What is an “influence operation”?
Intelligence services recruit a range of assets such as intelligence agents (who produce usable intelligence), access agents (people who might be able to create access to potential intelligence agents), or facilities agents (people who can provide clandestine premises or vehicles when they are required for an operation). For many years intelligence services have also recruited “agents of influence”. These are people with influence in a particular community who can help to shape opinions or gain advantages for the country that has recruited them.
A recent example of this might be former UK government minister Priti Patel. She was caught making a secret visit to Israel in August 2017 during which she met senior officials and it was rumoured that she was even to have a private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – all without the knowledge of her fellow ministers or advisers. She was forced to resign as a result. This was almost certainly the final stage in the recruitment of an agent of influence (if she hadn’t been recruited already). Lowly government ministers don’t normally get personal and secret access to the leaders of other nations, in fact her visit was almost unique in this respect. If she really had been recruited as an agent of influence then the deal might well have been that the Israeli government would have access to the inner workings of the UK government and in return the Israelis would use their clandestine assets to promote her political career. The Israelis might even have hoped that she would rise to be leader of her party and country: a very good position in which to have a “friend”. Of course, nothing was ever proved, but to an intelligence official it would certainly seem to fit a highly suspicious pattern.
If it was true then there is nothing particular to the Israelis in this. Every nation does it. Some might simply describe it as one step up from diplomacy – although it is a rather shady step. Please note that an agent of influence does not necessarily pass secret intelligence. If they cross that boundary then they are more rightly categorised as an intelligence agent.
Once that sort of recruitment was enough. It still goes on. But in the 21st century advances in technology have led to an additional type of approach where matters of influence are concerned. This is an “influence operation”. The Swedish Security Service defines an influence operation as follows:
“Co-ordinated and deniable activities initiated by a state actor with the intent of influencing the decision-making, opinions or actions of political leaders, the public or particular target groups in order to promote a particular set of security policy objectives, mainly by spreading misleading or false information – often combined with other actions specially designed for this purpose.”
(They do love a long sentence in Sweden.) So the Russian intelligence services’ promotion of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign through social media manipulation, covert funding or propagation of misleading information about opponents, would be a classic example of an influence operation. All nation states are studying the use of this sort of intelligence attack. If Russia and China are looking to use it in the US and Europe, you can bet that Western services are considering the possibilities for use against Russia, China and other countries such as Iran. In a sense it has a lot in common with the art of propaganda and such ideas as Radio Free Europe which was set up by the United States during the Cold War to influence opinion behind the Iron Curtain.
In espionage, there are very few new tricks – there just tend to be old ones that get spruced up and re-cycled.