Fifty-four years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. While Lee Harvey Oswald was declared to be his killer, conspiracy stories abounded. The most striking piece of evidence to suggest Oswald was not the assassin rested in the Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 mm rifle that he bought for $19.99, which was was notoriously inaccurate. A number of marksmen were tasked with recreating the fatal shots under similar conditions, but none succeeded.
What is not a conspiracy is Russia’s use of cyber and zeroes and ones to interfere in the West’s politics. While President Donald Trump seems prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word that Moscow did not intervene in American elections, 16 U.S. intelligence agencies disagree. To give added credibility to these allegations, British Prime Minister Theresa May vigorously protested Russian meddling in the Brexit vote and demanded Putin stop it.
Putin has of course exercised plausible deniability. Despite absolute proof of Russia-based web sites and evidence of direct involvement of the government-funded Internet Research Agency in using bots, trolls and fake news, Moscow still claims innocence. But given this cheap and effective tool to manipulate and sow discord in the West, do not expect this cyber intrusion to stop soon.
Putin is a former intelligence office and a Judo expert. Assessing strengths and weaknesses and turning both into advantage are part of his tool kit. And it is a tool kit that can turn American strength into weakness, beginning with the Constitution.
The U.S. political system is based on a division of power among three branches of government. Its public is protected by the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, the press, religion and the assumption of innocence until proven otherwise. Its citizens freely elect their governors. But in the age of the Internet, zeroes and ones become formidable weapons.
American politicians grasp this reality in seeking elected office. The Trump campaign reportedly spent nearly $100 million on analyzing the public’s Internet preferences and exploited that knowledge by targeting campaign material. In some ways, this strategy outsmarted the Clinton campaign and may have been successful in swaying the 70,000 votes in the three states that determined the election. Putin and his colleagues clearly understood this means of influence, and possibly before American politicians did. And Russians, paid or encouraged by the state, took action.
To Putin, free speech and complete access to the press along with deep divisions between Republican and Democrats are tempting targets. With bots, trolls, disinformation and cunning, Moscow can cause damage to the West and the U.S. while avoiding war, which would be suicide.
What then would such a campaign of disruption and sowing of dissension look like? Given the current allegations and evidence of sexual scandals that reach from coast to coast, presumptions about being innocent until proven otherwise no longer exist in the court of public opinion, even though such conduct clearly could be criminal. Why not plant further scandalous news about America’s elected and appointed leaders alleging sexual misconduct and corrupt financial dealings?
Done cleverly, Russia could induce a Democratic majority in 2018 by discrediting Republicans. Such a campaign would guarantee political paralysis at least until 2020. While Putin denies any collusion with the Trump team, using members of the president’s family as targets for disinformation or false information would be tempting. For the many Americans who disapprove of Trump, showing guilt on the part of his inner circle would be powerful ammunition.
Ironically, guarantees of freedom in the American system could be—and emphasis is on could be—manipulated to discredit and disrupt government. And if you’re sitting in Putin’s chair, the prospect is quite attractive.
Dr. Harlan Ullman has Served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-2016) and is currently Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His newest book Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts is just out. The writer can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.