Foreign influence: the digital age’s great gift for homegrown troublemakers

Brig. Gen. (res.) Hannan Gefen describes how fake news was created in the recent US election campaigns. "Hostile intelligence organizations could only hope for such results," says Gefen regarding the rioting by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill

Photo by Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM

By Brig. Gen. (res.) Hannan Gefen

The past two election campaigns in the US were held under the shadow of fear regarding how foreign actors might be affecting the public through social networks, harming the democratic process. However, the facts tell a completely different story.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to investigate the suspicion of Russian interference during the US 2016 presidential election. In a special section of his report, the Counsel exposed an internet research organization in St. Petersburg, which was involved in publishing messages on American social media. Most were in support of then-candidate Trump, and involved attempts to organize demonstrations and rallies for his benefit. The Russian activists pretended to be American citizens, and thus manipulated US citizens. The Special Counsel also revealed that Russian military intelligence units penetrated e-mails of Democratic Party activists and published them, in order to harm Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. US intelligence was successful in identifying the Russian operatives and the executing units. In the end of the abovementioned section, Mueller recommended indicting 13 Russian nationals. 

In reality, however, this activity had no influence over the election campaign and its outcome. According to the Mueller report, which was based on FBI reports, the Russian internet research organization attempted to organize demonstrations and rallies between November 2015 and the end of 2016. Few, if any, attended some of the events, while only several hundred attended the others. It appears that the entire activity was monitored by the FBI in real time. 

Rather, it was American political actors who exploited the foreign involvement threat demon in order to feed the government and the public with biased information, and drive harmful intra-American processes. In the 2016 campaign, activists with ties to the Democratic Party attempted to coerce the FBI into investigating GOP presidential candidate Trump, in order to "balance" the investigation that was opened against Clinton, who was negligent in protecting classified material. 

As the Attorney General’s report from December 2019 shows, these activists tasked a DC strategic research company, Fusion GPS, with preparing incriminating material on candidate Donald Trump, pertaining to his ties with the Russians. Together with a retired MI6 agent, Christopher Steele, the company prepared a collection of documents, signed by Steele, which included the description of financial activities between Trump and his extended staff and the Russians. The most incriminating piece of information was the description of an alleged event in a Moscow hotel, where Trump was allegedly in the company of Russian escorts. The intelligence agent claimed that Putin had hold of that information, which could be used to blackmail Trump. 

The British intelligence agent gave background briefings to a select group of journalists such as Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent at Yahoo! News, and David Corn, the Washington, DC bureau chief of Mother Jones. The two then cited a "Western intelligence source" regarding dubious connections between Trump and the Russians, which led to an FBI investigation, and started a three-year long media and social media frenzy, during which—on more than one occasion—the president was dubbed the "Manchurian Candidate". 

The collection of documents, signed by an MI6 official, even managed to fool the heads of the intelligence community during the Obama administration. In media interviews given after their retirement, they said they believe the information to be true. Special Counsel Mueller’s report, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice’s report, FBI investigations, and trials against Steele in the UK and the US ruled out that information retrospectively. But the damage was already done: the relationship between the president and the intelligence community took a hard hit, the FBI director and his second in command were dismissed from their posts, and three out of Trump’s four years as president were marred by suspicion and investigations, which were harmful to his work and prestige. It appears that no foreign intelligence organization would have dared to even dream of such accomplishments. 

In the 2020 election campaign, it was President Trump and his accomplices who tried to stop the process of appointing the Democratic nominee, by employing that exact foreign demon. Trump's lawyers submitted affidavits in several US states, in which they said foreign agents, communists and others, penetrated the voting systems via the internet and rigged the results. China, Cuba, Venezuela, the countries of former Yugoslavia, and Iran were mentioned. 

These claims were based on an affidavit signed by an intelligence officer, Joshua Merritt, who was allegedly closely familiar with this topic. Once his identity was exposed, it turned out the extent of Merritt’s intelligence background was a single intelligence course, which he had failed. The detailed information was probably put together by pro-Trump American hackers, who needed an authority figure to sign the affidavit. 

Trump and his team distanced themselves from the attorneys who filed the affidavit, who were probably misled by unknown actors who provided them with the information. In their eagerness to get the election appeal processes going, they didn’t bother with basic due diligence.  

The claims were fully rejected by the various courts, but here too, the damage had already been done: social media was in turmoil due to "election theft", and Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6th, in an attempt to prevent Congress from ratifying the election results. The claim that the results were faked, with an emphasis on the electronic voting machines, was the fuel that propelled them. Hostile intelligence organizations could only hope for such results.

 

The writer is a retired IDF brigadier general and former commander of Unit 8200.This article is part of the series "Post 2020: the new digital era after COVID-19". The Cybertech Global conference will be held in Dubai on April 5-7, 2021. Join us, in person or online. For more information, please visit: https://cybertechconference.com/

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