Democracy under duress: Truth decay and dirty money

Read Part 1 of WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green’s “Democracy under duress” series.

Part 1: Russia's meddling in U.S. elections was designed to erode faith in our government. It could take years to overcome. (WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green)
Part 2: Russia's scheme has taken hold and has reached institutions we never dreamed would fall prey to it. (WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green)
Part 3: U.S. intelligence officials confirmed recently that Russia was using disinformation to disrupt the 2020 election process. The sophisticated operation is still underway. (WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green)
Part 4: The ultimate objective of disinformation is to flood the U.S. media with so many distortions and lies, that it's hard to discern what the truth is. Because of disinformation, a frightening scenario is playing out all across the country. (WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green)
Part 5: Security experts are alarmed at the number of elected politicians that have been repeating Russian disinformation. And there is a growing concern that dark or dirty money is at the heart of all it. (WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green)

Truth Decay

Four people were stabbed in D.C. on Dec. 11. The same day, 2,800 miles away in Olympia, Washington, a person was shot.

Angry confrontations took place in other states across the country. The common denominator — clashes between protesters who claimed the election was “stolen” from President Donald Trump and counterprotesters.

Part of the protesters’ motivation appeared to be the claim the election was fraudulent. But the actions of elected representatives may be playing a key role as well.

The Washington Post conducted a survey of 249 U.S. Senators and Representatives on Dec. 2. One of the questions was: Who won the election?

According to the Post, “88% of all Republicans serving in Congress — will simply not say who won the election.”

So why would so many educated people, even after every state has certified that President-elect Joe Biden won the election, refuse to acknowledge him as the winner?

Dr. Christopher Paul, a social scientist at the Pardee School of the RAND Corporation, said it’s the product of “a partisan echo chamber. The kind of information they see is self-reinforcing. It’s called confirmation bias.”

According to Paul, this is how it works: “You say something that may or not be true and someone else agrees with it. So then they are more certain in their beliefs and you are more certain in your beliefs.”

That is one of the key components of Russian disinformation, which, according to U.S. intelligence and national security experts, is at the heart of recent American discord.

One of the narratives that’s been completely repudiated as Russian disinformation, but is still loudly and frequently promoted by some elected members of Congress, is that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.

That, according to Douglas Wise, former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is an unflattering, but important, testament to Moscow’s skill in spewing lies.

“The Russians are very good at disinformation. They are best in class. There is nobody better than the Russians in terms of disinformation,” said Wise.

And after years of research and meticulous dedication to the exploitation of American divisions, Wise said they hit pay dirt with the 2016 operation.

“They knew exactly where the fissures, the vulnerabilities and weakness were in our democratic processes and our democratic structures. They knew the people who would be most receptive and they were able to just incredibly, precisely tailor the disinformation message. The message resonated with them very well.”

Doubt and denigration 

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believed the second wave of Russia’s disinformation operation is what did the most damage.

That phase of the operation involved the crucial component, necessary for Moscow’s disinformation plan to work — the dual headed weapon of doubt and denigration.

Influential Americans, some of whom are politicians, including President Trump, who can persuade others, began publicly doubting whether the election would be fair, long before it took place.

Then, according to former U.S. government officials, some of the doubters started to discredit the very American institutions that have tried to assure them the election would be secure — institutions like the intelligence community.

“I think it’s really important that the intelligence community does a better job educating all Americans, including law makers and other prominent Americans that may end up being manipulated by this Russian disinformation campaign,” said Warner.

But the lawmakers had been told, over and over again, by the nation’s top intelligence officials that it was Russia that interfered in the election and not Ukraine.

On Nov. 21, 2019, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill issued a stark warning to the House Intelligence Committee during President Trump’s impeachment hearing.

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its Security Services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves.”

Hill knew what she was talking about, because she was the leading NSC Russia expert from 2017 until her departure in 2019.

She told the committee, “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.”

Inexplicably, some members of that committee and other elected officials on Capitol Hill continued to promote the discredited narrative.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 1, 2019, said, “The [prime minister] of Ukraine, the interior minister and the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States and the head of the Ukrainian anti-corruption league all meddled in the election on social media and otherwise.”

While Kennedy’s comments appeared to be anecdotal, they mirrored the views of some of his fellow Republicans in Congress — that maybe Russia did interfere, but so did others.

When it comes to figuring out why so many elected representatives perpetuated the discredited narrative, Russia experts believe naiveté played a role.

But they said two other factors need to be considered — dark or dirty money and fear of being politically ostracized.

The Money Trail

Political pressure and personal traits of elected representatives have long been leveraged by Russian agents to try to drive the dissemination of discredited narratives.

The public temperaments of some influential politicians “suggest they could be prone to various approaches appealing to ego, money and even ideologies,” said Laurence Pfeiffer, former chief of staff at the CIA.

But according to Anders Asland, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, there may be a simpler reason why many elected Republicans in Washington may refuse to acknowledge the election results: “They know that President Trump and his private lawyer Rudy Guilani insist on this.”

Another unrelated and even more power motivator for influential people and political causes is often untraceable money, suggested Asland.

“There’s a lot of dark money in U.S. politics going both to Democrats and Republicans. In the 2018 elections, there was more dark money going to Democrats than Republican,” said Asland. As far as the 2020 election goes, “I don’t think we know yet, who got more.”

The dark money injected into U.S. politics follows a very obscure and complex trail. And the place most of it comes from is renowned for it.

“The big investor (of dark money) in the U.S., that we don’t know anything about, is Cayman Island. This is a little Island with 60,000 souls, but 158 banks and it has invested $1.9 trillion in U.S. securities. $1 trillion in stocks and the rest in bonds,” Asland said.

The difficult question to figure out, is who the investors are.

“We have no idea. Because this is almost entirely anonymous money. Quite a lot of it is U.S. tax evasion, but there probably are a few hundred billion dollars of Russian money in it as well.”

Asland said he believed “as much as one quarter of this money may belong to Putin and his friends for the purpose of staying in power and impacting U.S. national security.”

The most significant impact may be yet to come.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), revealed on Dec. 7 that a massive cyber hack of the U.S. government had taken place, impacting more than a half dozen agencies, including the Pentagon and DHS.

U.S. intelligence sources told WTOP, the attack is very likely the work of the SVR, Russia’s equivalent of the CIA. Experts told WTOP, dark money is regularly used by the organization to try to cover its tracks.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2020 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up