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The invasion of Ukraine created a rare opportunity for the CIA to recruit Russian spies

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The CIA says that the war in Ukraine has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the U.S. to recruit Russian spies. The agency has released several videos on its social media channels, directly appealing to Russian intelligence officials to switch sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: In the latest installment, we hear from a fictional Russian patriot who has come to realize that his country's soldiers are going hungry while a corrupt elite flourish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "Do I have the courage to confront this betrayal?" he asks. To understand this moment, we turn to Douglas London, who was a senior operations officer in the CIA for more than 30 years. His many postings include being stationed in the former Soviet republics. London is also the author of "The Recruiter: Spying And The Lost Art Of American Intelligence," and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Thanks. Good to be with you today.

NADWORNY: So what's kind of extraordinary right now is the CIA is trying to recruit Russian spies super openly. Why do you think that's happening?

LONDON: I think it is a generational opportunity, as Director Burns says. The last time I think the CIA had such a great opportunity to recruit Russians was during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the '90s, but today it's quite different. And I think as your audience looks and hears at the video, you'll see an appeal to history, to patriotism, to family and to injustice. That is a resonating issue with Russians, particularly these days.

NADWORNY: Putin's war in Ukraine - you're kind of hinting that it's just corroded support at home. What's happening in this war that opens up this opportunity?

LONDON: Putin has ruled since late '99. And over those years, I think the Russians were content to accept a strong man and make certain compromises when it comes to democratic freedoms and social opportunities. But what Putin brought is a strong man with stability, and he brought an ability for Russians to enjoy some economic progress going forward. That is eroding as things are going with the war. And not only is it a question of economic challenges, but also Russians have to think, is my family going to be directly impacted by loss? Are we going to lose our sons or daughters to this war?

NADWORNY: You've recruited many people during your time at the CIA. How did you go about it?

LONDON: Well, the translated version of the video brings chills to me because it actually is reminiscent of pitches I've made. Particularly for a Russian, you want to really appeal to them to stand up and right the wrongs and basically confronting them with, well, you really can't complain if you're not willing to do something about it, and here's your opportunity, because it's only going to get worse for your family, to kind of appeal to that melancholy and darkness.

NADWORNY: Can you give us some examples of when things didn't quite go according to that plan?

LONDON: Well, there are always occasions where in the dynamics of human relationships, you miss something. You don't get something right. I once had a case of an official that I was pitching, and I thought everything was going great, and this person had already been sharing secret information, accepting financial remuneration. And when I actually pitched him, he almost acted shocked and said finally, well, you know, I have to ask my wife. So I mean, it's not something I really thought because he came across, this person, as very macho, and I'm in charge. And, you know, it's not something I was ready for, but something I was able to deal with on the fly.

NADWORNY: So technology is a huge part of espionage these days. You're talking about this kind of human relationship. Explain to us why human intelligence is so important still.

LONDON: What people can provide in terms of the secrets they offer goes beyond what technology can give. You can take a look at imagery from the most expensive satellites, and you could listen to conversations or read emails. But what you don't appreciate is the context. What are really the plans and intentions? What's driving a plan? People who sit in the meetings, who are part of the discussions, part of the plan, and who actually write and read the documents - they bring a depth to the intelligence that really brings it to life, and much better informs decision-making when you have to make critical choices in moving forward or putting people's lives at risk or moving troops and such like that. So human intelligence is always going to have a great value.

NADWORNY: If it hasn't already been perfectly clear, the CIA is essentially asking Russians to commit a crime, right? An American found to be doing the same for a foreign government would be in a lot of trouble. Are there any qualms about what you're asking?

LONDON: Well, at the end of the day, it's about doing what's right. And what's right goes beyond the criminal statutes of a government that in this case is very much in the wrong. So there's a contract, if you would - right? - you can go back to philosophy - between people and their leadership. And I think the idea is showing Russians their leadership has broken that contract. Their leadership is not serving in the best interest of their country. And it's talking about loyalty to country as opposed to loyalty to leadership.

NADWORNY: You know, I think it's worth acknowledging that these people are also taking great, great risk to enter into these relationships.

LONDON: Absolutely. And the relationship only works if it's very clear what those risks are and what's going to be done in managing the cooperation to mitigate the risk. There's never a rejection of, oh, everything's going to be fine, and you have nothing to worry about, but that you're doing something that's so important, it warrants taking those risks, and you're working with a professional and an organization that has the capabilities to help you mitigate those risks to achieve your goals, which is serving your nation.

NADWORNY: As well as ours.

LONDON: Well, serendipity in that case, yes.

NADWORNY: That's Douglas London, a former senior operations officer in the CIA. Thank you so much for joining us.

LONDON: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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