Running Covert Propaganda Against Americans Is Illegal. Trump Tried It Anyway.
The whistleblower stopped a covert psychological operation against the American public dead in its tracks
By Asha Rangappa
Each new revelation in the money-for-dirt scandal involving the White House and Ukraine appears to add another nail in the impeachment coffin. So far, however, the list of impeachable offenses has focused on whether President Donald Trump’s actions amounted to an illegal solicitation of foreign election interference, or more simply, a broader abuse of his power to secure a personal benefit.
While both of these are important (and impeachable), it’s critical that we not overlook the bigger purpose behind the president’s actions: The White House was attempting to employ an illegal, covert propaganda operation against the American public.
This is explicitly against the law. The 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act prohibits the U.S. government from using covert actions — which include propaganda — to “influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.”
As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, I know about propaganda operations because I investigated them. Most of my cases involved foreign “perception management” campaigns — covert activities designed to influence the attitudes and opinions of the American public toward particular issues that would benefit the intelligence service’s host country.
These activities pose a national security threat because, in an open society and a free marketplace of ideas, it is essential that people know the true source of information in order to assess credibility and critically evaluate its content — especially when they are exercising fundamental rights, like voting, based on it. Russia’s perception management campaign in the 2016 election is what led special counsel Robert Mueller to indict 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for spreading misinformation on social media while posing as American groups and citizens.
The Ukraine saga shows how these tactics have been adopted by the Trump administration. Initially, the partial transcript between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released by the White House suggested that Trump’s main objective was to get Ukraine to open an investigation into alleged corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Ukrainian officials have confirmed there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either. But the goal, it seemed, was to use the law enforcement arm of a foreign country to go on a fishing expedition to dig up or manufacture the appearance of dirt, which could then potentially be used by Trump in his upcoming campaign. In other words, Trump appeared, based on his conversation with Zelensky, to be mainly interested in the fruits of a sham foreign investigation into the Bidens, which he could repurpose for his own benefit.
The administration’s focus wasn’t simply that Ukraine investigate Biden — it was that Ukraine publicly broadcast it would be conducting an investigation.
Last week, however, the House Intelligence Committee released a memo detailing behind-the-scenes text messages between State Department officials that tell a different story. In the texts, U.S. ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland engage in an extended negotiation with Zelensky regarding the conditions of a potential visit to the White House.
The conditions do not merely involve a promise by Zelensky to open and pursue an investigation into the Bidens (which could be done quietly); rather, they convey to him that he must make a “public announcement” about these investigations in order to get a meeting with Trump. In other words, the administration’s focus wasn’t simply that Ukraine investigate Biden — it was that Ukraine publicly broadcast it would be conducting an investigation.
The focus on the messaging about the investigation, rather than on the substantive investigation per se, indicates that the Trump administration was interested in shaping public perception — specifically that of American voters. In fact, many of the texts between Volker and Sondland — in coordination with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — involve carefully tailoring Ukraine’s message to dovetail with Trump’s specific concerns: Investigating Burisma (the company affiliated with Hunter Biden) and “getting to the bottom of what happened” in the 2016 election by casting doubt on Russia’s role. The one-sided crafting of the announcement to be given by Ukraine is evidenced by Zelensky’s pushback, who on August 10 insisted on a date for a White House visit before committing to a statement announcing an investigation explicitly referencing these two points, according to the committee’s memo.
The most important feature of the back and forth between the State Department and Ukraine is their insistence that the public announcement comes from Ukraine alone. It’s not unusual for U.S. officials to be involved in crafting a statement with a foreign country, but typically they are publicly issued as joint statements. Here, however, nothing about the proposed statement, which was drafted and proposed by the State Department in coordination with Giuliani, indicated that the U.S. precipitated or participated in its creation in any way. In intelligence terms, this is called black propaganda.
Black propaganda attempts to conceal the true source of information so that the target (in this case, the American public) cannot accurately assess the credibility of the message or the motives of the source behind it. By having the information emanate from a separate and more credible outlet, the target audience is more likely to believe it.
A unilateral statement from Zelensky would manipulate the American public into believing that Ukraine had independently reached the conclusion that there was a basis to investigate the Bidens and the origins of the 2016 U.S. election interference. By cloaking his own role and motives behind the statement of a foreign country, Trump could corroborate his own claims and have “proof” that his views were not politically motivated, but instead grounded in real facts.
In short, the Trump administration was using a propaganda technique to covertly plant credible seeds of doubt about a political opponent and the Russia investigation in anticipation of the 2020 election so he could capitalize on it.
The good news is that propaganda is neutralized by one thing: exposure.
The whistleblower who brought to light the machinations of the White House and its State Department enablers not only started the ball rolling on impeachment, but stopped a covert psychological operation against the American public dead in its tracks.
Link to Original Article: Running Covert Propaganda Against Americans Is Illegal. Trump Tried It Anyway.