Why “Unprecedented” is Never the Right Word for Russian Election-Meddling

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There is no adjective to which I have a greater aversion than “unprecedented.” Such language is most often intended to describe challenges more daunting than anyone has previously faced or circumstances not akin to anything seen in the past.  In truth, there are very few challenges that cannot benefit from lessons drawn from past experiences. Churchill captured this well when he worried that a failure to study and learn from the past would describe “the most thoughtless of ages” when “every day headlines and short term views” dominate.

I am reminded of this rejoinder when reading of the purportedly “unprecedented” nature of Russian efforts to influence the recent U.S. Presidential election.  In fact, Russian or Soviet attempts to interfere in the U.S. political process are nothing new.  One need not go back to the comprehensive, and successful, espionage campaign against U.S. policy and political circles mounted by the Soviets in the 1930’s and 40’s as exposed by the VENONA program to see evidence of this.  Fearful of the candidacy of Richard Nixon in 1968, the Soviet Union secretly offered to fund the campaign of his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In 1976, the KGB’s Service A (responsible for “Active Measures”; covert activities intended to advance foreign policy or national security goals) mounted an operation intended to discredit Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, then a candidate for the democratic presidential nomination.  Jackson was much loathed by Moscow for his backing of U.S. defense programs, his prominent voice on arms control issues, and his support for Soviet human rights activists.  In an operation known as “POROK,” the KGB branded Jackson as eager to win the support of the “Jewish Lobby” and fabricated documents, to include a fake FBI memo, claiming that Jackson was a closet homosexual.  Service A then sought to exploit that theme by contrasting statements made by Jackson in which the Senator voiced concern over the impact of homosexuality on the family with the claims made in forged documents sent to journalists and his political opponents.

In 1982, then-KGB Chairman Yuriy Andropov declared that all KGB officers must participate in “Active Measures.”  Soon thereafter, Service A proclaimed the goal of denying President Ronald Reagan a second term as its most important objective.  To that end, the three KGB residencies in America were instructed to foster contacts on the staffs of all possible presidential candidates and in the national committees of the respective parties.  The KGB fabricated Active Measures themes that included, among other things, claims that President Reagan was a military adventurist, that he supported repressive regimes around the world, engendered tensions with NATO Allies, discriminated against ethnic minorities, and was a tool of the military industrial complex.  President Reagan’s massive victory in the 1984 election demonstrated the limits on the impact of Active Measures, though not for lack of trying on the part of the KGB.

If there was anything novel about the operation undertaken to influence the 2016 Presidential campaign, it was the means available to Moscow to carry it out.  Over the preceding years, Russian President Vladimir Putin had repeatedly tested the will of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, to push back against his effort to restore Russian power and influence and found it lacking.  That lack of resolve manifested itself in the responses, or lack thereof, to Russian seizure of the Crimea and break-away regions of Georgia; the fomenting of an insurgency in Eastern Ukraine; the shoot-down of a civilian airliner; the defection to Russia of Edward Snowden; the reassertion of Russian influence in the Middle East; the harassment of American diplomatic personnel in Moscow; et cetera.

Notably, that irresolution also showed itself in the U.S. Government inability to protect its information networks, to include those of the White House and State Department, or to respond robustly to detected cyberattacks by Russian intelligence on those and other targets.  Putin likely seized upon what he saw as an opportunity to mount an Active Measures campaign intended to diminish what he and his old KGB colleagues have long seen as the principal strength of their main adversary: U.S. commitment to, and belief in, the principles undergirding its democratic system of government.  Putin probably recognized that discrediting those ideals by exposing, in his view, the arrogance and hypocrisy underlying them could serve at once to damage the U.S. and to blunt the greatest internal threat to his own rule: an opposition imbued with democratic ideals akin to those of the United States.  Seen in this context, Putin’s use of the demonstrated cyber capabilities of his intelligence services and the weaponization of WikiLeaks to undermine the U.S. electoral process and electoral system was all too predictable.

President Donald Trump is not the first U.S. chief executive to be beset by leaks of sensitive information to the press.  George Washington, who expressed the wish that the press should be “more discreet in many of our own publications,” was faced with the leak of details of secret deliberations regarding the Jay Treaty in 1794.  Washington responded to those leaks by arguing, “The nature of foreign negotiations requires caution, and their success must often depend on secrecy…”  Likewise, Abraham Lincoln would later lament, “It’s not me who can’t keep a secret.  It’s the people I tell that can’t.”  In fact, every President has had to deal with the exposure of secret information that put their confidential plans, policies, and conversations at risk.

If there is precedent for the exposure of secret information to the press, what may truly be unprecedented is the scale of the leaks of sensitive, and in many cases classified, information that has occurred in President Trump’s first months in office.  The chief motive for those who have leaked secret information is said to be concern over Russian influence on our elections and alleged, albeit still unproven, collusion by the Trump campaign in that effort.  Most disturbingly, the leakers themselves have been lauded by some as “heroes.” There is no little irony in this in that such leaks only serve to further the atmosphere of crisis pervading Washington, thereby magnifying the effectiveness of the very Russian intelligence Active Measures operation those leakers purport to be concerned about.

Moreover, many of the leaks are surely of great interest to Russian counterintelligence, which surely must be closely examining them to better divine U.S. intelligence sources and methods.  Identification, arrest, and prosecution of all who, out of anger, ego or hubris, have betrayed their sworn oaths to protect the secrets entrusted to them is, therefore, of immediate and paramount importance to U.S. national security.

One wonders what Putin and his intelligence chiefs made of an operation that has achieved success that must exceed their wildest expectations.  There must have been copious imbibing of vodka and medals all around once they saw the effect of what they had wrought.  But, we ought not expect them to rest on their laurels.  Indeed, the manifest willingness of much of the press to accept and publish any story with an anti-Trump meme, often from anonymous sources, presents the potential for Russian intelligence to clandestinely plant additional stories—true, half-true, or wholly fabricated—intended to further fuel the American political uncertainty that the Kremlin has done so much to engender.  A Russian intelligence failure to fully exploit such an opportunity to damage their oldest enemy in this most thoughtless of ages would, indeed, be unprecedented.

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