If only President Richard Nixon could go to China, per the hoary Beltway cliché, perhaps only yours truly could write this column. Longer than just about anybody, I’ve warned the public about the threat to Western democracy posed by Vladimir Putin’s aggressive spies and weaponized lies.
As a counterintelligence officer for the National Security Agency, I was combating Russian propaganda, what they call Active Measures, two decades ago. When the NSA contractor Edward Snowden defected to Moscow in June 2013, I called him out as the Kremlin agent he is – as the Kremlin subsequently admitted – which won me few friends among the great and the good. Over the past six years, I’ve explained how Russian intelligence operations work in the real world, based on my professional experience, to any audience that will listen.
Now, however, it’s time to apply the brakes. While I will never cease denouncing Russian spy games that threaten the West, it’s past due to differentiate serious counterintelligence work from politically motivated hackery. Simply put, Russian clandestine support to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the subject which Robert Mueller’s investigators are unraveling, has become nothing short of an obsession for many of President Trump’s political opponents.
Democrats have gone in a few short years from dismissing that there might be any threat emanating from Moscow at all to detecting a Kremlin hand behind everything they dislike. The 1980s in fact did call, and the Obama administration let the phone keep ringing instead of answering and dealing with our rising Russia problem. For that Democratic shirking of duty, Hillary Clinton paid a steep price in 2016.
In overreaction to that failure of will, too many on the Left these days are eager to pin on Putin what rational people would attribute to normal politics, including partisanship, ideology and incompetence. While Russian intelligence is persistent and pervasive, and their espionage operations are a threat we must deter, seeing Kremlin spies everywhere is politically poisonous, not to mention delusional.
Take the recent comments of California senator Kamala Harris, who’s announced she’s competing for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Perhaps to compensate for her past as a prosecutor, including six years as California’s attorney general, which is unpopular on her party’s left-wing, Sen. Harris recently has become exceptionally woke. She publicly embraced the full range of trendy, social-justice views, thereby establishing her progressive credentials.
Last week she tweeted out her take on the threat posed by Russian intelligence, including a novel assessment of Kremlin propaganda: ‘Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel. These issues aren’t only civil rights — they’re also a matter of national security. We have to deal with that.’
Since Harris has no background in national security, much less counterintelligence or Russia, the origins of her unsourced take are unclear. Let me state with confidence that nobody seriously acquainted with Russian intelligence agrees with her tweet. Let’s examine why.
In the first place, nobody’s intelligence services are that good, not even Putin’s. Covert action, as any seasoned spy will tell you, cannot create political situations; it merely exploits what already exists. In short, Russians didn’t make American politics ugly and divisive: we did. The most that can be said about Moscow’s propaganda operations is they made Americans hate each other a bit more.
How decisive that was in the 2016 election is probably unanswerable in perpetuity. There’s ample evidence, including declassified US intelligence analysis, that Kremlin online Active Measures boosted Trump and harmed Clinton, yet beyond that point assessments get murky, as they usually do in real-world intelligence operations.
Harris’s effort to make American counterintelligence the clandestine arm of wokeness is worse than merely absurd. In the first place, unless one’s perspective on espionage begins in 2016, there are quite a few Democrats, not just Republicans, with strange ties to Russian spies and lies, including some from Harris’ own state.
Neither does Russian intelligence care one whit about the content of our politics. While Putin and his inner circle view Western progressives as fools who may be controlled by the Devil, their objective for the West is chaos – no more, no less. Their online propaganda backs extreme causes of every ideological viewpoint. Rage, not consistency, is their primum mobile.
Although Russian intelligence has ties to far-right activists across the West, including the United States, they have connections to far-left types too, some of them lingering from the Cold War. Yes, Kremlin bots and trolls pushed pro-Trump narratives online that can fairly be termed racist and anti-Semitic, but they also backed left-wing causes like black nationalism and radical environmentalism. Their aim is political acrimony stoking omnidirectional anger, as the media has reported in detail but which Sen. Harris either missed or ignored.
The notion that Moscow’s spies care about ‘transphobia’ is laughable but there’s nothing funny about the political implications of Harris’s tweet. What exactly does she mean that adhering to left-wing social views constitutes ‘a matter of national security’ which ‘we have to deal with’? It seems the senator is suggesting that deviation from current progressive ideology puts one objectively in bed with the Kremlin.
Which is deeply unsettling given the unpleasant history which Sen. Harris is toying with. Back in the 1950s, significant numbers of gays and lesbians were driven from their jobs in the federal government because all homosexuals were judged a security risk. The presence of a few gays in Soviet spy networks in the 1930s and 1940s caused a panic without basis in fact (there was no US equivalent to the Cambridge Five ‘Homintern’ as it was half-jokingly called in Britain), and for decades thereafter homosexuals were kept out of national security positions in Washington, DC, for no valid reason.
Sen. Harris is suggesting something just as revolting in reverse. Now, as in the 1950s, if you are insufficiently au courant with the received wisdom of our political elite on sexual matters, you are a security risk who is possibly under Kremlin control. The implications here for civil liberties and democracy are nothing short of awful. To say nothing of the devastation which Sen. Harris’s viewpoint will inflict on legitimate, nonpartisan counterintelligence work, which is something we need badly in Washington right now.