The British actor Tom Hardy has one of the best lines in the 2011 movie of John le Carré's classic Cold War thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." His character Ricky Tarr, an MI6 "scalphunter" sent to Istanbul to vet a potential defector, stumbles upon a Russian mole at the heart of British intelligence. The KGB is using the mole to feed the CIA fake intelligence from "Source Merlin" — supposedly an MI6 agent high up in the Kremlin — to destroy the Agency's trust in the British. Ricky Tarr tells le Carré's spymaster George Smiley that Merlin's intelligence is in fact just "shit made in Moscow."
This is not simply the stuff of Cold War spy fiction. The Russians have been adept at running what they call "active measures" (aktivnye meropriyatia) to confuse, deceive, and influence the West since the time of the Czars. Operations by the Russian Okhrana to discredit émigré opponents in London form the backdrop for Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent. When the Bolsheviks came to power, their own intelligence services continued the tradition, penetrating and manipulating Russian émigré organizations abroad. One such group, known as The Trust, was used in 1925 to entice Sydney Reilly, the so-called "Ace of Spies", to Russia where he was interrogated and then murdered.
Yet, despite this long history, the full complexity of such operations was not fully understood by the western intelligence agencies until the 1970s. This was when several KGB Active Measures experts defected, and the Soviets undertook operations to thwart the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov and discredit the introduction of U.S. cruise missiles to Europe.
With the election of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as Russian leader, active measures re-emerged as a powerful weapon to project Moscow's influence across the world. This most recently took the shape of an operation to prevent Hillary Clinton becoming president.
Since the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers by the KGB's successor, the FSB, and Russian military intelligence, the GRU, there has been constant speculation of collusion. It has been fuelled by revelations of links between members of Donald Trump's campaign team and Russia, combined with intelligence that in early 2016, Putin ordered an "influence" operation to damage Clinton's election chances and help Trump.
And this was swiftly backed up by the release of reports produced by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 officer who was working with Fusion GPS, a Washington-based political intelligence company hired by opponents of Trump to collect information on his links to Russia. Steele was a member of what the old MI6 called "the Master Race," the Soviet specialists who ran the service during the Cold War. He had extensive sources in Moscow and among the Russian émigré communities in the West. They told him that Putin "hated and feared" Clinton and as a result was determined to prevent her becoming president. The Russian president had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump" as part of a long-term "influence operation," with the FSB feeding Trump's team with information on his political opponents in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
U.S. officials have since confirmed that they detected Russian preparations to interfere with the presidential elections as early as 2014. At that point, the Russian intelligence services would have been developing agents and placing them in areas where they might be useful in the event of a full-blown active measures operation. Some of those contacts would have been what the intelligence services call "unwitting agents," people who could be controlled and manipulated to perform certain roles but would have no idea they were being used. Others were fully aware of their responsibilities and a substantial number were already in place within the United States. These preparations continued through the summer of 2015 with the FSB, which is directly controlled by Putin himself, using the Cozy Bear cyber-criminal group to hack into the DNC computers.
This is the context in which Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was seated next to Putin at a gala dinner in Moscow in December 2015. Two months later, Flynn joined Trump's campaign team. Given that he failed to disclose payments made to him by the Russians and falsely claimed that he did not discuss sanctions with former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, there has been inevitable suspicion over his role. But Flynn has denied collusion with the Russians on the presidential campaign, and no evidence has emerged to demonstrate conclusively that he was anything other than naïve and evasive.
The ambiguity and uncertainty generated by Flynn's links to the Russians typifies the problems faced by anyone seeking to unravel an active measures campaign.
Such operations employ multiple techniques, usually in parallel and completely at random, to seek various ways of achieving the same aims — deception, disinformation, and confusion. This ensures they influence the widest possible audience. The techniques in question include covert action (such as false flag operations) to discredit opponents, and the exploitation of front organizations, either created for the purpose, or co-opted, as appears to have happened here with Wikileaks.
They also include the release of disinformation, fake news, linked to, or interwoven with genuine, easily verifiable facts. The expansion of news and information sources via the internet and the widespread use of handheld devices to access social networks has greatly increased their effectiveness.
One key element of active measures, and this may sound worryingly familiar, is Decomposition (Razlozheniye). It involves destroying the reputation and influence of a target individual, country, or organization. The main method used to do this in the case of a country is to induce internal strife, dissension, or tensions between its leader and various parts of its system of governance.
Active measures make extensive use of agents, many of them, but not all, within the local Russian émigré community. They range from being covert, narrowly focused, subtle and highly effective, to being crude, obvious, and of questionable value. Active measures traditionally include the removal of anyone who stands in the way of the operation, either by blackmail or if necessary liquidation, a process that under Putin has seen a number of people killed, usually by drug-induced heart attacks.
The various threads of the active measures web are overlaid with multiple "denial and deception" operations designed to cover up what is going on or lead investigators away from the real aims. So, Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel appointed to uncover the existence of any links between Trump's campaign and Moscow, has an extraordinarily difficult task ahead of him.
The first real evidence of the active measures came in a relatively low-key way in March 2016 with Trump's announcement, during a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post, of a number of new foreign policy advisors. They included Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both relatively unknown oil industry advisors with limited foreign affairs experience and both, crucially, keen to forge closer relationships between Trump and the Russians.
The appointment of Page was particularly instructive. He has worked with Igor Sechin, chairman of the Russian Rosneft oil company, who spent the 1980s working with the GRU in Angola and Mozambique. Sechin is a member of the Siloviki, the retired Russian intelligence and army officers who used skills developed as spies to become wealthy oligarchs. When the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sechin in 2014, Page defended him as someone who had done more to improve ties between the U.S. and Russia "than any individual in or out of government from either side of the Atlantic." It might seem unlikely that Page, with his links to Sechin and limited knowledge of foreign affairs, was appointed without some form of contact between the Russians and the Trump team, but he has denied any involvement with Russian interference in the election campaign.
A week later, Paul Manafort joined Trump's team, strengthening the potential links with the Russians. Manafort made millions advising former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally who was forced from power in 2014 and fled to Moscow. According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, Manafort also worked for Oleg Deripaska, another of Putin's oligarch allies, on a scheme to "re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government." Manafort has denied ever being "involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration" and dismissed a New York Times report of intercepted telephone calls in which he was allegedly heard talking to Russian intelligence officers as "absurd."
Around the same time that Page and Manafort were appointed to Trump's campaign team, the GRU began using the Fancy Bear cyber criminals to hack into the DNC computers, infiltrating the server and passing emails and other information that was damaging to the Clinton campaign to Wikileaks.
Those revelations, and Manafort's links to people close to Putin, led to widespread concern that Moscow was interfering to help Trump, an obvious truth which the man himself has repeatedly resisted. From the start, he denied any ties to the Russians. "I can tell you," he said. "I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don't have any deals in Russia." Not for want of trying, according to Steele's sources. Not only had Trump repeatedly sought to do business in Russia, albeit without success, he also had a number of links to Russian businessmen based in the US.
The most interesting of these was with Felix Sater, managing director of the Russian-owned hotel group Bayrock. Sater was born in Russia but raised in Brooklyn. He became a stockbroker but was jailed after stabbing a man in a New York cocktail bar with the broken stem of a margarita glass. Before working for Bayrock, he had been involved in a $40-million mafia share scam, fleeing to the safety of Russia before, rather oddly, returning voluntarily to the U.S. to turn informant for the FBI.
Trump worked with Bayrock on two major projects: Trump SoHo, a 46-story "condominium-hotel" which featured in Trump's television show, "The Apprentice," and the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a project which had been dreamed up by Sater. Trump's son Donald Jr. made no secret of where much of the money was coming from for his father's new investments. "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo," he said in 2008. "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."
During Trump's campaign for the Republican nomination, Sater suggested the development of a Trump tower in Moscow and claimed he could get Putin to say "great things" about the would-be nominee. Once Trump came to power, Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko produced a "peace plan" for Ukraine which looked for all the world as it if had been put together in Moscow. They passed it to Flynn, by now Trump's choice for National Security Advisor, via Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney. Sater denied being a middle-man between Trump and the Russians. "I was absolutely not a link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government," he said. "I have no contact with anyone in the Russian government. I just hoped that I could help stop a war."
Cohen, who has business links with Russia and Ukraine, is also a person of interest to the Mueller investigation. Steele's sources claimed that Cohen met Russian officials in Prague in the late summer of 2016 to discuss ways of mitigating any fallout to the Trump campaign from the increasing evidence of Russian interference. Cohen denies attending such a meeting or even traveling to Prague. The information that the meeting took place came from a Russian diplomatic operative's intercepted telephone calls, passed by Estonian intelligence service to the British and then to the FBI. So, Mueller surely knows what was said, but without seeing the actual transcripts, it is impossible to know for sure whether they prove such a meeting did take place. If that meeting — which the media's conventional wisdom says never happened — were to be confirmed, it would be the strongest link between the Russians and Trump yet to emerge into the public domain.
After U.S. intelligence confirmed in January that Putin had ordered the "influence campaign", the Senate Intelligence Committee said it would investigate Russian interference in the presidential election, followed swiftly by the Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. The announcements of further inquiries culminated in May in the appointment of Mueller as Special Counsel to take over the FBI's investigation into the affair.
The widespread acceptance of the Russian interference, and the furious reaction, with the Senate taking a hard line and reinforcing the sanctions imposed on Russia, has led to suggestions that Putin's intervention has backfired. The U.S. and its allies are now aware that the old KGB tricks are back. Putin's Russia will remain in the doghouse for years to come.
This is, frankly, delusional and makes the classic mistake of looking at what your enemy is doing through your own eyes. From Putin's perspective, the active measures campaign he put in place in early 2016 has been a spectacular success. Hillary Clinton was not elected president and the Russian leader has the man who was elected twisting in the wind, raging at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and assorted GOP politicians and White House aides for their failure to prevent the various investigations into the links between his campaign and Russia.
The Trump administration has been paralyzed by the Russian scheming while the reputation of the president both internationally and domestically is at an all-time low and unlikely to recover anytime soon. Meanwhile, the media circle like sharks uncovering various links between Trump or his campaign team and Russia, some of them damaging but others almost certainly overplayed. And the liberal left treats each new revelation as proof that the president was elected fraudulently or even as part of some treasonous conspiracy, thereby assisting in the process of "decomposition" of the credibility not just of Trump but of America's position as leader of the liberal world order.
Trump still seems to see Putin as a friend, berating McConnell for the Senate's strengthening of the sanctions on Russia which he so desperately wants to lift. The Russian president would, of course, be very happy to see them gone, not least because it would again demonstrate his hold over Trump. But the sanctions are a very small price to pay for the invasion of the Crimea, which ensured Russia kept control of its strategically important Sevastopol naval base, home to the Black Sea Fleet. As Trump's reputation has plummeted, Putin's has risen exponentially among ordinary Russians, and just as importantly among the Siloviki. After years of seeing their country's influence decline, Putin has restored it to what they see as its rightful place as a powerful player on the world stage.
Nor are the various investigations certain to come up with the definitive answers that Trump's opponents crave. Steele's reports are far more credible than some have allowed, but it is unlikely that the Russians did not know what he was doing, and probable that some of his material is fake or manipulated and provided by sources under FSB control. In addition, the complexity of active measures is such that at least some of those on whom suspicion has fallen, possibly even all of them, will have been, like Trump himself, "unwitting agents," manipulated from Moscow and moved around like pieces on a chess board.
One of Smiley's real-life equivalents, a senior MI6 officer who operated against the Russians during the Cold War, told me Trump was an ideal "unwitting agent," easily pushed into doing whatever the Russians wanted at any point. "His vanities, narcissism, egocentricity, naivety, sensitivity to criticism, and his desire always for revenge and getting even, as well as his intellectual weaknesses and lack of knowledge of international politics are all factors to be exploited," the former MI6 officer said.
The widespread use of "unwitting agents" and "denial and deception" schemes means that when it comes to unravelling an active measures operation, very little is quite what it seems. The problem for Mueller and his team, as they search for any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, will be sifting the reality from the "shit made in Moscow".
Michael Smith served in British military intelligence before becoming a journalist with the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, and the Sunday Times. His latest book, "The Anatomy of a Traitor," examines how intelligence services manipulate their agents to get them to do what they want.
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