As promised, I’m returning to a second post on certain contemporary events. But before I jump into that I’d like to revisit my post relating to Denial and “Back Channels”. I’ve noticed some commentary that attempts to minimize the security implications of having the President Elect’s son-in-law in direct contact with known Russian intelligence contacts (OK, known to American intelligence, if you think for a moment that the Russian Ambassador or the head of any major Russian investment bank is not directly connected to the FSB then you need to do some serious research and I can recommend some good sources – including actual Russian sources on the intelligence function of their diplomatic Residencies).
The attempts at minimization offer up RFK’s contacts with Georgi Bolshokov, including ones during the Cuban missile crisis which may have been of great help in establishing a quid pro quo over American missiles in Turkey (indeed those missiles are what triggered Khrushchev’s paranoia and overreach in his Cuban gambit, I go into that in some detail in Surprise Attack).
So here’s the problem, yes President’s do indeed have back channels and they can be good things. But that implies they are done properly and that’s the rub. In no way were the RFK back channels comparable. First RFK was Attorney General, a principal on the National Security Council and security vetted for extremely classified information. Second, he was in direct contact with the President, was given parameters for his discussion and interacted directly with the President during the exchanges.
In no way can that be compared to what happened with Trump’s son-in-law – although it does raise the question of whether he was acting at his own discretion (which would be really bad) or at the direction of the President Elect (and if so, with what specific instructions).
Now on to those “patriotic Russian hackers” that Mr. Putin appears to find both innocent and even laudable…and certainly shows no indication of attempting to restrain. I’ve also seen posts claiming that no connection between the election meddling and the Putin regime can be proven. To some extent that may be true because deniable in 21st cyber-warfare turns out to be a lot easier than deniability in 20th century regime change and paramilitary operations. However the clues are all there and I can assure you our intelligence folks have far more than they are sharing – for the interim I’d refer you to a number of sources:
For more information I’d recommend Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Hack America, I think he might be a little over the top in certain of his extensions but his detailing of the actual hacking and the participants is about the best we have in the public domain at the moment.
It is true than in the early years of this new type of deniable warfare, a good number of the intrusions appear to have been conducted by nationalist Russian volunteers, encouraged by Putin’s calls for a new era of Russian patriotism – and assisted by actual government training programs and covert outreach by special groups within the FSB (Federal Security Service). Under Putin the FSB became Russia’s senior national security service, the contemporary successor to the KGB.
The use of “patriot attackers” allowed a great deal of deniability for the early cyber-attacks, even those which progressed to more sophisticated practices such as a new form of “kompromat” – the hijacking of targeted government web sites to place specific and compromising information on public figures. But by 2008 the overt Russian military campaign against the nation of Georgia was accompanied by a series of even broader and more sophisticated of cyber warfare efforts, designed to shape the public opinion battlefield and at the same time disrupt both Georgian military and government communications.
And by 2015, a truly advanced Russian hybrid warfare campaign against the Ukraine combined all the elements of cyber propaganda including high level kompromat and active resource disruption (taking the nation’s power grid out of service) with the use of deniable Russian paramilitary units (the “Little Green Men”) in the eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The Russian action proved to be immensely effective, regaining Putin the Crimea and critical Black Sea naval bases – even though it did not restore total Russian hegemony over all of the Ukraine.
With that track record, all the pieces were in place to extend the covert political action to the U.S. elections in 2016, then the French elections in 2017. Forms of “active measures” that the Russians had attempted repeatedly during Cold War, with limited success. But a new century brought them new tools and new opportunities – and if the White House chooses to remain officially in denial, those opportunities can only expand.