There’s no getting around it, the United States and Russia are in the midst of a donnybrook when it comes to bilateral relations. With the U.S. tossing out 35 intelligence officers in December 2016, Russia ordering the reduction of staff at the U.S. Embassy and Consulate Generals by September, sanctions passed by congress and signed by the President, the Russian prime minister announcing a full-on trade war – one could get dizzy watching the back and forth.

The one thing which remains constant, however, is the role played by the Russian intelligence services, the SVR (foreign intelligence service), the FSB (domestic security and intelligence service) and the GRU (military intelligence services) in supporting Russia’s policy makers and military. These entities are in the business of obtaining assets, a fancy name for confidential sources of information, the spies in the espionage business.

While the expulsion of 35 Russian intelligence officers reduced their cadre, don’t be lured into complacency, they have plenty of personnel still embedded in their official presence at the Russian Embassy (Washington DC); Consulates (New York, Houston, and San Francisco) and at the United Nations (New York), augmented by their cadre of officers under commercial cover, and within their deep cover officers (illegals).

Russian intelligence officers

The most difficult to detect are the illegals.

Fans of the FX television series The Americans see the actions of a fictitious couple of Russian intelligence officers who are resident in the U.S., and while television adjusts their scenarios for dramatic effect, the premise is correct.

Who doesn’t remember the group of 10 illegal intelligence officers who were wrapped up in 2010 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)? These illegals were tasked  (per a secret message recovered by the FBI) by Moscow Center (Headquarters of the SVR) as follows:

You were sent to USA for long-term service trip . Your education , bank accounts, car , house etc . — all these serve one goal : fulfill your main mission , i.e . to search and develop ties in policy making circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports ] to C[enter] .

Then we have the commercial cover officers. These officers are engaged in normal conduct of commerce, both men and women, and they too are tasked with spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting sources with access or the prospect of obtaining access to information of interest to the Russian Federation. They are intelligence officers working under the cover of a different profession. A prime example is Evgeny Buryakov, in the United States as a banker for a Russian bank.

In our April 2017 piece on why foreign contacts need to be reported, we shared an excerpt straight from the pages of the criminal complaint filed on Buryakov.  We discussed how commercial cover officers work hand-in-glove with official cover officers. The latter provides direction, guidance and tasking, as they work to recruit sources of information. (Why Security Clearance Holders are Required to Report Contact with Foreign Nationals).

The methodology, extracted from the Buryakov criminal complaint, is not terribly sophisticated, but it is effective.

  • Does the targeted individual have the potential to provide information of interest to the Russian Federation? If (If you have a security clearance, you have access to sensitive information and are of interest to the Russian Federation).
  • Does the individual have a need?  Every relationship has a quid pro quo, what is it the individual needs?
  • Induce the individual to provide, initially, any information.
  • Will the individual accept favors, lavish meals and expensive gifts? And most importantly, will the individual sign a receipt?

How do they do it?

Let’s start with elicitation.

The FBI, in their counterintelligence pamphlet, Elicitation Techniques, notes that a “trained elicitor” has a entire kit-bag of techniques to bring into play to induce an individual to speak about that which should not be spoken, i.e. classified or sensitive information. The professional has many arrows in the quiver from which to choose:

  • Assumed Knowledge
  • Bracketing
  • Can you top this
  • Feigned Ignorance
  • Flattery
  • Good listener
  • Confidential Bait
  • Criticism
  • Macro to Micro
  • The leading question
  • Mutual Interest
  • Oblique reference
  • Deliberate false statements/Denial of the obvious

The Defense Security Service (DSS) has a similar counterintelligence pamphlet, Elicitation and Recruitment. As per the description culled from the criminal complaint of Buryakov, the intelligence service

“typically conducts recruitment after careful assessment and patient cultivation of the target. By the time the offer to work for the foreign government or entity is made, the intelligence officer is relatively confident of the target’s willingness to cooperate and the target is likely aware that a dubious relationship is developing. If the target agrees to the recruitment, that person becomes an agent.”

In a nutshell, the individual who says yes to the foreign intelligence service offer is a spy.

Has it always been this way?

A recent declassification of CIA files, revealed a 1983 FBI document, “The Unseen Conflict: Foreign Espionage Operations Against the United States.” Little did the authors know that both Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hansen (FBI), had both volunteered (no recruitment required) their services to the Russian intelligence service (KGB) many years before their arrests would occur (Ames-1994 and Hanssen-2001). And that 1986 would be dubbed the “year of the spy,” with the compromise and execution of numerous U.S. sources in Russia, and the compromise of Soviet sources in the U.S., including John Walker (US Navy) and family.

The bulk of the document focuses on the Soviet Union and highlights the number of intelligence officers in the U.S. doubling from 1972-1983, along with the number of scholars and business representatives. The document then outlines a number of KGB successes against the United States – and the strategies used.

“The central mission of hostile intelligence service officers in the United States is the assessment and recruitment of Americans as agents. To this end, intelligence officers and their agents are constantly in contact with Americans and are evaluating them as potential recruitment targets. If an American appears to have potential for development as an agent, several different techniques or approaches are used to recruit him.”

The document then provides case studies which showed how “financial consideration/greed”, “exploitation of American naivete”, “blackmail/hostage situation”, “appeal to national pride”, “exploitation of emotional involvement”, “ideology”, “revenge/disaffection with job”, and “false flag approaches” were all used successfully in the recruitment of assets, sources of information, by the hostile intelligence organizations.

The countermeasures?

In 1983, they mirror 2017.  Foreign contacts need to be reported, if a contact moves from professional to casual, a second look is desired. The need for a responsible individual, the security officer (FSO) is paramount. This individual “should be recognized as an ally and not an adversary.”

The need for an insider threat program implementation has long been present. In 1983, they recognized the need for an insider threat program to be present. Within the National Industrial Security Program (NISP), in 2017, it is mandated.

FSOs need not shy away from the counterintelligence topic of recruitment. It is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, because it is so personal, and no one wishes to think their colleague would ever be susceptible or even interested in breaking trust with their employer or country. This is why Ames, Hanssen and Walker all were successful and had long runs as spies for the Russians.

Use of case studies is an excellent manner in which to discuss the topic. Don’t have any? Reach out to your DSS or customer for support. It is in their interest for your counterintelligence program to be robust and effective. Recognition of elicitation and recruitment behavior by the targeted individual is the first line of defense. An individual does not choose to be targeted. To be targeted or pitched by a hostile intelligence service is not damning, what you do about it determines how one is described during the post mortum.

Insider threat training and program management is paramount, to do otherwise we are asking for more Ames , Hanssen, or Walker type spies to evolve.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of