The New Anti-Russian Hysteria


herman-2jpgIt is sad to see the liberals carried away on the wave of hysteria about the supposed Russian information warfare menace and possible influence over or even capture of the Trump presidency. It is also very dangerous to human welfare as it helps consolidate the power of the military-industrial complex, its war party associates, and the regressive deep state political forces that liberals claim to oppose. These political forces can fix a party line that quickly becomes an incontestible truth in the mainstream media (MSM). Thus, with the Soviet Union declared an “evil empire” it could be effectively tagged for crimes it did not commit (e.g., organizing the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981), and Saddam Hussein could be found allied with Al Qaeda and in possession of a large stock of weapons of mass destruction in 2003, lies that the MSM had no trouble swallowing.

Boris Yeltsin, accommodating to U.S. advice and pressure from 1991-2000, seriously damaged his own people’s well-being (Russian GDP fell 50 percent, between 1991-1998), but, while he was also creating an oligarchic and authoritarian economic and political structure he was lauded as a great democrat in the MSM. Yeltsin’s election victory in 1996, greatly assisted by U.S. consultants, advice and money, and otherwise seriously corrupt, was “A Victory for Russian Democracy” (NYT, ed,, July 4, 1996). His successor, Vladimir Putin, gradually discarding the Yeltsin-era subservience, became a steadily increasing menace. His reelection in 2012, although surely less corrupt than Yeltsin’s in 1996, was treated harshly in the media. No “victory for Russian democracy” here, and the lead NYT article on May 5, 2012 featured “a slap in the face” from OSCE observers, claims of no real competition, and “thousands of antigovernment protesters gathered in Moscow square to chant ‘Russia without Putin’” (Ellen Barry and Michael Schwartz, “After Election, Putin Faces Challenges to Legitimacy”). There were no “challenges to legitimacy” reported in the MSM in Yeltsin’s corrupt victory in 1996, although it was so corrupt that Yeltsin may actually have lost the election but for a fraudulent count (on February 20, 2012, outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev shocked a small group of visitors by acknowledging that Yeltsin might really have lost the 1996 election to Communist Gennadi Zyuganov).

The steady process of Putin demonization escalated with the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and its sequel of Kiev warfare against East Ukraine, Russian support of the Eastern Ukraine resistance, and the Crimean referendum and absorption of Crimea by Russia. This was all declared to be “aggression” by the U.S. and its allies and clients, sanctions were imposed on Russia and the U.S.-NATO buildup on the Russian borders increased. Tensions mounted further with the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines MH-17, effectively but almost surely falsely, blamed on the “pro-Russian” rebels and Russia itself (see Robert Parry, “Troubling Gaps in the New MH-17 Report,” Consortiumnews.com, September 28, 2016).  A further cause of demonization and anti-Russian hostility resulted from escalated Russian intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al-Saddad and against ISIS. The U.S. and its NATO and local Middle East allies had been committing aggression against Syria and in de facto alliance with ISIS and Al-Nusrah, an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Russian intervention turned the tide, the U.S. (etc) goal of removing Saddad was upset and the tacit U.S. ally, ISIS, was also severely weakened. Certainly demonic behavior. The next and ongoing phase of  anti-Russian hysteria was based on Russia’s purported entry into the 2016 presidential campaign and on the growing role of  the CIA and other U.S. security services in hysteria-implementation, in close alliance with the MSM. In the third presidential debate, on October 19, 2016, Clinton declared that Trump would be a Putin “puppet” as president, and her campaign placed great emphasis on this. This emphasis increased after the election, with the help of the media and intelligence services as the Clinton camp sought to explain the election loss and possibly get the election result overturned in the courts or electoral college by blaming it on Russia.

The Putin connection was given great impetus by the January 6, 2017 release of a report of the Office of Director of National Intelligence, on Background of Assessing Russian Activities and Intention in Recent U.S. Elections This short document spends about half of its space describing the Russian-sponsored RT-TV network which it seems to consider an illegitimate propaganda source as it often reports on and even criticizes U.S. policy and institutions. RT is allegedly part of Russia’s “influence campaign,” which consists of reporting on subjects that Russian leaders deem in Russia’s interest. “We assess the influence campaign aspired to help President-elect Trump’s chances of victory when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to the President-elect.” There is no semblance of proof that there was a planned “campaign” rather than the expression of opinion and associated news judgments. All the logic and proofs of a Russian “influence campaign” could be applied with at least equal force to U.S. media treatment of any Russian election.

As regards their effort to prove that the Russians intervened more directly in the U.S. electoral process, the authors hedge by saying the report doesn’t provide the “full supporting evidence,” but it provides no supporting evidence—only assertions, assessments, assumptions and guesses. It states blandly that “We assess that…Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2015” designed to defeat Clinton, and “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” but it provides no evidence whatsoever for any such order. It also provides no evidence that Russia hacked the DNC, Clinton and Podesta e-mails, or that it gave hacked information to WikiLeaks. Julian Assange and Craig Murray have repeatedly claimed that these sources were leaked by local insiders, not hacked by anybody. And veteran intelligence agency experts William Binney and Ray McGovern also contend that the WikiLeaks evidence was surely leaked, not hacked (“The Dubious Case on Russian ‘Hacking’,” Consortiumnews.com, January 6, 2017). It is of interest that among the intelligence agencies who signed on to the DNI document, the one with the greatest reservations—only “moderate confidence”—-was the NSA, which is the agency that would most clearly be in possession of proof of Russian hacking and transmission to Wiki-Leaks as well as any “orders” from Putin.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Clinton blamed FBI head James Comey’s reopening and then quickly closing the case on her earlier unauthorized use of a private email server, as the key factor in her election loss (“Clinton Blames FBI Director for Her Defeat,” NYT, November 13, 2016). This suggests that even she and her campaigners didn’t consider the alleged Russian hacking and WikiLeaks revelations as that important. But the Russian-Putin connection lived on and even escalated further.

The MSM have given no attention to the politicization of the intelligence agencies in these cases. The more durable and important case involving Russia has been damaging to Trump and any peace prospects that his presidency might have brought. But the FBI-Clinton episode was damaging to Clinton and benefited Trump’s electoral chances. One theory is that the FBI leadership favored Trump while the CIA favored Clinton. Another theory is that the intelligence agencies trusted neither candidate, so fatally injured Clinton and then turned their guns on Trump, with the FBI signing on to the joint agencies “Assessment” after having finished with Clinton. (Robert Parry, “A Spy Coup in America?” Consortiumnews.com, December 18, 2016.)

But the CIA’s hostility to Trump has been conspicuous, and their brazen intervention in the election process broke new ground in secret service politicization. Former CIA head Michael Morell had an August 5, 2016 op-ed in the New York Times entitled “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton”; and former CIA boss Michael Hayden had an op-ed in the Washington Post, just days before the election, entitled ”Former CIA Chief: Trump is Russia’s Useful Fool” (November 3, 2016). These attacks were unrelievedly insulting to Trump and laudatory to Clinton, though interestingly there is no mention of the merits or demerits of the candidates domestic policy programs. It is explicit that Clinton’s more pugnacious approach to Syria and Russia is much preferred to Trump’s leanings toward negotiation and cooperation with Russia.

So the purpose and importance of the Assessment is clear. Thin and even ludicrous though its evidence of a Putin ordered propaganda campaign and Russian e-mail hacks transmitted through WikiLeaks may be, the release and pushing into prominence of this material behind the backs of the incoming administration was a major political action by agencies in principle subordinate to the political leadership. Of course it follows similar tactics by the departing Obama administration, one of whose last acts was expelling 35 Russian Embassy personnel in retaliation for the supposed Russian hacking (which Obama didn’t even believe—in his final press conference he referred to “leaks” rather than “hacking”). But the political point of the Assessment seems to have been, at minimum, to tie the Trump administration’s hands in its dealings with Russia.

This was also true of the further scandal with Michael Flynn’s call from the Russian Ambassador, possibly including exchanges about future policy actions. This was quickly grasped by the outgoing Obama officials and security personnel, with the FBI interrogating Flynn and with widespread expressions of horror at Flynn’s action, allegedly possibly setting him up for blackmail. But such pre-inauguration meetings with Russian diplomats have been a “common practice” according to Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under Reagan and Bush, and Matlock had personally arranged such a meeting for Carter. Obama’s own Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, admitted to visiting Moscow for talks with officials in 2008 even before the election. Daniel Lazare makes a good case that the illegality and blackmail threat are implausible, that the FBI’s interrogation of Flynn reeks of entrapment, and he asks what is wrong with trying to reduce tensions with Russia? “Yet anti-Trump liberals are trying to convince the public that it’s all ‘worse than Watergate’.” (“Democrats, Liberals, Catch McCarthyistic Fever,” Consortiumnews.com, February 17, 2017.)

One of the few positive features of the Trump campaign had been a refusal to demonize Putin and an indication of a desire to normalize relations with Russia. Given the growth and power of the military-industrial complex, and the security agencies, there were powerful vested interests in continued hostile relations with Russia, manifested in the Assessment and other security agency overt and covert leaks, and the cooperation of the media (as in their publication of the CIA election letters).

Paralleling the Assessment’s stress on the Russian “influence campaign,” the MSM became very preoccupied with “fake news,” often implicitly or explicitly tied to Russia. An awkward fact in this context is that the disclosures of Clinton, DNC, and Podesta emails allegedly hacked by Russia described facts about electoral manipulations on behalf of the Clinton campaign that might well have affected election results. The focus on the non-existent Russian hacking intrusion helped divert attention from this real electoral abuse. Official and MSM fake news helped bury real news.

The most remarkable media episode in this anti-influence campaign, that was and still is a real anti-Russian disinformation campaign, was the Washington Post’s classic by Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” (November 24, 2016). The article features a report by an anonymous author or authors, PropOrNot, a “group that insists on public anonymity” according to the WP editors. The group claims to have found 200 websites that wittingly or unwittingly, were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.” While smearing these websites, the “experts” refused to identify themselves allegedly out of fear of being “targeted by legions of skilled hackers.”

As Matt Taibbi says,“You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike.” (“The ‘Washington Post’s ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting,” RollingStone.com, November 28, 2016.) But the WP welcomed and featured this smear job, which might well be a product of Pentagon or CIA information warfare (and they are well funded and heavily into the propaganda business).

The NYT has run neck-and-neck with the WP in stirring up fears of the Russian information war and improper involvement with Trump. They easily confuse fake news with any criticism of established institutions, as in Mark Scott and Melissa Eddy, “Europe Combats a New Foe of Political Stability: Fake News,” February 20, 2017; analyzed, in Robert Parry, “NYT’s Fake News about Fake News,” Consortium news.com, February 22, 2017. But what is more extraordinary is the uniformity with which the paper’s regular columnists accept the CIA’s Assessment of the Russian hacking-transmission to WikiLeaks, the dreadfulness of the Flynn case, the possibility or likelihood that Trump is a Putin puppet, and the urgent need of a congressional and “non-partisan” investigation of these claims. This swallowing of a new party line has extended widely in the liberal media (e.g., Robert Reich, Ryan Lizza, Joan Walsh, Rachel Maddow, the AlterNet website, etc.).

On December 23, 2016 President Obama signed the Portman-Murphy “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act,” which will supposedly allow this country to more effectively combat foreign (Russian, Chinese) propaganda and disinformation. It will encourage more government counter-propaganda efforts and provide funding to non-government entities that will help counter propaganda.

It is clearly a follow-on to the claims of Russian hacking and propaganda, and may even be said to be a follow-on to the listing of 200 knowing or “useful tools” of Moscow featured in the Washington Post. Perhaps PropOrNot will qualify for a subsidy and be able to enlarge its list of 200. Liberals have been quiet on this new threat to freedom of speech, which was signed into law on a Friday, perhaps paralyzed by their fears of Russian-based fake news and propaganda. But they may wake up, even if belatedly, when Trump or one of his successors puts it to work on their own notions of fake news and propaganda.

Z

Edward S. Herman is an author, economist, and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy.