Just how long will it take us to report on the disinformation operations that drive division in western society?
Russia’s current disinformation attacks on the west accelerated in late 2012, consisting of three phases:
1) amplify leaked intelligence harmful to US, EU, and NATO, 2) identify and exacerbate real existing divisions in US society, 3) recruit and amplify Americans and other westerners to drive conflict.
Phase 1 involved Assange, Snowden, Manning and others; one can argue about whether and when they became witting vs. unwitting accomplices, and it doesn’t matter for this discussion. Phase 2 involved IRA planting content and driving conflicts. Phase 3 ran parallel to the entire operation but is now the principal driver. Russia need do nothing now but amplify western voices to advance its geopolitical agenda.
Even today people misunderstand what happened. The “interference” that occurred in 2016 was not a discrete event with a beginning and end, and it wasn’t limited to 2016. They began in 2012 with people like Christine Assange, Roseanne Barr, Caitlin Johnstone and Cassandra Fairbanks, planting seeds that would grow later. Several dozen others were seeded, to grow audiences and cultivate “points of view.”
By 2016 they had a mighty circus underway, with angry opposing voices, along with slogans and chants. To the public, including the media, this seemed home grown. “America is built on original sin, and this is just payback time,” we thought. “We are not the country we pretend to be,” we thought. In fact we are looking at ourselves through a funhouse mirror, grotesquely amplifying our least flattering features.
Those of us studying disinformation networks and cults in detail know what has actually occurred. And most likely, you won’t read about it in the papers soon. That’s not for lack of trying on our part. It’s because these manipulations are difficult to report, even as it’s possible to understand them from an intelligence and analysis point of view. Some of them are so complex and arcane as to defy both imagination and comprehension.
The case of Alger Hiss is instructive. He stood accused of espionage in 1948, for activities he had undertaken in the decade prior. The statute of limitations had run out for an espionage conviction, however, but he was convicted of perjury in 1950 for lying under oath in his testimony. He served three and a half years in jail. For decades, the debate over Hiss’ guilt or innocence raged. Hardcore leftists even accused Richard Nixon of manufacturing a typewriter to frame Hiss.
In fact, an intelligence program called VENONA had captured information that could have proved Hiss’ guilt. But it was not revealed at that time because it would have exposed the fact that Russia’s (weak) encryption practices had been broken. So its existence, along with information that would have implicated Hiss’ entire spy cell, was kept secret until 1995 — fifteen years after the program was terminated.
Many a political debate in the 1970’s could have been quashed had the VENONA information been known at that time. As it turned out, the information eventually released showed Hiss to most likely be codename ALES, an active Soviet GRU agent. But even today, there are some who have alternative explanations for the identity of ALES. Most people believe he was Hiss.
So here we sit 80 years after the fact and still not totally certain about the facts of a GRU operation. I am here to tell you in very certain terms that we are living through this again now. There are active GRU-enabled operations happening in our country now that are leading us into pointless political debates, that make us think less of ourselves and of our country — and we may not learn about them in any detail for a long time.
Will it take 55 years, as it did with VENONA? Maybe. I hope not. Imagine in 2070 finally learning more of the actual truth about what happened in 2015 or 2020. That will be a reckoning, no? For my part I’ll be 99 years old, or most likely dead. Many of you will be long passed as well.
Imagine, spending the rest of your life battling manufactured demons and engineered information operations designed to outlast our ability to detect and expose them. I’m sad to report that is the reality we inhabit.
The last four years have felt like a war. This is because we are in one. We even have 300,000 dead to show for it. It is tempting to think that we have voted our way out of this war. I don’t think that’s the case.
Much has been made of the threat posed by disinformation. Less has been said about the war. What we will find next year is that we are no less exhausted and exasperated, because the war, which was undeclared, has not ended. It hasn’t even been articulated. It just is. We are in a forever war with ourselves, driven by powers who wish to keep it that way.
So what is to be done? We must close the gap between intelligence gathering and journalistic reporting. 55 years is too long to learn of the existence of intelligence operations. Indeed, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said the same when he successfully argued for the VENONA disclosures in 1995. Why does it take us so long to report on intelligence matters?
We have, for decades, over-relied on secrecy, which Moynihan argued has made us more prone to belief in conspiracy theories and distrust in government. He was right. We shouldn’t be keeping secrets forever, and we should have a schedule and a process that leans towards disclosure. It should not be possible for a government bureaucrat to hide things away inside the walls of secret databases to protect themselves or crony political interests.
Secondly, journalism is suffering from a perfect storm of exploitable failures. “News” is now expected to make a profit. That has led editors to prefer bite-sized, click bait stories that are easier to report and monetize on a regular basis. Harder, investigative work is all but impossible in this climate, and often only happens in partnership with research groups who have other funding or motivations.
Modern intelligence operations are also impossibly complex, involving shady characters, shell corporations, cutouts, LARPs (live-action role players), covert communications, sock puppet accounts — and cults. We have found that cults are being weaponized at every level. Human intelligence, more than data, is the bedrock of any analysis effort.
Decoding these networks requires time and skills most journalists simply don’t have and aren’t usually interested in developing. And importantly, no one is paying them to develop such skills. This is a national security risk. Compensating journalists poorly makes them open to compromise; too few journalists means pseudo-journalists will fill in the gap.
The end result is that complex information operations from 10–15 years ago are still effectively unreported. When, if ever now, in this era of underfunded journalism manned with inexperienced reporters, will we learn about the operations taking place today?
Or will we live our lives having pointless debates about engineered conflicts? I think this is likely right now. While I do think history will eventually reckon with the truth of this era — that it was a time of manufactured conflict, rooted in an abuse of secrecy, exploited by cynical actors on a hopelessly naïve public — we must also be careful not to lurch too far in the other direction.
There are voices on the “right” (I use quotes because there is so much god-damn play acting) are shouting “declassify!”, which actually means: “release information that damages my political enemies.”
And some on the “left” (same caveat) say we should have no secrets at all. Neither of these positions is sane. We have operational capacity that must be protected to maintain peace and stability in the world. We can find balance.
But we need not protect execrable bad faith play actors and cults. In fact, we need urgently to expose these people and deplatform them. People acting in good faith have a right to be heard. Those acting in bad faith do not. Those harming people should be stopped urgently and brought to justice.
Beyond that, we must make it unproductive to wage harmful information attacks. There are ways we can strengthen our population which I will cover another time, but journalists can play a role by learning to work more like intelligence gatherers. Some are rising to this challenge, but it is slow work, wedged between other projects that pay the bills.
While much has been made of the relative “security” of the 2020 election, the fact is that Russia interfered in 2016, 2018, and 2020 by permanently altering the structure of American society. If you have lost a friend in the last few years, you are both victims. This is the legacy of this round of information operations and we will need to pursue a course of healing — in addition to exposing and banishing ongoing information operations.
So how long will it be before we learn the truth about the fake debates we are having now at the hands of information operations? A while longer, I’m afraid. But we can probably do better than 55 years.
Perhaps if we muster all our will we can cut it down to 5 years, but this is the immunization we all desperately need and it can’t come a moment too soon. In the meantime, please be aware of all we don’t know, and love your neighbors — all of them; it’s the only antidote.