Pop stars, Hollywood actors, a Russian troll farm . . . and now, the spies of Langley.
On Thursday, the CIA launched its official Instagram account, joining the likes of Ariana Grande, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and, as every Mueller report reader knows, the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed disinformation group that used fake social media accounts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Its first post, which went live shortly before 11 a.m., featured an officer’s desk with a wig tossed on the chair, a black notebook and a brown bag that says, “TOP SECRET PULP.” The caption reads: “I spy with my little eye . .. ”
On the surface, it might seem strange for the secretive spy agency to join the photo-sharing app renowned for Blake Lively’s red carpet shots, Lil’ Kim’s blond hair makeover and Kim Kardashian’s lascivious dairy ad. The CIA, the last anyone checked, does not exactly encourage its operatives or senior executives to post selfies of their clever disguises, favorite dead drop spots or parachute jumps during paramilitary training.
But Instagram is a platform ripe for self-promotion, bursting with more than 1 billion users, so maybe the better question is why the CIA took so long to start sharing. In a brief statement released Thursday, the CIA said its Instagram account would help with recruitment of “talented Americans” and sharing agency stories. But, it cautioned that “we can’t promise any selfies from secret locations.”
Five years ago, the agency launched its cheeky but often earnest Twitter account with one of the more famous first-ever tweets: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”
Since then, the agency has tweeted nearly 4,300 times and attracted more than 2.5 million followers. Many of its tweets are standard fare: A photo of director Gina Haspel smiling from the podium at a recent speech at Auburn University; photos of various artifacts from the CIA Museum, which is open only to employees and anyone cleared to be on its Langley campus for the day; or photos of CIA recruitment banners at Metro stations — advertisements of advertisements, essentially.
Other tweets reveal the agency’s edge or humor. The account features “Molly Hale,” the alias for a rotating group of real agency employees who field questions from the public about the CIA. “Please note,” the CIA tweeted in February, “there are a few things that, unfortunately, Molly cannot answer: application questions; conspiracy theories, trolls, or spam; FOIA inquiries; and this one should be obvious . . . she won’t answer anything classified.”
In one of its most viral series of tweets, the CIA chronicled how Lulu, one of its K-9 pups training to be an explosives expert, flunked out of the program. (Don’t sneer. The New York Times put that story on its front page.)
When it comes to Instagram, the CIA is a bit overdue. Multiple government agencies that specialize in national security have already planted their flags. During a question-and-answer session immediately after her April 18 speech at Auburn University, Haspel smiled and chuckled when she announced that the agency was on the verge of making its first Instagram post. “Oh, it’s a brave new world out there,” quipped the moderator, Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, former Defense Intelligence Agency director and Auburn University chief operating officer.
But the DIA has an account, though it’s not verified. And the FBI has one too, though its 74 posts include photos that the CIA will probably never replicate, such as images of its employees undergoing firearms, hostage rescue or international operations training. (Some faces are even recognizable in the photos.) And the Secret Service has gone Insta, too, with photos of its agents playing in their annual ice hockey game against the FBI, photos of their dogs or — in one of Instagram’s less compelling images — a picture of a man pumping gas. (The photo had to do with the Secret Service “intensifying our efforts to disrupt gas pump skimming operations nationwide.”) Not exactly on level with Cardi B, but whatever.
Meanwhile, a search of foreign intelligence agencies’ presence on Instagram yields little. Israel’s spy service, Mossad, has a verified Instagram account, under Mossad_Career, featuring recruitment posts in Hebrew. But it’s only posted 15 times. And, if you type in “GRU,” for Russia’s military intelligence arm, you just get the verified Instagram account of “RealGrumpyCat,” while “FSB,” Russia’s successor to the KGB, surfaces nothing nearly as intriguing — just the Four Seasons in Baltimore.
Up until this week, if Instagram users wanted a CIA fix, they had some options, though none of them legit. If you type in “Central Intelligence Agency,” a slew of accounts pop up with the agency’s famous blue seal featuring a bald eagle’s head and a 16-point compass rose. (“Central intelligence” gives you the verified account for the 2016 spy comedy, “Central Intelligence,” starring, naturally, The Rock.)
But the CIA hoax Instagrammers lack basic tradecraft. A handle for one fake Langley account is titled, “the[expletive]realCIA,” while others are under “cia.gov.meme” or “legitcia.” Russian bots, no doubt. If only special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had an Instagram account, he’d probably investigate.