We have now reached the point in the American electoral cycle where surrogates for both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are happily propagating each other’s lies without guile or even the slightest concern they’ll be discovered doing so.
Consider the following Vulcan mind-meld of disinformation that occurred at the weekend:
First, Sputnik, the Kremlin’s pseudo-news agency, published an item rather unambiguously titled, “Secret File Confirms Trump Claim: Obama, Hillary ‘Founded ISIS’ to Oust Assad,” which it tweeted out with the hashtag “#CrookedHillary.”
A holy-shit exclusive, to be sure: the only problem being that this story isn’t a story, nor did it rely on any “secret file,” and what it cited did nothing to “confirm” what Sputnik suggests it did.
The entire case rests upon a 2012 U.S. draft intelligence report, commissioned by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, originally obtained through a Freedom of Information request and published in June 2015 by the conservative website Judicial Watch.
At the time, this document was taken up with similar if paradoxical enthusiasm by far-left anti-imperialists (such as the Guardian’s Seumas Milne, now Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s spin-doctor) and anti-Muslim reactionaries (such as Pamela Geller) as proof of a nefarious conspiracy led by Washington to encourage a takfiri takeover of the Levant.
Although heavily redacted, the report’s supposed “gotcha” disclosure was the following forecast of where the war in Syria was headed and how it might affect U.S. foreign policy considerations:
“If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
As The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel reported when the document was published, appraisals such as these are too numerous count at the Pentagon, much less be read by senior military or policy planners. And few ever rise to the level of adopted policy prescription.
Nor did this one, as anyone who has watched events unfold in Syria over the last four years can easily determine for himself.
If the United States had sought to rob Iranian clients and proxies of strategic depth in Syria, then it would plainly not be “de-conflicting” at present with the Syrian and Russian air forces, both of which are providing close air support to those same clients and proxies on the ground.
Moreover, given the president’s well-known reluctance—criticized by his ISIS “co-founder” Hillary Clinton—to substantively aid and arm nationalist Free Syrian Army rebels in 2012 (when the document was drafted), one could argue his policy has been the very opposite of what’s in this document.
But not as far as Sputnik is concerned. Its report “exposes” what it claims is the only reason the United States “refused to directly aide and support” the so-called Islamic State: because this would violate U.S. anti-terrorism laws. And it claims a conscious decision was taken to at least acquiesce to ISIS’s expansion.
Unfortunately, the document itself refutes this conspiracy theory, too, as it continues:
“The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences in the Iraqi situation and are as follows:
“This creates the ideal atmosphere for Al Qaeda in Iraq AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni and Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq was the original name of the serially rebranded terror organization we now call ISIS or the Islamic State. Its expansion beyond the borders of Iraq is here correctly classified as dire for a country which the United States has spent billions of dollars trying to hold together—chiefly by fighting and dying to defeat that jihadist franchise.
A less circulated but by no means less important sequel installment to this strange confluence of GOP and Kremlin fever-dreams occurred in passing during a CNN interview with Trump’s consigliere, Paul Manafort.
In deriding the unfair, liberal media’s obsession with every false, inane, or bigoted utterance that comes out of Trump’s mouth, Manafort told CNN’s Jake Tapper that were much bigger news stories worth covering.
Well, such as a “NATO base in Turkey [being] attacked by terrorists.”
He can only have meant an incident that began and ended as a peaceful protest at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, but which pro-Kremlin propagandists artfully extrapolated to be a heavily armed assault and possible second “coup” attempt on July 30.
“Hey MSM, you’ve got 10,000 Muslims steps away from a stockpile of thermonuclear weapons,” was a sample note of hysteria, which set off a brief but noticeable firestorm on the internet.
That it was part of a coordinated Russian campaign to sow insecurity by suggesting a NATO country was on the brink of another disaster was either unknown to Manafort, or simply not relevant to his happy usage of Putin’s troll factory to defend his flailing candidate.
Andrew Weisburd and Clint Watts brilliantly retro-engineered the provenance of this sham story: a social media account belonging to “Marcel Sardo,” who, as they wrote in The Daily Beast, maintains an “account previously identified for instigating pro-Russian campaigns.”
What started on Twitter then migrated into Sputnik and RT, Moscow’s other English-language mouthpiece, both of which warned of the potential loss of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik.
One thousand protesters did turn up at the base three weeks ago, but 7,000 Turkish police did not, nor was it ever in danger of being overrun or ransacked, as Russian news organs relayed.
As Weisburd and Watts further uncovered, the greatest purchase the Incirlik non-event had was among Trump supporters—or those posing as such: “Some of the top hashtags attached to tweets broadcasting #Incirlik #Turkey were #nato, #coup, #benghazi, #trumppence16.
Each of these add-on hashtags pointed to recently hot button issues in the U.S. presidential contest. Bios of these English speaking accounts retweeting the #Incirlik story commonly included the words ‘god,’ ‘country,’ ‘family,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘America,’ ‘constitution,’ and ‘military.’”
The U.S.-Turkish relationship is now at a nadir following the widespread belief in Turkey that its ally was complicit in trying to oust or assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The coup-plotters’ alleged leader, the exiled Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, currently lives in Pennsylvania and is being sought for extradition. Of course, this hasn’t stopped pro-Erdogan Turkish media from accusing the CIA, the State Department, and the White House of being the silent sponsors of the coup.
Putin has taken full advantage of this breach to repair his own frayed relationship with Ankara and demonstrate a stalwart commitment to Erdogan’s upholding of the Turkish constitution at their recent meeting in Moscow.
All this disinformation is just the kind of vintage KGB stuff we might expect from a veteran Russian spook like Putin.
In 1966, for instance, Turkish Senator Haydar Tunckanat claimed to have “documents” showing that Washington was looking to liquidate military officers and batter the left-wing opposition to the then-ruling Kemalist and right-wing government of the Justice Party.
The documents were two letters, one addressed from a “spy” inside the Justice Party to an “E.M.;” the other a letter from “E.M.” to the U.S. defense attache Col. Donald Dickson, discussing the details of this alleged plot.
“E.M,” the Turkish media quickly worked out, could refer to Edwin Martin, the U.S. embassy counselor-minister, or to Navy Capt. E.M. Morgan, formerly the U.S. representative to the Central Treaty Organization.
In fact, he was a fiction cooked up by Tunckanat, who was then an agent of the KGB. The senator caused an anti-American furor, which reached even traditional U.S. friends in Turkey’s political establishment. In 1969, he played the same trick again, at the behest of the KGB’s Department A, using more forged documents that depicted a (nonexistent) U.S. intelligence operation against Turkey’s general staff.
Whereas in the age of print, “active measures,” as the concoction of anti-Western disinformation is known in Russian intelligence tradecraft, were slightly harder to produce, today it’s much easier to spread forgeries or fictions aimed at weakening U.S. alliances or demoralizing democratic societies. All you need is hastily scribbled clickbait or viral videos.
Inevitably, active measures sometimes wind up being regurgitated by U.S. politicians and officials who simply don’t know any better.
But in Manafort’s case, there is pretty damning circumstantial evidence, given his longstanding ties to Moscow and its clients, to suggest he is wittingly spitting up Russian falsehoods and is both satisfied with where they come from and whom they will benefit, apart from himself.
Manafort has just been accused by Ukraine’s anti-corruption investigators of having had “$12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments” held aside for him by ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Putin Party of Regions between 2007 and 2012.
Manafort advised Yanukovych during his victorious presidential campaign in 2010, well before the Ukrainian president’s goons began shooting people dead in the streets of Kiev.
But now Ukraine’s new government, The New York Times reports, believes these cash disbursements to be “part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.” Manafort’s offshore holdings are also being looked into by Ukraine’s prosecutors.
Manfort’s attorney told the Times there essentially was no substance to the allegations and no such cash payments had been received.
Manafort on air also feigned ignorance that the Democratic National Convention’s emails were hacked by two separate arms of Russian intelligence—yet another headline-grabbing news item he wished would disappear when the Times and CNN and many other news outlets were reporting on it.
No doubt we can expect Manafort to next instruct the liberal media to focus on weightier matters than his own financial ties to fallen dictators and Russian oligarchs. Say, Hillary Clinton’s murder of a DNC staffer or how the Illuminati are behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership.