Information warfare is at the heart of the scandal engulfing the Trump administration. We spoke with four experts to help explain it, from WikiLeaks’ role to Putin’s long game—and Trump’s own use of disinformation. Here’s what they had to say.
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Andrei Soldatov is a longtime Russian investigative reporter, the co-founder of Agenta.ru, a website focusing on the Russian secret services, and the co-author of two books on Russian intelligence activities.
Mother Jones: Do you think WikiLeaks is actively coordinating with Russian interests?
Andrei Soldatov: Yeah, after 2016 I think it’s pretty clear.
MJ: How does that relationship work?
AS: The entire history of the Russian hacking operations is mostly outsourced operations, so you can easily deny your responsibility. It’s not so hierarchical and direct, like you have the government secret agency and you have WikiLeaks and you have one guy in between. It might be much more complicated.
MJ: Can you walk us through the ecosystem of how the Russian hacking operations work?
AS: You have three elements: You have the secret services, mostly the FSB. They have extremely good connections to criminal hackers and the IT industry because the FSB is also in charge of licensing all activities in cyber, like encryption. The military is a second actor, extremely active now, extremely adventurous. Then you have informal actors, people who have their own direct access to the Kremlin. Some of them might work for the security services, but a lot of these guys work directly for the administration of the president.
This tactic was developed in 1999, when the Chechens found a way to start all these websites about what’s going on in Chechnya. That was a real threat. So the security agencies got some students to hack these websites. And immediately the Kremlin understood that if you’ve got students, not government actors, attacking your targets, it provides you deniable responsibility. And immediately they started encouraging these people to attack other sensitive targets. Some targets were based in Russia: independent media, political opposition. Some were based outside the country. But the Kremlin understood outsourcing is much more effective. They have been using this trick ever since.
MJ: The US intelligence community has concluded that the hacking operation was closely directed by Putin.
AS: It’s entirely plausible to me. This election was really personal for Putin because he believed that Clinton is a personal enemy. He genuinely believed she was behind the Moscow protests in 2012, 2011. I do not think these groups would try to do something without his authorization or his knowledge. It would be really crazy.
MJ: How do everyday Russians view this whole episode?
AS: It’s a strange combination of two thoughts. The first one is, “Look how ridiculous are Americans. They blame us for everything.” And the second thought is, “Look how great we are. We are to blame for everything in the world, which means we are really, really important.”
The Dark Art of Kompromat
Steven Hall, who retired in 2015 after a decorated career at the CIA, ran the agency’s Russia operations.
Mother Jones: If you were involved in the Trump-Russia investigation, who or what would you hone in on?
Steven Hall: Mike Flynn, no doubt. It’s fun to think about what I would do if I was a Russian intelligence officer in charge of running these various operations. Not just the influence operation, which it’s quite clear now was pretty successful in increasing the likelihood that Donald Trump would be elected. But if I was the SVR [Russian foreign intelligence] guy who was told, “Okay, your job is to try to find whether there are members of the campaign who would be willing to play ball with us,” No. 1 on my list would be Flynn. First of all, he’s a former chief of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]. He’s an intelligence officer, so he understands how discreet and clandestine you need to be if you’re going to cooperate on that level. And then, there’s the future: He’s probably going to land a pretty good job, assuming Trump wins. So it’s a win-win-win in terms of targeting Flynn. Furthermore, he’s come to Moscow. He’s accepted money from Russian companies, and he’s tried to conceal that. So on paper, he’s a really good-looking candidate for a spy.
MJ: Is there any parallel to this moment that you saw in your 30-plus year career with the CIA?
SH: The short answer is no. There have certainly been big spy cases in the past—Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen. But I can’t think of one that would be as senior a guy as somebody like the national security adviser, or even more unprecedented—if it turns out that the Trump camp had the go-ahead from the big dog to talk to the Russians prior to the election.
MJ: How likely is it that the Kremlin has collected kompromat on Trump?
SH: I can absolutely tell you that the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] are rigged up to collect as much compromising information against any target they consider to be valuable. So when Trump was there in Russia, would they have collected against him? I think the answer is yes. I think they would have seen Trump for what he was at the time, which to the Russian lens would have just been an American oligarch—a rich guy with considerable power who you might need something on at some point…He’s a good guy to have at your beck and call.
If there was compromising material that had a shot at actually making Trump behave the way the Russians wanted him to, I would imagine it would be something financial—illegal, dirty dealings, or something with legal import.
MJ: Do you think Congress is able to investigate the Trump-Russia allegations effectively?
SH: I don’t think so, given where Congress is right now in terms of partisanship. There might have been a time historically—15, 20 years ago. Short of having an independent investigator or some other mechanism that can get rid of some of the partisanship, I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
Putin’s Long Game
Jack Barsky is a former KGB officer who spent a decade spying in the United States before defecting in 1988. His 2017 memoir, Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America, details his path from a Soviet intelligence operative to a proud US citizen.
Mother Jones: What type of intelligence interest would have been aroused by Donald Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow? Is it likely he was surveilled?
Jack Barsky: Absolutely. In today’s Russia—if you go over there and talk business with senior businessmen, then you’ve had some contact with Russian intelligence without knowing it.
MJ: Why was Russia so brazen in interfering in the US election?
JB: It wasn’t so much about getting Trump elected. It was about creating disorder, stirring up problems, destabilizing to the extent you can. Even prior to the internet, the KGB was famous for planting false news and somehow getting information circulated in the Western world that was entirely phony. They are taking advantage of the “weaknesses” of an open society. It’s actually a strength. But from the point of view of a tightly controlled regime, our openness, the ability to plant all kinds of information with all kinds of people because we don’t have a tightly, centrally controlled media—that is a weakness. They absolutely succeeded to some degree. And we are helping with this success. That’s what bothers me. We took the bait, the media and the politicians. We are wallowing in this internal bickering. The longer this goes on, the more folks back in Moscow will rub their hands and say, “Hey, this is going pretty well.”
MJ: What’s Russia’s endgame?
JB: Reestablishing the Russian empire. It doesn’t necessarily mean conquering Europe and being super aggressive like Hitler was, but establishing themselves again as a power to be reckoned with in the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost significant influence and power. And Putin wants to restore this. That’s historically something that’s part of the Russian national character. And obviously, any kind of intelligence efforts will try to support that end goal.
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There are four basic techniques of propaganda—the 4Ds—according to Ben Nimmo, an England-based analyst of Russian information warfare. Though he’s mostly applied them to Putin’s disinformation operations, they also provide a helpful lens for understanding Donald Trump’s mastery of spin.
1. Dismiss: Reject uncomfortable allegations or facts.
Example: One day before he fired FBI Director James Comey, Trump tweeted, “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax.”
2. Distract: Throw out diversionary stories or shiny counterclaims.
Example: As reports of his staffers’ Russian ties heated up in March, Trump tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
3. Distort: If you don’t like the facts, invent your own.
Example: “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” Trump tweeted in March, just after National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Comey testified that Russia had tried to do exactly that.
4. Dismay: And if all else fails, try to scare them into shutting up.
Example: During the election, Trump threatened to prosecute Hillary Clinton if he became president. Trump has also threatened to roll back First Amendment protections for journalists who report “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” about him: “We’re going to open up libel laws, folks, and we’re going to have people sue you like you never got sued before.”