ins, and these people make the decision on their own completely,” said former CIA agent Bob Baer. “Putting it out there and getting in this milieu and seeding the idea of volunteering for the FBI is a good idea,” he said.
The Russian government has very famously been caught using social media in its attempts to persuade Americans into more aggressive discourse on topics ranging from politics to vaccination and even popular movies. Among Russian “troll farms,” the overarching intent seems to be sowing the seeds of discord within the American population. While Russian meddling efforts are often characterized as specifically a 2016 election issue, the truth is far further reaching. Russian efforts to enable Trump’s election were a subset of a larger disinformation initiative that hoped to pit Americans against one another — and in the years since the 2016 election, it would appear that the Russian efforts were a rousing success. Some Americans are now more apt to think fondly of foreign dictators than of members of their own nation’s opposing party, such as this 2018 poll that showed Kim Jong Un has a higher approval rating among some Republicans than Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
While the divide is seen as fiercely political in the U.S., the Russian effort has largely been apolitical — with efforts mounted on both sides of many topics aimed at creating controversy and dispute, rather than advancing any one particular narrative.
It would seem then that the FBI is looking for a chance to give Russia a taste of its own medicine — though it seems unlikely that this effort will be able to match Russia’s more nefarious initiatives.