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A guide to understanding the hoax of the Century

Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation
 
by Jacob Siegel
 
Part 6 - Russiagate! Russiagate! Russiagate!

If one imagines that the American ruling class faced a problem—Donald Trump appeared to threaten their institutional survival—then the Russia investigation didn’t just provide the means to unite the various branches of that class, in and out of government, against a common foe. It also gave them the ultimate form of leverage over the most powerful non-aligned sector of society: the tech industry. The coordination necessary to carry out the Russian collusion frame-up was the vehicle, fusing (1) the political goals of the Democratic Party, (2) the institutional agenda of the intelligence and security agencies, and (3) the narrative power and moral fervor of the media with (4) the tech companies’ surveillance architecture.

The secret FISA warrant that allowed U.S. security agencies to begin spying on the Trump campaign was based on the Steele dossier, a partisan hatchet job paid for by Hillary Clinton’s team that consisted of provably false reports alleging a working relationship between Donald Trump and the Russian government. While a powerful short-term weapon against Trump, the dossier was also obvious bullshit, which suggested it might eventually become a liability.

Disinformation solved that problem while placing a nuclear-grade weapon in the arsenal of the anti-Trump resistance. In the beginning, disinformation had been only one among a half-dozen talking points coming from the anti-Trump camp. It won out over the others because it was capable of explaining anything and everything yet simultaneously remained so ambiguous it could not be disproved. Defensively, it provided a means to attack and discredit anyone who questioned the dossier or the larger claim that Trump colluded with Russia. 

All the old McCarthyite tricks were new again. The Washington Post aggressively trumpeted the claim that disinformation swung the 2016 election, a crusade that began within days of Trump’s victory, with the article “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” (The lead expert quoted in the article: Clint Watts.)

A steady flow of leaks from intelligence officials to national security reporters had already established the false narrative that there was credible evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. When Trump won in spite of those reports, the senior officials responsible for spreading them, most notably CIA chief John Brennan, doubled down on their claims. Two weeks before Trump took office, the Obama administration released a declassified version of an intelligence community assessment, known as an ICA, on “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent Elections,” which asserted that “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The ICA was presented as the objective, nonpolitical consensus reached by multiple intelligence agencies. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Jeff Gerth writes that the assessment received “massive, and largely uncritical coverage” in the press. But, in fact, the ICA was just the opposite: a selectively curated political document that deliberately omitted contrary evidence to create the impression that the collusion narrative was not a widely disputed rumor, but an objective fact.

A classified report by the House Intelligence Committee on the creation of the ICA detailed just how unusual and nakedly political it was. “It wasn’t 17 agencies, and it wasn’t even a dozen analysts from the three agencies who wrote the assessment,” a senior intelligence official who read a draft version of the House report told the journalist Paul Sperry. “It was just five officers of the CIA who wrote it, and Brennan handpicked all five. And the lead writer was a good friend of Brennan’s.An Obama appointee, Brennan had broken with precedent by weighing in on politics while serving as CIA director. That set the stage for his post-government career as an MSNBC analyst and “resistance” figure who made headlines by accusing Trump of treason.

Mike Pompeo, who succeeded Brennan at the CIA, said that as the agency’s director, he learned that “senior analysts who had been working on Russia for nearly their entire careers were made bystanders” when the ICA was being written. According to Sperry, Brennan “excluded conflicting evidence about Putin’s motives from the report, despite objections from some intelligence analysts who argued Putin counted on Clinton winning the election and viewed Trump as a ‘wild card.’” (Brennan was also the one who overrode the objections of other agencies to include the Steele dossier as part of the official assessment.)

Despite its irregularities, the ICA worked as intended: Trump began his presidency under a cloud of suspicion that he was never able to dispel. Just as Schumer promised, the intelligence officials wasted no time in taking their revenge.

And not only revenge, but also forward-planning action. The claim that Russia hacked the 2016 vote allowed federal agencies to implement the new public-private censorship machinery under the pretext of ensuring “election integrity.” People who expressed true and constitutionally protected opinions about the 2016 election (and later about issues like COVID-19 and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) were labeled un-American, racists, conspiracists, and stooges of Vladimir Putin and systematically removed from the digital public square to prevent their ideas from spreading disinformation. By an extremely conservative estimate based on public reporting, there have been tens of millions of such cases of censorship since Trump’s election.

And here’s the climax of this particular entry: On Jan. 6, 2017—the same day that Brennan’s ICA report lent institutional backing to the false claim that Putin helped Trump—Jeh Johnson, the outgoing Obama-appointed secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that, in response to Russian electoral interference, he had designated U.S. election systems as “critical national infrastructure.” The move placed the property of 8,000 election jurisdictions across the country under the control of the DHS. It was a coup that Johnson had been attempting to pull off since the summer of 2016, but that, as he explained in a later speech, was blocked by local stakeholders who told him “that running elections in this country was the sovereign and exclusive responsibility of the states, and they did not want federal intrusion, a federal takeover, or federal regulation of that process.” So Johnson found a work-around by unilaterally rushing the measure through in his last days in office.

It’s clear now why Johnson was in such a rush: Within a few years, all of the claims used to justify the extraordinary federal seizure of the country’s electoral system would fall apart. In July 2019 the Mueller report concluded that Donald Trump did not collude with the Russian government—the same conclusion reached by the inspector general’s report into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, released later that year. Finally, on Jan. 9, 2023, The Washington Post quietly published an addendum in its cybersecurity newsletter about New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics study. Its conclusion: “Russian trolls on Twitter had little influence on 2016 voters.

But by then it didn’t matter. In the final two weeks of the Obama administration, the new counter-disinformation apparatus scored one of its most significant victories: the power to directly oversee federal elections that would have profound consequences for the 2020 contest between Trump and Joe Biden.

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