Trump abets Russian disinformation schemes

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President Donald Trump again this week tried to deflect attention from the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

If you want to understand how President Trump should (and won't) deal with Russia, from its hack of U.S. elections to its role in gas attacks in Syria, I have one suggestion. Go to YouTube and pull up the remarks of former special FBI agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

Watts is a West Point grad, former Army officer and respected counterterrorism expert with a focus on cybersecurity, as well as a fellow at Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute. His hair-raising testimony laid out how Trump abets Moscow's disinformation schemes to undermine Western democracies (whether wittingly or unwittingly we still need to learn).

Watts' bottom line: The United States can't counteract Moscow's "active measures" to discredit the United States and its Western allies until the president officially recognizes what Russia is up to - and devises a strategy to deal with it. Instead Trump is playing right into the Kremlin's hands.

The president was at it again this week, trying to deflect attention from the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He alleged - without any evidence and in distorted fashion - that Susan Rice sought illicit intelligence against his campaign team. He employed the same tactics a month ago with his absurd and baseless tweet, debunked by top intelligence officials, that President Barack Obama tapped Trump Tower during the campaign.

These explosive claims play right into Moscow's strategy of "active measures," says Watts, meaning a global campaign to discredit and undermine democracies that dates back to Soviet times. This campaign is far more potent, however, in the digital era.

As a first step, Moscow uses "white outlets" such as the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news service and the English-language RT TV network to spread anti-American propaganda. (Note that Trump gave credence to RT, which has a wide European and U.S. audience, by doing an interview on the network, while his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, got paid by RT and called the propaganda outlet "no different from CNN.")

The claims by white outlets can be instantaneously and massively magnified on social media by thousands of grey outlets - pro-Russia accounts (also known as trolls) and automated bots - that send out thousands of messages and/or tweets until the chosen subject begins to trend. These fake claims are picked up in turn by conspiratorial web sites (or even the mainstream media), which are then cited in turn by avid consumers of conspiracy theories such as - you guessed it - Trump staffers or the president himself.

Watts cites examples of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (who had worked for pro-Putin officials in Ukraine) and the president promoting false stories blared on RT and Sputnik. He believes the Russians "know they can get into decision cycle with any conspiracy theory he'll bite on."

A major Russian goal, says Watts, is to "tarnish democratic leaders and undermine democratic institutions" by sowing confusion and mistrust among the citizenry and weakening confidence in the election process and in the results. He says these processes "were in full swing" during the U.S. election season (as detailed by the conclusive U.S. intelligence community report in January), including Russian hacking of political officials and complicity in Wikileaks data dumps.

"Part of the reasons active measures work," says Watts, is that the president and the trolls "parrot the same lines."

For example, Watts says, the Kremlin is actively working to undermine NATO and the European Union, and is supporting candidates such as France's Marine le Pen, who oppose those institutions. "We can't counter that message if is actually parroting that message at home," says the cybersecurity expert.

Meantime, during the campaign, Trump's claim that the election was rigged echoed "the number one theme cited by RT, Sputnik, and other white outlets," says Watts. Trump's praise for Wikileaks and call for Russia to leak Hillary Clinton's emails also boosted the Russian strategy. Moreover, his claims of voter fraud, or that Obama tapped Trump Tower, are "all claims that Russian active measures can cite to besmirch the image of Western democracy."

The U.S. public needs to be educated on the threat, Watts says. Only then can the administration construct a strategy to counter the Russian disinformation.

Yet Trump disdains the U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the election and keeps trying to sidetrack congressional attempts to investigate the Russian actions. He sows further political confusion at home - with false facts and conspiratorial claims - in ways that bolster Moscow's efforts. And even after the Syrian gas attack, which Moscow illogically blames on Syrian rebels, Trump refused to say a critical word about Russia.

"Until we get a firm agreement on fact and fiction in our own country," says Watts, "we're going to have a big problem." Trump must decide, he adds, "whether 'I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my twitter feed.'"

So far the twitter feed is clearly holding the lead.

trubin@phillynews.com

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