The Associated Press recently reported that Russian intelligence has been aggressively and actively trying to compromise journalists across the globe. Media personalities were the third-largest group on the list of people Russian operatives tried to hack, after diplomatic personnel and Democrats, according to the cybersecurity firm Secureworks.
Penetrating media circles seems to be worth the effort for certain nations. Such intelligence-focused efforts are amoral — operatives go where the relevant data is. Foreign services are working every day to better understand America’s next moves. Others are trying to covertly influence U.S. foreign policy.
But resources are finite. More personnel on one target means fewer on another. So if I were a spymaster in the employ of a hostile foreign service, I’d devote some significant effort to penetrating one specific private institution: Fox News Channel.
This is not a critique of Fox programming or content. I’ve been on Fox News multiple times as a commentator and have always had a positive experience with staff and hosts. Rather, it’s my assessment, informed by my time as a CIA analyst, of how foreign powers might position limited intelligence resources to achieve maximum return.
It’s no secret that Fox News — specifically, shows such as “Hannity,” “Fox & Friends,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Justice with Judge Jeanine” — have outsize influence on the inner workings of how certain policies are carried out by the U.S. government.
Mediaite recently argued that the most influential people working in the media today are “Fox & Friends” hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt, because “they have captured the President’s attention — which often then gets tweeted and covered by the media — the topics they cover essentially set the national agenda for the rest of the day.” That last observation is also why hostile foreign intelligence services are probably consuming as much Fox News as President Trump does. (Indeed, according to a Washington Post analysis, Trump tweets about Fox the most between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Eastern — when “Fox & Friends” is on the air.)
When Fox News broadcasts, the president often reacts impulsively. His tweet threatening North Korea with his “Nuclear Button” at 7:49 p.m. last Tuesday appeared to have been spurred by a Fox News segment on the very same topic that occurred 12 minutes beforehand, according to Matthew Gertz of Media Matters. A few months prior, he tweeted about an unsuccessful rapprochement between Pyongyang and Beijing shortly after a Fox military analyst mentioned this subject on “Fox & Friends.”
Trump is an avid consumer of multiple Fox News programs and has given more interviews on the network than the others combined. As the New York Times recently reported, “aides monitor Fox & Friends live or through a transcription service in much the way commodities traders might keep tabs on market futures to predict the direction of their day.”
Other nations notice: The Kremlin has indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin reads Trump’s tweets and views them as official White House statements. Pakistan recently summoned the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad to account for Trump’s tweet bashing what he called the country’s “lies & deceit.”
Understanding what the U.S. president is going to say or do is important for any foreign intelligence analyst trying to determine America’s next steps. As my former CIA colleague Nada Bakos wrote last June, Trump’s unfiltered Twitter feed provides world intelligence operatives with “a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind” — traits to be exploited in further dealings on the global stage. And what better way to determine what the president thinks — for the price of basic cable — than to watch selected Fox News programming?
A truly aggressive intelligence effort would not just monitor what’s being said on the network. It would target the on-air talent, as well as the folks behind the scenes who make the network’s programming possible: producers, bookers, associate producers, production assistants and the like. This might range from opening friendly contacts with these employees to outright recruitment. Another avenue for exploitation: Trump reportedly calls Sean Hannity after his show. If hostile foreign services compromise Hannity’s phone (or place a listening device in the room where Hannity takes his private calls), that could provide real-time intelligence on the American president and his thoughts.
For Russian intelligence, a systematic effort to threaten, coerce and co-opt journalists is a decades-old practice. Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin mentioned in his memoirs how his service had “several good agents” at the U.S. government-funded news service that broadcast to the Soviet Union, Radio Liberty, including the head of its Russian service, Oleg Tumanov. The copious files of another KGB defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, indicated that the French news service Agence France-Presse had at least six Soviet intelligence agents on staff through the decades. It’s not just the Russians; Chinese intelligence tries to recruit Western journalists, and the Iranians have tried as well.
That’s just intelligence gathering. What about carrying out actual influence operations? Kalugin wrote that the KGB’s Tumanov helped spread rumors and disinformation within Radio Liberty for years, turning staff against each other and identifying further potential targets for recruitment. He even had a hand in the bombing of Radio Liberty’s headquarters in Munich in 1981. The Mitrokhin files noted that France’s Le Monde newspaper — code-named VESTNIK, or “Messenger” by the KGB — had “sympathetic” journalists and editors who allowed the Soviets to disseminate anti-American information. (Of course, the United States engaged in this sort of business for many years, too.)
Compared to government workers, Fox employees would make easy targets. That’s because they aren’t public officials — they’re news and entertainment people. Also, it’s television — full of trade secrets, big personalities and titanic egos. Most wouldn’t expect to be compromised by a hostile intelligence power, especially on American soil. Few, if any, have the sort of counterintelligence training the U.S. government administers to people in sensitive positions, because Fox employees are not the usual targets for intelligence operations. But the president’s continuing, very specific interest in the channel heightens their risk of being approached by a hostile government.
One of the major rationales for Putin’s behavior is to cause chaos, ultimately weakening and undermining his American adversaries. It’s his real long game. What better delivery mechanism could his intelligence officers exploit than the television channel that the president, senior Republicans in Congress and all their aides watch? Carrying out influence operations and messaging campaigns, night after night, into all the sensitive places in the American national security apparatus would be a phenomenal coup for any nation that could pull it off.
I don’t know if the Russians, Chinese or other nations have a blueprint in place to penetrate Fox News. There’s certainly no evidence of it that I’ve seen in watching the channel; and again, this is not a judgment about Fox’s messaging or how it does business. This is also not meant to scare Fox producers, bookers, on-air talent and other employees. But they may want to be careful.
Like most Americans, Fox employees might think they’ll never rub shoulders with a hostile intelligence officer. But Uncle Sasha might be closer than one thinks.