Analysis & Opinions - The Cipher Brief

Russia's State-Sponsored Hostage Taking Reaps Rewards for the Kremlin

| Apr. 10, 2023

Russia's arrest of Wall Street Journal journalist and US citizen, Evan Gershkovich, on espionage charges is the latest example of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)'s long practice of state-sponsored hostage taking and repression of the press. No one should be surprised.

Two issues about Gershkovich's case need to be understood: first, contrary to Kremlin claims, the CIA does not use US journalists as cover for espionage. Second, unlike the US, Russia has a long history of using journalists as spies.

The CIA is prohibited under 50 USC 3324 from using US journalists as sources of intelligence or as cover for its officers stationed overseas. This is a public policy decision based on the importance attached to investigative journalism in a free, democratic, society.

By contrast, Russia's services have long-used state media outlets as cover for espionage. This goes back to the Soviet Union’s earliest days, when it was an international pariah, with few diplomatic relations. Soviet media bureaus offered some of the few opportunities for Moscow to send intelligence officers overseas.

An early Soviet front for espionage in Britain, for example, was the "Federated Press of America". Established in 1923, its "journalists" included Soviet intelligence officers and operatives. Next came the Soviet news agency, Russia's All-Telegraph Agency (ROSTA), which opened offices in Britain in 1925. MI5's investigations into it, corroborated by decrypted Soviet communications, revealed that ROSTA was a Soviet espionage front. ROSTA later became known as TASS, which continued to operate through the twentieth century, and still exists today....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kolbe, Paul and Calder Walton.“Russia's State-Sponsored Hostage Taking Reaps Rewards for the Kremlin.” The Cipher Brief, April 10, 2023.