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Russian Espionage, or Clickbait? (1/2)

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The indicted Russian troll farm operation has been compared to Pearl Harbor and widely assumed to be the work of Russian intelligence. But how do we know? CIA veteran John Sipher, who ties the troll farm’s activities to the Kremlin, joins Aaron Mate to discuss

AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Following the recent indictment of a Russian troll farm for interfering in U.S. politics, congress member Jerrold Nadler was among several prominent voices to compare it to an attack like Pearl Harbor.

JERROLD NADLER: Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react, that’s the equivalent.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, it’s a bit of a different thing. I mean-

JERROLD NADLER: No, it’s not.

CHRIS HAYES: They didn’t kill anyone.

JERROLD NADLER: They didn’t kill anyone, but they’re destroying our country, our democratic process.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you really think it’s on par?

JERROLD NADLER: Not in the amount of violence, but I think in the seriousness it is very much on par. This country exists to have a democratic system with a small D, that’s what the country’s all about, and this is an attempt to destroy that.

AARON MATÉ: It’s been widely assumed that the Russian troll farm was a high level Russian operation. Here, for example, is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

RACHEL MADDOW: What this indictment actually shows, if anything, was that this foreign operation wasn’t some practical joke. This wasn’t a crank call, this wasn’t a lark, this was a Russian intelligence operation. This was Russian intelligence at its most ambitious.

This was expensive. In the indictment today they say that the budget for this was more than a million dollars a month. It was expensive, it was extensive, it was well thought out, it was run by professionals, and it was effective.

AARON MATÉ: Now, Maddow makes at least one error here. The indictment does say that the operation had a monthly budget of $1.25 million dollars, but that was for its entire global operations, of which the U.S. was only a part. And more importantly, can we say conclusively that this was the work of Russian intelligence? Well, joining me is John Sipher, national security analyst with Cipher Brief, and a former member of the CIA’s clandestine service.

Welcome John, let’s start with that question. Based on what we know so far, do you think that this was high level Russian intelligence?

JOHN SIPHER: Yeah, it’s very easy to confuse people with this. Yes, I do think it was high level Russian intelligence, because the head of Russian intelligence is Mr. Putin, who sits in the Kremlin, and we’ve seen over the last 10, 15 years his ability to use his cronies, and use other parts of the Russian landscape to do intelligence operations. So, if you look even at the hacking of the DNC and other things, they were done by hackers, probably many of whom were either arrested or put under control of the Russian State, and used by Russian intelligence.

So Mr. Prigozhin, the owner of this troll farm, is a close personal friend of Mr. Putin from St. Petersburg, from Leningrad when they were children, and also owns and runs paramilitary organizations in Syria and Ukraine. So what happens is a lot of these people–there’s an overlap in Russia of crime, corruption, and intelligence, that all work on behalf of Mr. Putin, so to be a billionaire in Russia you need to be able to support what Mr. Putin needs you to support on his foreign policy objectives.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, there’s a lot you say there, which we can get into, but on the troll farm itself, I mean, the Internet Research Agency is a widely known troll farm. There were articles written about it well before the indictment, in fact, a lot of what was in the indictment was revealed by the Russian outlet RBC last year, and it would seem to me that, since it was so easy for these investigators to find out that, that would raise doubts for me as to whether or not this was the work of Russia’s Intelligence Service, because I understand that they work at a pretty secretive level, so it’s strange that they would be so easily discovered.

And the fact that if you read the indictment we have items disclosing that in June 2016 some of their workers were first told about this notion of purple states, states that could go either Democrat or Republican. It would seem to me that the Russian Intelligence Services would know information like that well before a date like June 2016.

JOHN SIPHER: Yeah, that’s a good point, let me step back a bit. What I want to suggest here is that this is part and parcel of the Russian Intelligence Services using these people to get their job done. Certainly with the skills of the Russian Intelligence Service they can break into things, and they can hack, and they can run spy sources without us being able to uncover them, or uncovering them with really serious efforts.

But for years and years, under the Soviet State and now, there’s a doctrine that is run through the intelligence services called active measures. In the United States we would call this covert action. It’s a means of using just information, deception, forgery, subversion, and other issues on behalf of the Russian State. It’s part–and it was mentioned in the indictment, information warfare, or psychological warfare.

So this would be just one part of that, it would be working on behalf of the Russian Intelligence Services, not necessarily with staff members of the Russian Intelligence Service who are fully trained in the dark arts. So I certainly believe that Mr. Prigozhin’s effort worked under Mr. Putin on behalf of this active measures campaign.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Okay, but what about then the product of their work? We know from Facebook that this Facebook Ad spending on these ads that were shown to American audiences, that the majority of them had nothing to do with the election. The majority of them, the ad spending came after the election, so if the goal there was to elect Donald Trump, doesn’t that seem a questionable way to go about it?

JOHN SIPHER: I think the goal was to hurt the United States, to sow chaos and create trouble, so much of what we saw was using bots and trolls and other things to find very, very divisive content to hook into people who are particularly divisive and on either side of an issue. So they pushed on things dealing with race, dealing with arms control, a number of issues. You also saw in the indictment they were supporting Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders, but I think a lot of this was looking to create problems.

However, by say June, July 2016, I think there was a bit of a shift, where they realized there was a chance that Mr. Trump was going to be not elected, but be the Republican candidate. I think they started to put effort behind him, but again, even supporting Mr. Trump, their goal is to hurt the United States and sow division.

Now, the problem is they didn’t create these problems, they didn’t create these divisions, they’re not some 10 foot tall thing being able to manipulate our system, the problem is us. The problem is we are so hyperpartisan, tribal, and divided, that all they had to do was antagonize that, to throw a little bit of gas on those flames, and we burned up.

AARON MATÉ: But I don’t accept that assumption I guess, or that characterization. I don’t see any divisions being inflamed as a result of some Russian memes or Facebook posts. I mean, you mentioned Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, well, I mean, the ads the Russians took out for Bernie Sanders was like–there was one of them featuring him with his shirt off as Buff Bernie. There was Instagram posts for Jill Stein, so I don’t see how any of that could have seriously supported either of these candidates, and nor do I see evidence that anything was really inflamed by what the Russians did. I mean, we know about these rallies they tried to organize in Florida. There’s one online video where there’s like eight people there. In many rallies they try to organize, nobody showed up at all.

JOHN SIPHER: Yeah, I think the point of this is not to change opinions, the point was to try to either suppress voters on one side, or to get people to hardened opinions, and get people to come out to vote, and we’ve even seen the same troll farm, looks like they’re doing this now around the Parkland shooting in Florida. They were going around Black Lives Matter, they’re trying to spin up divisions to get us working against each other, as much as electing Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders.

So, I mean, I hear ya, I don’t think–people talk, go right to, “Did it change votes?” I have no way of knowing if it changed votes, but I do know that the goal of it was to sort of create a system where–even now that a lot of this is uncovered, I think the Russians are happy that we’re uncovering because it just makes us question ourselves more. What is legitimate? What isn’t legitimate? Is the election legitimate? These are the issues that they want us to focus on more than changing votes per se.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, but here’s my question then. Do we even have a basis to assume that this was the Russians’ goal and this was the Russian government’s work? So yes, we have this Russian troll farm that engaged in this. We have claims from the U.S. intelligence community that a hack was carried out of the Democratic Party, but they have not shown us any evidence yet more than a year later.

Even with these bots–we’re told that Russian bots are trying to stir up trouble, but the source for that, unless there’s a different source, is the Hamilton 68 put out by this group called the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which as you may know is a who’s who of hawkish neocons and liberals, and no matter what their motives are, they don’t even tell us what their criteria is for identifying a Russian bot, and they don’t even identify a single bot that they say is Russian. It’s just we’re suppose to believe that they have their eye on everything Russia online.

JOHN SIPHER: Listen, I grew up 28 years in the CIA, I have faith in our system. I grew up in those systems, so when the Intelligence Community says with high confidence that the Russians were behind this, I tend to believe it. We went through a period of time after the 9/11 Commission, the WMD Commission, that our analysts were very careful about putting themselves behind what they found overseas, and so for them to say it’s with high confidence, that means they have the intelligence to believe it’s happening.

And put that all aside. If you don’t believe that it happened here, despite what the Intelligence Community says, and now what the Mueller investigation and legal community says, look at our allies, talk to our allies, dig it up. They were doing the same thing in France, in Germany, in Sweden, Estonia, Montenegro, they tried to kill the prime minister, there’s no shortage of information of what the Russians are up to.

Then step back further to look at the doctoring of the Soviet and Russian State using these kinds of tools over many years. They’ve created that false impression the United States created the AIDS virus. They said we were selling children’s parts around the world. They created false stories about us trying to assassinate people. This has been going on for years and years.

What’s different here is that it had much more success in an election for a variety of reasons. Probably because we weren’t ready for it, probably because our hyperpartisanship was worse than usual, probably because Mr. Putin hated Mrs. Clinton enough so to take aggressive action that allowed him to be seen, and take more risk than he normally would do. So there’s a number of things here that made this different this time, but it’s absolutely consistent with Russian intelligence.

AARON MATÉ: But in terms of pointing to what happened elsewhere, so in France, for example, there were claims about a Russian email hack and attempt to influence the recent presidential election, but afterwards the head of France’s cybersecurity agency came out and said actually we have no proof it was Russia, it could have been anybody.

In Germany’s recent elections same thing, there was the expectation that Russia was going to interfere, but nothing happened, and there were newspaper headlines to that effect. In Britain there was talk about Russia pushing Brexit, but then Facebook did an analysis and came up with three ads for a total of 97 cents.

I know you have faith in our intelligence agencies, but is it possible that in this hyperpartisan atmosphere, an atmosphere where there’s a certain national security state interest in drumming up tensions with the foreign power, because militarism leads to lucrative contracts for people in the industry, and it helps justify massive war powers and higher budgets, but there’s an interest here in ginning up tensions with Russia when maybe we don’t have to?

JOHN SIPHER: Listen, there’s plenty of money to be had for tensions in Syria, with Iran and Afghanistan, and with China. I don’t buy that we need to gin up our military spending on Russia. I think what you’re seeing is exactly what the Russian doctrine says that they do, information warfare, and I think the fact that all of our allies, to include the British Security Services and the French Security Services and the German Security Services, all believe this is happening, and believe it’s a threat, I believe them. If you don’t, I think that’s fine, but I think you’re wrong.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, but even to say that it’s the consensus of our intelligence communities. As I understand the January 2017 report, the one that accused Russia of waging this massive influence campaign that was put together by hand picked analysts under James Clapper from three agencies, CIA, NSA, and FBI, and even the NSA qualified its conclusions. It said moderate confidence. That to me was interesting, because if anybody would know about the flow of data in and out of the country in terms of an email hack, it would be the NSA, because that’s who can monitor it, but the NSA in that report said that it had moderate confidence about their conclusions. Does that not suggest that possibly it’s not as unequivocal as we’ve been made to believe that it is?

JOHN SIPHER: No, the conclusion was high confidence. I don’t recall the moderate comments from NSA, and hand picked analysts? Well, that means they took the Russian experts, that’s what hand picked analyst is. And the fact that it’s CIA, FBI, and NSA, those are the people who collect on issues like this, so what do you want the Coast Guard to put their piece in? I’m sure they would support it if they did that kind of collection, but they don’t.

AARON MATÉ: No, it’s not the Coast Guard, but as I understand it wasn’t the normal intelligence assessment where there’s debate, there’s dissent, there’s sharing of evidence. It’s like a working group that put together these conclusions, and didn’t go through the normal vetting process of a National Intelligence assessment.

JOHN SIPHER: That’s right. A National Intelligence Estimate, there’s a process by which that goes through. I think because of the nature of the election, and there was pressure on them to declassify and put out something, that they pushed the system to do that because of unusual times and unusual efforts.

So yes, I mean, I think it wasn’t a regular NIE, but the fact that they believed it in high confidence, I tend to trust. And we’ve seen the same stuff continue since then, so I’m not exactly sure why you don’t trust it.

AARON MATÉ: Well, you mentioned the WMD fiasco, so I think that’s a pretty important predicate to have skepticism of our intelligence agencies, and that’s not the only case, but I personally adhere to the view that we shouldn’t trust claims, no matter who makes them, without evidence. I’ve no doubt that Russia was capable of carrying out some sort of interference operation, but I’m not going to take something on faith without actual credible evidence. Go ahead John, yeah.

JOHN SIPHER: The problem with intelligence is it’s not a legal thing. These things are efforts by a foreign power to keep something secret, so evidence in our system, it suggests that it’s ready for trial, and that we can push this thing through. It’s very difficult to come up with evidence, as opposed to intelligence or information, or analysis in assessment.

But I think what this indictment is, is in the legal system, in the justice department system, it’s saying that they believe strongly enough that they’re willing to take this thing with backup information to court, so I think the indictment here is something that is pushing this into the legal area, and they believe that they do have evidence for these things.

AARON MATÉ: Let me say the indictment doesn’t even say that they believe it was the Russian Intelligence Service.

JOHN SIPHER: That’s true. They said it was Mr. Prigozhin, but if anybody who looks through it, Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Putin’s history, and if you look at the experience of how the Russian Intelligence Services work with Mr. Putin and with Kremlin now, you can make that assessment. You asked for that assessment, and that’s what I believe happened, yeah.

AARON MATÉ: I look at Mr. Prigozhin and see a former gourmet hotdog vendor who started a troll farm business because he wanted to counter negative reviews of his hotdog, and that grew into the troll farm that was now indicted. But listen John, we have to wrap, so looking forward now, what do you expect going forward in the Mueller investigation?

JOHN SIPHER: Okay, I want you to know that hotdog guy is also providing paramilitary forces that are killing and using chemical weapons in Syria, and are killing people in Ukraine, so that hotdog guy is a pretty serious person, and we ought to think about him that way.

What do we think going forward? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t understand what Mr. Meuller is up to here, other than to think that this is a framework, or a basis by which he can then look to charge people as co-conspirators who are involved with this. The thing that I do believe is, like I said, this is part of a clear doctrine the Russians have had forever, and so this is just one piece of that, so I do think there’s hackers, I do think that there’s an espionage.

Every single active measures campaign in history, to include every single covert action the CIA’s even been involved with, heavily used recruited sources to support what they are doing. So we haven’t seen any of that yet, we haven’t seen evidence of that yet, so I do think there’s a lot more to come before we have a full picture of what happened.

AARON MATÉ: That’s going to wrap part one of my conversation with John Sipher. In part two we shift from alleged Russian meddling to U.S. meddling around the world. I’m Aaron Maté, thanks for joining us on the Real News.