While Americans were enjoying a long weekend Christmas holiday, the Washington Post did some important reporting on Russia’s ongoing cyber war against the United States that few people probably saw.
The hard reporting is a lengthy investigative report, Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options. You really should read this report for background and context.
Michael Morell, former deputy director and twice acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2010 to 2013, and Mike Rogers, a Republican congressman from Michigan who served in the House from 2001 to 2015 and was chairman of the Intelligence Committee from 2010 to 2015, write in an op-ed at the Post, Russia never stopped its cyberattacks on the United States:
[T]he United States has failed to establish deterrence in the aftermath of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. We know we failed because Russia continues to aggressively employ the most significant aspect of its 2016 tool kit: the use of social media as a platform to disseminate propaganda designed to weaken our nation.
There is a perception among the media and general public that Russia ended its social-media operations following last year’s election and that we need worry only about future elections. But that perception is wrong. Russia’s information operations in the United States continued after the election and they continue to this day.
This should alarm everyone — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. Foreign governments, overtly or covertly, should not be allowed to play with our democracy.
Russia’s information operations tactics since the election are more numerous than can be listed here. But to get a sense of the breadth of Russian activity, consider the messaging spread by Kremlin-oriented accounts on Twitter, which cybersecurity and disinformation experts have tracked as part of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In a single week this month, Moscow used these accounts to discredit the FBI after it was revealed that an agent had been demoted for sending anti-Donald Trump texts; to attack ABC News for an erroneous report involving President Trump and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; to critique the Obama administration for allegedly “green lighting” the communication between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak; and to warn about violence by immigrants after a jury acquitted an undocumented Mexican accused of murdering a San Francisco woman.
For the record, the conservative media entertainment complex, in particular FAUX News (aka Trump TV), seamlessly did the very same thing, even using the very same talking points. As I have argued before, The conservative media entertainment complex is an ancillary to Russian ‘active measures’ propaganda. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is very little degree of separation between the conservative media entertainment complex and Russia’s “dezinformatsiya” campaign. There is “collusion.” Conservative media are serving as Putin’s fifth column in America sowing discord and confusion that destabilizes our system of democracy.
This continues a pattern of similar activity over the past year. Russian operatives have frequently targeted Republican politicians who have been critical of Trump, including Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.). In September, they also attacked Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) after his decisive “no” vote against the Republican health-care bill.
Our Twitter-troll-in-chief has used his Twitter account to attack Flake, Corker, Graham and McCain at various times, amplifying the Russian attacks.
And in mid-November, after Keurig pulled its advertising from Sean Hannity’s Fox News show for comments the host made defending Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the Russians used their social media accounts to urge a boycott of the company. For two days, #boycottkeurig was the most used hashtag among Kremlin-influenced Twitter accounts. This was a Russian attack on a U.S. company and on our economy.
Of course the Russians defended their propaganda partners at Trump TV and Trump’s minister of propaganda, Sean Hannity.
More troublingly, other countries are beginning to follow Russia’s lead on social media, according to research provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The Chinese are doing so in Taiwan, where 75 percent of the population consumes media from a Japanese instant messaging app called LINE — a hotbed for fake news, much of it from China. Some of the messages pushed by Beijing — including one incorrectly saying that the Taiwan government was planning to regulate Buddhist and Taoist temples — have resulted in large protests in Taipei. And Turkey is starting to use social media to try to influence European policy debates, specifically by targeting the large Turkish diaspora in Europe.
While those information operations have not yet reached the United States, they most certainly will. Russia’s use of social media as a political weapon will continue, and more countries will follow suit — until deterrence is established.
The sanctions that the Obama administration and Congress put in place in the aftermath of the 2016 election are steps in the right direction, but they were not significant enough to check Russian President Vladimir Putin. True deterrence requires policies that prevent adversaries from achieving their objectives while imposing significant costs on their regimes. So far, we have done neither.
Paul Waldman of the Post warns, Russia is going to attack our next election. The Trump administration may not even try to stop it.
The Russians are coming for our elections — to disrupt them, to discredit them, and even to affect their outcome. They’ll be coming in 2018, and in 2020. The trouble is that even if we figure out what they’re up to, our own government may be unable or unwilling to stop it.
That’s the conclusion one has to come to upon reading reports like this new one from Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Jaffe, which describes how powerless the federal government has been and continues to be in the face of an ongoing war that Vladimir Putin is waging against U.S. democracy. It was hard enough to resist when the executive branch wanted to resist it; who knows how hard it will become as President Trump feels more politically threatened by upcoming elections and Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in 2016.
This new report shows how the Russian effort last year included not only hacking into Democratic email systems and the use of an army of social media bots, but also the creation of articles pitched to left-leaning websites, which were used to attack Hillary Clinton and promote Wikileaks. While it was going on, the government was all but paralyzed:
The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.
One previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said.
As former acting CIA director Michael Morell and former House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers note in this op-ed, Russian cyberwarfare efforts didn’t stop after 2016. Of late their covert social media strategies have involved attacking the FBI, going after Republican politicians who are critical of President Trump, and even urging a boycott of Keurig when it pulled its advertising from Sean Hannity’s show.
But it’s not as simple as promoting President Trump and the GOP. Most experts believe Vladimir Putin’s motives are more complex than that, and involve sowing discord and confusion that destabilizes our system [of democracy]. The danger becomes particularly acute during election season.
There are three fundamental questions to ask about this threat: Do we know what they’re doing? If we know what they’re doing, do we know how to fight it? And if we know how to fight it, do we have the will to do so?
At various times the answer to all three has been no. But let’s say that some time in 2018 — or even more likely, in 2020 — intelligence agencies and private analysts conclude that Russia is engaging in an effort to subvert our electoral process through hacking electoral systems, waging a covert propaganda war, or some other means we haven’t even thought of yet. What then? We know that President Trump sees every new development in terms of himself, and that he views any and all questions about Russian meddling as nothing more than an effort to delegitimize his glorious 2016 victory. It seems unlikely that he’ll react any differently to new reports of Russian meddling, particularly if it comes at a moment when he’s faced with the possibility of defeat. Which means there’s a very strong chance that this is what will happen:
- When reports of new Russian efforts to attack our elections emerge, President Trump will insist it’s all “fake news,” try to discredit the analysis and insist that it’s just his political enemies seeking to delegitimize the victories he and his party win.
- Trump’s assertion will immediately be echoed and amplified by his allies in conservative media, particularly on Fox News, talk radio, and websites like Breitbart, which will attack the analysts and agencies warning of the Russian efforts.
- Republican members of Congress will take up Trump’s charge, perhaps even attempting to launch their own investigation of the investigation.
That’s what’s happening right now. Trump’s most loyal allies are lashing out at anyone who seems to threaten the president, even if it means dismissing the idea that a well-documented Russian assault against the United States is anything to be concerned about. They’ve even decided that the FBI, one of the most conservative agencies in the government, is a hotbed of leftist subversion and must be purged of anyone who ever expressed any skepticism about Donald Trump.
So when the next Russian attack on our electoral system comes, and it comes in a new form that we may not have been prepared for, how is the government going to react? When the FBI or the CIA rush to the president, explaining what’s going on and asking for his approval to take action to protect the integrity of our democracy, is he going to tell them to back off? Trump already seems much more inclined to believe Vladimir Putin than his own intelligence agencies on these questions. What kind of pressure will Republicans in Congress and the conservative media put on those agencies to shut down any meaningful response? How vulnerable will that leave us, and what will the consequences be?
Right now we have no idea. But there isn’t much reason to feel reassured.
Finally, Jeff Stein at Newsweek writes, Putin’s Man in The White House? Real Trump Russia Scandal is Not Mere Collusion, U.S. Counterspies Say (excerpts):
For over a year, the question of collusion has driven various investigations into what’s become known as Russiagate. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been pursuing questions of whether Team Trump, which included the president’s son Donald Jr. and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actively coordinated the Trump campaign with the Kremlin to hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. That suspicion was bad enough, but now a far more grim consensus is developing in the topmost circles of the U.S. national security establishment: The president has become a pawn of America’s adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s a nightmare scenario even the writers of House of Cards would have discarded as implausible.
Until now. In a December 18 interview on CNN, retired Air Force Lieutenant General James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, virtually called Trump a Putin puppet. The Russian president, Clapper noted, is a former KGB “case officer,” or spy recruiter, who “knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president. That’s the appearance to me.” (Pressed to clarify his “asset” comment, Clapper said, “I’m saying this figuratively.”)
“Wow,” tweeted former CIA Russian hand John Sipher. “The rest of us try to find other clever ways to say the same thing. Good on him for having the courage to call out Putin’s behavior. Our president shouldn’t have fallen for it.”
Veteran spy handlers have judged Trump an easy mark for Putin, who spent years in the KGB sizing up and exploiting a target’s vulnerabilities. They note how easily he falls for praise, as when Putin thanked him and the CIA for helping him thwart a bomb attack plot in St. Petersburg. “POTUS is a [spy] handlers’ dream,” Asha Rangappa, a former special agent in the FBI’s counterintelligence division, said. “He responds, without fail, to praise and flattery and telegraphs his day-to-day thoughts on Twitter. Likewise, said Harry “Skip” Brandon, a former FBI deputy assistant director of national security and counterterrorism. “He often very publicly states he goes by his instincts. If that is accurate, he may be the ultimate unwitting asset of Russia.”
And so on. The steady drip of revelations emerging from multiple Trump investigations—his business deals with Russian investors, his associates’ many undeclared meetings with Kremlin agents, his resistance to accepting evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and his indiscretion with Israeli intelligence—draws a far darker picture.
Some veteran intelligence operators think it’s well past time to shift the narrative on Trump’s disturbing affinity for Putin, which the president insists is innocent and good for world peace. “Everyone continues to dance around a clear assessment of what’s going on,” says Glenn Carle, a former CIA national intelligence officer responsible for evaluating foreign threats. “My assessment,” he tells Newsweek, “is that Trump is actually working directly for the Russians.”
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But all signs point to Trump not caring who gets hurt if it serves his interests—and vanity. Despite constant evidence of Russian interference throughout the summer of 2016, culminating in a January report by Clapper and Jeh Johnson, his Department of Homeland Security counterpart, saying the Kremlin had worked to put Trump in office, the president evidently permitted his incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to intrigue with the Russians over lifting sanctions—and apparently didn’t care enough to fire him after learning Flynn had lied about it to the FBI. Flynn’s later indictment and plea deal, Trump tweeted, was “a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”
All this was going on, despite an explicit warning from the FBI to Trump soon after his nomination about potential espionage threats from Russia, according to NBC News. FBI agents also visited longtime Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks only days after the inauguration, saying that certain named Russian agents were trying to penetrate the new administration. Hicks, who says she forwarded the warning to White House counsel Donald McGahn, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Continually jousting with Trump over his denial that any of this amounted to “collusion” with the Russians is a distraction, say veteran intelligence hands. It amounts to looking for an explicit quid pro quo that may not exist. It misses, moreover, “what is right under our noses,” wrote Rangappa, the former FBI counterintelligence agent, along with Sipher, the onetime CIA Moscow station chief, and Alex Finley, a former CIA operations officer, in a joint piece for the Just Security website. “There is no question that Russia made multiple, unprecedented attempts to penetrate a U.S. presidential campaign, that its approaches were not rebuffed, and that its contacts were sensitive enough that everyone, to a person, has concealed them.
“These facts might never be adjudicated inside a courtroom,” they added. “They may not even be illegal—but they present a clear and present national security threat that we cannot ignore.