“Counter-intelligence is about psychology and ego.”
That’s what my FBI handlers would tell me over and over again. The goal was to play on the ego of the target to get them to do your bidding. Manipulation and countering Russian manipulation was what I did over and over again for most of my four years of operational work against Russian military intelligence as an FBI double agent.
My target—who thought that I was his target—was a skilled Russian military intelligence officer named Oleg Kulikov, assigned to the Russian Mission to the United Nations in New York City. Oleg was smart but he was also brash and arrogant, traits we used to manipulate and indeed control the relationship in what is known as “the game,” which the Russians play with gusto.
From Donald Trump Jr. agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer promising Clinton dirt to Jared Kushner’s request for “back-channel” communications, it’s clear how effective the Russians were at manipulating and building relationships with the individuals that they’d targeted.
The recruitment of assets is the primary mission of foreign intelligence officers, or IOs, playing the game in the United States. Many are given diplomatic immunity and hold official positions at embassies, consulates and even the United Nations. In many ways their job is akin to a job in sales: they must chase down leads and then try to close out a big deal. It is a numbers game in which IOs must weed out potential candidates by screening and vetting candidates potentially useful to their intelligence agencies to see who is willing to receive direction. Out of the hundreds of candidates that an intelligence agency, such as the Russian GRU, targets, only a small percentage will actually make it to the last phase to become directed assets, while the others are simply “fired,” never to hear from the Russians again.
The Russians employ a slow and deliberate process to build a relationship with an asset. In my experience the Russians refused to do business by phone or email, always opting to meet in person. It was a process that included three equally important phases, all designed to minimize Russian exposure while maximizing their ability to assess the potential asset.
The first step is the approach—whereby the Russians determine how to actually make contact with a target. In most cases this approach relies on an overt and legitimate contact. It could be through a mutual interest in a hobby, perhaps a meeting at a conference or even through the front purporting to make a legitimate business request (as the Russians did with me). The approach is extremely difficult and requires a “hook” other than recruitment to would explain the contact and the interest that the intelligence officer has in the target. From there, the question becomes if the IO can get out of the “friend zone.” That transitional moment is different each time, but it generally involves the target taking an active action of their own (for instance, calling the Russian Ambassador and requesting a meeting) that shows they are interested in taking the relationship to the next level.
(In my case the transitional event occurred when I asked Oleg if we could meet somewhere other than my place of work, a clear message to the Russians of my willingness to grow our relationship and to move it from overt to covert terms.)
The next phase can be either the longest or the shortest, as the intelligence officer determines the suitability of the asset for possible recruitment. Being a willing candidate is not enough, a target must have a clear use, be controllable and (most importantly) be determined to not be a double agent controlled by U.S. intelligence. Crucial to this determination is understanding an asset’s motivation to spy: are they doing it for money, ego or both? To do this, Russian IOs conduct debriefing meetings with a target to look for any signs of deception or co-option. Every question is carefully crafted and every answer given intently analyzed. While the IO conducts these meetings, there is little doubt that the direction and the ultimate decision about whether or not to keep the relationship comes from headquarters. However, the IOs assessment are critical as he or she is the one in the room with the target. It is the IO who can see if the target appears nervous or cannot maintain eye contact. So important is the IO’s assessment that it is not uncommon for them to embellish or even flat-out lie about their target’s capabilities or answers (as may have been the case with alleged intercepts by Ambassador Kislyak describing conversations with Jeff Sessions).
Every meeting I had with Oleg was not a calm pleasant one, instead they were intense interrogations that I considered mental combat. I also learned quickly one does not lie because Oleg would have quickly detected my deception. Instead I refused to answer questions and used anger as a deflection and one time even accused him of being an FBI agent and demanding he show me his ID when he asked me to sign a receipt for payment. So intense were the meetings with Oleg that afterwards I would dry heave.
If the target makes the cut, he or she is brought to the final phase—where the risk to both sides is greatest—and become an operational asset. This is where the asset receives clear direction known as “tasking,” a step akin to business deliverables. Additionally, the asset may be given a method to signal meetings and communicate back with Russia. In some cases the IO who handled the recruitment is replaced with another who handles that specific asset. At this point, the relationship is at the next level, with no doubt in the asset’s mind what what they are doing or who they are doing it for.
The process is lengthy (in my case the Russians spent two years vetting me) and few make it to the point where they are trusted to know what Russia hopes to use them for. It is skilled work, finding targets and building relations while avoiding detection, as when Oleg gleefully explained how I should handle the cash he had given me to avoid reporting through banks. In that moment, I understood how comfortable the Russians are conducting recruiting efforts in the United States and, as Oleg went on, my recording device catching his words, I realized it was those skills that led him to arrogance, then sloppiness and finally to defeat.
It is a pattern I suspect is repeating itself now.