The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CIA instructs Russians on how to share secrets with the spy agency

The U.S. government is also tracking a surge in interest among Russians trying to skirt state censors online

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
6 min

With the war in Ukraine in its third month, the CIA is taking a new approach to its core job of recruiting spies and soliciting secrets.

On Monday, the CIA published instructions for how Russians can covertly volunteer information using an encrypted conduit to the agency’s website. The hope is to attract intelligence — and potentially gain more access to official Russian secrets — from disaffected people who have been trying to contact the CIA since the war began, officials said.

To ensure the would-be informants are not caught by Russian state security, the CIA spelled out detailed Russian-language instructions in three social media posts on how to use the Tor Internet browser, which lets users move online anonymously, as well as virtual private networks, or VPNs. The steps will open a dedicated channel to the CIA that is more secure than navigating to the agency using an ordinary Web browser or Internet connection.

“Do not use your home or office computer to get in touch with us,” the agency cautions in its step-by-step guide. To circumvent online monitors, Russians should use a VPN that is not based in Russia, China or other countries considered “unfriendly” to the United States. Free VPNs are generally inferior to paid services, the CIA advises, encouraging its contacts to spring for a premium version.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted more Russians to take the risky step of getting in touch with the intelligence agency, officials said.

“Concerned Russians are trying to engage CIA, and we wanted to provide a way to safely contact us,” said a CIA official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence issues.

The CIA is accustomed to disaffected citizens or government employees volunteering information, sometimes when they show up at U.S. embassies. “Walk-ins,” whether physical or digital, are scrutinized and vetted, and officials often try to determine what access they might have to secrets other than the ones they come bearing, according to former intelligence officials familiar with the process.

The new instructions are aimed at “those who feel compelled to reach us because of the Russian government’s unjust war,” a CIA spokesperson said in an email. “Our global mission demands that individuals can contact us securely from anywhere.”

Hubris and isolation led Vladimir Putin to misjudge Ukraine

The agency asks digital walk-ins to provide their full name, the country from which they are corresponding, their official position and “what access you have to information of interest to our organization.”

There is no guarantee that the information Russians pass over the transom will be useful. But the fact the CIA looked for a way to make it easier for motivated Russians to make contact suggests there are many potential recruits queuing up, intelligence veterans said.

“It is a signal that they are being overwhelmed by people trying to contact U.S. intelligence in ways that are less than secure,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer who served for nearly 30 years, including in Russia. “In this day and age, I think it is appropriate to offer means for initial contact that are safer than walking into an embassy or approaching an American on the street.”

Dan Hoffman, a retired intelligence officer who served as the CIA’s top official in Moscow, said Russian counterintelligence will be on heightened alert for those looking to spill secrets.

“You want to be really careful with Russians who are seeking to provide information. The FSB in particular will be watching for people,” Hoffman said, referring to the principal Russian security agency and successor to the KGB.

The CIA’s intelligence-gathering tactics fit within a broader strategy by the U.S. government to counter Russian efforts at stifling free speech and access to credible news and information.

The State Department recently sponsored an online conversation on Telegram, a popular social media application in Russia, featuring Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary for political affairs, that drew about 2.3 million engagements, according to a State Department official.

A significant number of the comments directed at Nuland were critical of the United States, the official said, but the sheer volume indicated that Russians were interested in hearing from an American official and could get access to her comments via Telegram, which the government has not blocked.

The Russian government has cracked down on some social media platforms and limited Russians’ ability to use them. But a number are still active and thriving, the official said. YouTube continues operating with millions of viewers, and tens of millions of Russians are using the WhatsApp messaging service, the official said, citing conversations with the app’s owner, Meta.

Reports of “the demise of means of communication with Russia are a bit exaggerated,” the official said. “The fact is we are still able to talk to Russian audiences.” The official noted that it is key to use Russian to maximize engagement.

Social platforms’ bans muffle Russian state media propaganda

The department has also seen evidence that Russians are actively looking for ways to skirt Internet restrictions. Following a push by the government to clamp down on the flow of information about the war after it began, Russians sought out VPNs in large numbers. Demand for VPN services in Russia rose 2,692 percent in March, according to data from Top10VPN. Russia’s ban on Facebook and Twitter helped drive demand for the services, the company reported.

The State Department official said that the Russian government appears to have let some popular social media companies continue operating, for a few reasons. First, the government’s ability to cut off access is limited compared with other authoritarian regimes such as China. But the Kremlin may also want to placate Russians who are chafing under other online restrictions and speech controls, such as a prohibition on using the word “war” to describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“I think [Russian officials] know if they take away a widely popular platform there will be complaints about that,” the State Department official said. He added that the authorities in Moscow could still move to block WhatsApp and YouTube if the content Russians encounter runs afoul of the official line.

“There are so many users in Russia still dependent on those platforms, I think the government was hesitant to pull those away and create more discontent within the country,” the official said.