Bombshell testimony by former FBI agent Clinton Watts on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s opening day of hearings last week linked a massive Russian effort to insinuate “fake news” into the U.S. election campaign last fall to Donald Trump’s willingness to legitimize it by parroting its message to the American people.
Watts said that Russian intelligence, detecting whenever Trump was online, had been deploying thousands of “gray” Twitter, Facebook and other accounts to swarm the Internet with conspiracy theories at the same time, hoping he would read them and find them useful to advance his campaign by quoting them in his own tweets.
While this extraordinary information was reported, it was puzzling that the Washington Post coverage of it did not mention the important component that Russian intelligence was able to detect when Trump was online.
Reporter Kaoun Demirjian correctly reported Watts’ testimony that, “At peak times,” on the Internet, Russian “fake accounts swarm-tweet conspiracy theories at the president in the hope that he will cite them, lending them credibility and strengthening Russia’s ability to sow more discord in the U.S.”
He reported this in the present tense because Watts said it is still going on to this day. But he did not include Watts’ claim that the Russians did this “when they knew he was online,” an important added bit of information, both respecting the Russians’ technical capabilities and also from their very specific effort to use Trump for their ends. Of course, Twitter and Facebook accounts normally indicate when “friends” or “followers” are online, but in this case it comes despite any efforts by Trump to mask his online presence.
Watts revealed this aspect when the panel – that also included two other experts, as well – was asked by a Republican Senator why, after all the years of Russian efforts to influence the U.S. by such means, it’s worked so well recently.
“What no one here is saying,” Watts replied, “is that our Commander in Chief has used Russian active measures against his opponents.”
He did this by claiming in tweets, rallies and interviews that the election would be rigged, that there was massive voter fraud, that Obama is not a U.S. citizen, that Trump Tower was wiretapped, and other Russian-originated “fake news” conspiracy theories.
So, this suggests that the Russians know well that they have in Trump a particularly pliable target who has been eager to advance their agenda of sowing discord in the U.S. by parroting their disinformation.
This could not be more incriminating. All that’s yet to be determined is the level of conscious realization by Trump of a witting role in this.
In the past, Watts said, the Russians (and their Soviet predecessors) needed on the ground resources in the U.S. to sew their disinformation, resources that were always subject to being exposed and discredited.
But now, with Trump, they have perfect “plausible deniability,” Watts said, because of their new-found ability to pass missives of psychological warfare by way of a credible channel, one that is no less than the president himself.
There has been a surprising lack of coverage of the Senate hearing’s substantive content since last week. There’s still no official written transcript of the hearing readily available, only ones of the opening statements of the senators and panelists. Aside from those opening statements, the hearing was also not carried live on any of the all-news networks. Only C-SPAN2 had it all.
But there was a treasure trove of startling information about how the Russians use the Internet to advance their agenda, according to Watts, and a troubling reluctance of the U.S. intelligence community to study such “open sources” to scope out the Russians’ MO.
Watts said that remedies to Russian active measures on the Internet include setting up mechanisms to 1. immediately refute “fake news,” 2. swiftly evaluate the intent of hacking when hacking is detected, 3. educate U.S. businesses on how Russian hacking impacts stock prices, 4. urge the major media to boycott known Russian “fake news” feeds like Wikileaks and 5. undertake social media campaigns to expose Russian “fake news.”
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].