Russia is having an easier time recruiting Americans today than it did during the hyper-contentious Cold War era, a former CIA officer says.
"Given social media, lax U.S. campaign finance laws and America’s hyperpartisan political climate, Russia doesn’t have to work as hard to recruit American assets anymore," writes Alex Finley in Politico today. "In fact, the political environment the Russians are looking to manipulate is primed to be exploited."
What changed? In the Cold War years, Russia was focused on the old-fashioned gathering of information, a high-risk, highly specialized game. Today, the focus is on "influence campaigns" — seeding Russia's interests into American special-interest groups and the public at large, most often through social media. The barrier to entry is much lower.
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Case in point: Alleged Russian spy Mariia Butina, a Russian national who posed as a Washington, D.C. graduate student while living with a Republican operative and popping up at NRA conferences and conservative gatherings. According to the FBI affidavit leading to her arrest, Butina “took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication. These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” The government alleges that Butina had a handler/financier, Alexander Torshin, a former governor of Russia's state-run bank, who bankrolled her activities.
"Russians barely even need to bother recruiting anymore," writes Finley. "All they need, as Butina’s case shows, is a young, red-headed beauty capable of manipulating the right targets—even without direct control or leverage over them. Butina was able to find several political players who were 'responsive to tasking' without any formal recruitment effort."
Nor is it necessary to recruit the bots and trolls who amplify those efforts from the mother country. At the same time, as Russian trolls gear up for attacks on the midterm elections — which have already begun, via phishing efforts against Sens. Claire McCaskill and Jeanne Shaheen — they're being aided and abetted from the very top, some say. "Despite repeated warnings from United States intelligence agencies regarding the nation’s vulnerabilities, there remains no focused, coordinated plan by the White House for dealing with this crucial security issue," the New York Times' editorial board writes today. "Nor does President Trump seem comfortable criticizing, much less holding accountable, the baddest of bad actors identified by American intelligence agencies — Mr. Putin."