Category: Vladimir Putin

The Useful Idiots of the Left

cohenvdh2I’ve pointed out the useful idiots of the American right before like David Keene of The Washington Times and others. But Putin uses people who are useful to him, regardless of political ideology, and there are useful idiots on the American left as well.

Two that come to mind are Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine, and her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and NYU and a contributing editor to the magazine his wife edits.

On Aug. 9, The Nation published a lengthy “expose” that concluded that the Democratic National Committee wasn’t hacked by Russia or anyone else, as our intelligence communities tell us.  The article, titled “A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack,” is dense, impenetrable, and ill-informed.  It takes author Patrick Lawrence 4,000 words to say that the DNC emails were downloaded at speeds faster than the internet could handle. Before that we are doused with Lawrence’s rhetorical sewage:

Lost in a year that often appeared to veer into our peculiarly American kind of hysteria is the absence of any credible evidence of what happened last year and who was responsible for it. It is tiresome to note, but none has been made available.

“Absence of any credible evidence” — File that one away for later.

This article was quickly debunked. And it was ridiculed by Sam Biddle of the Intercept who found something interesting in Lawrence’s Twitter timeline:

Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel ordered a review of this article, which is the latest in a string of Russia-related embarrassments for The Nation, a still highly-regarded left-leaning publication that is in danger of disappearing into the loony fringe.  Things have gotten so bad that journalists at the magazine complained about the magazine’s Russia coverage in a letter to vanden Heuvel in June.  Here’s an excerpt from a longer version quoted in this column in The Washington Post:

As longtime associates of The Nation, we are deeply concerned that by making these editorial emphases and by likening calls for investigations into the Russia connection to “red baiting,” the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions. We have noted, too, with dismay, that Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter and other far-right adversaries have taken comfort in the writings of other Nation writers on the current crisis.

Ouch. The Nation being cited by Ann Coulter. Other Nation articles suggest that leaks pose a greater danger to U.S. national security than Trump himself. Odd choice for a magazine that exhorts its readers to the barricades with slogans like “Resist. Organize. Defend Freedom.”

[Update: Here is the Nation’s DNC article being used as Russian propaganda]

I don’t know how it happened but somewhere along the way Vandel Heuvel and her husband Stephen F. Cohen became Putin’s useful idiots. And I mean that in the same sense as Lenin did when he used it to describe liberals and Social Democrats who helped advance the Communist cause outside the Soviet Union.

Recall that “absence of any credible evidence” phrase in the article I noted above? It’s is a frequent refrain of Stephen F. Cohen, who uses it to shoot down all criticism of Putin.

The U.S. community’s findings that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign into the 2016 election aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton and helping Trump’s chances of winning? No evidence.

Cohen called the declassified summary released by the U.S intelligence community on Jan. 6  “embarrassing” and “worse than amateurish” on a podcast five days after the report’s release. The report contains “zero” evidence and Cohen says not incorrectly that U.S. intelligence has been dead wrong before. A summary of his podcast describes the report as “utterly bogus.”

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this mirrors the Kremlin’s response to the intelligence summary as well. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova, said Jan. 12,  “Accusations are usually based on facts, dates and figures. This report is based on claims. There is nothing new in it for anyone, nothing but yet another compilation of absurd stereotypes.”

Echoing Donald Trump, Cohen also says there’s no evidence that Putin is “a killer.” This ignores the chairman of a UK panel who concluded that Putin “probably” gave the order to kill Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210 in 2006 in a London hotel.

Similarly, Cohen argues there is no evidence that Putin kills journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta — gunned down on Putin’s birthday — or the 33 others killed since he took office in 2000. Once again, Donald Trump makes the same claim.

“Trump [like Cohen] is technically right but wrong in spirit,” says Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies the Russian security state. “There is indeed no proof Putin has journalists killed. But he presides over a regime in which journalists are beaten, harassed and murdered, often with impunity.”

Cohen is arguing a legal technicality. Sure, there’s no evidence Putin ordered anyone’s death. But someone did order the murders Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, or Boris Nemtsov. Those killers aren’t punished in Putin’s Russia, even though Putin probably knows who they are.

Follow his line of thinking and one could make the logically-sound but completely absurd argument that there is no evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.

It goes like this: Not all smokers develop lung cancer, and not all lung cancer patients are smokers. And the link between cancer and smoking is purely statistical. No double-blind study has ever been conducted to prove that smoking and lung cancer. So, how do we know that smoking — and not, say, air pollution — causes lung cancer?

Silly, yes, but it’s the same argument employed used by tobacco makers in court. It’s also the logic of climate-change skeptics (“scientific consensus is not evidence”), and people who think the Earth is 5,000 years old (“Evolution is a theory, not proof.”)

No evidence. No proof.

It is the desperate logic of those unable to reevaluate a long held, but increasingly ridiculous position so as to avoid looking like a fool.

Mogilevich, Putin and Trump

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Semion Mogilevich remains a subject of fascination in the Trump-Russia story.

I’ve written before about Mogilevich’s ties to Trump Tower and how the man called the most powerful Mobster in the world may be a subject of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper dive into the world of Semion Mogilevich to understand who he is and what it means for Trump to be connected to him.

If you want cut to the chase, here you go: Having a relationship with Mogilevich was in some ways like having a relationship with Putin himself.

Semion Mogilevich and Donald Trump both were born in June of 1946, only two weeks apart, in vastly different circumstances. Trump, as we know, was the son of a wealthy New York developer. Mogilevich was born to a Jewish family in Kiev and before he began his life of crime he earned an economics degree.

Calling Mogilevich a Mobster is a bit misleading. He is a Mobster, but he’s much more than a Russian version of Tony Soprano.

Mogilevich is better described as a secret billionaire who made his fortune in the murky gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. US Attorney Michael Mukasey said in 2008 that Mogilevich “exerts influence over large portions of the natural gas industry in parts of what used to be the Soviet Union.”

The man called “the Brainy Don” also ran a publicly-traded company that defrauded investors in the United States and Canada out of $150 million. He sells weapons and drugs, arranges contract killings, runs prostitutes — all on an international scale. He has connections and influence at the very top of the Russian oligarchy. But the biggest sign of his power and influence is that he today lives free in Russia.

How is this possible? How can an international criminal live openly in Moscow?

To understand this, consider this secretly recorded conversation between then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Ihor Smeshko, who was then head of Ukraine’s military intelligence:

Smeshko:  “So, this is why [the American FBI]  thinks that Mogilevich’s organization, it is working completely under the cover of SBU [Ukraine’s secret service.] This is why there is this kind of cooperation there!”

Kuchma: “He [Mogilevich] has bought a dacha in Moscow, he keeps coming.

Smeshko: “He has received a passport already. By the way, the passport in Moscow is in a different name. And what is level in Moscow is … Korzhakov [the head of Boris Yeltsin’s personal security] sent two colonels to Mogilevich in Budapest in order to receive damaging information on a person … He himself did not meet them. His organization’s lieutenant, [Igor] Korol, met these colonels and gave them the documents relating to ‘Nordex’. Mogilevich has the most powerful analytical intelligence service. But Mogilevich himself is an extremely valuable agent of KGB, PGU … When they wanted to … Mogilevich … When the Soviet Union collapsed UKGB ‘K’ command did not exist yet. When one colonel wanted to he is retired, he lives there when he tried to arrest him, he got his pennyworth, they told him ‘Stop meddling! This is PGU [SVR, Russian foreign intelligence service] elite’. He has connections with [Russian businessman and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly] Chubais.”

This conversation, which was secretly recorded by a Kuchma bodyguard, is difficult to follow, but it gives you a sense of Mogilevich’s power and reach. First, he ran his own powerful intelligence service that was useful to a  Russian president. He was an agent of the KGB in the days of the Soviet Union and remains a source to modern Russian intelligence. And he is protected by powerful interests in Russia.

These tapes were of great interest to Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian FSB officer who was poisoned in a London hotel in 2006 with radioactive Polonium-210. Litvinenko, who hated Putin, had a role in transcribing them and publicizing them.

The British inquiry into his death went into considerable detail of the conversations on these tapes and his writings, which contain a few other fascinating bits of information on Mogilevich. In an email, Litvinenko revealed that Mogilevich had sold arms to al Qaida:

“I know beyond the doubt that Mogilevich is FSB’s long-standing agent and all his actions including the contact with al Qaida are controlled by FSB — the Russian special services. For this very reason, the FSB is hiding Mogilevich from the FBI.”

In Russia, criminals and intelligence services aren’t adversaries. They are birds of a feather. They share information. The Mob helps the state, and in return, Russian criminals like Mogilevich get to share in the riches and remain free.

As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian history and security issues, writes,

“The Russian state is highly criminalized, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.”

Mogilevich’s ties to the Russian political “upperworld” go deep. Very deep.

 

In another  secretly recorded conversation in 2000, Ukrainian PM Kuchma discusses Mogilevich with  Leonid Derkach, the former head of the Ukrainian security services.

Kuchma: “Have you found Mogilevich?”

Derkach: “I found him.”

Kuchma: “So, are you two working now?”

Derkach: “We’re working. We have another meeting tomorrow. He arrives incognito.

Later in the discussion Derkach revealed a few details about Mogilevich.

Derkach: “He’s on good terms with Putin. He and Putin have been in contact since Putin was still in Leningrad.”

Kuchma: “I hope we won’t have any problems because of this.”

Derkach: “They have their own affairs”

According to Litvinenko, the poisoned ex-FSB agent, Putin was Mogilevich’s “krishna” or protector in Russian underworld slang.

And this was a relationship that dated back to the early 1990s when the future Russian president was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg.

“Mogilevich have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993,” Litvinenko says in broken English on a tape made before his death.

Back in 1993 and 1994, Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He was known in St. Petersburg as the man who could get things done. His approach to the criminal world  was a practical one, Karen Dawisha writes in Putin’s Kleptocracy.

The mafia and the KGB had always had points of intersection and conflict — the 1990s were no different, and the mafia had its uses. It was global, it could move money, it could hide money, and in any case, some of the money would come back to St. Petersburg for investment.  So how did Putin operate? First and foremost, he made illegal activity legal.

Most countries, even corrupt ones, go after their biggest criminals. But in Russia,  criminals have their uses.

One of these points where the interests of Mogilevich and Putin merge is in the natural gas trade. RosUkrEngero (RUE), a murky Swiss company that acts as an intermediary in gas sales between Russia and Ukraine is seen as a joint venture of sorts between the two men.

RUE is half owned by Gazprom, the Russian gas giant that is run by Putin’s cronies. The other half is nominally owned by two Ukrainian businessmen: Dmitry Firtash and a minority partner. But the U.S. government suspects that Mogilevich (see here) is the man behind the curtain at RUE.

The world was closely watching in 2008 when Russian police arrested Mogilevich on a tax evasion scheme. He posted bail and was released a year later.  Charges were dropped in 2011.

Mogilevich is part of the story, the tragedy really, of modern Russia.

Russia is a country rich in natural resources. It has great wealth below the ground. Above ground the wealth is shared by a small number of individuals who were close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin allowed this select few to enrich themselves by siphoning billions out of the country’s natural gas and oil fields, its steel and nickel mills, its fertilizer plants, the state railroads, and many more industries. In return for unimaginable wealth, these oligarchs pledged absolute fealty to Putin.

This is an operation that Mogilevich knew very well. Enriching yourself and your friends in exchange for loyalty — that’s the job of a Mafia Don. Which is exactly what Putin is.

As Sen. John McCain told late night host Seth Meyers, Russia is a “a gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

Mueller Said to Be Looking into 2008 Palm Beach Mansion Sale

Bloomberg reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has decided that Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire is worth a deeper look.

As readers of this site know, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier. The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie (House of Friendship), was in such bad shape that Rybolovlev got permission to tear it down and sell off the land beneath it.

Dmitry Rybolovlev

I’ve written how this transaction has the marks of a bribery case I followed here in San Diego.

Not long after the mansion sold, Trump was approaching default on loan from Deutsche Bank. And the $50 million Trump pocketed on the mansion sale was enough to cover the $40 million he had personally guaranteed to the German lender.

Here’s a bit more detail: The Palm Beach mansion sold in July 2008. That fall, Trump was desperately trying to get Deutsche Bank to extend a senior construction loan for the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The Chicago project was already facing weak sales before the 2008 financial meltdown hit.

Unlike many other Trump Organization projects, the Donald was personally on the hook in Chicago.  He hadn’t licensed his name. He had no partners. He arranged all the financing himself: He put $77 million of his own equity into the tower and had given Deutsche Bank a $40 million personal guarantee.  (See “In Chicago, Trump Hits Headwinds,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 Oct. 2008.)

Trump’s Deutsche Bank loan came due Nov. 7, 2008 with an outstanding principal balance of $334 million, plus $251 million in interest. Not only did Trump not pay, but with his usual bombast, he sued Deutsche Bank to force them to extend the loan. Deutsche Bank countersued, and demanded Trump cough up his $40 million guarantee. Deutsche Bank ultimately extended the loan for five years and eventually Trump paid it.

There are a lot of dogs sniffing around this tree. The personal guarantees Trump made for his Deutsche Bank loans are also of interest to New York State regulators looking at the president’s relationship with the German lender’s wealth management division: according to The New York Times:

Additionally, the New York regulators recently requested information related to the hundreds of millions in loans Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management division provided Mr. Trump, one of the people said, paying particular attention to personal guarantees he made to obtain the loans. Those guarantees have declined as the loans were paid down and the property values increased, but it remains a source of interest to the regulators.

For those who want even more detail, I’ve embedded Trump’s Deutsche Bank personal guarantee at the end of this post. If anyone with some expertise in these matters finds anything interesting in there, please let me know.

Mueller’s team are also said to be interested in dealings involving the Bank of Cyprus. Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who bought Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, became the bank’s largest shareholder in 2010 when he purchased a 9.7 percent stake through his British Virgin Islands holding firm, Odella Resources. (Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, invested in the bank in 2014.)

The shady mansion sale is just one of the things FBI investigators and others are examining:

It seems that Mueller’s team is looking for evidence of a payment disguised as a real estate transaction, fee or gift that would give Russians what the intelligence community likes to call “levers of pressure” that could be used against the US president.

Trump’s Personal Guarantee

Before He Bought Trump’s Mansion, This Russian Billionaire Was Jailed for Murder

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Dmitry Rybolovlev

It’s a bit suspect, to say the least, that Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier.

The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie was in such bad shape that Rybolovlev got permission to tear it down and sell off the land beneath it. I’ve written how this transaction has the marks of a bribery case I followed here in San Diego.

I decided to take a deeper look at Rybolovlev. Turns out, he’s got an interesting past: He spent nearly a year in jail on murder charges. Depending on whom you ask, Rybolovlev is a man who rubbed out a competitor or an innocent man framed for murder by corrupt Russian officials.

The evidence points to the latter. Rybolovlev, born in 1966, came from a family of doctors in Perm, an industrial city in the Ural Moutains. After graduating from the Perm Medical Institute in Russia in 1990 he joined the cardiology department of a local emergency room.

It was the dramatic upheaval after the fall of the Soviet Union that changed his life and the lives of his patients, who could not afford to pay him. Rybolovlev moved to Moscow and became one of the first licensed brokers in the country.

It was the right place at the right time. The Russian government, desperate to raise cash and stave off collapse, and being totally unacquainted with capitalism, began selling off its companies for mere fractions of their value. It was perhaps the single greatest investment opportunity in history.

In 1995, Rybolovlev started buying up shares of Uralkali, a fertilizer maker that was located back in his home region of Perm, the center of the country’s potash industry. He quickly amassed a controlling interest in the company and was named chairman of the board.

In 1996, Rybolovlev was arrested on a murder conpiracy charge. He would spend his 30th birthday and the next 11 months in jail.

[The definitive account of Rybolovlev’s time in jail comes from an interview he gave to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine about a decade ago.]

Rybolovlev was accused of ordering the 1995 murder of Evgeny Panteleymonov, the general director of Netfchimik, which produced industrial alcohol.  Rybolovlev was chairman of Netfchimik and owned 40 percent of the company, according to Forbes.

Netfchimik generated high cash flows — and attracted attention from criminals. In the summer of 1995, Panteleymonov met with Rybolovlev and told him the criminals had to go. Rybolovlev had offered him bodyguards for his protection. Panteleymonov had refused.

Rybolovlev was not so cavalier. He had grown so worried for his family’s safety that he moved them to Florida and then to Switzerland. He hired bodyguards to protect his family, his parents and his business partners. “From time to time, I had to wear a bulletproof vest,” he told the Russian edition of Forbes.

Unprotected, Panteleymonov was gunned down by a mob-linked businessman named Oleg Lomakin (aka Prokop). Lomakin was arrested for Panteleymonov’s shooting, and, oin exchange for leniency, he accused Rybolovlev of ordering the murder.

It was enough to get Rybolovlev thrown in jail, where he languished. Authorities moved from from cell to cell in an effort, he suspects, to break him. Weeks dragged into months. Offered freedom if he sold his shares in Ukrakali, he refused. He told Forbes he was prepared to serve 10 years, if necessary.

Finally, the case against him began to fall apart. No other evidence linked Rybolovlev to the shooting, and eventually Prokop admitted that he had perjured himself. After nearly a year of incarceration, Rybolovlev was allowed to post bail of one billion rubles (about $200,000). In late 1997, he was acquitted of murder charges.

It turned out that Rybolovlev’s arrest was tied to the politics of the fertilizer industry. There was a familiar Soviet problem of overproduction, and to smooth things out the Rybolovlev’s company Uralkali and other fertilizer producers decided to collude. In 1993, they formed the International Potash Company to channel their exports.

Things were uneventful until 1996. On May 20th, Uralkali shareholders voted to end its relationship with the International Potash Company and export the company’s products through an American company, Transammonia.  The next day, Rybolovlev was arrested.

“I definitely came out a different person,” Rybolovlev told Forbes. “I got an understanding of how the world actually works. ” In prison, the businessman realized that the state can ruin his business at any time. Political risks were too significant and could never be neglected.

Freed from jail, Rybolovlev resumed command of his business. In 2007, he listed Uralkali on the London stock exchange and overnight became one of Russia’s richest men. He sold most of his stake in the company in 2010 to three Russian tycoons. Forbes estimates his fortune today at $7.4 billion.

Another Useful Idiot

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The Washington Post is out with a story about the American right’s ties to Russia and the article centers on the tale of accused Russian Mob boss and Russian Duma member Alexander Torshin and his red-headed friend, Maria Butina, which I’ve written about here. 

In that post, I wrote that David Keene — opinion editor of The Washington Times editorial page and past NRA president — was a useful idiot who allowed a suspected Russian mobster to get close to the president.

Torshin is a member of the Russian Duma and, simultaneously, (while the Post story doesn’t mention it), he was accused by Spanish police of being a ranking member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate. He was slated to meet with President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast until a White House national security aide noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage.”

The Post adds an important new detail: How Torshin met Keene.

At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin’s party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.

I never realized that Vladimir Putin had such open and effusive admirers in the United States like George Kline Preston.

Preston, born in 1966, is an expert on Russian law who displays a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office, according to the Post.

He believes that we have it backwards: Putin is the good guy in this story. He has told friends for years not to believe reports that Putin murdered journalists or political opponents. Here he is effusively praising Putin to his friend Torshin on Twitter.

Translation: “@torshin_ru Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day in the USA. I want to say that you are fortunate to have President Vladimir Putin.”

Preston’s relationship with Torshin goes back to at least 2009 when Preston briefed Russian legislators on the implementation of immunity agreements in Russia:

Mr. Torshin asked me to briefly describe the concept of a “deal with the investigation,” or, more precisely, the “plea bargaining”, as we used to call this term in the West. (source: archived web page of prestonkline.com)

Preston was an international observer during the 2011 Russian duma elections that led to mass street protests about election fraud. Preston said he concluded the Russian election system was “impressive” and “very well-organized,” but the Western view was overwhelmingly negative. The reason why, he said, lay in the fact the West does not like Vladimir Putin. Asked why, he speculated that “maybe because he’s a strong leader, maybe he’s done a pretty effective job:”

Interestingly, this video was posted to YouTube (and possibly made by) Johan Backman, a controversial Finnish academic. Backman is a Putin cheerleader and Kremlin propagandist (which is detailed in this lengthy expose).  Preston was apparently didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was being used for propaganda purposes.

In 2012, Preston returned the favor and  invited Torshin to be an election observer in Nashville. Both men appear in the picture below (Preston on the left, and Torshin in the middle). Torshin’s tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.”

In contrast to his experience observing voting Russia, Preston said he saw violations of U.S. law during the presidential election: pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place.

Preston earned his bachelors degree in Russian language and literature at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the same year he  studied in Leningrad via an Indiana University program at Leningrad State. He and earned his law degree at Nashville School of Law in 1994.  For a time, Preston was involved in trading Russian/Ukrainian securities and importing Kievskaya Rus ultra premium vodka.

Preston’s law practice appears heavily focused on Russia. A version of his website archived in 2011 appears in both English and Cyrillic. On his office web page of is what appears to be a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.

A portion of the Preston’s practice involved assisting Americans in adopting children born in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. (Putin in 2012 signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.) Preston also represented Bering Strait, a classically-trained Russian bluegrass and Russian scholar Mikhail Anikin, who claimed that author Dan Brown stole his idea for the “Da Vinci Code.”

On his Twitter feed, @gittinpaid, Preston often retweets Russian propaganda from RT, Pravda and other news outlets:

I’m not sure what happened to G. Kline Preston, but it’s hard to look at him and see a man who has turned himself, quite happily it seems, into another of Putin’s useful idiots.

Unwitting Agents, Useful Idiots, Donald Trump and other dupes

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In his excellent testimony March 30 before the Senate intelligence committee, Thomas Rid, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, explains how Russia has perfected the art of exploiting unwitting agents.

Unwitting agents are fools who are doing the bidding of another person or country without realizing it. Another term for them is “useful idiot,” a phrase supposedly used by Lenin to describe liberals and Social Democrats who helped advance the Communist cause outside the Soviet Union.

Rid said three different types of unwitting agents stand out from the chaos of the 2016 election:

Unwitting agent #1: Wikileaks.

The US intelligence community concluded with a high degree of confidence that Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, was the source for the reams of stolen Clinton campaign emails published by Wikileaks.

Wikileaks has repeatedly denied that Russia was the source for the leaked DNC emails, which shows why an unwitting agent is so useful.

Wikileaks clings to the moral high ground because it believes it acted in the name of justice or goodness, not in the name of a Russian intelligence agency.

So when Wikileaks insists that the emails were leaked to them by an insider, it does so with considerable conviction that has taken others such as the influential Fox commentator Sean Hannity.

Unwitting Agent #2: Twitter

Twitter was hugely influential among opinion leaders in the 2016 election, foremost among them the Twitterer-in-chief, Donald Trump. But it’s very hard to tell what on Twitter is real and what is fake.

A recent study by computer scientists at Indiana University and USC tried to tackle the question of how many Twitter accounts are bots. These are automated and semi-automated software applications that mimic human behavior and can be used to drive grassroots political support, spread rumors, or bully opponents.

The researchers conclude that as many as 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots, and given the increasing sophistication of bots, this may be a conservative estimate. Twitter claims it has 313 million “active” monthly users. If the study is correct, 47 million Twitter users are not human.

Twitter for its part could easily inform the public how many of its accounts are bots, whether influential accounts during the 2016 election were human or not, or how many Twitter trends began overseas.

But it is not in the company’s interest to do so. The inflated numbers make it appear that Twitter has active users than its published numbers claim it has. Pulling back the curtain on bots would depress Twitter’s value as a publicly-traded company.

Unwitting Agent #3: Journalists

The Soviet Union excelled at planting stories. Operation INFEKTION planted the devastatingly rumor that AIDS had been created by US scientists seeking new and potent biological weapons that still echoes around the globe.

But planting these stories was hard work, as this CIA history shows. It took time to craft believable forgeries and build relationships with newspapers. A CIA study estimated that the Soviets spent $3 billion annually influencing world perceptions through its “active measures” campaigns.

That was then. Now, Rid says, it’s much easier:

Cold War disinformation was artisanal; today it is outsourced at least in part — outsourced to the victim itself. American journalists would dig deep into large dumps, sifting gems, mining news, boosting ops.

The hours and reams of newsprint that reporters devoted to hacked emails — with little thought to the who, what or why of their appearance — made American journalism an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence.

Unwitting Agent #4: Donald Trump

Trump is not part of Rid’s testimony, but I felt the need to add him. Donald Trump is the biggest unwitting agent of them all.

He has professed his love for Wikileaks and for Twitter, as well as for rumors that originate with Russia. He has allowed himself to used and manipulated by people with questionable motives.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell summed it up this way:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

Fake News as a Weapon: Trump, Russia and the World of Rumors

Have you heard the rumor that Donald Trump is mentally ill? Did you hear that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? With the help of British intelligence?  Or that a child-sex ring connected to Democrats was being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant?

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via New England Historical Society

American society is being bombarded by rumors. Fake news websites push stories like the aforementioned “Pizzagate.” Russian has an army of Twitter trolls who blast out all sorts of wild rumors. Even Donald Trump’s own tweets deluge us with confusing and contradictory information.

It seems awful hard to know what’s true and what’s not these days. Where is the antidote for the epidemic of fake news? Many of us may feel like we can’t even trust our own judgment. And maybe, that’s the point.

The post-truth era, as it’s been called, might feel very familiar to American spies operating behind enemy lines in World War II. Back then, U.S. operatives were coming up with creative ways to damage morale and divide the leadership of Nazi Germany. One of their best weapons was the use of carefully crafted, well-timed rumors.

Rumors were a specialty of the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of today’s CIA. One of the most famous of the OSS’ rumor campaigns was “Where Is Hitler?” The OSS would broadcast a fake report that Hitler was supposed to appear at an upcoming rally.  When Hitler inevitably failed to show, the OSS would float rumors that Hitler was ill or suffering from a mental breakdown. These rumors spread so widely that they became the subject of articles in American newspapers, including The New York Times.

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Creating a loss of confidence in leaders was just one was just one the tricks dreamed up by the OSS Morale Operations branch. Others are spelled out in a now declassified field manual, which is a guide on how to use rumors, forgeries, blackmail and bribery to destabilize a country. What the OSS called “subversive rumors” could be used to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources, create division among racial, political and religious lines, to create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports, and to tip the balance when public opinion was in a precarious state, among other things.

Viewed in this light, fake news seems less a nuisance and more like something that would trouble our intelligence community. And indeed, they do appear concerned. The U.S. intelligence community recently concluded that Russia mounted an “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election that blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia influence campaign sought to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and denigrate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In essence, Russia has created a modern version of the OSS Morale Operations branch. Social media gives the modern operative powers the likes of which his or her OSS forerunner could only have dreamed. Whereas the OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors, the modern influence campaign can without leaving home harness the power of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are machines for the rapid transmission of rumors.

While the technology behind rumor campaigns has evolved, the nature of rumor itself hasn’t changed much in the 74 years since the OSS wrote its field manual. The OSS defined a rumor as “an unauthenticated, unofficial story or report, represented and transmitted as fact.” This distinguishes it from propaganda, which stamps its authorship on its message. Anybody can start a rumor. Crafting a good one is an art form.

via New England Historical Society

The old OSS characteristics of what makes a good rumor still hold true: A good rumor still must be simple, consisting of a single idea. It must be plausible. It is tied to some known facts, yet is impossible to completely verify. It frequently appears as an “inside” story.  The best rumors to spread are existing ones. “In many cases, the most effective rumor policy will be to spread further rumors that have arisen spontaneously in enemy territory,” the field manual advises.

A good rumor must also be vivid. Rumors with “strong emotional content” are extremely effective. (Case in point: the unforgettable, unverifiable story of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes.) A suggestive rumor was well adapted to spreading fear and doubt, by doling out limited but tantalizing bits of information that allow the audience to formulate conclusions (“FBI Director James Comey made an unexpected trip to the White House.”)

Robert Knapp, who developed the section of the OSS’ Field Manual on rumors and wrote academic papers on the subject, likened a rumor to a torpedo. “Once launched, it travels of its own power,” he wrote. Knapp had an insight into what gave rumors their power: They expressed and gratified the emotional needs of the community, just as daydreams and fantasies expressed the needs of the individual. Rumors gave sense and direction to fears, resentments or hopes. ”No rumor will travel far unless there is already a disposition among those who hear it to lend it credence,” he wrote in a 1944 paper.

Among the many coincidences involving Russia and Donald Trump, one that goes unnoticed is their mutual grasp of the power of rumor. Trump used rumors to stunning effect in his campaign, beginning with the suggestion that President Obama was born in Kenya. This rumor tapped into deeply-held beliefs about President Obama that many people were not comfortable expressing publicly. Outright racism is unacceptable to most Americans. However, many found the disguised racism of a rumor about the African-American president’s birthplace more palatable. There is frequently a racist undertone to many of Trump’s rumors: Muslims celebrating Sept. 11 in New Jersey, illegal immigrants voting, terrorist incidents that didn’t happen, and so on.

Rumors may also help explain Trump’s appeal. In a recent interview, Time magazine’s Michael Scherer pressed Trump on his use of rumors. “What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right,” the president told him. “I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” In other words, Trump’s rumors feel true to him, even if they can’t be verified. Trump’s words also feel true to his supporters, almost like an article of faith. He is making a connection on a deep emotional level that, once established, is difficult to break.

However, Trump’s predilection for rumors over facts is dangerous, for it leaves him wide open to manipulation. Unwittingly or not, Trump has spread rumors that originated in Russia. The story spread by the White House that President Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump and his associates started as a story on RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet.  On the campaign trail, Trump quoted a report that appeared to originate on Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed media outlet.  At a March 30 Senate intelligence committee hearing, Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and an expert on Russian disinformation, explained  in striking terms the problem with having a rumor-monger for a president:

Rumors do work on the campaign trail, but they are toxic to the presidency. Credibility is one of the president’s strongest assets, never more so than in moments of crisis. Trump seems not to understand that, as president, he is the authority, and the White House is the place where rumors end, not where they begin. If President Trump truly wants to make America great again, he must stop spreading rumors.

If Trump won’t quash rumors, others must do it for him. Many news organizations are now regularly refuting the president’s rumors. This effort harkens back to World War II, when rumors were an even bigger problem then they are now. Robert Knapp, the OSS’ rumor expert, founded a “rumor clinic” in Boston that collected rumors and sought to put and end to them. A column first published in the Boston Herald in 1943 quoted the rumor in italics followed by the word FACT. Rumor clinics opened in many cities, but quickly faded following a clash with the Roosevelt administration’s Office of War Information. Government bureaucrats wanted to smother rumors with facts, rather than call attention to them by singling them out for disproof. (For more on this click here.)

Knapp proposed that rumors could serve as an “index of morale.” They may be a better gauge of the true state of public opinion than any poll or survey. Rumors allow expression of the deeply held beliefs and fears that won’t be repeated to a stranger. A look at the rumors prevalent in American society show we are a deeply divided along racial, political, and religious lines. Many Americans have little or no confidence in our elected leaders. We distrust our own news sources.

In sum, American morale has been deeply wounded. We are much weaker than we think we are.