Note: This piece has been updated.
It anyone surprised that the allegation that President Obama used Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to eavesdrop on Donald Trump was first broadcast on RT, the Kremlin’s international propaganda outlet?
This allegation has gone in a few days from being a crackpot theory on social media to an international dispute. Britain was furious when White House spokesman Sean Spicer cited the GHCQ story as part of his defense of Trump’s claim that he was “wire tapped” by President Obama. The GHCQ, Britain’s version of the National Security Agency, issued a rare denial.
That this GHCQ allegation was first given life by RT shows the influence of the Kremlin-backed network, which has found a sympathetic ear in the White House. According to the U.S. intelligence community that Trump so openly distrusts, RT has the goal of undermining its viewers’ trust in US democratic procedures.
On March 5, the day after Trump tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” RT broadcast an interview with Larry C. Johnson, once an analyst with the CIA.
In the clip, linked above, Johnson said “very good friends” had told him that information gathered by GHCQ on Donald Trump was illegally disseminated within the US government in an effort to destroy his candidacy. Obama, Johnson said, “gave the green light” to distribute the information from GHCQ in an improper way.
On his blog, Johnson goes into more detail about his sourcing. (Update: Johnson’s blog was taken off line shortly after this piece was published).
No one involved with the Trump campaign reached out to me and asked me to get involved with this. I spoke three months ago with a source that, if the source’s name was revealed, would be known and recognized as a reliable source of information. Based on that contact I reached out to friends in the intel community and asked them about the possibility that a back channel was used to get the Brits to collect on Trump associates. My sources said, “absolutely.” I later confirmed this via a cut out with a person who is a Senior Intelligence Service executive in the CIA.
Assuming that’s true, why would Johnson, a former CIA analyst, would go on a Russian propaganda network that presents anti-American views? CNN’s Brian Stelter put that question to Johnson on his show, Reliable Sources.
STELTER: Why is it appropriate for any American to appear on a Kremlin propaganda network?
JOHNSON: Well, it’s not a Kremlin propaganda network. … What I found the difference with Russia Today is they don’t do pre-interviews. I’ve done pre-interviews with your people. I’ve done pre-interviews in the past when I appeared on other networks.
Just two days ago, I did a pre-interview with BBC. They were going to have me on air. But once they heard what I had to say, they came back and said, oh, no, we don’t need to use you now. So, I’m —
Johnson’s point is that RT doesn’t censor its guests. Stelter’s point, which he presses later in the interview, is that anyone can go on RT and say whatever they want without bothering about details like sourcing and verification.
Johnson theories about GHCQ are likely to prove false: officials in Britain and Washington have called it ridiculous. For RT’s purposes it doesn’t matter whether Johnson is telling the truth, only that his information serves its broader goals.
RT’s GHCQ story is the textbook definition of disinformation:
false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
So back on March 5, while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was knocking down Trump’s claims on Meet the Press, RT was quickly building a counter-narrative that besmirched the United States with Johnson’s help.
An outfit like Meet the Press needs a big audience to deliver ad dollars; since it strives to be objective, it has to present credible sources. That means it has guests like Clapper who as insiders know whether Obama really “wire tapped” Trump or not. If Meet the Press had people like Larry Johnson or RT’s Illuminati correspondent sitting around talking about what their friends supposedly told them, the audience would find something better to do and the ad dollars would dry up pretty quickly.
RT, on the other hand, is funded by the Russian government. It doesn’t need a big audience. So it can quickly disseminate poorly sourced, unverified information that drives home the message that Russia is not the bad guy and America isn’t so great, anyway.
Johnson sought to minimize his role in the GHCQ affair by telling Stelter that nobody watched RT.
STELTER: You’re saying Russia today is not that influential?
JOHNSON: I’m telling you that’s the truth. I mean, who watches it? The fact that I spoke about it two weeks ago and it didn’t even surface — it wasn’t even a blip anywhere in the U.S. news media. And so, I guarantee, if people like yourself who were very informed, very up to speed on things, don’t pick up on something like that, you expect a coal miner in Pennsylvania, an auto worker in Michigan, that they’re going to be on top of Russia Today?
But information warfare, as Johnson surely knows, doesn’t need a big audience to work.
It has just to plant a false idea that contradicts the conventional narrative. Johnson made a big fuss about how it took so long for his story to spread, but that’s how rumors work. And that’s what makes them so effective. They are spread person-to-person by social media and word-of-mouth until they reach a critical mass. If you wanted to drive a wedge between allies, there’s no way to do it better. It’s cheap, bloodless, and stunningly effective.
Johnson’s unsupported allegation was rebroadcast on right-wing Internet on blogs and websites until March 14 when it jumped into mainstream media. Fox contributor Andrew Napolitano repeated the allegation on the talk show “Outnumbered” and then repeated it again on Fox News. Johnson told The New York Times he was one of Napolitano’s sources.
On Friday, Trump refused to back down from the allegation, telling reporters, “All we did was quote a very talented legal mind.”
Did the president realize he was also quoting Johnson via Russian media?
Johnson, who is almost always referred to as a former CIA analyst, worked for the spy agency in the 1980s. After four years in the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, Johnson left government service in 1993.
Since then, he gotten embroiled in controversy such as his claim that Republican operatives possessed a tape of Michelle Obama railing against “whitey.” (Johnson claims he was manipulated by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.) Or that Bush White House advisor Karl Rove had been indicted.
Johnson has been a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of intelligence professionals formed in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence that was used as a grounds for the invasion of Iraq.
VIPS and Johnson have been critical of the US intelligence community’s findings that Russia hacked the U.S. election. On Dec. 15, Johnson co-signed a VIPS letter that stated the hacking allegations “have no basis in fact” and suggested an “inside leak,” not hacking, was behind the release of DNC emails. Not surprisingly, RT publicized the letter.
It’s worth noting here that Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and founding member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity attended the now infamous 2015 RT 10th anniversary dinner in Moscow, where he sat at the same head table with President Vladimir Putin and former Gen. Michael Flynn. (link) It seems McGovern makes an annual pilgrimage to Moscow where we find him pontificating in RT’s studios.
Napolitano for his part has also peddled Kremlin disinformation before. On May 6, 2016, he reported that “there’s a debate going on in the Kremlin between the Foreign Ministry and the Intelligence Services about whether or not they should release the twenty thousand of Mrs. Clinton’s emails that they have hacked into and received and stored.” (archived link)
Now, mind you, this was days before hacked emails from the Clinton campaign began appearing on the Internet.
It appears that the source of the story emanated from a mythical figure, a journalist named Sorcha Faal. Sorcha Faal is widely believed to be a pseudonym for David Booth. Booth hosts a wild-eyed conspiracy theory website called Whatdoesitmean.com. Usually websites like this and the more popular and crazier Infowars.com are easily dismissed as tinfoil hat crowds who see government conspiracy everywhere. Yet in this case “Sorcha Faal” appears to be so well wired into the Kremlin that “her” work at this website was often copied by mainstream Russian information propaganda like Russia Insider’s Svobodnaya Pressa (“ Free Press”). This site pushes wild conspiracy theories such as the proposition that the US trains and directs ISIS, and writes op-eds about the dangers of European multiculturalism. It is a core component of the Russian propaganda system, and such news organs as Ren TV (a large, private, pro-Putin Russian television channel) and Sputnik News (a multinational propaganda organ of the Russian government)
We might as well learn the Russian word for this, folks.