As an estimated 100,000 Russian troops are mobilised on EU’s borders, media coverage is intensifying daily about the investigations by US Senate committees and special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between Donald Trump and senior Republicans, and the Russian government. All of which suggests that some of the evidence which the US House Committee on intelligence, FBI and Mueller’s Grand Jury have turned up will be in the public domain, soon. Pending any evidence coming to light that hostile state-actors interfered in the Brexit referendum as well, my aim in these articles is to ask: how would they do it, and why would they do it?
In this fourth and last part, I discuss “why” state actors including Russia are engaging in this new kind of networked disinformation war, now, and which of our weaknesses they’re exploiting the most.
“They exist somewhere in that foggy, deniable hinterland. It’s called ‘maskirovka’ — little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.”
Intelligence writer Ben Macintyre.
A pervasive addiction to outrage and wrong information is the fertile cultural bed for rampant prejudice and fake history. Comforting though it may be to believe otherwise, this isn’t the exclusive domain of mouth-breathing “alt-right” basement-dwellers but extends into the ‘progressive’ ‘centre’, too.
Following the hack of the DNC emails, Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, John Podesta, became the focus of a palpably false conspiracy theory that he’s part of a Satanic child trafficking network. The ‘Pizza Gate’ theory is subscribed to by – among others – Trump’s former National Security Advisor, former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, and one-time dinner guest of Vladimir Putin Michael Flynn (also at the dinner was Green US Presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein). The ‘Pizza Gate’ theory depends on ‘proofs’ such as triangles-inside-triangles on shop signage being a secret code for affiliation with the North American Man Boy Love Association.
Yet Podesta, a big ‘X-Files’ fan, also believes that there’s a official UFO cover-up. Had Hilary Clinton won, she said she was going to reopen government files on UFOs (yes, really… that was a priority worth mentioning in public in order to be elected to the most powerful job on Earth). Podesta has exchanged emails about UFO ‘disclosure’ with Tom DeLong, front man of very much ‘of the moment’ band, Blink 182.
There isn’t a single shred of physical evidence for the existence of alien technology on Earth. The ‘UFO cover up’ theory depends on UFOs only being interested in America. If the claims of the UFO disclosure movement are to be taken at face value, over decades of reported sightings of “strange lights”, “unidentified aerial phenomenon” – and of hundreds of spaceships actually crashing – nothing has crashed, fallen off a UFO, or been left behind by ET in Africa, India or Indonesia; places where scientists, free media and open democracies could have placed any such evidence in the public domain.
The 2017 documentary by leading advocate for ‘UFO disclosure’ Dr Steven M Greer ‘Unacknowledged’ is distributed by ailing film company Sony’s “indie” arm, ‘The Orchard’. (Sony’s motion pictures division lost US $719 million last year). Greer’s Sirius Disclsoure website claims it’s “the most successful crowd-funded documentary in history” which “reached number 1 on Netflix for documentaries”. A strap line for the film could be “white guys agree: something’s definitely going on with the UFO cover up!”
The US Democrats failed to get Hilary Clinton elected as America’s first woman President by assuming that she’d win the Electoral College. She won the popular vote but the Democrats couldn’t counter the “but her emails” dirge, emails that were probably obtained illegally by Russian-state backed operatives. However, the Democrat campaign also didn’t deploy enough resources to win Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The white guy partly responsible for this poor strategy also believes in a UFO cover-up, but he definitely isn’t part of a Satanic coven. Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Flynn, believes Podesta is a Satanist, though, and Flynn also went to dinner before the 2016 US election with the Green Party “third” candidate for President, and the Russian President.
The paragraph above tells you everything you need to know about the present state of the most powerful nation on Earth. This is in case you want to understand how easy it is for the Russian government to run rings around America’s institutions with their own version of “Mind Wars”.
[Jedi voice]: “these aren’t the candidates you’re looking for.”
In 1993, just before the dawn of the digital revolution, RAND corporation strategists John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt foresaw many of the new possibilities of horizontal self-organisation – they named it “netwar” – and the challenges it presented to pre-existing hierarchical institutions, which today would be both state-actors like Russia and the old school far Right:
‘The information revolution, in both its technological and non-technological aspects, sets in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions […] But while this may make life difficult, especially for large, bureaucratic, aging institutions, the institutional form per se is not becoming obsolete. Institutions of all types remain essential to the organization of society. The responsive, capable institutions will adapt their structures and processes to the information age. Many will evolve from traditional hierarchical forms to new, flexible, network-like models of organization. Success will depend on learning to interlace hierarchical and network principles.’
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, 1993 ‘Cyberwar is coming!’ RAND, Washington, D.C., p. 27.
This is a kind of premonition of the ideas of Russian Armed Forces chief Valery Gerasimov from 2013 onward, as described in Eerik-Niles Kross’s Politico article last year:
“In a couple of months, even days, a well-functioning state can be turned into a theater of fierce armed conflict, can be made a victim of invasion from outside, or can drown in a net of chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war”
Arquilla and Ronfeldt made an unintended prophecy of events since 2007, in ‘What Next for Networks and Netwars?’:
‘Why have the members assumed a network form? Why do they remain in that form? Networks, like other forms of organization, are held together by the narratives, or stories, that people tell.
The kind of successful narratives that we have in mind are not simply rhetoric—not simply a “line” with “spin” that is “scripted” for manipulative ends. Instead, these narratives provide a grounded expression of people’s experiences, interests, and values.
First of all, stories express a sense of identity and belonging — who “we” are, why we have come together, and what makes us different from “them.” Second, stories communicate a sense of cause, purpose, and mission. They express aims and methods as well as cultural dispositions—what “we” believe in, and what we mean to do, and how.
The right story can thus help keep people connected in a network whose looseness makes it difficult to prevent defection. The right story line can also help create bridges across different networks.
The right story can also generate a perception that a movement has a winning momentum, that time is on its side. Doctrinal and other leaders may play crucial roles in designing winning stories and building organizational cultures around them. This has long been recognized for executives in corporate systems. It is also true for netwar actors.’
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, 1993 ‘What Next for Networks and Netwars?’ RAND, Washington, D.C., p. 328.
Credible corporate thinkers Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s echo the ideas from the fringes in “MindWars“, that ‘[MindWar’s] power lies in its ability to focus recipients’ attention on the truth of the future as well as that of the present.’
Is “netwar” asymmetric warfare?
A military strategy which is overlooked in both sets of ideas from America – netwar and MindWar – is the ‘asymmetric’ option, of creating dirty ground in cyberspace and public opinion. Rather than trying to make your opponents ‘informational commodities’ (to use Jean-François Lyotard’s term) into your stuff, you simply try to degrade the value of your opponents thoughts; while simultaneously, you degrade their ability to tell truth from wrong information and outright lies (the techniques used in CIA interrogation revealed in the KUBARK manual, and in Dianetics auditing ‘confusion technique’).
In his ‘Military-Industrial Kurier‘ article, Russian Armed Forces Chief Valery Gerasimov openly flags up “active measures” as an asymmetric warfare technique. The use of asymmetric force – especially special forces in uniforms without insignia, or in civilian clothing; and by working through terrorist and local militia groups – have been features of recent conflicts in both Syria/Iraq with ISIL, and also in Ukraine.
However, very little attention has been paid to the part of Gerasimov’s analysis where he links the use of special forces and “internal opposition” to the end phase of fighting, after other approaches such as propaganda have been deployed.
In a now-famous US military war game, Millennium Challenge 2002, Red – an imaginary force commanded by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K Van Riper – adopted an asymmetric strategy, which included getting around hack-able electronic and radio communications by using motorcycle couriers to transmit orders, and World-War-II-style light signals to launch airplanes.
Responding to an order for surrender from Blue, tipping Red off that Blue was approaching, Red used a fleet of small boats to find Blue’s fleet. By day two of the exercise, Red was able to make a pre-emptive strike of cruise missiles which overwhelmed Blues’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships, including one aircraft carrier and ten cruisers. In a real conflict it would have resulted in over 20,000 service personnel deaths. At this, the war game was then stopped and re-started, with a script so that the symmetric Blue force would win. At which point, Van Riper resigned.
It’s easy to see how, within the US military and intelligence infrastructure, similar complacency and confirmation bias about Russian information war capabilities could have helped to produce Trump and Brexit.
Since Trump’s 2016 election, Politico’s Ali Watkins has spoken with more than a dozen current and former officials from across US government agencies overseeing national security:
‘Almost all said they were aware of Russia’s aggressive cyberespionage and disinformation campaigns — especially after the dramatic Russian attempt to hack Ukrainian elections in 2014 — but felt that either the White House or key agencies were unwilling to act forcefully to counter the Russian actions […]
Intelligence officials “had a list of things they could never get the signoffs on,” one intelligence official said. “The truth is, nobody wanted to piss off the Russians.”
Why networked “Mind Wars”, now?
Before Trump’s Presidency and Brexit both became realities, the idea of invisible warfare waged by Russia or anyone else seemed to be too weird and improbable to warrant serious consideration or counter-measures.
For ordinary folk, the world is confusing enough without trying to get your head round whether a Tory “party within a party” is trying to get Jacob Rees-Mogg elected as Prime Minister in an internal coup against the weak Theresa May government, or the Russian state is via hackers and bots (both propositions can be true, of course).
It seems too weird, too unlikely that it may be “plot” – any more than it seems plausible that Nigel Farage is an actual Nazi (they wouldn’t broadcast a Nazi on the BBC, surely?) – so people look away. But, just as certainly as winter is coming, Brexit is happening on 29th March 2019 unless the UK’s activation of Article 50 is revoked. Is it the “will of the people”, or did Russia hack the Brexit referendum in various ways, just as Russia fixed the US Presidential election in 2016 while “US spies were asleep“?
The causes of an invisible global conflict, like any emerging world war, are hard to summarise in a blog article. There are two books I’d strongly recommend if you want to do further reading about the background to these very disturbing current events: Bill Bowder’s ‘Red Notice’ and J J Patrick’s ’Aternative War’.
However, my sense is that the agendas of the various actors can be roughly broken down into three categories. The complex motives of the many state and non-state actors involved are usually a combination of all of these factors, but to varying degrees.
Because they can
While US “cyber” warfare has tended to focus on ‘kinetic’ potential – to degrade and destroy infrastructure, such as the joint US-Israeli Stuxnet attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities – the Russian state and army have long had an interest in the power of propaganda (recruiting, among others, geniuses Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev). Any weapon that’s ever been invented has been used aggressively, at some point. The Russian state is strapped for cash: Russia cut its defence budget by a third last year. The cost-benefits of “active measures” and “non-linear” warfare to Russia are therefore obvious.
Not to be overlooked is the inexorable logic that – if you create a military and political capacity to overwhelm your opponents, even if it’s by non-aggressive means – like any expensive new weapon, if you’ve got it you may as well use it.
Because they can make money
A complex set of motivations are often attributed to the various actors involved, from Putin’s desire for revenge against Hilary Clinton dating from her time as US Secretary of State, to fears that sex tapes will be leaked, to fear of exposure of other morally questionable or illegal acts. The common factors enmeshed within all of these other, complex motivations are the opportunity to make a lot of money, and the fear of losing it.
Putin and his oligarch supporters are dollar billionaires but they understand that international markets are still unstable, following the 2007-08 financial crash. QE money from our future income taxes has been converted by banks into stocks and property rather than into real productivity, jobs and infrastructure. Over a decade, this has created the social instability of the present, and the asset bubbles of the future.
Putin and friends invested a lot of their wealth in the US, which is a safer haven for money than Russia, but President Obama froze their assets because Russia annexed Crimea. What’s unclear is whether Putin and his allies want access to their money locked up in the USA, or need it because their lines of credit are over-extended.
As every new day passes and Trump continues to refuse to release his tax statements, it becomes more self-evident that not only is he concealing evidence of his attempts ahead of the 2016 election to develop property in Russia, he needed to do so because he’s not as rich as he makes out. Trump is heavily in debt, as Manfort was to Russian and Ukrainian Putin-aligned oligarchs (see a pattern here?)
Many of the actors linked to both Trump and Putin are from the oil industry, such as former Exxon CEO and now Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The adage in the energy industry is that the greatest returns are to be made by taking the greatest risks. While Russia’s political gamble was a high risk one, it’s paid off, twice.
A similar logic is at work on the part of other state actors including in Saudi Arabia, who seem to have pumped “dark money”, including into Brexit, and Northern Ireland’s DUP that’s propping Theresa May’s government up. It’s a logic that’s shared by pro-Brexit non-state actors like the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, UKIP-backer and ‘Express’ owner Richard Desmond, and Rupert Murdoch.
Brexit – which for Vladimir Putin’s is a way to weaken Western Europe and NATO – is also a way to create a Jersey-style tax haven off continental Europe’s shores, but with better restaurants, Henley regatta, high-end shops and art galleries to keep the wife happy. Dacre, Desmond and Murdoch want to pay zero income tax. If Russia also invades the Baltic and Theresa May sells the NHS to US corporations, for Putin and the British media oligarchs, it’s still a win/win.
Because they think they’re bigger than the forces of history
A more useful exercise than the popular activity of “spot the actual Nazi” might be “spot the contemporary equivalent of coked-up Bowie supposedly doing a Nazi salute at Victoria station.” (He didn’t, if you look at the footage, but he said enough stupid things while he was out of his gourd that his sort-of-wave-salute to the crowd of fans was a gift to the tabloids).
Numerous chancers and “men of ideas” (they’re all men…) see in the present crisis of Trump and Brexit, sublimated and intoxicating as it is, an opportunity to create the future that they want, whether the rest of us like the look of their future or not. Even more significant than Farage addressing a fascist rally in Germany recently may be the revelation that the “bad boys of Brexit” seem to have spent much of 2016 drunk.
The extent to which Julian Assange or creepy tech billionaire Robert Mercer, who partly owns Cambridge Analytica, are Putin’s bitches is unclear. What’s self-evident is that they believe they can use Trump and Russia using them. But why have Brian Eno, Paul Mason, P J Harvey and Michael Moore allowed Assange to use them, when it’s been quite obvious for some time where his real loyalties lie? They’re not perfect human beings but not bad people either, and definitely sophisticated enough as media operators, and old enough, to know far better.
The unfortunate fact is that similar delusions of grandeur to Steve Bannon’s and Mercer’s exist on the ‘progressive’ Left. Self-styled revolutionaries have played along with ‘Lexit’, oblivious to the memetic outbreak of prejudice this has helped to unleash. Like Bowie’s drug-fueled idiocy, rock star revolutionaries with ebooks to promote are foolish and narcissistic enough to think, in a hot political moment, that their ideas and egos are bigger than historical forces.
Once Trump’s impeached and May is ousted as Prime Minster, the legacy of this period of collective mania – of the embracing of fallacies, parvenu vision quests, of busted mythologies from toxic pasts which we should have long ago consigned to the dustbin of history – will be a standing army left behind of clueless ‘citizen journalists’, tweeters, trots, trolls and assorted idiots – mini-Julians and mini-Owen Joneses – who now all think that they’re bigger than the forces of history, too. Tweeting a picture of a frog is the modern equivalent of marching around with flaming torches in swastika formation. That’s how dumb this century is turning out to be.
In his piece about the Charlottesville Nazi rally, Alex Pareene offered this glimpse of the future-Milos and future-Bannons who’ll be sponsored by future-Putins and future-Mercers:
This is the state of the GOP leadership pipeline. In a decade, state legislatures will start filling up with Gamergaters, MRAs, /pol/ posters, Anime Nazis, and Proud Boys. These are, as of now, the only people in their age cohort becoming more active in Republican politics in the Trump era. Everyone else is fleeing. This will be the legacy of Trumpism: It won’t be long before voters who reflexively check the box labeled “Republican” because their parents did, or because they think their property taxes are too high, or because Fox made them scared of terrorism, start electing Pepe racists to Congress.
That prospect should terrify you more than Trump and Brexit.
18/09/17 Hilary Clinton has given an interview to NPR where she links Cambridge Analytica’s possible involvement in hacking the US election in 2016 to the annullment of Kenya’s hacked election by its Supreme Court.
20/09/17 Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman have launched a non-profit Committee to Investigate Russia. The video pulls no punches and accuses Russia of starting a war with the USA. Russian-backed media mouthpieces Sputnik and RT have been dismissive of the initiative, so Reiner and Freeman must be on to something. Corbyn-supporting The Canary repeated the Kremlin talking points and used obvious sockpuppets like Max Kaiser for quotes, something which should cause Labour party members to ask some pointed questions about the kinds of publicity Corbyn benefits from.
It will be interesting to see whether UK celebrities and politicians have the gumption and bravery to launch something similar to investigate Brexit. In April, the one official UK parliamentary inquiry into the Brexit referendum reached this less than reassuring conclusion:
We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets, though we do not believe that any such interference had any material effect on the outcome of the EU referendum. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical.
Since the Public Administration Committee published this report, more evidence has come to light about multiple Russian ‘hacks’ of the US 2016 electoral process. The DDOS attack in the UK could be said to be the equivalent of various attempts at voter suppression in three key states that won the Presidential vote for Donald Trump, in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. These are some of the most complicated claims about Russian interference in 2016 to verify as the voter suppression is complex, in some cases long-standing, and may or may not have involved a ‘hack’ of electronic-voting machines.
However, there were at least two other ‘prongs’ to the multiple Russian interventions in 2016: propaganda derived from the DNC hack, and the complex network of loans, debts and kompromat around Trump, Sessions, Manafort and Stone, into which US government investigations are ongoing.
So why is there no equivalent UK investigation in parliament into Russian-backed ‘fake news’ and the financial links of the DUP, which is propping up May’s government, and other UK politicians who may have been paid off or compromised?
23/09/17 The US Department of Homeland Security has contacted election officials in 21 states to notify them that they had been targeted by Russian government hackers during the 2016 election campaign.
26/09/17 A Russian television ‘satire’ staged Morgan Freeman’s kidnapping and forced apology, with a white Russian actor as Freeman in black face (of course).
The ads show a complicated effort that didn’t necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton. Instead, they show a desire to create divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders and Stein. A number of the ads seemed to question Clinton’s authenticity and tout some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.
01/10/17 Officially, Russia calls the Catalan referendum, which has left more than 800 people were injured, “illegal” and supports a unitary Spain. Unofficially, its proxy Assange talks up a constitutional crisis; in 2015 and 2016 Enric Folch, the international secretary for the Catalan Solidarity for Independence – a party with no presence whatsoever in the Catalan parliament – attended a meeting in Moscow organised by the Anti-globalization Movement of Russia, funded in part by the Russian government. See what Russia did there?
01/10/17 Lindsay Mackenzie’s article administers some important correctives to the sometimes frenzied analysis of the “new” Gerasimov doctrine (including my own hyperbolic analysis).