Russia: Still typecast as the anti-U.S. bogey man
As Wikileaks churned out emails over the last year from Hillary Clinton’s private server, the Democratic National Committee, and John Podesta’s personal Gmail, attempts to discredit the content were waged by U.S. officials, journalists, and politicians. Julian Assange observes an effort to conflate leaks with hacks, muddying up details, and he implies that the Podesta leak came from domestic insiders.
In October 2016, trusted news outlets reported on faked documents in the Wikileaks troves, blaming Russia, without any supportive evidence. Newsweek pushed the story, it was echoed by MSNBC and Washington Post. As a result, I watched Hillary supporters on social media rebut and deny the Wikileaks dumps through election day. But there were no falsified documents aside from those presented by the same people waging the accusation.
The new Russia scare quickly ramped up following the pizzagate controversy — a conspiracy theory alleging that Podesta and other prominent democrats operate a child sex trafficking ring — several weeks after the election. I view this whole phenomenon as just one symptom of a crisis in journalism. If the press and broadcast networks were trusted institutions, so much confusion would not be possible. It does not bode well for the political establishment either.
Fake news is the presentation of a story that has not actually occurred. The narrative is often supported by disjointed facts organized to support a claim that can’t be verified.
Conspiracy theorists accuse mainstream media of routinely staging news, repeating unverified facts, using actors for witnesses, quoting anonymous experts, and using green screens or stage sets while claiming to be live on the scene. Regular people throwing around the term “false flag” has become far too common. They name Sandy Hook, the Boston Bombing, the first Gulf War, and now the Comet Ping Pong Gunman related to pizzagate, as incidents to look at, among others.
Even if you set aside all those alleged sinister deep state plots, a trove of innocuous examples of staged news events prove that broadcasters indulge in it more often than they should. Sometimes it’s inane and seemingly benign, like this example of a reporter who faked rowing a canoe through a street, while reporting on a flood. As if on cue to spoil her shot, two men walk by providing a real measure of the flood depth. The camera zooms out like it’s going downstream, while the canoe is somehow moved, perhaps with submerged ropes. Hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric make light of this incredibly needless stunt, which somehow gobbles production costs and advertisers.
Brian Williams falsely recalled being shot down in a helicopter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but actual air force officers corrected his story and forced an apology. NBC News discovered the famous anchorman has “exaggerated” his reporting on at least at eleven occasions. Since, Williams has secured a $10 million dollar annual contract to continue broadcasting. Here he is reporting on Michael Flynn’s fake news tweets related to pizzagate.
If millions of Americans have lost faith in the establishment and they’re getting juicy morsels of fake news from indie reporters just like them, who confirm their distrust — but don’t confirm the facts — I cannot blame anyone for indulging in it. I do however admonish the millionaire broadcasters of the free press for producing it.
Hitler’s justification to invade Poland, which set off World War II in Europe, is known as The Gleiwitz Incident. German men masqueraded as Polish armies and staged an occupation of a German radio station to broadcast anti-German rhetoric in the Polish tongue. German listeners heard it and believed it. It is a textbook false flag operation directly tied to mass media.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified on fake news concocted by the American intelligence community about Iraqi chemical weapons that didn’t exist. Two generations before that, misreported incidents at the Gulf of Tonkin justified the Vietnam War. Reports of unprovoked Vietnamese aggression were delivered to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who delivered it to President Johnson, and the worldwide media.
These are not conspiracy theories — this is common knowledge. Fake news is dangerous. Over a million total casualties in Vietnam and over half a million died in Iraq. That these disasters occurred after lessons learned from Hitler, Americans should really be soul-searching for the answer as to why our news outlets toe the line whenever intelligence officials make public statements.
Andrew Cockburn’s December feature in Harper’s Magazine entitled “The New Red Scare” provides a recent example of the U.S. carrying out cyber attacks by using techniques originated from its own enemies, while posing as rogue entities to the public. Cockburn writes:
A tool developed by the Chinese to attack Google in 2009 was later reused by the so-called Equation Group against officials of the Afghan government. So the Afghans, had they investigated, might have assumed they were being hacked by the Chinese. Thanks to a leak by Edward Snowden, however, it now appears that the Equation Group was in fact the NSA.
The context of these cyber attacks would be the post-invasion democratically elected U.S.-backed Afghan government, and not The Taliban. Cockburn’s history of American exaggeration and fakery to justify military spending is eye-opening. Even after President Obama was elected on a platform of nuclear disarmament, a massive rearmament scheme estimated to cost $1 trillion was shuffled into legislation. It was made to look like a simple update plan, and remains ongoing.
This December, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the CIA began pushing a new Cold War narrative: Russia compromised the U.S. elections and were responsible for all the Wikileaks publications, and that we should be vigilant against the new Russian cyber threat.
As the story developed, claims of Russia targeting vital infrastructure while using their diplomats as spies caused new sanctions, and the Russian diplomats were tossed out of the U.S. during the holidays. Arizona Senator John McCain called Russia’s alleged cyber aggression an act of war — a statement he since walked back.
The news of Russia hacks related to Wikileaks remain ‘alleged’ and will probably always be.
Progressive journalists such as Cockburn and Glenn Greenwald have poked holes through the narrative presented by intelligence officers. They cite cyber security professionals, including John McAfee and Jeffrey Carr. The sum total of evidence in support of Kremlin-ordered hacks are thin. They also criticize the tactic as a distraction from the utter failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign managed by John Podesta, not to mention the embarrassment of being hacked in the first place. The news of Russia hacks related to Wikileaks remain “alleged” and will probably always be.
President-elect Donald Trump has been lambasted for comparing the CIA to Nazi Germany, and for pointing out that they haven’t been very reliable. He has also been the victim of fake news (and has repeated plenty of it too). Nonsense about Trump ordering a golden shower from a prostitute in his hotel room came straight from an investigator funded by the Clinton campaign. Having turned up nothing of value, the information was faked. It was leaked to the press after making the rounds through intelligence communities.
The Perceived Threat is Better than the Real Thing
As Russia and the U.S. have long established their nuclear deterrents, the cyber arms race has only begun. To justify the development of cyber weapons, a threat must be identified.
Putin knows the extent to which the U.S. has exaggerated Russian mightiness, but has to present himself as fighting toe to toe with America. Currently, Russia could not compete with our fighter jets, cannot fight our navy, is outnumbered by our army, and hasn’t the tools to take down our infrastructure by cyber means.
According to recent polling, around 80% of Americans view Russia as a threat. The unfavorable view of Russia started ramping up after their intervention in Ukraine, again with Syria, and was jacked up after the hacking allegations. Russians, rightfully so, view the 2014 uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Russia president Yanukovich as an invasion from the West with NATO forces digging in at their border. The issue comes with some history.
Viktor Yanukovich won the 2004 election. The result was contested by western-backed groups that propelled a resistance movement which helped their chosen candidate Yushchenko succeed in a runoff election. After significant failures in the Yushchenko administration, Yanukovich became Prime Minister in 2006 and President in 2010. After dashing an EU economic agreement, in 2013, electing for closer ties with Russia, another resistance movement erupted, ousting the democratically elected leader.
When Ukraine’s southern territory Crimea was annexed by Russia in March of 2014, it was done without a whimper of resistance from the people. Soon thereafter, a referendum to split off from Ukraine went up to Crimeans, with a passage of 96.77% voting yes. Western governments continue citing this as an illegitimate vote to justify sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, ubiquitous Russian flags fly all over Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city, to color the popular attitude that Crimeans (who are fluent Russian speakers) will always feel allied with the Kremlin, not with Kiev, and certainly not with the EU.
I can also understand Putin’s motivation to influence the U.S. into voting for Trump. Before Trump was elected, Hillary Clinton’s language and Barack Obama’s posturing looked like preparation for war, to Putin. If he sought to influence Americans by exposing Clinton, thereby assisting Trump in victory, then he very well dashed a cyber if not nuclear war and further sanctions against his struggling economy.
Americans seem aloof to the notion that numerous American agencies since the 1980’s have advanced non-military strategies to influence international affairs. Way back in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin was elected Russian President by the help of American advisors, Time Magazine boasted that move. It was an influence campaign dramatically more sophisticated and better funded than the one Putin has been charged with undertaking against Clinton.
The National Democratic Institute is one among numerous American organizations throughout post-U.S.S.R. years tasked with converting Russia into a free market society. An assessment of their work observed that NDI electioneering techniques had transformed Russian political parties, who were now “organizing more sophisticated press operations that attempt to create news and respond to events.” Let me just observe that again, “to create news.”
Despite the achievements of democracy assistance organizations in Russia, we regard their democratically chosen leader as the enemy. Vladimir Putin remains highly popular among his own people. His own cold war with the United States is cheered on, and he needs a bogey-man as much as we need it.
President Putin has developed a political climate that fends off foreign interference. Protest movements have been cracked down upon, and his government effectively polices foreign money that would bolster them. His critics are silenced, and dissidents imprisoned. I don’t admire Putin’s climate of fear, but I don’t advocate for meddling either.
Continued projects toward democratization in Russia have relaxed since the Bush Administration, but two strategies remain in action: “offshoring” and “onlining.” Freedom House provides “Democracy Shelter” in Lithuania for Russian activists, an example of offshoring. As it sounds, onlining involves the use of technology to promote communication for resistance movements.
It is safe to assume that the leaders of third world countries are more aware of U.S. spying, influence campaigns, and covert wars than American citizens are. Meddling in other countries has become the norm. If we believe our country is the beacon of democracy, then we must also accept that we are setting the example. The example we set is that powerful democracies should operate with soft imperialism. American citizens must demand an end to international meddling altogether if we want to see it end here.