American CIA Offers Jobs To Disgruntled Russians, But Can Human Intelligence Outperform New-Age Technology?

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) open invitation to disgruntled Russians to join them as spies could be interpreted as an admission by what is arguably the world’s best-equipped spy network that its previous policy in dealing with Moscow has been inadequate.

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But will recruiting Russians as American spies work in this cyber age? Given the growing importance of technology, rather than manpower, in information retrieval success, the answer can be difficult.

Last week, CIA Director of Operations David Marlowe noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to meet his military and security goals in the nine-month invasion of Ukraine had given the CIA a valuable recruiting opportunity.

“Putin was at his best the day before he invaded because he had all the coercive power he’s ever going to have,” Marlowe said at an academic panel discussion at George Mason University’s Hayden Center in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Marlowe told the audience that Putin “was in his prime the day before his invasion [Ukraine]’ because he had ‘all the power he will ever have. But he wasted all of it,” before adding, “We’re looking around the world for Russians who are so disgusted with it [Putin’s actions] How we are. Because we are open for business.”

Marlowe’s comments were first published by The Wall Street Journal, which pointed out similarities to comments by former senior CIA officers who said dissatisfaction with the war in Ukraine provided fertile ground for recruiting disgruntled military officials, oligarchs whom the war is financially hurting created , and those who fled the country.

The video of the entire debate is now freely available.

More than 400,000 Russians are reported to have left Russia in the months following Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February. The Kremlin estimates that another 700,000 Russians have fled the country in the two weeks since Putin declared “partial” reserve mobilization in mid-September.

The many mistakes of the CIA

But on the other hand, historically speaking, the CIA has not had a stellar record of evaluating Russia or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For example, it had failed to warn about the first Soviet atomic bomb (1949), anti-Soviet uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), and the sending of Soviet missiles to Cuba (1962).

Many American experts have pointed out that the CIA did not even accurately predict the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1991. Most recently, the CIA failed to predict Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Nor could it prevent what Americans, particularly Democratic Party supporters and activists, called Russian disinformation ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Given this record, experts have pointed out that, as far as Moscow is concerned, the CIA sometimes overestimates and sometimes underestimates Russian capabilities. His best job in Moscow came in 1962, when intelligence gathered by U-2 spy planes gave President John F. Kennedy the time and evidence he needed to force the Soviet Union to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba without triggering a nuclear war.

It should be noted that intelligence has always been an integral part of warfare and statecraft. During wars, good intelligence helps save lives and facilitates victories by anticipating the enemy’s next moves and understanding their intentions, plans, and capabilities.

And in peacetime, intelligence helps leaders make better decisions by preventing miscalculations and providing timely insights into threats and opportunities.

In that sense, the CIA has had a mixed record. And speaking of records, it is not just intelligence gathering that the CIA was essentially founded for (September 18, 1947 by President Harry S. Truman), but also for covert activities, often national and international violate US law. These covert operations abroad included violence, kidnappings and murders.

This has included “buying elections” in countries like Japan, France and Italy under the pretense of protecting democracy. The CIA even sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Syria and Iraq, where a Ba’ath Party leader boasted in 1963, “We came to power on an American train.”

At the same time, however, it has also failed miserably in its operations in countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Chile and Indonesia. The CIA’s assessment was also wrong – as was the assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs before the Iraq war.

But intelligence is an inherently uncertain business, piecing together fragments of information about adversaries eager to deny and deceive. And this gathering of information now requires both human agents and technical methods. Technological innovations are now more significant challenges.

From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI), rapid technological change is giving US adversaries new capabilities and undermining the traditional advantages of US intelligence agencies. That explains why many Americans are wondering how their “intelligence agencies missed Russia’s most important tool: weaponizing social media.”

Hacking ride-hailing apps in Russia
Image for representation

Disadvantages of the cyber revolution

The “cyber revolution” has exploded open-source information (connecting more and more smart devices to the internet), which in turn has made even the classified information collected by agencies like the CIA vulnerable to America’s adversaries.

For example, anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks released nearly 9,000 documents and files from 2013-16, which it said was the first taste of a “vault” of CIA secrets. WikiLeaks claimed that the archive was provided by a former hacker or US government contractor eager to start “a public debate” about the safety and democratic control of cyberweapons, viruses and malware.

Another problem due to the cyber revolution is the easy flow of information from anyone about anything (just a swipe or click away). This information reaches policymakers without verification or analysis, thus increasing the risk of their hasty judgments rather than waiting for slower intelligence assessments that carefully examine the credibility of the source and offer alternative interpretations of groundbreaking developments.

Moved intelligence from Files to Google Earth

In her new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press, 2022), Amy Zegart, a Stanford Fellow, describes what is at stake in the future of American espionage as Technology is rapidly changing and changing all aspects of government and society.

She writes: “Intelligence agencies are no longer shrouded in classified files at Langley; It can be found online in public spaces like Google Earth, where anyone can uncover government secrets that are hidden in plain sight.

cyber war
Cyber ​​Warfare/Representative Image

For example, thanks to the thousands of satellite images readily available, Stanford fellows — not special agents with security clearances — have been able to spy on nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.”

Today, anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can collect or analyze information, Zegart argues, adding: “This means that superpower governments no longer control information collection and analysis like they used to do during the Cold War. Today it is a different company.”

She advises that intelligence agencies must weigh the pros and cons that new technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and social media offer to collect intelligence around the world.

“These tools have incredible potential, but they also have limitations and risks. For example, when detecting nuclear threats from a foreign threat, relying on artificial intelligence to inform the analysis is not enough.

“Imagine going up to the President and saying, ‘Mr. President, we think China is likely to invade Taiwan because that’s what the AI ​​is telling us.’ It’s not that convincing, is it? Analysis is not just about data. It is also an act of persuasion,” adds Zegart.

In her opinion, a new way of thinking about how intelligence agencies think about classified information is now needed. “We need to fundamentally rethink what intelligence can and should do in a digital age, and that starts with recognizing that secrets don’t matter the role they used to.”

From this perspective, if the CIA is to better assess Russia, an analysis based on US technological penetration of Moscow is more important than recruiting Russians as spies.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has commented on politics, foreign policy and strategic matters for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda(at)
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