Corruption is the Russian constant

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]

By Eric Mink

After the Soviet Union officially collapsed at the end of 1991 and became the Russian Federation, there seemed to be a chance that it might emerge from a difficult transformation as a democracy. Less than a decade later, new Russia had slipped back into old autocracy, with President Vladimir Putin trading in the Soviets’ rusted-out and corrupt communism for corrupt capitalism.

Since then, Putin’s Russia has been up to high-stakes international mischief: seizing Crimea, faking a civil war to destabilize Ukraine, and arresting and killing supposed opponents. Oh, and a sneak attack on the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

Sounding an alert in October, the 17 agencies of the American intelligence community issued a joint statement expressing their judgment that the Russians were conducting an ongoing secret cyber operation to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Two months after the election, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency followed up with an unclassified version of a joint report (goo.gl/zwKGDQ) that revealed facts, details and assessments they had reached about the secret Russian project. Among its findings:

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 • The “active measures” attacks on the election process, as the counterintelligencers call them, were ordered by Putin. They represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort” over previous attempts to undermine American democracy, the report said.

• The overall operation was designed, conducted and supervised by the Russian army intelligence unit known as the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

• It involved, among other things, breaking into American computer systems and stealing content from people and organizations associated with the Democratic and Republican parties.

• The Russians distributed the stolen content to their own propaganda channels — R.T. and Sputnik News, for example — as well as to WikiLeaks and DCLeaks.com,  and through bloggers, such as Guciffer 2.0, controlled by Russian intelligence.

• Although the Russian project broke into computers associated with both major U.S. parties, it distributed only materials believed to be harmful to the campaign or possible presidency of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Over the course of the campaign, however, Putin’s goal evolved into helping to elect then-candidate, now president, Donald Trump.

• The multifaceted Russian operation also involved making up and distributing entirely false “news” stories and invented conspiracies designed to be damaging to Clinton’s campaign. These were distributed to outlets, particularly right-wing media groups and websites, that were eager to run negative material about Clinton and weren’t particularly concerned whether the information was accurate.

• Russian intelligence also identified and secretly paid skilled internet operatives commonly called trolls in various locations to multiply the social-media reach and magnify the negative impact on Clinton.

At last week’s first open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into Russian interference in U.S. elections, Clint Watts of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security and the Foreign Policy Research Institute told senators that some of Trump’s actions during the campaign and since his inauguration have dovetailed with Russian tactics and objectives. 

“Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election,” Watts testified, “is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.” 

Watts pointed to Trump’s oft-repeated false accusation, both during and after the campaign, that the election was being rigged against him: 

“That was the No. 1 theme pushed by R.T. and Sputnik News all the way up until the election. … I can tell you right now, today, gray outlets that are Soviet-pushing accounts tweet at President Trump … when they know he’s online, and they push conspiracy theories.” 

Trump’s most direct appeal to the Russian intelligence operation — he later claimed he’d been joking — came during a July campaign rally at which he brought up the Clinton e-mail controversy, a subject the Russians were helping to stoke. 

“I will tell you this,” Trump said. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” 

Below Trump’s level, there’s a worrisome abundance of aides, advisers, current and former associates, and both campaign and administration officials who have had contacts and connections of various sorts with Russia and its leaders.

They include former Trump campaign chairman and political consultant Paul Manafort, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, U.S. Attorney General and former Sen. Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State and former chief executive of Exxon-Mobil Rex Tillerson, Trump son-in-law and real estate developer Jared Kushner, controversial consultant Roger Stone, national security campaign adviser J.D. Gordon, and former banker and foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

Page was the subject of a BuzzFeed News report this week that Page met with and sent energy-related documents to a Russian intelligence agent he met at a U.S. energy conference in 2013. Documents filed in a New York federal court described contacts between the Russian agent and “Male-1” over the course of some six months. Page confirmed that he was the person identified as “Male-1,” that the documents he exchanged were only public materials about the energy business and that he was interviewed by FBI agents at the time. The court filing recounts two Russian agents discussing Page as a target for possible recuitment as a source. 

Best assigned to his own category is Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. Army general who briefly held the title of national security adviser in Trump’s administration before Trump fired him for lying to Vice President Mike Pence. In addition to having to refile financial disclosure forms that had left out income from some Russian sources, Flynn initially denied discussing existing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, then said he didn’t recall discussing the subject but couldn’t say for sure it hadn’t come up in any of their many calls, texts and meetings. 

Flynn finally said he remembered they discussed sanctions. Flynn’s lawyer has since asked for immunity in exchange for testimony to House and Senate investigating committees, a request that has been rejected so far.

In testimony March 20 to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that as part of its ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election process, the FBI also is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” 

Five hours and 16 minutes into the five-hour 35-minute committee hearing, Rep. Dennis Heck, D-Wash., asked Comey to explain to the American people “why we should care about Russia’s use of U.S. persons, of Americans, helping Russia destabilize our democracy.” 

Comey replied: “I truly believe we are a shining city on a hill, to quote a great American. And one of the things we radiate to the world is the importance of our wonderful, often messy, but free and fair democratic system and the elections that undergird it.

“And so when there’s an effort by a foreign nation state to mess with that, to destroy that, to corrupt that, it’s very, very serious, and threatens what is America. And if any Americans are part of that effort, it’s a very serious matter.”

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