“Russia, if you’re listening…”
Then-candidate Donald Trump uttered these words at a Florida campaign rally in July 2016 as a preface to an attack on how the Obama Justice Dept. had handled former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal. With those words, he also inadvertently widened an open door which subjected his own political campaign to an FBI investigation.
If you haven’t done so thus far, the release of the Mueller reports makes this an excellent opportunity to familiarize yourself with the terms “Crossfire Hurricane” and “Mid Year Exam.” These are the FBI code names for investigations the Bureau undertook in 2016 against Trump and then-candidate Hillary Clinton. You might also want to peruse the Washington Post article linked below. Four excellent Post reporters, Robert Costa, Carol Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Devlin Barrett, wrote in May 2018 that a Cambridge University retired professor (now known as Stefan Halper) acted in the role of agent provocateur in initiating meetings with Carter Page, Sam Clovis and George Papadopoulos.
At these meetings, Halper stated that he knew of Russia’s involvement in different aspects of the presidential election, and was asking those with ties to the Trump campaign if they were also aware. One example: In September 2016, Halper asked Papadopoulos if he knew that the Russians had Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
These conversations over summer 2016 are critical, because Halper was seeking verification from some in the Trump camp about information which LATER appeared in a dossier that another British citizen with close ties to the Bureau, Christopher Steele, presented to the FBI. Somehow Halper had knowledge of the dossier’s contents many months prior to its becoming publicly known in January 2017. (Incidentally, none of these approached were aware of the details which Halper had fed them.)
From where did Halper obtain his information? For whom did he work? Who paid Steele for his dossier? What are their backgrounds prior to 2016?
These are key questions, as the answers help the public better understand the motivations behind the FBI probe into the Trump campaign. My look into this (admittedly not extensive) takes me to this conclusion: By November 2016, those at the highest levels of our government began a disinformation campaign (DI for short) to convince key members of the media and others that there was collusion between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia. This campaign grew in intensity and pace, even as evidence proved the DI was untrue.
This sounds alarm bells for us all. Implicit behind the Mueller Report is this: It now appears that the FBI and others in the Obama Administration intelligence community orchestrated an effort to spy on a candidate for president, accuse the sitting president of crimes, and launch a 22-month long Special Prosecutor probe into something it knew did not happen.
John Solomon, executive vice president for thehill.com, devoted extensive investigative time in 2018 to unearthing text messages exchanged between FBI officials Peter Strzok, former Chief of the Counterespionage Section and Lisa Page, legal counsel.
Here is one of Strzok’s texts to Page about evidence of Russia collusion with the Trump campaign in May 2017: “You and I both know the odds are nothing. If I thought it was likely, I’d be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there’s no big there there.” (Emphasis added.)
Later in his column, Solomon astutely points out the ramifications of these facts:
“How concerned you are by this conduct is almost certainly affected by your love or hatred for Trump. But put yourself for a second in the hot seat of an investigation by the same FBI cast of characters: You are under investigation for a crime the agents don’t think occurred, but the investigation still advances because the desired outcome is to get you fired from your job. Is that an FBI you can live with?”
DI is the real enemy
With “Russia, are you listening…” Trump unwittingly provided high-level officials in the Justice Department, who (as evidenced in multiple Congressional hearings) were operating under political motivations, the opportunity to conduct surveillance (or spying, you choose your preferred word) on his campaign for the presidency.
What’s more tragic are the ramifications for our democracy when we allow campaigns of disinformation to dominate the national agenda.
What’s a DI campaign, you might ask?
The New York Times’ Adam Ellick, Adam Westbrook, and Jonah Kessel have crafted an excellent primer on disinformation and fake news, one which focuses on decades of Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, running DI campaigns worldwide against the United States. Anyone who’s concerned about fake news or other forms of dishonesty being used against the general public to influence public and thought-leader opinion should take some time and watch their excellent work, a video series titled Operation Infektion. A link to it is here:
The three-part video series runs about 50 minutes. If you care at all about whether our democracy should debate and discuss key issues based upon a common set of facts, invest the time.
One of the former Soviet Union spies in Operation Infektion provides this definition of DI: “To change the perception of reality … so no one is able to come to sensible conclusions.”
Another source in the video calls it deliberately distorted information, secretly leaked into communication process to deceive and manipulate us.
The Operation Infektion video series chronicles what it names “The Seven Commandments of Fake News” but let’s simplify this a bit. There are three elements common to all DI campaigns. The first is to base the “main point” of the campaign behind some truth, no matter how small it might be.
For Donald Trump, his “call out” about Clinton’s e-mails in 2016 created a kernel of thought that – just maybe – Trump had a campaign connection to Russia. What’s truly ironic about “Russia, if you’re listening…” is that, in fact, the Mueller report states that Russia did obtain e-mails and other information about Hillary Clinton and employed it in 2016.
The second key step: Create a false narrative. Operation Infektion points out how Soviet agents did this over and over again during the Cold War. A main example in the video series is the false allegation that the U.S. military “created” the AIDS virus to kill African Americans and gays (these are the terms used in the video). They track this falsehood from its origins to its airing on a “CBS Evening News” story several years later. The New York Times reporters document numerous other examples of false narratives, including that the CIA was involved in assassinating President Kennedy.
The third – and most important step – widely disseminate and publicize the false narrative that’s been created. The more traction the false story receives, the better.
During the Cold War, common techniques would be to get the false story to appear in third-world media with lower professional standards than U.S. journalists. But once the story runs anywhere, the DI campaigners were dedicated to getting other media outlets to repeat it. The US military/AIDS virus story first appeared in a newspaper in India, and later in publications in Europe. Next, two East Germany biologists “authenticate” the story with “scientific proof” of the falsehood. Finally, the story appears on a CBS Evening News broadcast.
As Step Three unfolds, the public is confused and divided. That is the antithesis of democracy. Having intelligent and reasoned discourse is possible only if we agree upon a basic set of facts. DI campaigns intent to completely dissolve that possibility. It’s why they are so dangerous.
What is especially distressful is the powerful, even intoxicating combination of Step Three and social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms serve to exponentially spread a DI campaign’s reach.
Here is an example: In downtown Houston in May 2016, groups called the “Heart of Texas” and “Save Islamic Knowledge” hold opposing rallies, right across Travis Street from each other. A reporter covering the rallies noted that organizers of each side didn’t even show up at the event. Upon investigation, it turned out that both organizations sprang from the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Russian perpetrators are among those whom Robert Mueller indicted as part of his investigation. Their “campaigns” were spread using social media.
One of the Operation Infektion journalists, Adam Ellick, himself a victim of a DI campaign in Pakistan, says this: “What I never imagined is that we’d be seeing this kind of toxic disinformation here at home in the (United) States.”
This – DI’s growing influence – is the real tragedy behind the Mueller investigation. It is especially disconcerting to realize that much of the so-called “witch hunt” really stems from the DI playbook which Ellick, Westbrook, and Kessel explain in great depth in their Operation Infektion video series.
Even more disconcerting: Russia’s activities to influence the 2016 presidential election began in early 2014. Why didn’t the Obama Administration take steps to prevent it from happening?
Why is it that – instead – elements of our government apparently began their own DI campaign in late 2016 against (then) President-elect Trump?
Just as disconcerting is this: Will 2020 be worse than 2016?
It’s not “Game Over” — what we can do
Contrary to President Trump’s Game of Thrones-like meme, posted on Twitter on April 18, nothing is really over. Political battles over the Mueller report will continue unabated. Divisions will deepen. The body politic will remain ill, primarily stemming from social media viral infections which unknowing people will spread. Tens of thousands of Texans “shared” posts — never knowing their source — from the Russian trolls whom (of course) were neither “Heart of Texas” or “Save Islamic Knowledge” in 2015 and 2016.
One thing we can all do — and it’s simple really — is to stop spreading fake news. My friends at Sage Publishing gave me permission to share a graphic they produced months ago. Look it over. Understand it. Utilize it as your guide so you don’t unknowingly contribute to the problem.
If you see phony stories posted on social media, take the time to report them. All major social media sites now respond very quickly to users who “flag” stories as being fictitious.
Finally, recognize what this writer ascertained a couple of years ago: It will take a concerted effort from the government, media, social media, and others to minimize the harmful effects of DI on our democracy. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and other nations are all taking active steps 24/7 to counter Russian DI efforts aimed at them. Let’s hope that sooner, rather than later, our leaders also choose to take strong action against disinformation.
Kerezy is associate professor of media & journalism studies at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and is also affiliated with Unified Strategies Public Relations (USPR). These are his views alone, and do not reflect the opinion of Cuyahoga Community College or any other groups with which Kerezy is affiliated.
Robert Costa, Carol Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Devlin Barrett, Washington Post, (2018) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/secret-fbi-source-for-russia-investigation-met-with-three-trump-advisers-during-campaign/2018/05/18/9778d9f0-5aea-11e8-b656-a5f8c2a9295d_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.343078897cb3
Smith, Lee (media columnist at The Tablet) (2018) https://thefederalist.com/2018/05/25/code-name-crossfire-hurricane-evidence-fbis-russia-cover-story/
Chen, Adrian (2016) https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-propaganda-about-russian-propaganda
Attkisson, Sharyl, “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote” (2017)
Pacepa, Miha and Rychlak, Ronald, “Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism” (2013)