The military calls this, M.O.E., an indicator of the success of Putin's propaganda against the US.
There are few topics as near and dear to me personally and professionally as our self-induced vulnerability to foreign influence campaigns. Today’s post was inspired by an excellent article from the Associated Press. The AP article is also based on some truly excellent work by an intelligence firm called, NISOS. Both the article and the report are about Russian offensive influence operations against the US, our allies and other partners supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom.
A disclaimer: I disdain any big-money political party. I am not advocating for either in this piece. I will though, partially focus on the threat posed by the current, extremism-dominated, Republican Party. I literally cannot discuss this most dangerous threat to our nation, without focusing on the facts. These facts, embarrassingly revolve substantially around this current version of the GOP. I refuse to be one of those who is afraid to talk openly about threats, because so many will consider my comments influenced by political bias. The character traits I learned from my parents and family, and that I am most proud of, are to be a “truth to power” person and to be an innovator, both exercised with integrity. If you see political bias in this article, you are a victim of your own personal bias.
America and allies have largely been under assault from Russian influence operations, since the Bolsheviks took power in Russia after the demise of Imperial Russia and its Tsars. Sometimes, as during the Cold War and our 2016 election cycle, those operations have been massive in scope. They still are and like today’s efforts, they are still what the Soviets called, “Active Measures.” I would argue that there have been relatively few, recognizable successes. One of note was and still is the support for the Trump campaign for president in 2016. Don’t worry, I’m not going down that rabbit-hole today other than a couple of references.
For the record, my professional specialty is that of a practitioner in influence operations. DoD calls folks like me, IO Planners, or Information Operations Planners. Yes, it’s a ridiculous title and I never saw myself as a planner/ strategist only, but as a practitioner/ operator. I am the exception, not the rule. Because I operated rather than exclusively planned, I have experience and some successes rarely, if ever found in this profession. I don’t say this to brag but to make the point that, planning and using military doctrine is impotent at best, a waste of US taxpayer dollars at worst. Outside of a small number of tactical or minor successes, the US has failed in this field since at least, the end of the Cold War.
Today’s piece is not only about the threat from Russian propaganda but the lack of substance from the US national security community, to defend us.
First, the threat
Russian and Soviet influence operations have largely been about, “divide and conquer” one of the oldest of military tactics. In our case and that of our allies, the idea was to find social fractures within democracies, especially NATO nations and to exploit them or in simpler terms, make them far worse. The idea was to keep a country or alliance at each other’s throats so they could not unify against Russia and the Soviets, and their allies. They have the most success with social issues simply, because they carry deep emotional investment by opposing “sides.” If you are wondering why “culture wars” are so prolific and emotionally raw here in the US, it’s because politicians now employ similar tactics. The other reason and one extremely unpopular to say, “out loud,” is that during the Trump era, much of today’s Republican Party has worked in conjunction with Russian intelligence and Influence operations, some wittingly, most unwittingly. I don’t say this for political reasons. This is mentioned because in today’s AP article, what’s been going on since 2015, is once again a massive effort by Russia to divide Americans severely.
“Russian propaganda videos are now circulating on Twitter and lesser-known platforms popular with American conservatives, including Gab and Truth Social, created by former President Donald Trump, giving Russia a direct conduit to millions of people.”
- Associated Press
Now, before the right starts losing their minds that I have targeted them, it’s also clear that since 2015, Russia has also targeted the left, albeit, to a far lesser degree. The left was also targeted unwittingly while the right, via folks like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Brietbart, Newsmax, Gateway Pundit, Townhall etc. have wittingly absorbed and amplified Russian propaganda for the right and… vice versa. If anyone wishes to challenge these findings, I suggest that you, “bring receipts.” This is what I do for a living, even though I am now, semi-retired. Here are a few credible reports that echoes my claims. Much of the best reporting can be found in classified reporting or other professional journals.
- How Russian Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
- Tucker Carlson Surprises No One By Parroting New Russian Conspiracy Theory (yahoo.com)
- Fox News: Putin Propaganda Primetime - The Bulwark
- Opinion: Fox News – America and Russia's Newsroom (statesman.com)
- Calmes: Tucker Carlson backs Putin as colleagues die in Ukraine - Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
Russia, as exposed in detailed, intelligence reporting, collaborated extensively with the Trump campaign. First was the Mueller Report and later, the 5 vol SSCI, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Russian Interference in the 2016 election. AG Barr, drew a strong rebuke by a federal judge, regarding his misleading and dishonest accounting of the Mueller report. If you read nothing else, Vol 5 of the SSCI report is beyond damning. It is the CI or counterintelligence report and spans some 966 pages. For additional and in-depth reporting comes the House, Permanent Select Committee on intelligence report.
The NISOS report also highlighted that one of the methods for passing Russian propaganda to the US far right is to post it on Telegram where US accounts then repost them on TWITTER, GETR, GAB and Truth Social.
Now that we’ve firmly established the connectivity between Russian and right-wing media, let’s get back to the threat at hand. Like I said, I’m not here to support principled liberals over principled conservatives. I have total disdain for big money political machines. My focus is to exclusively point out the evidence of a threat and offer thoughts about what they mean to our national security. In this case, the extremists on the right, control the party and its agenda, while on the other side of the aisle, is the exact opposite. There are some more extreme views, but they have very little support. Until principled liberals and principled conservatives are the ones debating issues critical to our nation again, we will remain at risk from toxic divisiveness. Sadly, this will require so-called principled conservatives to regain control of the party. This extremist control of the GOP, is precisely, Putin’s intent and the purpose for today’s article.
Why does Putin use influence as a weapon of war?
At the moment, were it not for the support of the west, to some degree, led by the US, Ukraine would be having a far more difficult time fending off Putin’s illegal invasion and intended cultural genocide of Ukraine. Since his military and intelligence community is failing and will continue to do so, one of the only tools left to him, is influence that divides nations supporting Ukraine. Like most nations employing influence to support their national security or leadership’s goal’s, influence normally and logically, targets the enemy in a way that has previously paid off. In this case, it's as discussed above, they are wittingly and unwittingly, employing, the US far right that now controls the party.
Also, Putin’s IRA, Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the “troll factory” looks for social fractures within democracies to exploit, like race, religion, income disparity, right vs. left etc. This applies to all nations included in the report from NISOS.
Where does the US stand at the moment regarding these threats?
First, the good news. The US, post 2016 finally began getting more serious about understanding digital influence and its relationship to overall influence. There is still, a very long way to go, but at least the national security community is finally starting to listen to the handful of voices, myself included that have been trying to get them to pay attention to influence… for well over a decade.
The bad news is that the US national security community is virtually incapable of operating in, “ethical influence” in scale or effectively. They are still focused on antiquated thinking and refuse to adjust the architecture of the community to be able to operate in this domain. While they drone on about domains, especially DoD, they still fail to realize that everything, in every domain is influence, not just what they define in obscure and irrelevant, doctrinal language. I carefully laid out a detailed assessment regarding this topic a couple of years ago and as of last week, when DoD announced their new doctrine, precious little, if anything has changed, except for adding more language, that even the community itself doesn’t understand. Largely, the national security community is a creature of habit, very, very, very old and feeble habits. In my personal and professional opinion, “we are bringing a butter knife to a tank fight in influence.”
Considering that influence is a primary weapon system on and off the battlefield in modern conflict, it’s beyond incompetent to continue treating it less than tanks, ships, planes and CYBER. Not one objective in our newest NSS, National Security Strategy can be achieved without successful and ethical influence. Hell, DoD doesn’t even know what influence means, let alone organize a campaign with all of the other players in the community.
There are but a handful of take-aways regarding this serious threat of adversarial influence:
1. We will never be safe as long as the majority of the Republican party lives on conspiracy theories, denies truth and enables our enemies. If so-called principled conservatives don’t admit their sins and begin acting like adults, this threat will be ongoing and severe. As that the majority of the elected representatives, senators etc. refused to act on these threats, it’s time for the party to start over. Except for a handful, nearly every elected representative voted to enable a thoroughly corrupt and Russia supporting POTUS.
2. The national security community needs new professional advice on this topic so that they stop regurgitating old ideas, with new names and wasting taxpayer dollars on the same experts that have failed for at least four decades. No Band-Aid will suffice for a dysfunctional influence community operating with the blessing of visionless leadership.
3. Build resilience for the American people around our true national values, not the made up, far-right attempts to change them. Any nation that operates on their true values honestly, has a significant degree of immunity to what Russia and others are selling.
4. Voters must demand, not ask for full, unmitigated transparency in campaign finance. So long as SCOTUS continues to allow massive, dark-money contributions to all party candidates, including in current times, funding from Russia to the GOP, we are not safe.
Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman. And publicity has already played an important part in the struggle against the Money Trust.
- Louis D. Brandeis