“We have been attacked,” a voice gravely intones before the camera cuts in for a close-up. “We are at war.” The voice belongs to Morgan Freeman, and the dire warning he utters would not sound out of place in one of his cinematic forays into the presidency, perhaps a scene from Deep Impact or Olympus Has Fallen. But no, Freeman tells us, “this is no movie script.” Rather, it is the true story of an ex-KGB spy climbing his way to power in post-Soviet Russia, plotting “a course for revenge” to undermine American democracy through a combination of cyber warfare, disinformation, and fake news.
This is the opening pitch launching the Committee to Investigate Russia, a new non-profit resource created to educate the American public about the dangers of Russia’s information warfare. The group’s funding is murky, but the message is clear: Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 elections was just one battle in an ongoing campaign to disrupt our democracy and sow doubt among our citizenry. The election of Donald Trump, it is implied, was the direct outgrowth of this influence campaign, which if left unchallenged could threaten the survival of American democracy itself.
This is a tellingly exaggerated statement of the problem, maximized for dramatic effect and click-worthiness. But it is also a fitting narrative for this political moment, when the real need to investigate and combat Russian interference has spawned a dubious cottage industry of new organizations and suspect “experts” who have put themselves on the Trump-Russia case.
The Committee to Investigate Russia, founded by an alliance of Hollywood celebrities like Rob Reiner and Never Trump conservatives like Max Boot, is just the latest example. The Trump-Russia scandal has also given birth to the Moscow Project, an initiative by the left-leaning Center for American Progress to investigate the President’s Russia connections. It has spawned breathless blogs like the Palmer Report, which daily stokes the Democratic base with unfounded speculations about Trump’s imminent impeachment. And it has boosted the careers of Twitter conspiracy-mongers like Louise Mensch, Eric Garland, and Scott Dworkin, along with self-proclaimed information warfare experts like Molly McKew.
These individuals and organizations exist on a spectrum: some of them housed in respectable think tanks, others thriving on the paranoid fringes of the Internet. But they have all been guilty, to varying degrees, of inflating the Russia threat and indulging in the worst tactics of their opponents. Russia’s 2016 election interference demands a serious and sober response. What we are getting instead is an uninformed hysteria, empowering partisans and posers alike.
Few embody this trend better than Molly McKew. A former advisor to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and consultant with experience in Moldova and the Baltics, McKew has lately styled herself as an expert at combatting Russia’s active measures. In a series of dire dispatches for Politico this year, McKew has been sounding the alarm, repeatedly warning that we are at war with Moscow and popularizing the notion of an ominous “Gerasimov Doctrine” aimed at winning a hybrid war against the West. (The original coiner of that phrase, the respected Russia analyst Mark Galeotti, has since disowned its opportunistic re-appropriation and misinterpretation by the likes of McKew.)
McKew herself has become a sought-after witness on such matters, most recently testifying before the Helsinki Commission about the threat of Russian disinformation. Her remarks before the Commission last week were characteristically hyperbolic: Russia is conducting “a fundamentally guerilla approach to total warfare,” she warns in one passage, where “information tools are the new superweapons.” Elsewhere, she misleadingly suggests that Russia’s disinformation campaign is mainly conducted in English, rather than in Russian with its nearest neighbors.
But perhaps the most telling exchange came during the Q&A, when McKew suggested that Western journalists and graduate students who specialize in Russia have become Kremlin pawns, contaminated by contact with the country:
You especially see it on social media, the sort of middle rank of sort of Western journalists hanging out in Moscow and others who propagate this narrative of, OK, Russia is bad, but America is worse, and America should know better, so it is much worse. And anything you do to respond to Putin means you’re a Russophobe and it just makes them stronger and proves his point. This is very effective in integrating its way into the American media environment, particularly in graduate students, it turns out, and we just need to be aware of that.
McKew’s warning about the perfidious influence of Russia-based journalists and graduate students rightly upset many in that field, who have more knowledge of the Russian language and more on-the-ground experience than she has. But her straw man logic is also symptomatic of larger and more troubling trend in Trump’s America. Those who profess to be fighting Putin most vigorously increasingly adhere to a playbook that would be familiar to him: smearing good-faith critics as members of a hostile “fifth column” under the sway of a foreign power. And those who place themselves on the frontline of the resistance to Trump are increasingly embracing the denigration of expertise and reckless conspiracy-mongering of their opponents.
This is a process that has been tacitly enabled by mainstream media outlets, pundits and politicians who should know better. Back in March, for instance, the New York Times gave column space to Louise Mensch, an infamous conspiracist who sees the malign hand of Putin behind everything from the death of Andrew Breitbart to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Her specious speculations have been embraced at one time or another by influential cable pundits, Harvard law professors, and U.S. Senators. And whenever she faces criticism for her deceptions, the response is predictable: to charge the critic in question with being a Kremlin agent. (McKew employs such tactics more subtly, only implying that her critics are being paid off by Moscow).
Mensch and McKew may be extreme examples, but even more responsible members of the Russiagate brigade contribute to the credibility problem. Ostensibly independent organizations charged with probing Trump’s Russia connections typically lack the actual Russian experts whose contributions may be most valuable. And their backers seem to have already made up their minds in ways that undermine the impression of impartiality.
For example, an investigative entity like the Moscow Project—housed at a think tank that operates as the Democrats’ policy shop—may have sound methods and vetted sources, but its goals are plainly partisan. The same could be said of the new Committee to Investigate Russia, which despite its broad name seems to define its agenda solely around Trump. These are groups that exist to confirm the prior assumptions of their target audience, not to challenge or complicate them. Nor are they making an especially helpful contribution toward educating the public. The Committee to Investigate Russia website, for instance, is largely an aggregated assortment of English-language news stories about Trump and Russia, combined with a series of sketchy biographical profiles that was riddled with errors upon release.
At best, such efforts confuse rather than clarify, generating misleading expectations and contributing to misplaced paranoia about Putin’s all-powerful influence. At worst, they actively mislead the public and unintentionally reinforce President Trump’s self-serving complaints that the Russian investigations are a partisan witch hunt.
It need not be this way. Russia’s election interference should indeed be thoroughly investigated—by competent journalists and law enforcement professionals, rather than outside groups with transparent agendas. And we should take the threat of Russian propaganda seriously, while still keeping our heads about the real extent of its influence.
Consider, for instance, the current panic over social media networks that spread “fake news” and hosted Russian-made bot accounts during election season. Unquestionably, it is true that Moscow was up to such tricks: recent reports by the Daily Beast show that Russia spent at least $100,000 on Facebook ad buys and created fan pages to organize pro-Trump rallies in swing states like Florida and Iowa. But $100,000 is chump change compared to the vast sums expended on U.S. elections every year, and the Russia-created events only attracted a small handful of supporters. Do these meager returns really constitute an existential threat to American democracy?
In some quarters, even asking such questions has become proof of perfidy. In her recent testimony, for instance, McKew claimed that “some of the most effective Russian disinformation aims to make you believe Russia is weak and disorganized.” McKew offers little to back up that claim, which serves as a convenient crutch for her argument: anyone who questions her assessment of Moscow’s strength can be written off as a useful idiot. Anyone who argues that Moscow’s propaganda organs are less effective than they seem can be dismissed as a Kremlin stooge.
Ultimately, this kind of thinking only serves Putin’s interests, by inflating perceptions of the Russian threat, eroding the ability to have good-faith debates about Russia’s interference, and validating narratives that Moscow is trying to spread abroad. Loose talk of war with Russia reinforces the Russian narrative that the United States is full of bellicose Russophobes. Lazy partisan smears about Trump and Russia only further discredit legitimate revelations among Trump’s base, especially when the conspiracists are welcomed into the mainstream. And the whole racket generates a climate of paranoia, distrust, and suspicion that the most diehard information warriors claim Putin is trying to create in the first place.
Putin may not have intended any of this when he ordered covert meddling to damage Hillary Clinton’s likely presidency. But in the absence of meaningful detente with Trump—which looks less likely than ever—he could do worse than to see the U.S. consumed by Bircher paranoia, this time emanating not from the reaches of the far Right but from the supposedly respectable mainstream center.