November 26, 2019
IntelBrief: The National Security Threat of Peddling Russian Disinformation
The impeachment inquiry by the U.S. House Intelligence Committee has highlighted ongoing efforts by senior White House and Congressional officials to shift blame over meddling in the 2016 U.S. election from Russia to Ukraine. The scope of Moscow’s influence efforts and disinformation campaign were confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community, yet still, senior government officials, including President Trump, Cabinet members and ranking Congressional leaders have inexplicably parroted statements echoing the Kremlin’s talking points that Russia was a victim of a Ukrainian smear campaign. These statements have been offered despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and in a clear rebuke to the non-partisan and objective analysis from lifelong U.S. intelligence officials and analysts.
While the relentless repetition of Moscow’s propaganda by American officials is political in nature and intent—it is part of the President’s impeachment defense, one in which the goal is to cast doubt over the entirety of the United States civil service. This simultaneously corrodes credibility in longstanding U.S. government institutions and there are high-level national security concerns directly related to this strategy. Simply put, U.S. officials who engage in unofficial backchannel contacts with Russia or those who help amplify Russia’s message are exposing themselves to compromise from foreign entities. As seen repeatedly in the public testimony and closed hearing transcripts, American government officials (and former officials) regularly communicated on unsecured lines in heavily-monitored counter-intelligence environments with little concern for the consequences.
The threats are multifold. The contents of these communications are undoubtedly compromised and have been analyzed by intelligence agencies from various countries, including some of America’s leading adversaries. This provides foreign governments with insight into political issues that place the United States in a disadvantageous position. An even more insidious threat is that these foreign intelligence services are likely in possession of the raw data from these interactions, including the recorded communications, phone calls, emails, and other forms of surveillance. As U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (EU) Gordon Sondland said in his public testimony, numerous senior U.S. officials were ‘in the loop’ about the efforts to pressure Ukraine to publicly announce an investigation into one of President Trump’s domestic political rivals. Russia and other surreptitious interlocutors are by default also ‘in the loop’ about politically sensitive conversations that could contain critical details related to the impeachment inquiry.
Distrust is now being sown by American officials against the same government these officials purport to represent. Conspiracies of a ‘Deep State’ have grown so pervasive that sitting members of Congress and officials in the White House have insinuated that Russia is a more trusted entity than certain agencies within the U.S. government. The continued success of Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. elections cannot be overstated, as Moscow has enjoyed an unprecedented return on its investment. The Kremlin has determined that operations in the gray zone and hybrid actions designed to corrode democratic institutions can be more effective than kinetic actions against Western interests. When influence operations are aided by Western government officials, unwitting or otherwise, it serves as a force multiplier beyond what most of Putin’s inner circle could have ever hoped for. As the U.S. government continues to cannibalize itself and lay bare the dysfunction inherent in its domestic political system, Russia will look on with interest and seek to adapt new tactics, techniques, and procedures to further cripple Western alliances, while also driving a wedge between distinct populations of the American body politic.
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