What’s Behind the GOP’s Disinformation Machine?

Are Trump’s Republican defenders Russian assets—or just useful idiots? Veteran intelligence officials weigh in.

I got into a heated debate with a Russian intelligence officer years ago over America’s political system and society. I left with my head spinning. At the time, I was a diplomat posted overseas. Reagan was president and the Soviet Union was showing signs of intense stress, a lumbering oppressive empire on its last legs. Still, the Soviets were highly skilled spin artists, whose dezinformatsiya (disinformation) ops fooled millions, including some Americans.

Let’s call this gentleman Karimov; he’s still serving, so I won’t unmask him. He was a military intelligence, or GRU, officer under diplomatic cover. We chatted over coffee. A multilingual lawyer and graduate of Moscow’s prestigious diplomatic training academy, the thickset spy spun a very sophisticated line depicting the United States as a failing nation riven by endemic racism, corruption, and cut-throat capitalism. Unlike Radio Moscow’s simplistic propaganda, Karimov applied his intellect to weave together a picture that, I sensed, could be believed by many “low information” citizens.

Fast forward to today. We see a vastly transformed environment in which the digital age has become a multiplying force for disinformation. And too many Americans, I’m sad to say, really are falling for it.

The most gullible, ironically, are those on the right—traditionally hardline opponents of Moscow. From 2014 to 2018, Russia’s favorable rating among Republicans soared 22 points, according to a Gallup poll, forty percent of whom said Russia was an ally or friendly. By contrast, 25 percent of Democrats viewed Russia favorably.

Most worrisome, however are Republican politicians who wittingly, or not, put our national security at risk by falling for the obvious tricks of Vladimir Putin and his minions.

“I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election,” GOP Senator John Kennedy said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton,” declared Senator Richard Burr, the GOP chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?”

As former NSC official and Russia expert Fiona Hill told congressmen at the impeachment hearings, “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves.” Why, then, are so many Republican politicians pushing the discredited line that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, despite the conclusion of the entire U.S. intelligence community that it was Moscow?

Former CIA director John Brennan doesn’t think it’s because they are stupid. Kennedy, a lawyer with degrees from Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Oxford, knows better: “He’s not being duped, he knows he’s being dishonest, he knows he’s trying to defend and protect Donald Trump at all costs, and so he’s not going to be honest with the American people.”

Other prominent Republicans who publicly regurgitate the Kremlin line include Congressmen Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan and Senators Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Mark Meadows. Are they afflicted with Fever Swamp Syndrome, or is it something perhaps even more insidious?

I’m no disinformation specialist, but I’ve participated in government task forces to counter Russian deception operations. Here’s what I believe.

Politicians who slavishly parrot Russian propaganda fall into three categories: the Cynical (those who know better but peddle the lies anyway); Useful Idiots (those who are easily manipulated); and the Compromised (those who are actual Russian assets who do Moscow’s bidding because they were recruited one way or another).

The third category—being compromised by a foreign power—is the most sensitive. I therefore asked three intelligence veterans their views on the chances of some members of Congress being under direct Russian control.

First, I spoke with Jack Barsky, an East German recruited and trained by the KGB to serve as a “sleeper agent” in the U.S. for a decade. Eventually, Barsky turned on his masters and helped the FBI. He is now a U.S. citizen. He told me, “I do believe that politicians as a class are some of the most vulnerable targets for foreign intelligence. I believe that the damage done by the ‘useful idiots’ is far greater than that done by one or two active assets.” The chances of there being Russian controlled actors among members of Congress, he said, are “low but not zero.”

Second, I reached out to a former CIA senior officer with nearly three decades working primarily on Russia operations.  The ex-official said, “I‘ve long worried about the existence of ‘controlled sources.’ Russian intelligence doctrine on active measures makes clear that the most important part of any campaign is recruited and controlled sources. I have no way of knowing if there are people in the Republican Party or Congress who are controlled sources but I’d bet my home that there are some high-level sources that have helped the Russians. If there aren’t any, it would be the first time ever.”

Then, I talked with a retired FBI special agent who led counterintelligence activities. He said he sees possible linkages involving the activities investigated by Mueller, prosecutors, and Congress, with Putin’s oligarchs as the common denominator. What stands out for him, though, is the large number of unreported Russian contacts among those in Trump’s circle. A seasoned FBI veteran, he believes Trump falls into the category of “useful idiot,” but can’t rule out his being a controlled asset. “What if there is a Russian agent among the few who can still whisper in Trump’s ear and get him to respond?” he speculated.

Are news pundits succumbing to near hysteria on Russian interference in our politics? To paraphrase a Cold War adage: Are we seeing a Russian under every bed?

Turns out, we may be overplaying Moscow’s dezinformatsiya prowess. At least, that’s the view of two disinformation experts.

Indeed, as former CIA analyst Cindy Otis wrote in USA Today, “Russia determined it did not need to be the driver of disinformation campaigns in most E.U. countries and primarily looked to amplify false content already being publicized by far-right groups.” She added, “If anything, domestic actors are poised to be the bigger information threat.”

This analysis is echoed by Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, who wrote in The Atlantic that the “fictional narrative about Ukraine was concocted and propagated first and foremost by American conspiracy theorists, not Russian disinformation puppeteers.” The Russians, he went on “did not ‘concoct” this version of the theory; they parroted the American far right.”

Once again, Moscow is using shrewd techniques to exaggerate its powers of influence, all as a means to keep its adversaries off balance.

But it has gotten an unprecedented boost from the maelstrom of lies being spouted by Republican leaders. To quote a once popular cartoon character, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And yet, the external threat is very real. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, is unmoved. He’s currently blocking legislation that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to individual states to beef up election security to prevent a repeat of 2016.

The sad truth may be that changing the warped mindset of Republicans regarding Trump is a more urgent national security need than taking on Russian propaganda.

Until that happens, you can count on American democracy to keep unraveling.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.