Do Russiagate Skeptics Go Too Far?
As top intelligence officials warn of Russian meddling in the upcoming mid-terms, John Feffer of Lobelog and Foreign Policy in Focus joins TRNN’s Aaron Mate to discuss Feffer’s new article arguing that some progressive critics are going too far in dismissing the Russiagate narrative
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. At a hearing this week, the nation’s top intelligence officials warned about Russian meddling in the upcoming midterm elections.
DAN COATS: Frankly, the United States is under attack. Under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place in the United States. We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States. There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.
AARON MATÉ: The testimony prompted bipartisan complaints that president Trump is still not taking the purported Russian threats seriously. But that is a critique that is also being made against some parts of the left. In a new piece for LobeLog, John Feffer writes that some progressive critics are going too far in dismissing the Russiagate narrative. The piece is called “Russiagate or Deep State?” John Feffer is the editor of LobeLog and the Director of Foreign Policy and Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and he joined me earlier today to discuss his piece.
Now we recorded this just before news broke that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for allegedly using social media to sow discord in the U.S. and support the candidacy of Donald Trump. So in this interview we do not address that indictment, but we do address the wider issue of Russiagate, Russia’s alleged use of social media and Russian email hacking.
Welcome, John. Lay out your argument for us.
JOHN FEFFER: Well, first, it’s not just the United States. I mean, Russia has been involved in these kinds of operations, cyber operations against a variety of targets and the general purpose has been to improve the geopolitical position of Russia. So these operations of course have taken place in Europe against what are perceived as pro-UE positions. Here in the United States, they’ve been for a variety of different purposes, but I think the kind of overall goal is, as has been stated several times, has been to kind of create greater political confusion and polarization in United States, thus in some sense, handicapping the United States.
Russiagate, as it’s been laid out, is one part of that, but it’s not just election meddling, it of course extends to in particular economic relations between Trump and members of Trump’s team and Russia. So my fear is that to progressives, largely because they are suspicious of the national security state, and for good reason, have dismissed Russiagate because it’s been put forward by the FBI, members of the intelligence community and therefore they don’t take it as seriously as they should.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, but John, my pushback to that is can you see why someone could argue that you’re making a lot of assumptions there? I mean, we’ve been told, for example, that the Russians conducted this massive influence operation through email hacking and social media, but the evidence for it has been pretty thin. I mean, we were told the Russian government carried out the email hacking, but there’s been no actual evidence of that yet.
What we know about the social media looks like it came from a Russian troll farm acting in a very crude and juvenile way, spending about a hundred thousand dollars, most of it after the election. And the same thing about Europe too, there’s been claims about Russian meddling, but looking at the actual evidence, it’s come up pretty thing.
JOHN FEFFER: Well, I would argue that the evidence is actually pretty thick. I mean, as for the social media, I wouldn’t really consider that to be the more important aspect there, much more important of course is the hacking of the DNC and some personal emails and in terms of the evidence, well, okay you might want to dismiss what the U.S. intelligence community has put forward, but the Dutch intelligence community was basically surveilling the whole entire operation, was able to identify the people involved in the Russian hacking of that. We also have evidence from an actual Russian trial-
AARON MATÉ: Well, John-
JOHN FEFFER: Yeah?
AARON MATÉ: John, let’s break this down one by one. So you mentioned this Dutch report, this recently came out, I believe what you’re referring to is anonymous Dutch officials told a Dutch, and also U.S. officials too, told a Dutch news agency, two actually, outlets, that they had actually surveilled Russian hackers and had even hacked into a surveillance camera at the Russian hacking site. But again, that’s an example of where we have more than a year after this Russiagate thing has been going on, now this claim comes out. And if they have evidence, why not show it? So for example, why not give us a screenshot from this surveillance camera that they allegedly hacked into?
JOHN FEFFER: Well, I’d like to see that as well. A number of people have come forward with evidence, or had come forward with claims, of state national security requirements, confidentiality, etc., for not releasing the information. I’d like to see it as well, no question about it. But if you add in, for instance, the testimony of a Russian hacker in a Russian trial who gave evidence of being approached by the Russian intelligence community to engage in the hacking itself, and gave what seemed to be a pretty convincing evidence of his own involvement and Russian government involvement, if you add up all these data points, well, I have to say that the evidence is far more compelling than the counter argument which is we don’t know, or it could be a fat guy sitting on a couch somewhere.
AARON MATÉ: If you’re referring to the Russian hacker, Kaspersky, I think his name is, who has claimed that he was ordered to carry out this hacking of the DNC, can I just say that every Russian I speak to, no one takes him seriously. He’s also claimed that he possessed the capability to develop a red button that could destroy western infrastructure, but he did not do it because of his conscience. So I don’t see him as a reliable source.
JOHN FEFFER: Well, you keep bringing up all these sources that you don’t really have much faith in, but frankly, what is the counter narrative? Who exactly hacked into the DNC? Who provided these emails to Wikileaks, why were they released at such a critical moment? You know, we have these data points, you may not trust them, but I find them convincing. We have the report from the intelligence community here in the United States that provides at least a trail. It’s been challenged, but I find the narrative that’s been put forward to be honestly more convincing than the counter narrative.
AARON MATÉ: I don’t know who hacked into the DNC. I mean, some people like Ray McGovern and Bill Binney, formerly of the NSA, claimed that it was a leak, I didn’t find personally the argument persuasive, but I don’t know enough about computers to decide either way. I think the key point to stress is that certainly the Russians could have done it, but in the absence of proof that they did, why presume just because a handful of U.S. intelligence officials, a year ago without evidence, told us that they did?
JOHN FEFFER: Well, we have a pattern of other Russian involvement, and you may dismiss the social media as not being a lot of money, or not being a lot of tweets or what have you, but that’s not the point. The point is they did engage in it. So we have a pattern of behavior. If we were in a courtroom and we were kind of constructing an argument, we would put that into the documents as more evidence of motive, of action, and the reason why we take it seriously is twofold.
One, because we’re worried about our U.S. democracy and whether it can function in a fair way. And the threats to U.S. democracy, by the way, are not, you know, specific to Russia. But I consider Russia a threat in large part because of what the current government of Vladimir Putin represents. Putin has not only authoritarian tendencies within Russia itself, that’s not my major concern here, my major concern is its support for far right-wing nationalist—and frankly, racist—movements around the world, including here in the United States.
It’s not a surprise that neo-Nazi groups and white supremacy groups have identified Russia as one of their key allies, in part because Russia is home to so many white people, and that the Putin government has identified these movements of key allies as well. So this is why I personally consider Russia to be a threat. If I learned, for instance, that Botswana had hacked into the U.S. election system I would not consider it as great a threat, my concern is not just the nature of Russia’s actions but also what Russia represents, or I should say, what the Putin government represents, because of course Russia is a very big place with lots of different political tendencies.
AARON MATÉ: All right, two points. So if the U.S. intelligence officials told you that Botswana had hacked into a U.S. email system and released emails in an effort to further a political goal, would you believe them without evidence? And on the point about Russia and authoritarian tendencies, and no one really denies that, but are they a major factor in support for white supremacy in the U.S.? I mean, anywhere close to the degree of which president Trump has emboldened white supremacists?
JOHN FEFFER: Well, let’s answer the second question first. To the extent that the Russian government supports or supported Donald trump, yes, it’s a very significant and perhaps the most significant support of white supremacists in the United States ever. If you take Donald Trump out of the picture, well, of course not. But Donald Trump is the key actor here and Russiagate is, of course, focused on his complicity with Russian actors.
As for the first, if the intelligence came to me with no evidence, of course I would dismiss it. But the point here is that the intelligence community seems to have evidence, has published some of that evidence. For instance, there’s been a lot of ridicule of the Homeland Security for saying that Russia hacked into, I think it was 21 state electoral systems, and it’s important to emphasize that Homeland Security said that that did not have any effect on the election.
And it’s also important to point out that a number of states responded that they saw no evidence of that. It’s also important to say that Homeland Security has released its evidence because of national security concerns, but there was one example of Illinois where the evidence seemed pretty strong of Russian involvement.
So, yes, there is evidence; if you think that the evidence is robust or not is up to you. I personally think it’s far more robust than any of the counter-narratives that have been put forward, which have absolutely no bearing in reality.
AARON MATÉ: I think the evidence for the Russian government hacking of the Democratic emails amounts to a blog post from CrowdStrike, which is the firm contracted by the DNC, which by the way hasn’t even given its servers over to the FBI. Aside from that, the intelligence report- [crosstalk 00:12:46]
JOHN FEFFER: How can you say it’s a blog post? You’re reducing it to insignificance. You may not agree with the conclusions of the report that they issued, and I’ve seen plenty of analysis of that report, but I would not-
AARON MATÉ: I’m talking about, if I could finish, I’m talking about the CrowdStrike blog post that said it had concluded that it was Russian government hackers like Fancy Bear that had hacked the democrats and then there was the intelligence report which had a bunch of claims about Russian government hacking, but at least from the public version that we’ve been allowed to see, no evidence. And on white supremacy, I mean, have we seen evidence that Putin has actively supporting white supremacists inside of the United States?
JOHN FEFFER: We have seen Putin give several speeches on the importance of his right-wing vision of a Christian centered, kind of Russian centered, in some ways white center, if you read between the lines, ideology. We have seen connections between white supremacists and far right leaders going to Russia, going to Moscow, meeting with Russian officials, some of them very close to Putin. If you’re looking for monetary transfers, such as for instance the kind of financial support Russian banks gave to Marine Le Pen and the National Front, you won’t find that, not yet, but the connections are there.
In terms of the evidence of Russian hacking, through Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, you know, I’m not sure what would constitute Russian fingerprints more than what has been offered. Yeah, sure, perhaps we could see more of the trail of evidence, but what I’ve seen, so far, convinces me that it was a Russian operation. Again, if you have evidence that there is somebody else out there, better proof that has been offered, I’m willing to hear it. And I’m willing to change my mind as well, but what I’ve seen so far points in one direction and one direction only.
AARON MATÉ: And I’m certainly willing to change my mind as well, of course, everyone is. My point is that the absence of evidence of another party doesn’t, for me, lead to the conclusion that it was Russia, and the absence of what we’ve been discussing here is I think a lack of evidence. Let me also say, my concern here is not defending Putin or his policies, it’s just not holding Putin to a higher standard than we hold anyone else, and doing so in a way that deflects from our own internal problems here at home.
So for example, if we’re linking Putin to white supremacy in the U.S., then I think we’re risking overlooking the very real ties between many people in our government and leading pundits and white supremacists, including our president Donald Trump. Especially in the absence of actual, I mean, you talk about white supremacists visiting Moscow, well sure. White supremacists also visit Washington D.C. because they live in the U.S. So that to me does not seem proof of a tangible connection in which the Russian government is actively supporting white supremacists.
And in terms of holding Putin to a different standard, the concern about that, on top of ignoring the issues here in the U.S., is what if that is used in the service of a Cold War agenda? Which I know you oppose, but there are elements of the national security state for which this Russia hysteria is very advantageous. It justifies military expenditures and it fuels far-right militaristic policies like Trump is doing right now in Syria, against Russia’s wishes, and also even on Russia’s borders with NATO, expanding the NATO military presence there. But all of which is being overlooked because we’re so focused on trying to prove a Trump-Russia connection.
JOHN FEFFER: Well, I mean, I can only talk about me, I can’t talk about what other analysts do or don’t do, and I spend more of my time looking at precisely the things you’re talking about. Expansion of NATO to Russian borders, I talk about the connections between Donald Trump and white supremacists, I talk about all things wrong with American elections that have nothing to do with Russia. So, I spend far more of my time talking about those things than I do about Russiagate. I happened to publish two articles recently because I’m concerned about the fact that progressives are overlooking this threat, not because I think progressives should focus on Russiagate to the exclusion of all other things, but I do think that progressives should take a hard and realistic look at what is taking place in Moscow and what Putin’s larger geopolitical ambitions are.
In terms of a growing cold war, I’m absolutely opposed to any effort to recreate a cold war, I’ve consistently supported all sorts of agreements between the United States and Russia from arms control, to resolving the Syria conflict, to bolstering the cooperation that we did see around the Iran nuclear agreement. That goes without saying. But, I am also concerned about Russian actions and not just Russian actions with respect to election meddling in Europe and the United States, I’m concerned with what Russia does in the Ukraine, I’m concerned about Russian actions in Syria, I’m concerned about Russian involvement in its near or abroad beyond Ukraine.
All of those are very, very troubling things, because let’s face it, Russia has in the past had an imperial perspective and I believe that imperial perspective is deeply ingrained in Vladimir Putin’s world view. How does it compare to U.S. imperial strategies? Well, of course it’s a much smaller kind of component to world geopolitics, because Russian power is much smaller than U.S. power. But it doesn’t mean we should overlook it or ignore it.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. So John, finally as we wrap, can we agree on this, which is that the evidence so far, in terms of Trump’s actual policies when it comes to Russia, some of which we’ve talked about, expanding NATO on Russia’s border, he just released his nuclear strategy which is primarily focused on Russia and calls for increasing the nuclear arsenal to develop these so-called low yield weapons aimed at Russia, maintaining the U.S. troop presence in Syria indefinitely in a bid to target Iran, can we agree that, and also, of course, most significantly, doing what Obama rejected because he didn’t want to fuel the new cold war even more, which is Trump is now supplying weapons to Ukraine to fight the Russian backed separatists in the east, all these policies do not lend themselves to a narrative of trump and Russia being in cahoots. Because here, these are all cases where certainly is not pleased with what Trump is doing.
JOHN FEFFER: I can absolutely agree that Putin is not pleased with what Trump is doing. I would argue that it was largely a marriage of convenience, both Putin and Trump had their own reasons for playing nice with one another and that those reasons, if they did not completely disappear with the election, certainly became considerably attenuated. So Donald trump has pursued his own foreign policy that’s very different from the foreign policy he pretended to have when we was a candidate and a subset of that foreign policy was a kind of non-interventionist, more cooperative position with Russia.
That has disappeared. Why it’s disappeared, well, there are lots of reasons for that, but we shouldn’t project that backwards and say that because of Trump’s reversals on foreign policy that means ipso facto that there was no complicity between Russia and Trump. The relationship went sour, as many relationships do go sour, but I would agree with you currently U.S. and Russian relations are not at a very good point.
AARON MATÉ: It just seems curious to me that Putin would work so hard to elect a candidate who then goes and takes office and then pursues a more radical, or at least more militaristic posture towards Russia then even his predecessor, Obama did.
JOHN FEFFER: So first of all, I don’t think Putin could predict what Donald Trump was going to do as president, unpredictability was basically the best word to describe Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as we’ve determined a president as well. So I don’t think anybody, much less Vladimir Putin, could have predicted the turn U.S.-Russian relations would take. But also I would call into question that the idea that the Kremlin was specifically interested in getting Donald Trump elected.
I mean, Donald trump was a long shot, very few people thought he was going to get elected. I think what the Kremlin was hoping was more of a polarization strategy, somewhat similar to the dezinformatsiya strategy of the soviet years, and that is simply to sow confusion and to kind of accentuate the disagreements within American society and within the political sphere more specifically. And with that, I think the Kremlin was successful. You could argue that the election of Donald Trump was not a success, in fact, because of Trump’s unpredictability and the ultimate trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, well, as much as I’d like to respond we are out of time, so we’ll leave it there for now, but hope to continue this in the future. John Feffer is our guest, editor of LobeLog and Director of Foreign Policy and Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new piece for LobeLog is called “Russiagate or Deep State?” John, thank you.
JOHN FEFFER: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.