April 2017 – John Lenczowski, president of the Institute of World Politics and former State Department and National Security Council official, argues that the U.S. national security community “has systematically neglected…the entire field of perceptions management, propaganda, strategic deception, information warfare and strategic influence.” This field includes operations aimed at “discrediting adversaries, supporting political movements…and the subversion of governments and organizations”—operations in which the Soviets and their Russian heirs specialize. The West’s failure to respond to these operations has led to a range of security challenges, including the normalization of authoritarian systems, the erosion of support for the Western alliance system, and the discrediting of institutions and ideas that make the West unique—representative government, political and religious pluralism, majority rule with minority rights, economic and political freedom, and the rule of law.
Before discussing how to respond to Moscow’s latest assault on the West, it’s important to point out where and how Moscow is carrying out its campaign of “information warfare and strategic influence.”
As The Washington Post reports, U.S. intelligence agencies conclude “Russian President Vladi¬mir Putin ordered a cyber-enabled influence campaign in 2016 aimed at undermining confidence in the election.” This operation came into focus for most Americans when reports emerged that the Russian government had hacked into the computer system of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and then selectively leaked emails that were damaging to the campaign of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Throughout the summer and early fall of 2016, these “weaponized leaks” revealed collusion between the DNC and certain media outlets, unfair treatment of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, the use of the Clinton Global Initiative (a nonprofit organization) as a source of personal income for the Clinton family, hostility toward religious voters, and plans to exploit Sanders’ stance on religion.
This information, along with the fact that Russian intelligence did not make a similar effort to leak information damaging to the Trump campaign, likely had a negative impact on Clinton’s campaign. It’s important to note, however, that when FBI Director James Comey was asked during congressional testimony, “Do you have any evidence at the FBI that any votes were changed?” he responded, “No…We saw no efforts aimed at the vote itself.” In addition, Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, reported, “We did not see anything that amounted to altering ballot counts or degrading the ability to report election results…We see no evidence that hacking by any actor altered the ballot count or…deprived people of voting.”
Moscow’s targets extend far beyond the United States. Russian intelligence has conducted similar disinformation campaigns against the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, and Britain, Newsweek reports. An EU investigation has revealed that Russia used disinformation and so-called “fake news” campaigns to influence political outcomes in France.
According to Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO, Russia has “overtly interfered in the political processes of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro” and “is taking steps to influence the internal politics of European countries” in order “to create disunity and weakness within Europe.” In 2016, as Defense News reports, officials in Montenegro revealed a Russian-funded plot to disrupt elections and “set up a new administration loyal to Russia.”
Freedom House adds that Russia tried to influence a referendum in Italy and has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through…theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.”
Russia spreads this propaganda through a network of websites and false-front news organizations. Some are unwitting accomplices; some are backed and funded by the Russian government. As the Washington Post reports, 200 websites were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.” Plus, stories “planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign” on Facebook were viewed more than 213 million times. “Some of these stories originated with RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the style and tone of independent news organizations yet sometimes include false and misleading stories in their reports.”
Other stories relied on Potemkin websites like the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring to lend an air of legitimacy to pro-Russian propaganda.
The consequences of Russia’s strategic influence campaign are subtle but far-reaching. Although Russia played no part in tampering with ballots, all the talk of Russian hacking has the effect of raising Russia’s profile and capacity to intimidate; undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Trump administration, and weakening the faith of some Americans in their political system.
Mark Kelton, who served in the CIA for 34 years, says Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the U.S. reaction to it are “serving to advance Putin’s overarching goals of degrading American power, denigrating American ideals, and driving a wedge between President Trump and the U.S. intelligence community.”
“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government,” argues Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute tells the Washington Post.
NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett calls Russia’s actions “a challenge to the foundations of our democracy.”
The challenge is not new. Foreign influence in the U.S. political process concerned the founders. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist #68 that given “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” the Constitution should erect “every practicable obstacle” to prevent such “intrigue and corruption.”
In his farewell address, President George Washington thundered against the “insidious wiles of foreign influence,” “mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and “avenues to foreign influence.” He used the words “foreign” and “world” 17 times in his valedictory—almost all of them in a negative light. These words have served as the rally cry for isolationists. However, neither Washington nor the nascent American Republic was isolationist. After all, as historian Marion Smith details, the United States conducted 41 treaty negotiations between 1783 and 1800, and the number of U.S. consular posts jumped from 10 in 1790 to 52 by 1800. The Congressional Research Service notes that between 1798 and 1810, the U.S. landed Marines in the Dominican Republic, waged war on the Barbary States of Africa, invaded Spanish holdings in Mexico and sent troops to occupy parts of Spanish Florida. These are not the actions of some isolationist hermit republic.
Far from opposing international engagement and a forward-leaning foreign policy, Washington was concerned about foreign influence on America’s political process and political institutions. “History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” he observed, urging his countrymen “to be constantly awake” to such dangers.
That brings us to crafting a response.
The post-election flurry of congressional hearings suggests that the legislative branch is awake to the danger. Now, Congress must resist the temptation to flutter away to some other issue du jour, because Moscow will surely return to this playbook.
To safeguard America’s interests and preserve the integrity of America’s institutions, Congress should play a real oversight role by forming a select joint committee of seasoned members of the House and Senate to monitor, investigate, report and secure necessary funding for efforts to block attempts by foreign entities to interfere in the U.S. political-electoral system.
Scaparrotti urges Congress and the White House to “bring the information aspects of our national power more fully to bear on Russia, both to amplify our narrative and to draw attention to Russia’s manipulative, coercive and malign activities.” He recommends strengthening and then unleashing both the Russian Information Group (a joint effort of U.S European Command and the State Department) and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (a project charged with countering foreign disinformation campaigns).
Likewise, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls on Congress to revive the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which countered Moscow’s propaganda during the Cold War. Clapper wants “a USIA on steroids to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than we’re doing right now.”
Noting that “collection, analysis, and countermeasures had effectively stopped by 1988,” Lenczowski argues that “We must revive our public diplomacy, information operations, and political, psychological, and ideological warfare capabilities.”
All of these atrophied in the post-Cold War period, as the U.S. and its allies came to believe there was no longer a need to defend, let alone promote, the institutions of the West. For instance, USIA was shut down in 1999. In 2011, the Obama administration announced plans to end Voice of America broadcasts in China’s main languages of Mandarin and Cantonese, even as China was pouring $7 billion into overseas propaganda and launching 60 U.S. affiliates of its state-run TV network. Today, there are reports that Washington is “planning to cut funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”
When faced with similar challenges to Western institutions and ideas, President Reagan didn’t cut funding for agencies committed to promoting free government. Instead, he helped create the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”
In a similar way, perhaps it’s time for the world’s foremost groupings of democratic nations—the G-7, European Union, NATO and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia—to create a pool of resources to reinforce the infrastructure of democracy; to monitor and expose Moscow’s meddling; and to help those under information-warfare assault preserve the integrity of their political institutions.