The CIA says Russians disaffected by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be trying to get in touch with U.S. intelligence — and it wants them to go to the darknet.
The agency on Monday began a new push to promote its presence on a part of the internet accessible only through specialized tools that provide more anonymity. The CIA has a darknet site that has the same features as its regular homepage but accessible only through the Tor internet browser, which has encryption features not available on most regular browsers.
Instructions in English and Russian on how to access the darknet site appeared Monday on the CIA’s social media channels. The agency hopes Russians living abroad can share the instructions with contacts inside the country.
While many Russians appear to support what the Kremlin officially calls a “special military operation,” longtime Russia watchers think Putin’s management of the war may push away some powerful people who disagree with him. Even with immense capabilities to capture communications and satellite imagery, it remains critical for Western intelligence agencies to recruit human sources who can offer insight into the Kremlin and conditions inside Russia.
“Our global mission demands that individuals can contact us securely from anywhere,” the agency said in a statement.
A CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters says the agency knows “there are concerned Russians who are desperately trying to reach CIA.” The official declined to say how many people had tried to reach out since the war began.
“It’s not safe to directly engage Americans physically or virtually” in Russia, the official said. “For those people that want to engage with us securely, this is the way to do it.”
Launched in 2019, the CIA’s darknet site is accessible through the Tor browser. Tor, short for “The Onion Router,” routes internet traffic through multiple third parties to mask a user’s identity and destination. After downloading the Tor browser, the user typically inputs a long string of characters followed by “.onion.”
Using Tor strips away cookies and many other means of tracking the typical internet user. And while no form of communication is completely secure at all times, intelligence officers say a potential tipster will be better protected on the darknet from Russian snooping.
Tor was originally created with support from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and run by a nonprofit since 2006. It has long been used by those seeking extra privacy: dissidents in authoritarian countries and people seeking to circumvent firewalls and censors, law enforcement and intelligence officers, and journalists including at The Associated Press, which operates its own tips drop box on Tor. It can be used by anyone seeking extra privacy. It has also been exploited by criminals.
Russians have long had to find ways to circumvent government blocks on the internet. In response to the Kremlin’s crackdown since the war began, some media outlets and Twitter have promoted usage of their own “.onion” sites or the use of virtual private network software.
While officials would not disclose specifics, U.S. intelligence can be safely assumed to be working inside Russia. Calling attention to the darknet site now promotes to prospective contacts that the CIA is paying attention to their safety, said Mark Kelton, who retired from the CIA in 2015 after serving as chief of counterintelligence.
“When people decide to reach out, they’re very well aware of what they’re doing and what the risks are,” Kelton said. “The issue here is to reassure them that on the other end, there are people concerned with protecting them.”
Watershed events like the fall of the Berlin Wall have often presented recruiting opportunities for intelligence services in both Washington and Moscow. Putin’s war in Ukraine and its spiraling consequences for Russia — thousands of soldiers killed, sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy, and a failure to meet basic military aims while images of apparent war crimes spread worldwide — could become another of those inflection points, some observers believe.
Two well-respected Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, wrote in a recent piece that the war failures have provoked “a vicious blame game” inside Russia’s security establishment, known generally as the “siloviki.” Russia’s military blames Putin for requiring a “new and curtailed strategy” that it believes has tied its hands against the Western-backed Ukrainian forces, Soldatov and Borogan wrote.
Some of the “siloviki” who refused to take the journalists’ calls when the war began are speaking up more now.
“This is the very first time the siloviki are putting distance between themselves and the president. Which opens up all sorts of possibilities,” they wrote.
Personal ideology or disappointment in Putin’s regime are more likely drivers of someone turning to spy against Russia than any financial rewards they might receive, Kelton said.
“Crisis is always a good time for espionage,” he said. “People in autocratic societies often are content to go along until they’re confronted with the moral and political necessity to make a choice. That historically has been a ripe opportunity for people to reach out to the United States.”