The news keeps getting worse. Alarming evidence of how deep the Kremlin’s got its tentacles in Washington mounts by the day. Large-scale hacking by Russian cyber-warriors didn’t just hit the Democratic National Committee, it stole emails from a wide array of top power-players, including the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO’s military boss.
Systematic Russian cyber-attacks on the DNC and related political targets in Washington were detected over a year ago by the National Security Agency, which monitors foreign cyber shenanigans, but the highly classified nature of this intelligence made it difficult to alert Congress about Kremlin espionage.
That the Russians stood behind this operation, using well-known hacking cut-outs, was established early by NSA. “It was the Kremlin, we had them cold,” explained an NSA official with direct knowledge of the case: “Moscow didn’t care we knew, they were unusually brazen.”
Although Democrats were the main focus of this espionage effort, prominent Republicans got hit too. Sen. John McCain was a target of the Russians, which is no surprise given his reputation as a hardliner on Kremlin matters. When President George W. Bush stated that he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…I was able to get a sense of his soul,” McCain famously retorted, “I looked in Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters—a K, a G, and a B.”
Under President Putin, Moscow again refers to United States as their Main Adversary, just as the KGB did during the last Cold War, and there can’t be many American politicians that Putin and his Kremlin loathe more than straight-talking John McCain.
To be clear, there’s nothing strange about a country spying on its adversaries. Everybody spies, and here the Russians are merely doing what any state would do—and what NSA does to the Russians and others right now. Espionage, human or electronic, is a normal aspect of the SpyWar that’s technically illegal but everybody participates in.
What the Russians are now engaged in, though, is something different and more serious. The Kremlin is weaponizing stolen information for political effect. This is something like what American spies term covert action, which includes the use of propaganda for political advantage over foreign adversaries.
Our press and politicians increasingly dance to a tune being called in Moscow.
However, what the Kremlin is doing here is far more aggressive since it’s aimed at directly influencing American politics in an election year. This falls under the rubric of what Russian spies call Active Measures, and they’ve been doing this a long time. This was a Moscow staple during the Cold War, when the KGB used Western fronts to disseminate disinformation—a mix of truth and fiction aimed at distorting political debate.
This was sometimes effective at confusing Western publics, particularly when Active Measures employed realistic-looking fake NATO or American documents, and some of the KGB’s more enduring disinformation schemes—for instance, the lie that the Pentagon created AIDS—still reverberate today, over three decades after the Kremlin launched them.
The Russians are still playing this game. Wikileaks, nowadays a transparent Kremlin front, disseminated some 20,000 purloined DNC emails that were stolen by Russian intelligence. Now we have another hacking group that’s really a Russian spy front pushing stolen information to embarrass the Democrats. They’ve just released the personal phone numbers and email addresses of virtually all the Democrats in the House of Representatives. It’s no wonder Hillary Clinton and her campaign are worried about the Kremlin launching an October Surprise to cripple the Democrats on the eve of our election.
Make no mistake about what Moscow’s up to here. This is a brazen effort to intimidate American elected officials, showing the Kremlin’s secret power over our country’s politics. In the Cold War we called this subversion, meaning trying to undermine our political system, and what Putin’s doing right now is nothing less than a direct, albeit covert, attack on our democracy.
That said, the most insidious impact of the Kremlin’s Active Measures on our democracy is how it creates fake arguments over fake issues—to distract pundits, politicians, and the public from the real issues we face. The current Russian regime excels at this, and under President Putin such KGB tricks have been used to shift domestic politics into the realm of fantasy, where “nothing is true and everything is possible,” in the words of the top analyst of this political trickery. Now Moscow is doing this to America.
This is how our news cycle gets taken over by non-stories based on half-truths (when not outright lies) that portray Russia in a positive light and the West in a negative one. This was somewhat easier to detect in the last Cold War, when Moscow’s mouthpieces were usually left-wingers who spouted easy-to-spot Kremlinisms.
Putinism has mixed up those political categories and today’s Useful Idiots and Fellow Travelers (to use vintage KGB terms with current relevance) can now be found on both the left and the right, in the United States just as in Europe. Hence we have Stephen Cohen, a lefty professor who’s taken the Kremlin line for decades, and who’s married to the editor and part-owner of The Nation, being extolled by certain Republicans for his pro-Putin pontifications. Recently the right-wing agitator Roger Stone, a Trump mouthpiece, praised Cohen’s pro-Russian arguments as a “bitch-slap” in a memorable tweet.
The central role of the Donald Trump presidential campaign must be acknowledged here. As I’ve explained in column after column, the GOP nominee has surrounded himself with advisors who possess troubling ties to Moscow, some of whom are on the Kremlin payroll. It’s therefore no surprise that Trump is now mouthing crude Russian propaganda on the campaign trail, including his outrageous smear of President Obama as the “founder” of the Islamic State, which has been a staple of Russian Active Measures for a couple years now.
The increasing Kremlinization of the Trump campaign merits a close look. Its mouthpiece Stone, who admits he’s been in touch with Julian Assange, in sync with the Wikileaks founder insists that all the hacking of the Democrats has nothing to do with Moscow—even though, when directly confronted by Bill Maher over his Kremlin links, Assange refused to answer the question and awkwardly redirected.
This is classic disinformation, with a subtle wink taking the place of argument and fact. This KGB technique has insidiously burrowed its way deep into the Trump campaign. Assange recently gave an interview in which he slyly hinted that Seth Rich, a young DNC staffer murdered last month in Washington, may have been a Wikileaks source. The implication is that Rich spilled Clinton’s secrets and was therefore gunned down in cold blood.
This is an ugly slur for which Assange presented no evidence—since there isn’t any, this being no more than an attack on a dead man who can’t respond to the accusation—and soon it was being parroted by the right-wing online echo chamber that fervently backs Trump. This crowd likes to nebulously pin myriad unsolved deaths on Team Clinton in a fact-free fashion, and soon the Trump campaign joined the bandwagon.
Like clockwork, Roger Stone pointed a finger at the Clintons in Seth Rich’s unsolved murder. Stone has blamed the Clinton machine for countless crimes, including homicide, so this was nothing new. Except that this particular Active Measure is coordinated with Kremlin fronts like Wikileaks for political effect—to hurt the Democrats to Moscow’s benefit. Although there’s zero evidence that Seth Rich leaked DNC secrets, much less that his tragic death had anything to do with the Clintons, you can expect this nasty lie to live online for decades to come. Kremlin disinformation operations, like diamonds, are sometimes forever.
There’s an obvious pattern at work here. Take the lie that Obama “founded” ISIS. Much of this stems from reports last year that the White House, through the Pentagon, was secretly backing the Islamic State in Syria. This line, peddled by fringe websites both left and right, was given a smidge of credibility by shady comments made by Mike Flynn, the Trump campaign’s national security guru, who also happens to be very friendly to the Kremlin. But the essence of the story is provably false and the Pentagon intelligence report this Big Lie is based on actually says the opposite of what the conspiracy-mongers claim. In this arena, facts have no meaning anymore.
Kremlin lies have become disturbingly routine in our politics. This goes beyond Trump. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee, has made statements every bit as pro-Putin as anything emanating from Team Trump. In an interview with RT, the Kremlin propaganda network, Johnson defended the Kremlin’s theft of Crimea in early 2014, stating that it was an internal Russian matter since Ukraine was really “like Puerto Rico” is to America, in other words a territory, not a sovereign country.
Things are no better on the left, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein is strangely friendly to the Kremlin too, calling for close partnership with Moscow during an appearance on—you guessed it—RT. Stein attended that network’s anniversary gala in Moscow last year, sitting at the same table of honor with President Putin as—you guessed it—Mike Flynn. Stein’s pro-Putin utterances are finally getting media attention, and she’s not helped her case by featuring Julian Assange, whom she’s hailed as a “hero,” as a keynote speaker at the Green Party’s recent convention.
Then there’s the matter of Hillary Clinton. None can fairly accuse her of sympathy for the Kremlin—I’m sure she’s seething with rage at Putin right now over his efforts to steal the election for Trump—but her inner circle, too, possesses questionable financial ties to Moscow, while some of her dealings with Russian firms have rightly raised suspicions among security experts.
To say nothing of her awful security lapses in EmailGate, which have rendered the country and her campaign vulnerable to espionage and blackmail. There’s every reason to believe that the Kremlin has her emails from her time as secretary of state, even the 30,000 deleted ones, while NSA experts I know think many of the subsequent hacks of the DNC can be traced back to Hillary’s slipshod computer security during Obama’s first term. Putin now possesses a vast trove of compromising materials, what the Russians term kompromat, on Hillary and her party thanks to her inattention to basic security.
We are therefore in the strange situation that the only major presidential contender in this election cycle lacking troubling ties to the Kremlin is the socialist Senator Bernie Sanders—who actually honeymooned in the Soviet Union back in 1988.
The gross intelligence failures of the Obama years combined with the Trump campaign’s bizarre bromance with Putin have birthed a genuine security crisis for the United States. We need to squarely face how bad things really are. This week a senior Intelligence Community official in Washington told me, with the GOP nominee acting as the Kremlin’s unwitting agent, we’re up against “the biggest counterintelligence threat faced by this country since the early Cold War.”
In other words, we’re back to the late 1940s, when our government was swarming with Kremlin moles in most of our cabinet departments and security agencies. They were giving Moscow everything they could get their hands on, from political gossip to top secret war plans, even how to make an atomic bomb. Communist agents and fronts were pervasive in our political life too.
The way we beat back that Kremlin spy offensive was with excellent intelligence, above all VENONA, the above-top-secret NSA program that gave a unique look into the clandestine operations of Soviet intelligence and its agents in the West. VENONA was how we knew Alger Hiss was a Communist spy and how we knew the Rosenbergs gave Moscow the atomic bomb.
VENONA was so valuable, our ace in the espionage hole, that hardly any American officials knew about it. The press and pundits knew nothing of it until after the Cold War’s end. Even President Harry Truman was briefed on VENONA only near the end of his tenure in the White House. This need to protect NSA’s great secret regrettably led to decades of wild rumors about the true extent of Soviet espionage back in the 1940s.
We need another VENONA to defeat the Kremlin’s current spy offensive—but do we have one? Regrettably there’s no reason to think we do. Our slipshod government cannot keep the most basic secrets these days, so it’s doubtful they could protect something so valuable as VENONA again.
To say nothing of the defection to Moscow three years ago of Edward Snowden, who took vast troves of highly classified materials with him. Since the Kremlin now admits Snowden’s their agent, it’s safe to assume he’s told the Russians everything about NSA he ever knew.
The bottom line is that Vladimir Putin has managed to penetrate our government and subvert our democracy in a fashion we haven’t seen in decades. Our press and politicians increasingly dance to a tune being called in Moscow. No matter who wins our election on November 8, the Kremlin looks set to be the real winner.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.