The Senate Intelligence Committee held its first hearing on Russian interference in the U.S. election on Thursday. The committee heard from a series of expert witnesses on Russia’s use of “active measures” and manipulating social media with “fake news” (propaganda) and “bots,” and an army of trolls to influence media narratives and voters.
One of the more compelling witnesses was former FBI special agent Clint Watts, who testified that “part of the reason active measures worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents.” Think Progress reports, Former FBI agent details how Trump and Russia team up to weaponize fake news:
During the first public Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about Russia’s meddling in the presidential election on Thursday, former FBI special agent Clint Watts explained how Russia and the Trump campaign team up to weaponize fake news.
Asked by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) about why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to make more of an effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election than in years past, Watts, who is now a a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said, “the answer is very simple and it’s what nobody is really saying in this room.”
“Which is, part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents,” Watts continued.
Watts cited two specific examples from the campaign — one that came from the mouth of Trump’s campaign chairman and one that came from Trump himself.
On August 16, Paul Manafort, who at that time was still Trump’s campaign chairman, was interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper and criticized the media’s coverage of the campaign.
Instead of focusing on stories like Trump’s veiled threat about “Second Amendment people” potentially stopping Hillary Clinton, Manafort suggested the media cover more important things.
“You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists,” Marafort said. “You had a number of things that were appropriate to this campaign, were part of what Mr. Trump has been talking about.”
That attack never happened — it was fake news. But as BuzzFeed reported at the time, “several Russian sites [were] quick to report on potential terrorist attacks on NATO bases in Turkey.” Manafort used false information spread by those sites to attack Clinton.
“In late July, Sputnik and RT — both Russian state-controlled media outlets — pointed to a fire near a NATO base in western Turkey as potential sabotage,” the BuzzFeed report continued. “And both sites helped spread the idea — which also was passed along on Twitter by accounts that are both pro-Trump and pro-Russian — that the protests [at the NATO base] in late July were a massive mob attempting to takeover the base.”
During his testimony, Watts noted that Manafort and Trump used the “debunked” Turkey story “as a talking point.” It was recently revealed that Manafort did secret propaganda work on behalf of Putin before working for Trump.
Watts’ second example was Trump using a fake news story to attack Clinton during an October 10 rally in Wilkes-Barre.
“This just came out a little while ago. I have to tell you this,” Trump told the audience, reading from a sheet of paper that he said contained the text of an email written by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.
“The attack was almost certainly preventable,” Trump read, alluding to Benghazi. “Clinton was in charge of the State Department… if the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.”
But Blumenthal never wrote that. An NPR report explains the context:
For Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald, the words Trump read sounded familiar. It turns out they were taken from an article he wrote, which Blumenthal had included in an email. So they were not Blumenthal’s words, but Eichenwald’s.
The misconstrued “email” that Trump was reading had appeared in an article on a Russia-funded website called Sputnik, which has since taken it down…
It’s unclear how Trump obtained the same misinformation that appeared in Sputnik. Eichenwald asks: “Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?”
During his testimony, Watts described the article Trump read as “a fake news story from Sputnik News that disappeared from the internet.”
“He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claims that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News… all the way up until the election,” Watts continued. “He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen… So, part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same line.”
Fake news can be effective. A poll released earlier this week found that 74 percent of Republicans now believe Trump’s evidence-free claim that his Trump Tower office “were wiretapped, or under government surveillance during the 2016 presidential campaign.” When House Intelligence Committee chair and former Trump transition official Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) made a clumsy attempt to validate Trump’s claim last week, the story was quickly amplified by Sputnik and RT.
Beyond the virtual component of Russia’s meddling, Watts encouraged committee members to “follow the trail of dead Russians.”
“There have been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation, who have assets in banks all over world,” he said. “They are dropping dead even in Western countries.”
Watts also expressed concern that the Trump administration won’t ultimately protect people like him.
“I’m going to walk out of here today, I’m going to be cyberattacked, I’m going to be discredited by trolls. My biggest fear isn’t being on Putin’s hit list or psychological warfare targeting me — I’ve been doing that for two years,” he said. “My biggest concern right now is I don’t know what the American stance is on Russia, on who is going to take care of me. After years in the Army and the FBI, working in the intel community — today, I’m going to walk out of here and ain’t nobody going to be covering my back. I’m going to be on my own, and so that’s very disconcerting.”
The expert witnesses on Thursday testified that Russia’s “active measures” are ongoing in the U.S. and are also being used in elections in France and Germany.
The Trump White House is still parroting and amplifying “active measures” including this “fake news” story about Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia who served in that role from 2012 until she resigned at the end of October 2015.
The fact check site Snopes.com has already debunked this fake news story. Did Evelyn Farkas Just Leak Information Confirming President Obama Spied on President Trump?: “Nothing said or repeated by Evelyn Farkas on 2 March 2017 was novel or ostensibly more revealing than the New York Times article published just before her interview, and Farkas described the actions of Washington operatives (not President Obama) to preserve extant intelligence about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election (not to spy on Donald Trump).”
Nevertheless, White House Press Secretary “Baghdad Sean” Spicer today used this fake news in his press conference after it has been widely circulated in the conservative media entertainment complex this week. The Washington Post reports, The latest attempt to validate Trump’s wiretapping claim? An Obama official who left in 2015.
This week, a new and unlikely hero: Evelyn Farkas.
Farkas is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia who served in that role from 2012 until she resigned at the end of October 2015. On March 2, she appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” discussing a New York Times article about how the Obama administration had tried to ensure that evidence of Russia’s involvement in the election would not be lost under Trump.
HOST MIKA BRZEZINSKI: You actually knew about this attempt to get and preserve information and, full transparency, were doing some work yourself. Tell us about that.
FARKAS: Well, I was urging my former colleagues, and, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill — it was more, actually, aimed at telling the Hill people: Get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can, before President Obama leaves the administration, because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people that left. So it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy.
That the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about their, the staff, the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence. So I became very worried, because not enough was coming out into the open, and I knew that there was more.
We have very good intelligence on Russia. So then I had talked to some of my former colleagues, and I knew that they were trying to also help get information to the Hill.
BRZEZINSKI: A lot going on today.
FARKAS: But that’s why you have the leaking.
During his daily news briefing on Thursday, press secretary “Baghdad Sean” Spicer twice referred to those comments from Farkas, which had been featured on conservative radio and on Fox News’ website the day prior.
“[I]f I can go back for a second to something that the Obama administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense noted very clearly on the record,” Spicer said, “that they were engaged in an effort to spread information about Trump officials that had come up in intelligence. That’s not — that is several networks. Evelyn Farkas made that proclamation about what was going on during the Obama administration regarding the Trump team. So that is something that they made very clear on the record.”
Asked about it by radio host Hugh Hewitt, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called it “incredible.”
“[I]t’s so cavalier and unbelievable that I just wonder whether this person knows what the heck she’s talking about,” Priebus said.
The headline on the Fox News story summarized the defense: “Former Obama official discloses rush to get intelligence on Trump team.”
You’ll notice that we’re a few steps removed from the Trump tweets themselves. Trump’s wiretapping claims were somehow validated by what Nunes had seen — granting Trump the flexibility that “wiretapping” didn’t necessarily mean an actual wiretap but instead broad surveillance and that “his phones” meant communications systems that may not have been actual phones and may not have been actually his and may not have been actually at Trump Tower. But then the administration was forced to defend how Nunes got that information in the first place, which is how we end up at Farkas: It wasn’t necessarily someone at the White House who leaked that information to Nunes (though reporting suggests that it was).
[I]f you look at Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense that is out there, Evelyn Farkas, she made it clear that it was their goal to spread this information around, that they went around and did this. And she said, “That’s why there are so many leaks.” They have admitted on the record that this was their goal — to leak stuff. And they literally — she said on the record “Trump’s team.” There are serious questions out there about what happened and why and who did it. And I think that’s really where our focus is in making sure that that information gets out.
That’s not really what Farkas said. She said that she had encouraged people in the administration and on Capitol Hill to investigate links between the Trump campaign and Russia in the window before Trump took office and to protect that information from the incoming administration, lest the methods used to collect it be compromised and the information buried. That concern that the truth be known, she said, is why information was being leaked — and she hoped what wasn’t leaked was protected.
Update: Farkas spoke to The Post’s Karen De Young on Thursday night, saying that she “didn’t give anybody anything except advice.” In an interview with the [right-wing] Daily Caller, she said, “I had no intelligence whatsoever, I wasn’t in government anymore and didn’t have access to any.”
* * *
It’s critical to remember here, though, that Farkas wasn’t a part of the administration. She’s someone who had access to information about Russia while she worked for the Defense Department, but she left that role before Trump won a single vote in a single primary. She certainly still knew people within the administration, and she mentions them. But the only thing she attributes to people who still worked for the administration is that they were “trying to also help get information to the Hill” — precisely what the Times story said.
This is mostly sleight of hand. The question of why Trump tweeted what he did has largely been answered, with even Nunes admitting that there’s no evidence Trump was wiretapped. The question of how Nunes got his information is still a bit uncertain, but it’s coming into focus. It seems pretty clear, though, that — unless your question is the already-answered one of whether or not there was any investigation into Trump at all — what someone who didn’t work for Obama at all during 2016 said two days before Trump’s tweets didn’t have much to do with any of it.
The conservative media entertainment complex and the Trump administration are using “active measures” to disseminate “fake news” to draw attention away from a National Security Council scandal and a Rep. Devin Nunes scandal all in an effort to validate Trump’s unsubstantiated tweets from several weeks ago.
You may want to check to see whether RT and Sputnik, Putin’s propaganda outlets, and his army of trolls are parroting “Baghdad Sean” Spicer’s “fake news” story now.
This is what FBI Director James Comey meant by “coordination” in investigating Russia’s active measures to interfere in the U.S. election.
UPDATE: The New York Times fact checks “Baghdad Sean” Spicer. Sean Spicer Misquotes Evelyn Farkas in Latest Defense of Trump’s Wiretapping Claim:
“Baghdad Sean” Spicer, the White House press secretary, continued on Friday to use misdirection and misleading claims to defend President Trump’s contention that former President Barack Obama spied on him, as well as Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.
Here is an assessment.
Mr. Spicer cited remarks by a former Obama official, Dr. Evelyn Farkas, as proof.
THIS IS MISLEADING Mr. Spicer is distorting Ms. Farkas’s potential knowledge of the situation, what she actually said and the context in which she said it.
Ms. Farkas served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to October 2015, and had left the administration well before 2016, when Mr. Trump claims, without proof, Mr. Obama wiretapped his phones.
Second, Ms. Farkas did not say Mr. Obama spied on Mr. Trump, but instead expressed concern that intelligence on Russia would be buried or sources would be compromised under the new administration.
According to Mr. Spicer, this is what Ms. Farkas said, although the part in bold seems to be Mr. Spicer’s own addition:
“I was urging my former colleagues, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill. I was telling people on the Hill, ‘Get as much information as you can. Get as much intelligence as you can.’ I had a fear that they were essentially watching the Trump staff and he was worried about the Trump administration.”
Here is what Ms. Farkas actually said:
“I was urging my former colleagues, and, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill — it was more, actually, aimed at telling the Hill people: Get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can, before President Obama leaves the administration, because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people that left. So it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy.”
She went on to say: “That the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about their, the staff, the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence. So I became very worried, because not enough was coming out into the open, and I knew that there was more.”
And third, Ms. Farkas was discussing a March 1 New York Times article about Obama administration officials seeking to preserve and spread information Russia’s interference in the election, in order to leave a clear trail and to prevent interference in other elections.
The Times reported that American intelligence agencies and U.S. allies had surveilled Russian officials. Nowhere does the article state that Mr. Trump or his associates were the targets of intelligence gathering.
The real scandal continues to be how the conservative media entertainment complex and the Trump administration are using “active measures” to disseminate “fake news” to draw attention away from a National Security Council scandal and a Rep. Devin Nunes scandal all in an effort to validate Trump’s unsubstantiated tweets from several weeks ago.