A close reading of the recruitment letter Russia allegedly captured from a CIA agent

On Tuesday, Russia's FSB -- the successor organization to the KGB -- announced that it had captured a U.S. spy who was trying to recruit a Russian official. The American, who was later asked to leave the country, has been identified as Ryan Fogle, a third secretary in the political section of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Russian authorities allegedly nabbed him while he was wearing a blond wig and carrying two knives, lots of euros, multiple pairs of dark sunglasses, and a Russian-language recruitment letter.

Even if Fogle is an American spy -- the CIA is declining to comment on the allegations -- the reports from Moscow should make us suspicious of the Russian narrative, as Max Fisher explains in greater detail over at the Washington Post. A close read of the recruitment letter in particular suggests that either CIA tradecraft has taken a serious turn for the worse, or the FSB is having some fun at the expense of the U.S. intelligence agency.

Dear friend,

This is a down-payment from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism and who would greatly appreciate your cooperation in the future.

First off, the letter begins like your run-of-the-mill Internet scam, and the idea that the CIA would contact a Russian official on the pretense of being impressed with their professionalism is difficult to believe. It's also hard to fathom that a U.S. spy would correspond with an asset in form-letter format.

Your security means a lot to us. This is why we chose this way of contacting you. We will continue to make sure our correspondence remains safe and secret.

If the letter is authentic, the irony of reading the CIA's "safe and secret" correspondence on the Internet won't inspire much confidence in the agency (of course, one could also argue that the Russian are interested in making the CIA look foolish and impeding its operations in the country).

We are ready to offer you $100,000 to discuss your experience, expertise and cooperation.

Is the CIA really willing to drop $100,000 merely "to discuss" a prospective asset's cooperation? A reader might reasonably stop reading at this sentence and conclude that the entire letter is too good to be true (see any email from a Nigerian prince ever). Later on in the letter, the alleged CIA agent offers "up to $1 million a year for long-term cooperation," without going into detail about what that might entail.

To get back with us, please go to an internet café, or a coffee shop that has Wi-Fi, and open a new Gmail account which you will use exclusively to contact us. As you register, do not provide any personal info that can help identify you or your new account. Don't provide any real contacts, e.g., your phone number or other email addresses.

If Gmail asks for personal info, start the registration process again and avoid providing such data. Once you register this new account, use it to send a message to unbacggdA@gmail.com. In exactly one week, check this mailbox for a response from us.

Let's pause to admire the sterling tradecraft at play here. First, the CIA officer reminds his asset that if he goes to a coffee shop to set up his clandestine email, he should use one that has Wi-Fi -- since few things in this world have the ability to torpedo a promising CIA operation like a coffee shop without Wi-Fi. And remember, prospective CIA asset, to not use personal information when setting up that account. Two-step verification for security purposes? A definite no-no. You are, after all, working for the U.S. government now.

Say you are a prospective agent reading this letter: How would you react to the use of the pronoun "us" here? Presumably, you'd want knowledge of your existence to be as tightly held as possible. The use of a word that implies some unknown number of CIA officers corresponding with you might not make you feel very confident in the agency's operational security.

(If you use a netbook or any other device (e.g., a tablet) to open the account at a coffee shop, please don't use a personal device with personal data on it. If possible, buy a new device (paying in cash) which you will use to contact us. We will reimburse you for this purchase.)

Hey, Russian official, if that promise of $1 million a year wasn't enough, Uncle Sam may be willing to hook you up with an iPad. How could you possibly say no to this offer?

Thank you for reading this letter. We look forward to working with you in the nearest future.

Your friends

Hats off to the CIA/FSB here -- at least they had the good sense to end the bizarre pitch with the perfect nefarious salutation.

-/AFP/Getty Images

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