First, a brief disclaimer: I have avoided writing about politics in this blog because I felt my personal views were not relevant to the more important discussion of cybersecurity policy. However, recent events have compelled me to venture into controversial territory. And, while my remarks here could be taken as criticism of a particular political group, I believe the issues I raise threaten the entire American political system, regardless of party affiliations.
It’s maddening to analyze foreign threats to the Republic whose existence are at once impossible to prove but completely obvious, if you understand what you’re seeing. One June 1, 2020, federal police used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to evict peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Their purpose was to clear the way for the president to make remarks in front of a church while having his picture taken holding a Bible.
There is much to say about this episode, but what leapt out at me, having spent a year researching foreign cyber-interference in American politics, was its distinctly Russian flavor. It was, in my view, another step in an increasingly brazen process of Russian interference in American politics and governance.
Russian interference scenarios I wrote about in my upcoming book, Digital Downfall: Technology, Cyberattacks and the End of the American Republic, that seemed almost loony six months ago, are now emerging as painfully prescient.
This may seem like a paranoid assertion, but it fits into a broader, alarming pattern that’s been unfolding for five years. Indeed, Russian interference scenarios I wrote about in my upcoming book, Digital Downfall: Technology, Cyberattacks and the End of the American Republic, that seemed almost loony six months ago, are now emerging as painfully prescient. These include the use of twitter bots to activate armed anti-lockdown protests in state capitals and the simultaneous, remote online stimulation of street level protests by warring racial American factions in the streets—some of whom, directed by leaders in Moscow, are spoiling for a civil war they call “The Boogaloo.”
To grasp what seems to be going on here, it’s essential to understand the full context of the president’s Bible photo op. It didn’t occur in isolation. The president has been the beneficiary of Russian interference since the 2016 campaign. He lied to the American people about Trump Tower Moscow, an attempt to conceal his financial relationship with Moscow that has never been properly investigated. There is a broad consensus amongst intelligence and law enforcement entities that Russia interfered to help him win in 2016 and is actively doing so again. Extensive evidence points to Russia’s active efforts to bolster his rule and get him reelected.
Thus, as protests and counter-protests—many of which are being aggravated, if not outright triggered by Russian “active measures” campaigns—engulfed the nation, the president took a call from Vladimir Putin. Several hours later, he instigated a show of force that echoed Putin’s own rise to power. In 2002, Putin positioned himself as the protector of Russia and violently suppressed political dissent in the face of terror attacks that he was suspected of fomenting himself.
The American president similarly asserts that he alone can solve this “American carnage” by using military force to quash an uprising that is being inflamed by online Russian agitators posing as Americans.
The American president similarly asserts that he alone can solve this “American carnage” by using military force to quash an uprising that is being inflamed by online Russian agitators posing as Americans. By the way, when we see “Americans” on social media who seem to have endless time to offer too-fast and too-clever political arguments, you’re probably encountering a Russian operative. For reference, Facebook deleted over 5 billion fake accounts last year.
As the public recoiled from the unprovoked and unconstitutional brutalizing of Americans exercising their first amendment rights, the administration undertook a series of gaslighting moves that should further raise suspicions of Russian coaching. First, they denied the police had used tear gas at all, which was a clear falsehood. Then, federal police appeared all over the capital wearing unmarked uniforms and refusing to identify themselves.
For anyone who has followed Russia’s illegal invasion of eastern Ukraine, this latest detail is chilling. We now have the equivalent of Putin’s “Green Men” in Washington, DC. Between this and the absurd denials of tear gas use, which was filmed and witnessed by thousands of people, we are entering a mode of propaganda which Professor Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, calls “implausible deniability.” The story is so crazy, with so many contradictory narrative threads, reporters look dumb even asking about it. We end up with the American version of the Russian excuses for Ukraine, which are, in effect, “We did not invade Ukraine, but it was totally justified” and “Our troops are not there, but they have a right to defend themselves.”
Then, we have the controversial pictures of the president with his Bible. He’s not known for holding up Bibles during photos. It would seem that someone gave him a specific suggestion to hold a Bible in a certain position. Who did this, and why? What happened next might offer an explanation. An instant after the gassing of the crowd, photos appeared online of the president holding his Bible juxtaposed with a comparable image of Adolph Hitler holding a Bible in a similar pose. Other posts claimed the president was holding the Bible upside down. Social media erupted into debates about how these two photos proved that the American president is a fascist dictator. At the same time, other people on social media (Russian agents, most likely) countered that both photos were fake—that the president had not, in fact, held the Bible upside down.
The Hitler picture is indeed fake. That is a tell, in my view. The instant appearance of a social media “controversy” over fake photos should be looked upon with a high degree of suspicion. Someone, perhaps a handful of Russia’s 15,000+ person cyber force, prepared these fake photos and lined up the social media storm in advance. If the photos were ready in advance of the tear gassing of the crowd and presidential Bible photo op, then who planned this event? Senior members of the administration are claiming ignorance about the plan to gas the protestors in the park, yet it happened after the president spoke with Vladimir Putin. That’s quite a coincidence.
We don’t know, and we can’t know. And that is the point of this whole situation, from the attacker’s point of view.
We don’t know, and we can’t know. And that is the point of this whole situation, from the attacker’s point of view. Maybe all of this just happened, with no one in charge of orchestrating an extremely suspicious sequence of events. Maybe it was Americans. Maybe it was Russians, or Chinese… who knows? We’re trying to read the tea leaves by gaslight. It’s crazymaking, but it is yet possible to get the big picture and move forward.
It’s propaganda Judo, the disinformation version of Putin’s favorite sport. To win in Judo, you use your opponent’s strength against him. Our strength, as Americans, is an admirable desire to seek the truth using facts and reason-based argument. To defeat the USA using disinformation Judo, just drop a hundred contradictory, subjective facts on American media. While we’re busy sorting out whether Hitler ever actually help up a Bible, and so forth, the president has started demanding the use of American troops to kill Americans on our streets. See how that works?
The president’s push for the American military to crush protests that are being triggered, at least in part, by Russian operatives, is emerging as a key element of his reelection strategy. The tear gassing in the park simply appears to be an early incident in what will likely be months of such foreign election interference. The military has wisely pulled away from this move, but who knows what will happening next? Unless, of course, it’s not happening. Feel crazy yet?
To defeat the USA using disinformation Judo, just drop a hundred contradictory, subjective facts on American media.
The question that can shape a coherent point of view on all of these slippery happenings is, “Why are the Russians interfering in the 2020 election?” That question is not asked enough, nor answered in sufficient depth. They’re not doing it to be a nuisance. They want to control the White House so the US will do what Russia, not the American public, wants. Once Russia helps the president get elected, he owes Russia a big favor or three. And, he can be blackmailed by the threat of revealing the true extent of his obligations to Russia.
In 2016, Russia interfered to help Trump get elected. Their motivations had a lot to do with their war in Ukraine. Trump has reciprocated by threatening to withhold arms from Russia’s enemy in Ukraine, criticizing the EU, which opposes Russia, and by denouncing NATO and threatening to leave (i.e. destroy) the alliance. As the 2020 election looms, we are in a new phase of this foreign operation on our soil.
The current intervention seems more intense, so the expected favors coming later will be more extreme. It’s arguable Russia even wants the US to break apart. Certainly, a lot of influential people are expressing alarm about this potentiality. That would be the ultimate way for Russia to get the US to quit Europe so they can have their way with Ukraine and elsewhere on the continent.
Ultimately, this apparent Russian intervention into the sovereign affairs of the United States is simply one of many examples of how technology exposes us to national security risk. The fact that Russia seems to have such extensive digital reach into the US, but we cannot prove that it’s occurring, is a huge national security problem. Open networks and online anonymity give our enemies the freedom to operate anywhere in our country at will, without fear of detection or reprisal. They can sow confusion and spark violence. They can spin our media around with lies and tricks we are too slow to catch.
We need to get better at detecting these foreign attacks on the Republic, or there may not be a Republic to save.