Ever since November 8th, 2016, those sentient Americans who are appalled by the presidency of Donald Trump—myself very much included—have clung to a number of hopes to keep us off the ledges of nearby buildings. These include (but are not limited to) impeachment, resignation, the invocation of the 25th Amendment, and the arrival of Rod Serling to tell us this has all been just a bad dream.
But backstopping all these hopes is one final fail-safe: that at the very worst, we will have the chance to vote this deranged clown-monster out of office in 2020.
But will we?
I’m not talking about the possibility that Trump will find a way to declare martial law and suspend the 2020 election, although I’m not ruling that out either. (Especially since a majority of Republicans reportedly would be cool with that. I suspect the White House took notice of that poll, and probably included it in one of Donny’s twice-daily ego-soothing packets of positive press coverage. Wheels are turning in the West Wing, I am sure.)
No, what I am more concerned with is the possibility that Russian interference with the 2016 election—which we have recently learned was much more extensive and aggressive than previously thought—was far from an isolated effort but remains ongoing, and in shockingly insidious ways. This risk is heightened by the fact that the GOP, which controls both the executive and legislative branches (and by extension has the judiciary by the short hairs as well), has shown absolutely no interest in investigating and redressing it. Gee, I wonder why.
In other words, what makes us think the 2020 election will be any more legitimate and free of Russian skullduggery than the highway robbery that was 2016?
Even as Russiagate has unfolded over the past nine months and questions of collusion with Moscow by Trump and/or his associates have been raised, the one thing that almost everyone has been quick to concede—even the most hardcore elements of the anti-Trump brigade—is that no one thinks the Russians actively monkeyed with the actual vote count. That they employed a highly sophisticated, aggressive, diabolical disinformation campaign was sufficiently horrifying. But actually tampering with the tabulation of the results? Nah….
But should we be so quick to rule that out?
I realize that just raising this question risks a fitting for a tinfoil beanie, or charges of extremely sour grapes, or both. Fair enough, especially after the mainstream media and much of the electorate ridiculed Trump’s campaign trail claims that the election was “rigged.” The difference is, Trump was plainly just pre-emptively setting up his post-November excuse for an election he figured to lose. More to the point, he had absolutely zero evidence to support his spurious claim. As it later turned out, with bitter bitter irony, the election was being rigged….but in his favor. And we now have a lot of evidence that Russian assets—whether private or government-directed or both—were aggressively trying to influence and interfere with that election, and on Trump’s behalf, and possibly with his assistance.
Just this week the Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states that that had been the targets of Russian attempts to hack into their election systems during the 2016 campaign. Shockingly, the DHS had been in possession of this information since June, and even released the figure, but until now—inexplicably—had not informed the states in question. Now that the states have finally been informed, only one—Wisconsin—has made it public. All the efforts were reported to have been unsuccessful. But do we know that for sure?
So how do you steal an election anyway?
Step 1: Convince everyone—especially your target—that it’s impossible to do, and that they don’t need to worry.
Step 2: Even after you’ve stolen it, keep saying that.
Step 3: Since everyone believes it didn’t really happen, make sure no one thinks they need to worry about happening again.
The rest is easy.
A recent article in the New York Times reported widespread irregularities in voting that have drawn remarkably little attention. Republicans, as noted above, are actively incentivized to behave like ostriches on this matter; Democrats seem psychologically unwilling to face the possibility, either for fear of being branded sore losers or out of sheer exhaustion, much as they declined to fight Bush v. Gore in 2000. No one asked me, but their deference to good sportsmanship seems wildly out of place. The Times:
Government officials said that they intentionally did not address the security of the back-end election systems, whose disruption could prevent voters from even casting ballots. That’s partly because states control elections; they have fewer resources than the federal government but have long been loath to allow even cursory federal intrusions into the voting process. That, along with legal constraints on intelligence agencies’ involvement in domestic issues, has hobbled any broad examination of Russian efforts to compromise American election systems. Those attempts include combing through voter databases, scanning for vulnerabilities or seeking to alter data, which have been identified in multiple states. Current congressional inquiries and the special counsel’s Russia investigation have not focused on the matter.
“We don’t know if any of the problems were an accident, or the random problems you get with computer systems, or whether it was a local hacker, or actual malfeasance by a sovereign nation-state,” said Michael Daniel, who served as the cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama White House. “If you really want to know what happened, you’d have to do a lot of forensics, a lot of research and investigation, and you may not find out even then.”
In interviews, academic and private election security experts acknowledged the challenges of such diagnostics but argued that the effort is necessary. They warned about what could come, perhaps as soon as next year’s midterm elections, if the existing mix of outdated voting equipment, haphazard election-verification procedures and array of outside vendors is not improved to build an effective defense against Russian or other hackers.
When Trump was making noise about a rigged election, experts scoffed about the impossibility of such an effort in a system so decentralized and even chaotic as ours. True true. But given Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College, it would not have required a unified field theory to put him in office. He won (“won”) Wisconsin by a mere 23,000 votes; Michigan by less than 11,000; Pennsylvania by about 44,000—all minuscule margins. A very targeted effort by Russian hackers could well have been enough to make the difference….especially if knowledgeable Americans were helping guide them. (And that is only taking into account foreign influence. A new voter ID law in Wisconsin may have suppressed the vote there by as many as 200,000 ballots, according to a recent report…..all a topic for another day, along with Diebold, gerrymandering, and the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
I know that the aforementioned sour grapes is certainly the sneering, go-to retort with which Trump’s supporters (and—significantly—their Kremlin allies) dismiss these questions. But it’s hard to imagine the “Trump won, just deal with it” crowd being similarly sanguine if the roles were reversed and there was this much evidence of Russian interference to help Hillary Clinton get elected. (And they damn sure didn’t “just deal with” when Obama won, twice.) So, uh, it’s less like sour grapes than being robbed at gunpoint, and then having the robber call you whiny for objecting.
Is it conclusive at this point that there was tampering with the actual vote count? Certainly not. But it definitely bears investigating—at least as much as Benghazi, on which millions of taxpayer dollars and Congressional man-hours were expended before Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) bluntly admitted that it was all a partisan witchhunt, or Whitewater, or Travelgate, or any number of other politically motivated investigations of Democrats, especially those named Clinton. After all, it’s only the integrity of our electoral system at stake.
RUMORS OF WAR
So let us leave that question aside for now. One hopes it will be actively investigated and a definitive answer arrived at so we can either put it to bed, or recognize that Russiagate was even more egregious than we feared. Either way, given that Russia undeniably tried to mess with the vote count, it’s only sensible that we take vigorous action to prevent such tampering in the future. Though admittedly, common sense is not exactly the dominant ethos at the moment.
As many have noted, there is a certain amount of irony in the United States having a foreign power screw with our electoral system, given our own long and shameful history of interfering in the free elections of other sovereign states, from Chile to Iran to Congo to Guatemala, the Philippines, Lebanon, and beyond. In that regard, I am not at all surprised by what Russia did, and I don’t even blame them for it. It is the nature of geopolitics.
The great 19th century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz laid down the fundamental truth of all warfare when he wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” In military circles, that is a truth so obvious it’s like saying “The sun is hot.” But as basic as it is, it is deceptively easy to forget, and its implications are vast and profound.
Nations resort to war, typically, when less violent and expensive means of trying to achieve their strategic objectives have failed—e.g., diplomacy, economic measures, and other levers. The purpose of war then is not wanton destruction for its own sake but to compel a recalcitrant opponent to bow to one’s wishes. That is why it is very possible, even commonplace, to “win” a war militarily on the battlefield and lose it politically. (See Vietnam.)
The converse of Clausewitz’s famous dictum is also true: there are activities short of violence that are nonetheless war-like attempts to force one’s will upon a foe.
In the late ’80s and early ‘90s, the US Army formulated a concept it called LIC—Low Intensity Conflict, a state of war characterized by low level guerrilla/counterguerrilla warfare, propaganda, political agitation, and other actions beyond what the Pentagon called “the normal competition between nations,” but short of high intensity combat between conventional armies. LIC was really just a fancy re-branding of an old idea, but it was a concise description of the kind of warfare that had predominated during the Cold War. (These days, LIC has been subsumed by what the Army now calls COIN—counterinsurgency—with which it has lots of experience after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq.) Technically, LIC does involve the use of force. But a huge component of it are the non-lethal activities associated with an insurgent campaign, and by extension a counter-insurgency.
What Russia did during the 2016 presidential election, and clearly is continuing to do, is wage a kind of low intensity war against the United States.
DEGREES OF INTERFERENCE
A long piece in the New York Times Magazine on Russia’s propaganda and disinformation machine—chiefly, its slick, Western-oriented, state-run TV network Russia Today—included this shocking assessment:
In early January, two weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, American intelligence officials released a declassified version of a report—prepared jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency—titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.” It detailed what an Obama-era Pentagon intelligence official, Michael Vickers, described in an interview in June with NBC News as “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the authors wrote. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” According to the report, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
One would think that “the political equivalent of 9/11” might get people’s attention. (Per Clausewitz, of course, there is no such distinction. 9/11 itself was political to the core.) Yet in the face of such an attack, the Republican Party has been despicably inert and disinterested, even actively obstructionist in trying to block any inquiry. This party, with its long tradition of chauvinism, nationalism, and jingoism—a party that has always positioned itself as a pillar of strength on national defense, as opposed to the weak-kneed namby pamby “Kum-ba-ya”-singing Democrats—will not of its own free will lift a finger even to investigate Russian meddling in the election. It has been forced to do so only under duress. Many of its members continue to reject the consensus of the entire US intelligence community that Russia aggressively interfered…chief among them, their putative leader, the President of the United States, who takes the word of his friend and patron Vladimir Putin over that of his own intelligence agencies.
It goes without saying that the GOP’s shameful position on Russiagate makes a joke of its claim to be the great defender of American security. That they would accept the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win an election, even passively—let alone actively solicit it—makes a mockery of all they claim to stand for. Hawks who buy into Republican dismissal of Russian interference are guzzling Kool-Aid from a firehose and engaging in malignant tribalism and epic self-denial. More damning still, consider the fact that the Kremlin plainly believes that having Republicans in power hurts the United States and helps Russia. (In that regard they are more clear-eyed than about 49% of the American electorate.) What does that say about today’s GOP?
According to that piece in the Times Magazine, Valery Gerasimov, a top Russian general, published an article in a Russian military journal called VPK regarding the role of Twitter and other social media in the Arab Spring:
There were new means through which to wage war that were “political, economic, informational,” and they could be applied “with the involvement of the protest potential of the population.” Russia’s military doctrine changed its definition of modern military conflict: “a complex use of military force, political, economic, informational and other means of nonmilitary character, applied with a large use of the population’s protest potential.”
Military officials in America and Europe have come to refer to this idea alternatively as the “Gerasimov doctrine” and “hybrid war,” which they accuse Russia of engaging in now. When I asked Peskov about those charges, he shrugged. Everyone was doing it, he said. “If you call what’s going on now a hybrid war, let it be hybrid war,” he said. “It doesn’t matter: It’s war.”
Surely both General Gerasimov and the aforementioned military officials in the US and Europe knew all this very well long before the Arab Spring. But in laying it out, Gerasimov has helpfully re-stated Clausewitz for a new generation. We would do well to heed him.
Given that Russia is undeniably waging an information war on the United States, how then should we respond?
First we must recognize that it is happening at all and call it what it is: a form of war. It isn’t the sort of thing a friendly nation does to its allies. (Notwithstanding the sort of surprisingly dark things we do to our allies, and they do to us, that are rarely spoken of.) But we should hardly be shocked that a hostile power like Russia is engaged in such a campaign. The only thing that is surprising, to the uninitiated, is the scope, sophistication, and aggressiveness of that campaign.
The first recourse would be simply to tell the Kremlin to cut that shit out. President Obama did exactly that in September 2016, not long after US intelligence first uncovered evidence of Russian meddling, telling Vladimir Putin to his face at a G-20 meeting in Hanghzhou, China that we were aware of such activity and wanted it stopped. To the extent that they took note at all, the Right ridiculed Obama as weak for “merely” objecting, but what does it say that the Right is now not willing to do even that? Instead the Republican Party has enthusiastically rolled over onto its back and obsequiously submitted to Russian interference, denying that it even exists, and even encouraged and possibly abetted it.
Since Moscow plainly has no intention of halting its campaign to undermine the integrity of our elections, we are forced to fight back. That response should include both defensive measures—that is, a concerted effort to root out Russian meddling and prevent it—and offensive ones, in the form of a similar campaign to undermine Russia’s political system from within. Of course, with a fake democracy like Russia’s, the notion of rigging the vote against an autocrat like Putin is not in play. But there are numerous other nefarious things the US can do to undermine and embarrass him, foment unrest, and aid his opponents. I would be shocked if such efforts were not already well underway. That, after all, is an enormous part of the CIA’s raison d’etre. Whatever one thinks of the dirty tricks element of intelligence, let us at least use it on the side of the angels to protect ourselves and undermine a monster like Vlad.
Is it possible that such Russian activity could cross into open hostilities requiring a military response? In theory, yes. Again, we are drawing a bright line here between Russian interference that is limited to propagandizing, however nefarious, and actual vote tampering. (The involvement of American citizens in either effort is an entirely different matter.) The former still requires US citizens to act of their own free will and cast a voluntary vote, even if they have been taken in by shameless lies. The latter is a different kettle of stinking fish altogether, and arguably an act of old-fashioned, no-bones-about-it war. Most countries will tolerate its foes blasting propaganda (see, for example, the competing Cold War broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Moscow), and even masking such efforts as homegrown. Few, however, would allow an enemy to mess with its vote count. The line may be fuzzy, but it’s pretty clear when it’s been broached.
But in keeping with Clausewitz and the spectrum of war, we have at our disposal an escalating range of flexible response (to use the Cold War jargon of nuclear utilization theory). I know Donald Trump is eager to drop hydrogen bombs on Pyongyang; for Moscow, he sends only flowers.
Psychological operations are as old as warfare and human history itself, and in the modern day increasingly sophisticated, powerful, and impactful as a force multiplier. Technological advances, particularly the advent of the Internet, the ubiquity of smartphones in even the most remote parts of the Third and Fourth Worlds, and other telecommunications breakthroughs have had an exponential effect on the impact of PSYOPS. I’ve had a few Army friends in PSYOPS, which for decades was a relatively small, obscure, and decidedly unglamorous niche of special operations. But today PSYOPS is arguably as central to American national security as the 1st Armored Division or the Seventh Fleet.
Concomitant with the propaganda effort is the rising importance of information technology in military affairs. Within the United States at least (less true globally), the US military was ahead of the curve in recognizing cyberspace as a new battlefront. The armed services have devoted significant energy and resources to building a capability to wage war online, to include everything from rigorous courses of study at West Point and Annapolis to actively recruiting blackhat hackers to assist in the cause —not typically a group of people known to crave military discipline. In essence, cyberwar units are becoming a fifth branch of the armed forces, subsuming a role that during the New Frontier era we imagined would belong to a Space Corps of astronaut-warriors. Instead of spacesuits and laser guns, the combatants of cyberwar are coders and hackers in Pixies t-shirts and jeans, sitting in dark rooms on terra firma. God bless them every one.
In short, if we are in a propaganda and technology war with Russia in which public opinion is the coin of the realm and cyberspace the battlefield, we are going to have to fight that war tooth and nail, both defensively and offensively, with every weapon at our disposal. On that topic, count me a hawk.
BACK IN THE USSR
Back in June I wrote a blog post that laid the blame for Trump’s victory squarely at the feet of we the people (Who’s to Blame for Donald Trump?). I didn’t do so because I think Russiagate is all smoke and no fire—far from it. But even accounting for Russian interference, I think it is crucial that we as Americans take a long hard look in the mirror and accept responsibility for this self-inflicted wound.
Disinformation campaign or no, sixty-some million Americans voted for Donald Trump. That’s a shit-ton, to use the technical term. Even if the Russians actively monkeyed with the vote count, the most reliable expert estimates still put the numbers at only a few thousand ballots. In other words, tens of millions of Americans still inexplicably thought a lowlife con man like the purveyor of Trump Steaks, Vodka, and University was preferable to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 45th President of the United States. Until we take responsibility for that shocking fact, and begin to understand how it came to be, we will not be able to fix what ails this republic.
That said, in tandem with this self-examination we must uncover and understand the extent and specifics of the Russian attack in order to prevent it from happening again. That ought to go without saying, but there is so little enthusiasm for such an effort within the GOP that I am forced to say it. Left to our own devices we might well elect another cretin like Trump, but there is no reason we should let Moscow or any other foreign power abet that kind of self-destructive stupidity.
It’s no doubt true that the Kremlin did not initially think its efforts would result in a Trump win, and aimed only to damage Hillary and shake confidence in the American electoral system and liberal democracy at large. But they did much better than expected, in part because of the US government’s blithe ignorance of what was going on. Talk about knife to a gunfight: in the 2016 election the United States didn’t even realize it was in a fight, with guns or otherwise, which explains why we showed up not only unarmed, but continued to be oblivious about it even after we’d been shot in the chest.
A better metaphor than gunplay might be that old Russian specialty, poisoning. It is now very clear that Moscow surreptitiously introduced a number of toxins into the bloodstream of the American electoral system, toxins which helped pollute discourse and reason and aid the election of a man previously dismissed far and wide as an utter bozo. Perhaps even more worrying, those actions may have irreparably damaged that system for the foreseeable future.
So now, twenty-six years after the fact, we are forced to reconsider who really won the Cold War. The answer that appeared obvious in 1991 now seems questionable. When one sovereign state is able to install a candidate of its choosing in another ostensibly sovereign state, is there any other way to describe that chain of events than as “conquest”?
Again, back to Clausewitz. If the purpose of war is to force one’s will upon an opponent, it doesn’t matter if that objective is accomplished by bayonet, nuclear missile, or Facebook post. Any way you slice it, with Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office, Russia seems to have achieved a bloodless victory over the United States.
WANTED: TIME MACHINE
If it were to come out that Russia actually did tamper with the vote, and/or that members of the Trump team (possibly including Donald Trump himself) had enlisted Russian assistance in their campaign—which I hesitate to remind our Republican friends is illegal, and if part of a quid pro quo, potentially treasonous as well—what would be the implications be?
There is no mechanism in the US Constitution or elsewhere in US law for how to deal with a compromised presidential election. Simply removing the illegitimate presidential pretender would be insufficient. How do we unwind his various policy pronouncements and other executive actions? Does Neil Gorsuch get to stay on the Supreme Court? What about the down-ticket candidates who rode into office on his coattails, and all their actions over the past nine months? The questions are endless.
I don’t fantasize that somehow Hillary Clinton is going to get a mulligan. But we are certainly in a fine and unique mess, and it’s hard to imagine how justice can be done and the damage undone. At the very least, however, we ought to be able to safeguard the system going forward. Needless to say, we must have an electoral system that is free from even the whiff of impropriety, be it initiated by foreign actors or domestic ones. If, temporarily, we have to go back to paper ballots and hand counting so be it.
Since the Republican Party is clearly willing to let Moscow monkeywrench our elections to their mutual benefit—and to stymie efforts to investigate that interference, and to pretend it isn’t even happening—we have a serious problem. Let us not forget that as the ruling party the GOP is also charged with controlling the census and re-drawing Congressional districts for the next ten years even as they are engaged in brazen efforts to disenfranchise young voters, people of color and anyone else who might pull the Democratic lever, while spreading the myth of “voter fraud” as cover for such efforts. That is a lethal stew.
The nightmare scenario is that Trump manages to cling to power by his fingernails, dodging Bob Mueller and three Congressional inquiries, and—despite abysmal, record-low approval ratings—succeeds in “winning” re-election in 2020 thanks to a compromised vote…..compromised in part because he and his compatriots helped compromise it, and prevented all efforts to uncover and cut out the cancer. It could happen.
It is incumbent on all truly patriotic Americans, regardless of party or ideological affiliation, to demand a true accounting of Russian interference in the 2016 election and beyond, wherever that accounting may lead; to insist upon a robust defense against it going forward; and to push back against equally insidious domestic efforts to undermine the fairness and integrity of our elections. It should be apparent to all that without a reliable vote, the very basis of what we like think of as our “democracy” is impossible and becomes a cruel hoax.
The chilling thing is, they are some among us who are perfectly fine with that.
Illustration: Time Magazine