We, humans, hate to be taken advantage of, lied to, manipulated, or defrauded. At the core of a swindle is an abuse of trust, and if we are honest, one of the things that separate us from animals is our ability to trust one another in various ways. Without any trust, we approach a Hobbesian dystopia.
It is generally true that those who have been taken advantage of by another, those who have experienced an abuse of trust are the last to know. Friends and family often suspect infidelity in a relationship long before the aggrieved party acknowledges it. We often simply deny that it is possible that the little voice inside of us is speaking truth. Often, in the denial phase, a person becomes defensive, angry and attacks those that suggest they have been done in.
Common conman swindles, unfaithful relationships, back-biting and gossip, are ordinary and common abuses of trust. It is part of human nature and human existence. Yet, every day some countless number of new victims are created by new scams and lies, often using old and tried techniques. We know the threat is out there yet many of us have been, are, or will be fooled.
All of that, that is just amateur stuff, common ordinary routine things. What of more professional techniques? The sort of things associated with spycraft? How much more powerful, effective, and perhaps undetectable might those be?
In Money, Sex, Power, and Influence I wrote about just that, how people in second and third-order connections to a real professional in the dark arts of grooming and social engineering can be entrapped in a web of fraud and deception and often coaxed into doing the bidding of others – often without even being directly asked. Anyone that believes themselves too smart, or sophisticated, or aware as to be immune is likely a much easier mark than they realize.
If you have ever undergone a security investigation for the US Government you are well aware of the depth and breadth such an investigation can cover. There are excellent reasons for this, as intrusive and daunting as the process can be. Weakness, those pivot points used in an approach exist in us all. One does not have to be a serial gambler with enormous financial problems to be vulnerable. Those sorts of people are the least tantalizing targets for foreign intelligence assets.
How can we Know?
Denial is a sign – a good indicator, not proof.
Law enforcement types, the more jaded among them, often view those that protest their guilt in interrogations as a sign of guilt. A more accurate statement would be those who offer explanations for their innocence ought to be looked at closer. Those that initially scream and yell "I did not do this", that sort is a normal human. But a crime is different than being subject to a swindle or a fraud. One either did or did not do the crime. Being deceived is less first person.
Counter-intelligence investigators expect denial from those ensnared in a foreign intelligence operation. By this, I do not mean those active participants that are no longer unwitting, those that have gone from targets to active participants – that sort of protests much like a guilty murder suspect. Those being groomed and developed, long before the first big ask, these seldom know. Sex is often the prize used, sex sparks emotional connections in most of us, it is powerful. But no matter which of the four prizes, very often approaches and grooming have as an objective to merely bring the target into the orbit of assets or their constructed circle. Not all “asks” are big asks, not all targets are asked to do the big deed, sometimes they merely help build the network that grows the circle of influence.
When CI folks interview individuals that have gotten too close to the fire the standard response is denial, anger, and gaslighting (excuses, denial of obvious facts, and claimed ignorance of anomalies). The targeted individual is lying to themselves almost as much as they are being lied to by the time CI agents pull them in.
Connections, friendships, and associates matter. It is for this reason that security investigations pay a lot of attention to one’s personal network and why high-level clearance holders have to report such things as they change.
All of the above of course applies to foreign intelligence agents, but what if it did not? When you start observing something that looks like a network and there are individuals with knowledge of spycraft involved, there is reason to at least notice that. It is not “nothing”. It does not have to prove anything but it is worth looking at.
If you believe that in 2021 we live in a world and a country where spycraft is not being used domestically to create outcomes, I have wasted your time. We can disagree as to the scale and scope, you may (erroneously) believe it is just “the other side”, we are all entitled to opinions. I suggest it is hard to view the nature of the thing, the methodologies evident and events, and not see much more of this than we wish to.
Media capture is an old intelligence agency trick, it is written into State Department and military manuals. Coopting the media controls the narrative or at least diminishes uncontrolled impacts. Nobody told all of the mainstream media to report a particular way over the last twenty months, nobody controls them. It is not necessary, most have been groomed to be part of various social and professional circles, there are norms expected and variation from those norms results in lost access. It is not rocket science, it is school-yard playground level manipulation, but it works. If you want in, if you want the stories, the access, the promotion, then meter your words.
We blame our problems on tech giants and censorship, and as foreboding as those are, they pale in comparison to old fashion social manipulation and engineering. I have no answers to this. I too would fall prey to this if someone came along and offered me access to things I desire greatly – I am human. We live in a society that looks up to and listens to influencers, not realizing how easily influenced those people are – how quickly their privileged positions could evaporate if they went too far afield.
We cannot do much or anything about the culture of hero-worship we have embraced. There is absolutely nothing we can do to protect our heroes from becoming seduced and very often we have a hard time, collectively, noticing when it happens. Perhaps the only thing we can say to one another is that all of us no matter how far removed from the center of the circle is influenced in some way by deception and manipulation. Don’t be so naive as to believe yourself immune.