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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

Passport

Was the World Press Photo winner a fake? (And what's a 'fake' photo, anyway?)

Paul Hansen's image of a funeral procession in a Gazan alleyway on Nov. 20, 2012 is undeniably striking. Two men, their faces warped with grief and anger, carry the shrouded bodies of their young nieces, killed in an Israeli missile strike, while a crowd of men follow behind them. When it was selected as the winner of the 2013 World Press Photo contest in February, the chairman of the contest jury, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon, praised the photograph's "incredible collection of powerful motifs of imagery, that when it all comes together makes for a really strong photograph."

But was it real? And what does that mean at a time when photo software can aid in collecting the very motifs that made the image so remarkable?

On Monday, British tech writer Sebastian Anthony claimed on the blog ExtremeTech that the photograph isn't really a photo at all; according to image analyst Neal Krawetz, it's three photos that were enhanced and stitched together using Photoshop. The proof is in the code, Krawetz argues, which contains a record of the composition. Applying other filters and tools to the image, he writes, shows evidence of additional manipulation including image sharpening and brightening. "Basically," Anthony argues, "Hansen took a series of photos -- and then later, realizing that his most dramatically situated photo was too dark and shadowy, decided to splice a bunch of images together and apply a liberal amount of dodging (brightening) to the shadowy regions."

Hansen, for his part, told news.com.au today that the allegations just aren't true. "In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning," the Swedish photographer explained. "In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range."

As I understand it, Hansen is arguing that his mild image manipulation is the digital equivalent of under- or over-developing select portions of the image in a darkroom. No fancy bells and whistles -- and definitely no composites of other photos. And as news.com.au points out, this seems to be acceptable according to the somewhat ambiguous rules for the World Press Photo contest, which states that the "content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed."

At the end of the day, an image from the November conflict between Hamas and Israel was bound to create controversy. The meaning of another photograph from that bout of violence -- depicting BBC World journalist Jihad Mashrawi holding his dead son in a hospital -- has also been subject to revisions. Initial reports claimed the child was killed by an Israeli attack, while a U.N. investigation found that the death owed to an errant rocket fired by Hamas.

Image manipulation is becoming more and more common in news photography, but many media organizations maintain certain journalistic standards for the pictures they use. Krawetz argues that Hansen's image violates "the acceptable journalism standards used by Reuters, Associated Press, Getty Images, National Press Photographer's Association, and other media outlets." Anthony, however, doesn't seem so certain:

The bigger discussion, of course, is whether Gaza Burial is actually fake -- or just enhanced to bring out important details. This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious 'yes,' but it's not quite that simple.... Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?

For what it's worth, the qualities that Lyon, the jury chairman, cited for the award are fundamental to the photograph:

This photo was chosen because it is so powerful.... The combination of the small size of the bodies -- they're very young children -- combined with the variety of expressions of pain and rage and sadness.... This image sums up the story very powerfully, very poignantly.

On Tuesday, World Press Photo told the Huffington Post that two independent experts will be carrying out a forensic investigation of the image file with Hansen's cooperation, and later informed Poynter that it had found "no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing." 

Ultimately, Hansen may have edited the picture to emphasize the features that the judges cited in deeming his image the best photo of the year. But what Lyon described in announcing the award goes far beyond lighting in a dark alley.

FREDRIK SANDBERG/SCANPIX/AFP/Getty Images