During the decades-long Cold War, the Soviet Union resorted to multiple tactics besides military power to counter American influence and prestige around the world. The indictment released on Friday alleging that 13 Russian nationals and entities used various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while posing as real Americans, shows that disinformation tactics used by the Soviets are still being used by Russia but with new technology.

After the release of the indictment by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a news conference that Russians who allegedly posed as American political activists during the 2016 presidential election wanted to "promote discord and undermine public confidence in democracy."

"We must not allow them to succeed," Rosenstein said on Friday.  "This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the Internet.” Rosenstein was adamant that the indictment has no allegations of any Americans knowingly participating in the illegal activity, thereby squashing questions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. He also insisted that there is no charge that the defendants changed the outcome of the 2016 election. The indictment said that the defendants posed as Americans and "communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities."

Rosenstein said the investigation found that defendants conducted "information warfare" with "the goal of spreading distrust" toward candidates and the American political system. By using a number of components, such as shell companies that employed hundreds of people to create "fictitious persons," social media accounts, and other Internet-based media. "The defendants took extraordinary steps" to make themselves look American, said Rosenstein.

Disinformation is like cocaine

The history of Soviet and Russian manipulation of the media to rewrite history by distributing misleading press releases, doctoring photographs, manipulating documents and records extends all the way back to the communist revolution of 100 years ago. Now that Americans, and much of the rest of the world, rely on the internet for sources of information, Russia -- which inherited much of its national security apparatus from the Soviet Union -- has embarked on using new vehicles for sowing confusion in electorates.

In Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategy for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, authors Ion Pacepa and Ronald Rychlak recount that the Soviet Union sent agents and thousands of copies of propaganda to Muslim countries to agitate the masses and sow hatred for Jews and Israel. Pacepa, a former ranking official of the communist Romanian government who later defected to the U.S., wrote: “By 1972, Andropov's disinformation machinery was working around the clock to persuade the Islamic world that Israel and the United States intended to transform the rest of the world into a Zionist fiefdom.” The Soviet Union also tried to spread discord between Jews and Christians by smearing Pope Pius XII with charges that the pontiff collaborated with Adolf Hitler during the Holocaust. 

Soviets switch from Republicans to Democrats

Author Pacepa, who cooperated fully with Soviet disinformation efforts and reached the rank of general in Romania’s army, concluded in his book that intelligence collection “has always been more or less irrelevant.” What Romanian and Soviet spies did spend their time on was the “framing” of news to their own advantage. R. James Woolsley, in a review of Pacepa’s book, recalled that Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, who spent 15 years as head of the dreaded KGB, once said, “Disinformation is like cocaine -- sniff once or twice, it may not change your life. If you use it every day, though, it will make you an addict -- a different man.”

In The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, authors Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin recount within the 700 pages of their book that among the efforts the Soviets undertook under Andropov was to smear Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.). As an outspoken opponent of communism and the Soviet Union, the Soviets feared that he was a serious contender for the 1976 presidential election. The Soviets forged fraudulent FBI documents that alleged that Jackson was a homosexual who frequented a gay sex club. The Soviets also tried to recruit stalwart Nixonian anti-communists Pat Buchanan and William Safire, according to the authors of The Sword and the Shield.

In other instances, John Bartlow Martin wrote in American Heritage magazine in 1977 that Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson, who went on to lose a presidential primary bid to John F. Kennedy, was offered assistance from the Soviet media under direct orders from Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. When the Soviets feared the presidential candidacy of the firmly anti-communist Richard Nixon, Soviet leader Andropov sent his ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to offer secret funds to Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.). Humphrey, according to Mark Kramer of Harvard University, declined the bribe.

Soviets smeared MLK and Hoover

Kramer also wrote that the Soviets tried to inflame racial tensions, and spread disinformation to link the U.S. government to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The KGB, wrote Kramer, funded books and forged documents to link assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the CIA and FBI. The Soviets also tried to discredit figures such as then-President Lyndon Johnson, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. The KGB attacked King because he would not adopt a Communist agenda for the civil rights movement, and because King’s movement had had seen success. When desegregation came to the U.S., the Soviets lost their line of attack against the U.S. after decades of trying to tarnish its reputation because of charges of racism and prejudice. When the Soviets saw that congressional civil rights legislation and federal action were pushing back segregation, the KGB resorted to forgeries to discredit King and others in the civil rights movement, depicting them as “Uncle Toms” who colluded with the government.

Later, the Soviets inflamed racial tensions in New York City when it sent forged publications to black activists, and sought to blame tensions on the Jewish Defense League. These provocations continued into the 1970s and 80s because the Soviets believed that they could capitalize on racial tensions in order to destabilize the American system.

What the indictments released on Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicate is that the new media, such as Twitter and Facebook, are being used as modern vehicles for a Russian disinformation campaign. In the past, however, both Democrats and Republicans dismissed Russian attempts to subvert their candidates and policies and refrained from accusing opposing candidates of collusion with the Soviets and Russia. Since at least early 2016, there has been a media focus on candidate-Trump’s business ties to Russia and supposed political ties as well. Some of the most leftist Democrats in Congress, such as Rep. Maxine Waters of California, have demanded Trump’s impeachment, while other insist that the president should not interfere with Special Counsel Mueller, even though evidence for collusion does not exist or has not yet been revealed. In the indictments today, Rod Rosenstein highlighted that American participants of Russia’s disinformation campaign were unwitting participants.  



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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