Strategic Disinformation and the 2020 Election

Foreign manipulation of America’s 2020 vote count to help Joe Biden is crazy talk. At least that’s what a lot of people believe, with even supporters of President Trump attacking the initial evidence and the messengers.

After the debunked Russian collusion narrative, the Ukraine issues that led in part to the president’s impeachment, and the pre-election exposé of Hunter Biden’s laptop and emails showing Chinese Communist Party influence aimed at the former vice president, much of the public is confused, divided, disgusted, and numb.

Add to that what former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell has called “The Kraken”: Evidence that, among other things, is expected to show strategic, organized, computerized electoral fraud through technology developed in, of all places, Venezuela.

Even a lot of the president’s supporters aren’t buying it.

And that’s exactly how regimes that view us as their strategic enemy want it.

Those regimes, running countries large and small—from Russia and China down to Iran, Cuba, and even Venezuela—thrive or at least survive by preventing the United States from understanding their strategic intentions.  

They depend on us not recognizing or comprehending their subversive means of achieving their objectives short of all-out war. They cloak their goals, strategies, capabilities, and operations through “denial” (concealment or denying access to facts) and “deception” (a range of military and civilian techniques that include disinformation). “Denial and deception” is a singular intelligence term.

For generations, the United States has been assaulted constantly by what former Soviet KGB colonel Anatoliy Golitsyn called “strategic disinformation.” Golitsyn warned in 1984 that the United States and its interests were under a permanent strategic disinformation offensive from Moscow.

Strategic disinformation, Golitsyn said, was paired with “political influence” abroad, a weapon of political warfare to influence the perceptions and policies of other countries, including the United States, to Moscow’s long-term benefit. As the term implies, strategic disinformation isn’t planting a few fake stories or narratives in the Western media. It’s a global, integrated, ongoing form of political warfare designed for the very long haul. Golitsyn’s views were not very popular in the U.S. intelligence community.

But other Soviet bloc defectors, along with U.S. and allied intelligence and counterintelligence, confirmed the strategic disinformation threat alongside, or as part of, an “active measures” offensive of insurgency, terrorism, assassination, disinformation, and propaganda.

To enable the nation to recognize and counter those dual challenges raised by Golitsyn and other defectors, the Reagan Administration established a permanent Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC) to coordinate within the intelligence community.

The FDDC did its job steadily for 30 years. Then, without announcement or explanation, the Obama Administration quietly ordered it shut down in the spring of 2016. The shutdown wasn’t intended to be noticed. It happened without fanfare, with the FDDC made to wither away over the next year and not generate attention by closing outright. Its very closure was a deception.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence ran the FDDC. James Clapper served as director of national intelligence under Obama, and he personally oversaw the FDDC’s demise so that it would disappear unnoticed. CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, and even Vice President Joe Biden—all principals of Obama’s National Security Council—went along with the shutdown.

This was weeks before presidential candidate Hillary Clinton started alleging “Russian subversion” and “collusion” among Trump and his associates.

Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, and the now-disgraced group that ran the FBI at the same time, gave credence to the story—all while shielding the public from the fact that the administration was shutting down FDDC.

At roughly the same time, the National Intelligence University, under Clapper’s ultimate authority, inexplicably zeroed out its popular and well-attended denial and deception studies program. That action prevented officers, agents, and analysts from the entire U.S. intelligence community from even learning about our adversaries’ tradecraft against us.

So if Russian “disinformation” and “subversion” were really behind the 2016 Trump campaign, why did the Obama Administration quietly shut down the intelligence community’s analytical and training capabilities to counter such things?

Nobody has answered that question.

What we do know is that the intelligence community is no longer prepared to defend America against foreign deception and disinformation. And, as attorneys supportive of the president say they are about to demonstrate in court, we as a nation may have been caught flat-footed by a fifth-rate power’s subversion of the very mechanisms of our republic’s democratic system.

In his famous 1965 book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, French sociologist Jacques Ellul observed a form of psychological conditioning that softens human targets to accept propaganda. He called that conditioning “pre-propaganda.”

Whether intentional or not, the constant repetition of the debunked Russia “collusion” narrative appears to have had a pre-propaganda conditioning effect at both ends of the political spectrum. Opponents of the president use it to discredit any information about foreign subversion in their own political camp. Several Democratic senators ran a whispering campaign against a Ukrainian former diplomat who exposed Hunter Biden’s Burisma ties in Senator Ron Johnson’s homeland security investigation, calling him a Russian asset while providing no evidence. Clapper and Brennan railed on about Russian manipulation through the election, circulating a misleading letter planted to create a phony news headline to give Biden the presidential debate prop to say, falsely, “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what [Trump’s] accusing me of”—meaning Hunter’s laptop and emails—“is a Russian plant.”

On the other side, certain supporters of President Trump have subjected Sidney Powell to criticism and even attack for raising the question of computer electoral fraud tied to software developed for the Venezuelan dictatorship. To them, the Venezuela angle seems not to compute in their logic about how the world works, and appears to be the last-ditch gasp of a pro-Trump lawyer grasping at straws in what they think is a doomed effort to prevent Biden from becoming president.

That’s why institutional knowledge about denial, deception, and subversive political warfare is such a national security imperative.

Powell’s evidence will soon be up for public scrutiny when presented before the courts. It is a legal and political issue, and a national security matter. Regardless of how the courts rule on the legal cases themselves, the evidence, if it is as solid as we are told, should provide extraordinary understanding about how foreign entities work with American political operatives to subvert our constitutional republic.

About J. Michael Waller

J. Michael Waller is senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy. He holds a Ph.D. in international security affairs at Boston University and for 13 years was the Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics.

Photo: Getty Images

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