How Barr and Trump Use a Russian Disinformation Tactic

How Barr and Trump Use a Russian Disinformation Tactic

They were able to define "collusion" to benefit themselves. Don't let them twist meanings again with their "spying" investigation.

By Asha Rangappa

On Nov. 9, 2016, according to the Mueller report, some redacted figure wrote to a Russian regime crony, “Putin has won.” Based on the assessment of the intelligence community and the findings of Robert Mueller, President Vladimir Putin of Russia did indeed succeed in his efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump.

But Mr. Putin’s ultimate victory may have come on Thursday morning, during Attorney General Bill Barr’s news conference. By seamlessly conflating the terms “collusion” and “conspiracy,” and absolving President Trump of both, Mr. Barr revealed that the Russian information warfare technique of “reflexive control” has officially entered American public discourse — and threatens, with his recent allegations of campaign “spying,” to stay there for a while.

Reflexive control is a “uniquely Russian” technique of psychological manipulation through disinformation. The idea is to feed your adversary a set of assumptions that will produce a predictable response: That response, in turn, furthers a goal that advances your interests. By luring your opponent into agreeing with your initial assumptions, you can control the narrative, and ultimate outcome, in your favor. Best of all, the outcome is one in which your adversary has voluntarily acceded. This is exactly what has happened with much of the American public in the course of Mueller’s investigation.

The assumptions that culminated in Mr. Barr’s conclusions began almost two years ago, when the White House, Trump supporters and the media characterized the focus of the special counsel’s investigation as “collusion.” The word “collusion” does not appear anywhere in Mr. Mueller’s appointment letter: His mandate was to investigate any “links and/or coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russia. There is a good reason for this: “Collusion” is the legal equivalent of Jell-O. Outside of specific factual contexts — such as price fixing in antitrust law — the word “collusion” has no legal meaning or significance. In fact, in his report, Mr. Mueller explicitly stated that his conclusions were not about collusion, “which is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States code.”

The Trump administration seized on this legal ambiguity early on, with the refrain that “collusion is not a crime.” The standard set here is that anything falling below criminally chargeable behavior is acceptable. When it comes to the presidency, this is not true. The Constitution lays out the procedure for removing an unfit president from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Nevertheless, we took the bait: Collusion may not be a crime, lawyers and pundits responded, but conspiracy is. This “reflexive” response adopted criminality as the bar to be met.

But as we found in the report, conspiracy is very narrowly defined: It requires proof of an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, and an “overt act” in furtherance of that agreement. Unlike collusion, moreover, conspiracy requires that a party have a specific state of mind — knowledge — of the criminal nature of his or her actions. As a former F.B.I. special agent who conducted counterintelligence investigations, I can attest that foreign intelligence services do not operate on the basis of explicit agreements or even actions that, standing alone, constitute criminal activity.

Foreign intelligence services rely on manipulating vulnerabilities over time — like greed, or fear of exposure of a secret — to puppeteer those under their influence into acting in their interests without saying a word. Our adversaries also want to make sure they have plausible deniability, so it would be impossible to uncover an agreement made directly with a foreign government itself: As detailed in Mr. Mueller’s report, most of Russia’s overtures were made through cutouts and intermediaries, seeking to capitalize on the ambition of members of the Trump campaign to push along their efforts. Counterintelligence is, in effect, chasing ghosts, which is why the tools used to investigate foreign intelligence activity are secret, like human sources or electronic surveillance. It is not the stuff of which criminal prosecutions are made, and it is partly for this reason that operatives rarely see the inside of a courtroom.

Nevertheless, we reached an informal agreement with the White House over the last two years: The test of Mr. Trump’s fitness for office rested on Mr. Mueller’s findings that the president committed a crime, namely, conspiracy with the Russian government to influence the election.

Mr. Barr took advantage of this bargain, using “collusion” interchangeably with “conspiracy.” The Mueller report contains hundreds of pages detailing collusion — behaviors that include encouraging, facilitating and being receptive to efforts by Russia and its partners, like WikiLeaks, to influence the election — but the attorney general concluded that there was “no underlying collusion with Russia.” This was based on his conclusion that Mr. Mueller did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy. In short, “collusion” is now the same as “conspiracy,” and without proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the latter, the former doesn’t exist.

We should take a lesson from this current moment, because it is not over. Mr. Barr’s latest accusations of the F.B.I. “spying” on the Trump campaign once again threatens to flip our understanding of words upside down. By obscuring the important role of checks and balances — including the role of the judiciary in approving legal electronic surveillance based on probable cause — Mr. Barr seeks to make the actions of the investigators, rather than the compromising behavior of the members of the Trump campaign they were investigating, the focus of debate.

Undermining the integrity of law enforcement is a double boon for Russia, which seeks to erode Americans’ confidence in our institutions and constrain our ability to stop their efforts. This time, however, we can stop our reflexive actions to Mr. Barr’s linguistic sleight of hand and keep the focus on the national security threat posed by Mr. Trump’s relationship with Russia. If we don’t, Mr. Putin has certainly won.


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Posted by Asha Rangappa

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