The connectivity that is the heart of globalisation can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims.[…] The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty.”
Alex Younger, head of MI6, December, 2016
George Bernard Shaw said, famously, that “the only secrets are the secrets that keep themselves.”
Or – to put it even more succinctly – as William Goldman said of Hollywood, “nobody knows anything”.
The only person who really knows what Vladimir Putin is up to is Vladimir Putin.
While there’s endless speculation about the possible connections between Russia, Trump’s Whitehouse and Brexit (in Germany it’s referred to as ‘Trump und Brexit’) and the contents of former MI6 agent Christopher Steele’s dossier, until special counsel Robert Mueller brings any criminal indictments against Trump and his associates, speculation is just that.
These investigations matter to Britain, with 20 months to go before Brexit, with no plan and no trade deal with the EU in place. A US political crisis caused by criminal investigations into President Trump and his connections to Vladimir Putin could make plain what’s already widely suspected: Brexit, far from being the “will of the people” was part of a ‘hybrid warfare’ operation by hostile foreign powers, including but not isolated to Russia.
The aim of the operation is to weaken the UK, USA and its allies and – ultimately – is meant to cause the effective dissolution of NATO. If successful, it would be the mirror of what happened to the USSR in 1989: a massive, systemic collapse of a political order assumed “too big to fail”.
The intervention into domestic politics of Alex Younger, MI6 head, in the speech quoted above, is an unconventional and uncharacteristic move. As a ‘Senior intelligence analyst’ told journalist Carole Cadwalladr in April, quoted in her groundbreaking ‘Guardian’ piece ‘The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked’:
It’s not MI6’s job to warn of internal threats. It was a very strange speech. Was it one branch of the intelligence services sending a shot across the bows of another? Or was it pointed at Theresa May’s government? Does she know something she’s not telling us?”
These four linked articles aren’t supposed to establish beyond any doubt that we’re in an undeclared state of war with Russia, but more to discuss whether Russia and other nation states have the means and motivation to mount a sustained, ostensibly non-military operation of this kind. Why would they do it, and how would they do it?
My hope is that this analysis will be a small contribution, helping to inform public opinion as more facts become apparent about the extent of Russia’s links to both Trump’s 2016 win, and to Brexit.
The possibility that Brexit is occurring because foreign powers including Russia have mounted operations to bring about that outcome should cause a rethink. It should, at the very least, prompt British politicians to pause negotiations with the EU until a Parliamentary inquiry at the highest level evaluates all the relevant evidence, with access to classified information and the candid opinion of academic experts, intelligence and military professionals.
That both major political parties favour a Hard Brexit is, apart from anything else, creating a vast democratic deficit concerning a matter which may not only shape the country’s future economically but existentially as well; the UK’s status as a liberal, tolerant, pluralistic democracy. A future where the UK is outside the EU is one thing. The UK in or out of a NATO which no longer includes America as the biggest ally is another thing altogether.
My hope is that these articles may also inform a discussion about the new reality of warfare in an interconnected world which includes, but isn’t limited to, so-called ‘cyber warfare’ (hacking technological systems to obtain information and other resources, or to deny the service to its end-users, such as shutting down the electrical grid).
Cyber weaponry includes remote access to systems but it can also include more conventional military interventions, like NEMP weapons which use an electromagnetic pulse to take out electrical devices, including unprotected computers and internet server nodes. Strategies for taking out the communications and economic infrastructure, before using explosive weapons which ‘degrade’ physical infrastructure and kill people, have been part of ‘preparing the battle space’ for decades. (An obvious example being NATO’s controversial 1999 bombing of the Chinese State news agency Xinhua’s offices in Belgrade).
The intention and impact of the German Luftwaffe’s April and May 1942 ‘Baedeker raids’ on Exeter, Cowes, Canterbury and London continue to be debated by historians of World War Two. The name by which this phase of the Blitz became popularly known was derived from a comment by Gustav Braun von Stumm, a spokesman for the German Foreign Office, who is reported to have said:
We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide”
Baedeker was a travel guide popular with German tourists to England before the war. Stumm’s casual aside effectively admitted the Germans were targeting England’s cultural heritage, in reprisal for RAF bombing of German landmarks and historic cities, such as Cologne. At least as a propaganda exercise if not as a strategic goal, Germany’s aim was not only revenge but also to erode the British will to continue fighting the war by destroying our history and sense of identity. This mirrored the 14th February 1942 Area bombing directive issued to RAF Bomber Command. Bombing was to be “focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers”.
Whatever the stated intentions, aerial bombing of non-military targets by both sides in World War Two had the counterproductive effect of prolonging the war. For Germany, the Baedeker raids were about proving to their own side – as much to as to the Allies – that they had the technical precision to hit individual churches, when they should have been hitting military targets and industrial infrastructure instead. This gave the Allies time to pick off German planes going after low-value targets, as Allied radar and night-fighters improved. The Allied bombing campaign was meant to break the spirit of the Third Reich but instead prolonged it, leaving ordinary Germans living in bombarded cities with nowhere to escape, and with no one to protect them other than the Nazi regime.
What has altered between 1942 and 2017 in Western Europe is that our cities have de-industrialised. This makes what were once “low value” assets like the civilian electrical grid and digital communications networks the backbone of our economies, and of a society’s ability to function. Imagine digital ‘Baedeker raids’ where a hostile state attacks it opponents’ economy and culture, but by destroying its digital bank account records, digitised libraries or by denying access to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter. “How would any civilisation survive without a steady supply of pictures of cats?” you may well ask. In highly populous nations – Nigeria and India in particular – WhatsApp has become the conduit through which much of family life, daily commerce, and organisation within essential networks like public transport, are mediated.
This has far wider implications than any conflict between Russia and NATO. The bank note demonitasation in India last year has forced more than a billion people to conduct most small day-to-day transactions, like buying a loaf of bread, with digital currency and smart phones. Last year more than $5.5 trillion payments were made in China using mobile payment apps Alipay, and WeChat Pay. The psychological impacts on a population of systems like these being degraded and shut down would be as profound as the immediate economic effects. Suddenly, people would have to barter with bus drivers to get to work, with shop-keepers to get their kids’ tea ready after school, to pay the pharmacist for essential medicines.
In the lost world before Trump and Brexit of 2014, few people had a problem with Russell Brand when two editions of his ‘The Trews’ – with Alec Baldwin in – were filmed at RT’s London studio (because, you know, the Russian state’s just cool like that). Is it possible that, in boosting the signals of Julian Assange, Wikileaks, the Occupy movement, Slavoj Žižek and even Russell Brand, state-sponsored Russia Today has engaged in the propaganda equivalent of the 1942 Baedeker raids? Have outlets like RT and Sputnik News been trying to undermine the British people’s willingness to fight for certain principles – like human rights upheld by the European Court of Justice, the EU working time directive, the principle of freedom of movement – by weakening public faith in already tarnished institutions? This is following the MPs’ expenses scandal, the 2007 bank collapse, the institutional child sexual abuse scandals brought to light in recent years. Fundamentally, has the impact of this propaganda war been to degrade our ability to differentiate truth from lies relative to what were thought of as core cultural values?
The impacts of networked communications technology when utilised by a state-actor as part of an ‘information war’ include the psychological and emotional impacts on our identity, on our sense of social justice, equality, tolerance, common security, and on the idea of fundamental human rights itself.
Has ‘fake news’ been weaponised to undermine our faith in ourselves, in common values, with a similar intention and effect to Nazi Germany dropping bombs on Canterbury in 1942? Is violence being done to beliefs rather than to bricks and mortar, flesh and blood?
I frame these as questions rather than as assertions because, as with any propaganda, the extent to which a given public sentiment is authentic rather than something which has been deliberately and consciously contrived is both a contentious and a highly debatable point.
For the purposes of this article, I’m talking about sentiments being manufactured as weapons, by a state-actor. Similar claims made about the power of marketing and advertising are equally contentious. Because this is such a highly debatable area, discussion about it has to go on in a calm and evidence-based way; rather than – as is the case at present in any discussion about ‘fake news’ – in an echo chamber of various networks escalating their confirmation biases by yelling at one another, till everyone’s hoarse. A screaming match of “many sides” you could say.
Naom Chomsky’s ‘Manufacture of Consent’ arguments have fueled numerous subcultures of Leftwing conspiracy theories. Along with Wikileaks and Glenn Greeenwald’s ramblings about the ‘Deep State’, these kinds of arguments have now been adopted by the “alt-right” (a euphemism for Nazis on the internet). Perhaps Greenwald and Assange have a point, and while the Russian state has mounted some kind of “information war” or “mind war”, it’s to counter an existing one emanating from the US and allied military and intelligence infrastructures. Or perhaps Russia may be trying something on, but in reality it’s not very effective, or not as effective as they intended. (It’s not as though Trump is an invisible “Manchurian candidate”; it’s more like he’s hiding in plain sight by not hiding at all).
However, that Russia and other states are trying to influence politics and public opinion in NATO countries – including the UK – by using data, algorithms, and political fronts rather than bombs is beyond any reasonable doubt.
The new kinds of warfare foreshadowed by MI6 head Alex Younger in his speech, quoted above, are both scary and depressing at the same time (you can’t punch fog, so how do you defend a country against a fog of lies, half truths and bullshit?)
However, like the Blitz, the threats posed also offer a test of our character and fundamental beliefs. The history of conflicts on British soil over the last century has shown that the worst of circumstances can bring out the best in Britain’s people.
When Roger met Nigel
It’s beyond the scope of these articles to establish whether Brexit is definitely connected to Trump’s rise to power, and to attempts by Putin’s FSB and others to ‘hack’ elections and public opinion elsewhere. It’s already clear that, when Robert Mueller, the FBI and the US House & Senate committees are ready, there will be plenty of evidence in the public domain for us to evaluate. Preempting this disclosure – which can’t be far off – is therefore a somewhat pointless exercise.
That there has been covert interference by Russia and other state-actors in UK and US politics since at least 2013 is corroborated from numerous reliable sources, however.
Politico’s Ali Watkins spoke recently 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.”
[…] “The frustrations [about lack of forceful action] are justified and, frankly, were shared by the White House,” said [a] former official, who requested anonymity due to this person’s continuing work in Russia.
“The options were being discussed. They weren’t being implemented,” the former official added.’
The questions about Russia’s psychological operations in supporting Trump and Brexit are more about how extensive and how effective those operations have been, rather than questioning whether Russia and other state-actors attempted something. (The Kremlin isn’t the only likely source of ‘dark money’ and fake news involved in Brexit, it’s worth remembering).
Bill Browder, co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, and now an author, has testified before the US Senate judiciary committee hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. Browder told ‘Publisher’s Weekly’:
many very legitimate people in the West have sold their souls to the Russians to help them in their terrible goals outside of the country. I’ve discovered the crimes of the Western enablers. There’s many different types of people in the West that are helping Putin and Russia achieve their critical aims. There’s whole teams of lawyers and PR executives and investigators on the Russian payroll, unashamedly working for the Russians, who are often people who come from the highest reaches of society in the U.S. and Britain and Europe. And in some ways, these people are even more contemptuous than Putin and his regime because they should know better […] people who were brought up in civilized countries, who were brought up with the same values that we [have], who are supporting criminals in Russia and knowingly are jettisoning those values for money in order to further the crimes of the Putin regime—those people deserve even more contempt.”
There are some glimpses of what indictments brought by Mueller and the parallel US Senate judiciary committee hearing may tell us about the links between the 2016 US Presidential election and the result of the Brexit referendum. There’s no UK Parliamentary enquiry into the Brexit referendum equivalent to the US House & Senate’s oversight into the 2016 election result. This lack of oversight by law-makers on a fundamental question of sovereignty and national security is a reckless betrayal of basic British democratic principles. The argument being made here is that the possibility that Russia is mounting a ‘hybrid’ war is sufficient to warrant a rethink on Brexit, at least till there are further high-level investigations.
To briefly make that case, here’s one of a myriad of possible links between Russia and Brexit which, it can safely be said, will be discussed in laborious detail in months to come.
Nigel Farage has vigorously denied a Guardian story that he’s a ‘person of interest’ but according to a source inside on-going FBI investigations, US counter-intelligence is investigating his relationships with people close to the Trump campaign, and to Julian Assange. Farage refuses to explain his 9th March meeting at the Ecuadorian embassy with the one-man Wikileaks operation, which was also attended by Christian Mitchell, the head of operations at LBC radio where Farage has a regular slot (or is a regular slot, depending on your perspective).
Soon after, on 20th March there was this exchange between then-director of the FBI James Comey, and Californian Congressman Adam Schiff at the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
SCHIFF: Are you aware that Mr. [Roger] Stone also stated publicly that he was in direct communication with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?
COMEY: Same answer. [“I’m not going to talk about any particular person here today”]
SCHIFF: Are you aware that Mr. Stone also claimed that he was in touch with an intermediary of Mr. Assange?
COMEY: Same answer.
SCHIFF: This is a question I think you can answer. Do you know whether the Russian intelligence service has dealt directly with WikiLeaks or whether they too used an intermediary?
COMEY: We assessed they used some kind of cutout.”
Nigel Farage denies any connection between himself, Assange and the political lobbyist Roger Stone, and through Stone to Trump (and, therefore, possibly, to Russia… depending on what Mueller’s probe and other investigations can prove about the levels of complicity between Trump and his close associates and Russian state-interests).
However, one possible but clear implication of Congressman Schiff’s questioning of Comey is that the ‘intermediary’ he refers to – and also Comey’s ‘cutout’ [a plausibly deniable third person] – is Nigel Farage.
Possible confirmation that Farage is a ‘cut out’ between Assange and Roger Stone – and therefore a back-channel to Trump – which may be what makes Farage a ‘person of interest’ to the FBI, came in June from… Roger Stone.
‘‘Mother Jones’ asked Stone if Farage was Stone’s “mutual friend” who had been his go-between with Assange. Stone replied, “Dined with him once in Cleveland [during the GOP convention in July]. Got him a meeting with the candidate. Never spoke to him again.”
I asked Stone how his assertion that he had set up a meeting between Farage and Trump squared with [a report in Aaron Bank’s book ‘The Bad Boys of Brexit’ that Farage met Trump for the first time, without Stone present, on 24th August 2016 in a side room at a Republican fundraiser in Jackson, Mississippi]. He replied, “I suggested candidate [Trump] meet Farage immediately after the convention. Certain [Farage] asked others to secure a meeting. Don’t recall when it happened only that it did.” It’s unclear whether the meeting Stone says he brokered was the same as the Mississippi get-together.
Stone added, “You report so much bullshit why do you care about the facts?”‘
Linked to this set of connections is Stone’s communication with Assange via the hacker Guccifer 2.0, widely presumed to be sponsored by the Russian state and to have conducted the hack of the Democratic National Convention, which Assange then leaked. This is the complicating factor which makes it possible that Comey and Schiff didn’t mean Farage when they discussed Stone, Assange and Russia at the House Intelligence Committee hearing in March, they meant Guccifer 2.0. (So why is the FBI investigating Farage?)
In an update to its article, ‘Mother Jones’ reports that Farage’s spokesman says Stone “did not organise any meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Farage.” It’s easy to see why Farage would want lie about this, but if Farage is telling the truth then why would Stone – a man with Nixon’s face tattooed on his back – want to implicate himself in a political scandal bigger than Watergate?
Stone’s remark to David Corn of ‘Mother Jones’ is possibly telling: “why do you care about the facts?” Stone is known not only for his fondness for expensive tailored clothes – he boasts of owning more than 100 silver neck ties – but for his fondness for tailoring the truth to suit his own ends, including in various elaborate conspiracy theories which he’s promulgated over the years, such as in his book repeating the often-made claim that LBJ had JFK assassinated (which was also the KGB’s assumption at the time, coincidentally…) This hobby – of spreading elaborate rumours of high-level wrong-doing – is one that Roger Stone shares with Julian Assange.
Is Stone lying about specific details in order to create a fog of rumours and wrong information, so that Stone can then later discredit investigations into links between him, Trump, Russia and Farage?
The point here is that Stone now has you doubting the basis of facts. So now he and others can shape a ‘narrative’ of the truth for you. Something Stone has in common with Vladimir Putin’s advisor and close ally Vladislav Surkov is that the flamboyant, profanity-spewing Stone considers himself to be an artist. “Politics with me isn’t theatre” he told the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash in 2007. “It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake.”
As the late Science Fiction author, Thomas M Disch, said of his sometimes-friend, sometimes denouncer to the FBI, the Da Vinci of fake universes and of “fake fakes”, Philip K Dick:
the term con-artist features the word ‘artist’.”
Philip Dick’s work has gone on to inspire mind-expanding films like ‘Blade Runner’ and television like ‘The Man In The High Castle’. In the next part of this series, I’ll look at another SF writer, who’s gone one better than Phil Dick, to try to remake reality itself through Russian state policy. That SF author is Vladislav Surkov.
I’ll also examine the weird, and in some cases disturbing, personalities and ideas behind various attempts since the Sixties to develop “Mind Wars” “Net Wars” and now the strategies of “hybrid Warfare“. As it’s described in an introduction to an internal US military discussion paper on Psychological Operations from the late 1970s:
You seize control of all of the means by which [a] government and populace process information to make up their minds, and you adjust it so that those minds are made up as you desire. Everyone is happy, no one gets hurt or killed, and nothing is destroyed.”
- Read part two: From Russia with non-linearity