The Trump administration will unveil a fiscal year 2018 budget today that includes $1.7 trillion in cuts to major social programs. The plan marks a new stage in a bipartisan social counterrevolution aimed at eviscerating what remains of programs to fight poverty and hunger and provide health care for millions of workers.
The unveiling of the budget underscores the reactionary character of the Democrats’ response to a gangster government headed by a fascistic-minded billionaire and composed of Wall Street bankers, far-right ideologues and generals. The Democratic Party has chosen to base its opposition to Trump not on his assault on working and poor people, his attacks on democratic rights, or his reckless militarism, but on his supposed “softness” toward Russia.
In the political warfare in Washington, the Democrats are aligned with those sections of the intelligence apparatus and the “deep state” that are determined to compel Trump to abandon any notion of easing relations, and instead continue the Obama administration’s policy of escalating confrontation with Russia. As the Democrats and the so-called “liberal” media pursue their anti-Russia campaign, the Trump administration continues to advance its brutal domestic agenda.
Trump’s budget is the opening shot in a stage-managed tussle between the two big business parties over social cuts that will end with the most massive attack on core social programs in US history.
The budget includes a cut of $800 billion over a decade in Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people jointly administered by the federal government and the states. More than 74 million Americans, or one in five, are currently enrolled in Medicaid, including pregnant women, children and seniors with disabilities.
Like the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed earlier this month by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Trump’s budget plan would put an end to Medicaid as a guaranteed benefit based on need, replacing it with per capita funding or block grants to the states.
The AHCA would also end the expansion of Medicaid benefits under Obamacare and allow states to impose work requirements for beneficiaries. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that an earlier version of the Republican plan would result in 10 million people being stripped of Medicaid benefits.
Trump’s budget would also cut $193 billion over a decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, a 25 percent reduction to be achieved in part by limiting eligibility and imposing work requirements.
Welfare benefits, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, would be cut by $21 billion. Spending on the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which benefit mainly low- and middle-income families, would be reduced by $40 billion.
The budget reportedly includes changes in funding for Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program, which provides cash benefits to the poor and disabled.
While gutting social programs, Trump proposes to sharply reduce taxes for the wealthy. In addition to slashing income tax rates for the rich, he is proposing to dramatically cut estate, capital gains and business tax rates. At the same time, he is demanding a huge increase in military spending.
While Democrats will make rhetorical criticisms of the Trump budget, the fact is that the administration is escalating a decades-long assault on the working class overseen by both big business parties.
The outcome can be seen in the reality of social life in America:
More than 13 percent—some 43.1 million Americans—were living in poverty in 2015. Of these, 19.4 million were living in extreme poverty, which means their family’s cash income was less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four. The poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.7 percent.
These are the official poverty rates, based on absurdly low income baselines. In reality, at least half of the population is living in or on the edge of poverty. These are precisely the people targeted by Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicaid, welfare and food stamps.
Almost one in eight US households, 15.8 million, were food insecure in 2015, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members. Five percent of households had very low food security, meaning the food intake of household members was cut. Three million households were unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.
Lack of health care
In 2016 under Obamacare, 28.6 million people of all ages, or about 9 percent of the US population, remained uninsured. Many of those insured under plans purchased from private insurers on the Obamacare exchanges were unable to use their insurance because of prohibitively high deductibles and co-pays. Many who gained insurance under Obamacare did so as a result of the expansion of Medicaid. Trump plans to reverse this, throwing millions of people back into the ranks of the uninsured.
A bipartisan assault
In the wake of Trump’s budget proposal, the Democrats have responded with their standard empty rhetoric. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer—one of Congress’ biggest recipients of Wall Street campaign money—decried Trump’s “hard-right policies that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the middle-class.” Just three weeks ago, Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were hailing the passage of a bipartisan fiscal 2017 budget that cut food stamps by $2.4 billion, slashed funding for education and the environment, and added billions more for the military and border control.
Obamacare paved the way for the present assault on Medicaid and the coming attacks on Medicare and Social Security by further subordinating health care to the profit demands of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and imposing higher costs for reduced benefits on millions of workers.
Nothing less than a mass movement of the working class will prevent the destruction of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, public education and every other social gain won by the working class. But this movement must be completely independent of the Democratic Party, the historic graveyard of social protest in America. That includes left-talking demagogues like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
It is not a matter of appealing to or seeking to pressure the Democrats or any other section of the political establishment. They are all in the pocket of Wall Street.
The working class needs its own program to secure its basic social rights—a decent-paying job, education, health care, a secure retirement. These rights are not compatible with a capitalist system that is lurching inexorably toward world war and dictatorship.
Workers and youth must intervene in this crisis with a socialist and revolutionary program geared to the needs of the vast majority, not the interests of an obscenely rich and corrupt financial oligarchy.
The political noose is tightening around Trump’s neck, and he’s got only one way out: war. The U.S. involvement in the Syrian war is accelerating as Trump’s talons dig deeper into the conflict. If he successfully clutches his prey he stands a chance of clinging to the presidency.
The Democrats, now circling a wounded Trump, will happily feast instead on a rotting Syria: the only thing that can keep the Democrats from destroying Trump is if Trump destroys Syria.
Trump’s strategy is based on how Democrats reacted after his first attack on the Syrian government on April 6th: they paused their toothless “resistance” to celebrate his bombing. Trump, at his most dangerous, exposed the Democrats at their weakest.
Now Trump has struck the Syrian government again: on May 18th U.S. fighter jets attacked the Syrian military in Eastern Syria, from a new U.S. military base functioning inside Syrian territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds, where there are at least 1,000 U.S. active troops.
Although the U.S. media underplayed Trump’s recent attack —— or ignored it completely — legendary U.K. Middle East journalist Robert Fisk explained the significance:
“…what was described by the Americans as a minor action was part of a far more important struggle between the US and the Syrian regime for control of the south-eastern frontier of Syria…”
Yes, the U.S. is already at war with the Syrian government for control of Syrian territory. The U.S. war on ISIS in Syria was never about ISIS, but about gaining a foothold directly inside Syria. Many pundits dismissed Trump’s initial attack on the Syrian government as “symbolic,” when in fact it began a new war. The New York Times confirms the motive of Trump’s war:
“Two competing coalitions that aim to defeat the Islamic State — one [Kurdish and U.S. fighters] backed by American air power, the other [the Syrian government] by Russian warplanes — are racing to the same goal.”
What is this goal?
“…[there is an] urgency among the competing coalitions fighting the Islamic State to be the first in southeast Syria to defeat the group [ISIS] and to occupy the power vacuum that its defeat would leave….Eastern Syria and the area around Deir al-Zour are mostly unpopulated desert, but they have Syria’s modest oil reserves…The area is strategically important to the United States, which wants to stabilize Iraq where it has a long-term military and political investment, and to Russia, which wants to strengthen the Syrian government’s control of as much territory as possible.”
In summary: the U.S. military wants to “occupy” the “power vacuum” left by ISIS, because Syrian territory is “strategically important” to the United States.
The war isn’t about ISIS because the U.S. military isn’t needed to defeat ISIS in Syria, since the group was doomed the day that Turkey decided to close ranks against them — by sealing their border with Syria — instead of openly supporting them as they had for several years.
Consequently, the Syrian government — with Russian and Iranian support — has no problem mopping up ISIS in Syria, and they’re racing to do it first before the U.S.-Kurdish alliance claims the territory for itself.
Establishment Democrats are cheer-leading Trump’s war goals in private, which is why they’re not denouncing them in public. The Democrat-friendly New York Times published a revealing op-ed entitled “A Trump Doctrine for the Middle East?” In it the writer applauds Trump’s war aims:
“Despite the controversies at home, Mr. Trump may come away with a legacy-cementing achievement: a Trump Doctrine for the Middle East…it is false that American ‘soft power’ is the key to stabilizing the [middle east] region. Our ideals, such as promoting democracy, will work to our advantage only if we first restore order — a project that rests on American hard power [military intervention]. What’s more, the use of force is not inherently counterproductive…”
The article explains that Obama’s “soft power” (the Syrian proxy war) failed and that Trump aims to “restore order” with “hard power” (direct military intervention). As Trump’s bombs fall heavier Democrats will scramble to support a wider war that, crazily, increasingly threatens direct confrontation with Russia. The Russian government loudly denounced Trump’s most recent bombing against the Syrian government, and sent more Russian troops to the region in response.
The U.S. war against ISIS in Syria has always been a pretext to undermine the Syrian and Iranian governments. Robert Fisk explains:
“Cutting Syria off from Iraq – and thus from Iran – appears to be a far more immediate operational aim of US forces in Syria than the elimination of the [ISIS] Sunni ‘Caliphate’ cult that Washington claims to be its principal enemy in the Middle East.”
How might this “race to defeat ISIS” end? Trump’s ominous trip to Saudi Arabia gives some insight into the Trump Doctrine. Trump made an enormous arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $350 billion over 10 years, and wants the Saudis to use the money to co-lead an “Arab NATO” [military alliance]. Who will this alliance be aimed against? The Trump administration made it known that Iran was the main target, and thus Syria is the appetizer.
In a separate article Robert Fisk discussed Trump’s Saudi visit:
“The aim, however, is simple: to prepare the Sunni Muslims [the gulf monarchy U.S. allies and others] of the Middle East for war against the Shia Muslims [Iran, Syria, Hezbollah]. With help from Israel, of course.”
This is the real reason Trump prioritized Saudi Arabia as the always-important first stop on his initial trip abroad: Trump is clearly stating his commitment to the totalitarian monarchies, who main priorities are the destruction of its regional enemies: Yemen, Syria, and Iran.
This “Arab NATO” is meant to act as a U.S. puppet army in the way that ‘official’ NATO does in Europe, and the African Union’s “Standby Force” does in Africa, where U.S. allies share the responsibility of repressing neighbor states who defy U.S. interests, i.e. they refuse to abandon their political-economic self determination.
A U.S.-led “Arab NATO” wasn’t previously impossible because the U.S. is universally hated across the Middle East, for its longstanding alliance with Israel combined with its recent annihilation of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The openness in which the Gulf monarchies are trying to form this alliance shows just how distanced from and hated by their own residents, who are prevented from expressing their hatred through elections or public protest.
The Trump-led alliance is especially foreboding because U.S. allies in the region feel deeply betrayed by Obama’s Middle East approach; they want concrete assurances the betrayal won’t be repeated, since U.S. allies risked a lot in regime change in Syria after Obama ensured them that regime change would be a safe bet. Trump’s visit means, in practice, a fresh commitment to Assad’s downfall and renewed hostilities with Iran, nuclear deal be damned.
Trump’s current war strategy in Syria is similar to President Bush Sr.’s experiment in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War: he used a no-fly zone in Kurdish-majority northern Iraq that de-facto partitioned the country, allowing the Kurds to take power where they remain in power today, as an important U.S. puppet. The partitioning of Iraq helped weaken the country prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The Syrian Kurds are now being armed with U.S. weaponry and given similar promises as their Iraqi counterparts received, but the Syrian Kurds are rightfully nervous about their new alliance.
In their desperate fight against ISIS the Kurds have accepted an alliance with the world’s military superpower: the Kurdish homeland is infested with rats and they invited a tiger to deal with the problem; but once the rats are dead the tiger will stay hungry. The Kurds also live next to another starving Tiger, the Turkish Government.
“…[President Trump] give us your word that even after Raqqa’s liberation [in Syria] you will prevent attempts by Turkey to destroy what we’ve built here.”
Of course Trump’s “word” is meaningless (and even this he won’t give publicly). The Kurds are being used as battlefield pawns in a greater game. As Trump aligns with the Kurds in Syria, he simultaneously calls the Turkish Kurds “terrorists,” even though the Turkish and Syrian Kurds are closely aligned ideologically and militarily.
Like all “boots on the ground,” the Kurds are most useful to the U.S. as cannon fodder, while more powerful people profit from the fighting. The political power of the Kurds pales in comparison to their enemy Turkey, whose government has long-term interests (the destruction of the Kurds) that will outlast the short-term military objectives Trump.
The above contradictions are sharpening across the Middle East, nearing the point of yet another explosion. The Trump Doctrine is a flamethrower at a gas station that can instantly spark an even greater conflagration, beyond the horrors we’ve already witnessed across the Middle East. If the Trump resistance movement in the United States doesn’t quickly prioritize a real anti war strategy, there will be little resistance left to speak of as we descend into war.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at email@example.com
On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 presidential election. In offices in both D.C. and suburban Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. But the report in early March was something new.
It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.
As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.
For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.
Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress now believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. And they’ve become more vocal about their concern. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress on May 8.
If that sounds alarming, it helps to understand the battlescape of this new information war. As they tweet and like and upvote their way through social media, Americans generate a vast trove of data on what they think and how they respond to ideas and arguments–literally thousands of expressions of belief every second on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Google. All of those digitized convictions are collected and stored, and much of that data is available commercially to anyone with sufficient computing power to take advantage of it.
That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music. Other algorithms can determine those groups’ hot-button issues and identify “followers” among them, pinpointing those most susceptible to suggestion. Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior.
That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.
In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.
As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.
Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.
What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.
In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin. The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. When bloggers tried to organize nationwide protests on Twitter using #Triumfalnaya, pro-Kremlin botnets bombarded the hashtag with anti-protester messages and nonsense tweets, making it impossible for Putin’s opponents to coalesce.
Putin publicly accused then Secretary of State Clinton of running a massive influence operation against his country, saying she had sent “a signal” to protesters and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations. Former officials say any such operations–in Russia or elsewhere–would require a special intelligence finding by the President and that Barack Obama was not likely to have issued one.
After his re-election the following year, Putin dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering. Russian intelligence agencies funded “troll farms,” botnet spamming operations and fake news outlets as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.
It turns out Putin had outside help. One particularly talented Russian programmer who had worked with social media researchers in the U.S. for 10 years had returned to Moscow and brought with him a trove of algorithms that could be used in influence operations. He was promptly hired by those working for Russian intelligence services, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “The engineer who built them the algorithms is U.S.-trained,” says the senior intelligence official.
Soon, Putin was aiming his new weapons at the U.S. Following Moscow’s April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. considered sanctions that would block the export of drilling and fracking technologies to Russia, putting out of reach some $8.2 trillion in oil reserves that could not be tapped without U.S. technology. As they watched Moscow’s intelligence operations in the U.S., American spy hunters saw Russian agents applying their new social media tactics on key aides to members of Congress. Moscow’s agents broadcast material on social media and watched how targets responded in an attempt to find those who might support their cause, the senior intelligence official tells TIME. “The Russians started using it on the Hill with staffers,” the official says, “to see who is more susceptible to continue this program [and] to see who would be more favorable to what they want to do.”
On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a Sept. 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a DNC staffer. Just before Election Day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor.
Congressional investigators are looking at how Russia helped stories like these spread to specific audiences. Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.
Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.
As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.
The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.
There are plenty of people who are skeptical of such a conspiracy, if one existed. Cambridge Analytica touts its ability to use algorithms to microtarget voters, but veteran political operatives have found them ineffective political influencers. Ted Cruz first used their methods during the primary, and his staff ended up concluding they had wasted their money. Mercer, Bannon, Breitbart News and the White House did not answer questions about the congressional probes. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica says the company has no ties to Russia or individuals acting as fronts for Moscow and that it is unaware of the probe.
Democratic operatives searching for explanations for Clinton’s loss after the election investigated social media trends in the three states that tipped the vote for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In each they found what they believe is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.
The Democratic operatives created a package of background materials on what they had found, suggesting the search behavior might indicate that someone had successfully altered the behavior in key voting districts in key states. They circulated it to fellow party members who are up for a vote in 2018.
Even as investigators try to piece together what happened in 2016, they are worrying about what comes next. Russia claims to be able to alter events using cyberpropaganda and is doing what it can to tout its power. In February 2016, a Putin adviser named Andrey Krutskikh compared Russia’s information-warfare strategies to the Soviet Union’s obtaining a nuclear weapon in the 1940s, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported. “We are at the verge of having something in the information arena which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals,” Krutskikh said.
But if Russia is clearly moving forward, it’s less clear how active the U.S. has been. Documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Intercept suggested that the British were pursuing social media propaganda and had shared their tactics with the U.S. Chris Inglis, the former No. 2 at the National Security Agency, says the U.S. has not pursued this capability. “The Russians are 10 years ahead of us in being willing to make use of” social media to influence public opinion, he says.
There are signs that the U.S. may be playing in this field, however. From 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development established and ran a “Cuban Twitter” network designed to undermine communist control on the island. At the same time, according to the Associated Press, which discovered the program, the U.S. government hired a contractor to profile Cuban cell phone users, categorizing them as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “antirevolutionary.”
Much of what is publicly known about the mechanics and techniques of social media propaganda comes from a program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the Rand researcher, Waltzman, ran to study how propagandists might manipulate social media in the future. In the Cold War, operatives might distribute disinformation-laden newspapers to targeted political groups or insinuate an agent provocateur into a group of influential intellectuals. By harnessing computing power to segment and target literally millions of people in real time online, Waltzman concluded, you could potentially change behavior “on the scale of democratic governments.”
In the U.S., public scrutiny of such programs is usually enough to shut them down. In 2014, news articles appeared about the DARPA program and the “Cuban Twitter” project. It was only a year after Snowden had revealed widespread monitoring programs by the government. The DARPA program, already under a cloud, was allowed to expire quietly when its funding ran out in 2015.
In the wake of Russia’s 2016 election hack, the question is how to research social media propaganda without violating civil liberties. The need is all the more urgent because the technology continues to advance. While today humans are still required to tailor and distribute messages to specially targeted “susceptibles,” in the future crafting and transmitting emotionally powerful messages will be automated.
The U.S. government is constrained in what kind of research it can fund by various laws protecting citizens from domestic propaganda, government electioneering and intrusions on their privacy. Waltzman has started a group called Information Professionals Association with several former information operations officers from the U.S. military to develop defenses against social media influence operations.
Social media companies are beginning to realize that they need to take action. Facebook issued a report in April 2017 acknowledging that much disinformation had been spread on its pages and saying it had expanded its security. Google says it has seen no evidence of Russian manipulation of its search results but has updated its algorithms just in case. Twitter claims it has diminished cyberpropaganda by tweaking its algorithms to block cleverly designed bots. “Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” the company said in a statement.
In the meantime, America’s best option to protect upcoming votes may be to make it harder for Russia and other bad actors to hide their election-related information operations. When it comes to defeating Russian influence operations, the answer is “transparency, transparency, transparency,” says Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He has written legislation that would curb the massive, anonymous campaign contributions known as dark money and the widespread use of shell corporations that he says make Russian cyberpropaganda harder to trace and expose.
But much damage has already been done. “The ultimate impact of [the 2016 Russian operation] is we’re never going to look at another election without wondering, you know, Is this happening, can we see it happening?” says Jigsaw’s Jared Cohen. By raising doubts about the validity of the 2016 vote and the vulnerability of future elections, Russia has achieved its most important objective: undermining the credibility of American democracy.
For now, investigators have added the names of specific trolls and botnets to their wall charts in the offices of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. They say the best way to compete with the Russian model is by having a better message. “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” than the cynical Russian view, says former NSA deputy Inglis. And what message is powerful enough to take on the firehose of falsehoods that Russia is deploying in targeted, effective ways across a range of new media? One good place to start: telling the truth.
–With reporting by PRATHEEK REBALA/WASHINGTON
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Jared Cohen’s title. He is CEO, not president.
So, here we are, a little over one hundred days into “The Age of Darkness” and the “racially Orwellian” Trumpian Reich, and, all right, while it’s certainly no party, it appears that those reports we heard of the Death of Neoliberalism were greatly exaggerated. Not only has the entire edifice of Western democracy not been toppled, but the global capitalist ruling classes seem to be going about their business in more or less the usual manner. The Goldman Sachs vampires are back in the White House (as they have been for over one hundred years). The post-Cold War destabilization and restructuring of the Middle East is moving forward right on schedule. The Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and other non-globalist-ball-playing parties remain surrounded by the most ruthlessly murderous military machine in the annals of history. Greece is being debt-enslaved and looted. And so on. Life is back to normal.
Or … OK, not completely normal. Because, despite the fact that editorialists at “respectable” papers like The New York Times (and I’m explicitly referring to Charles M. Blow and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman) have recently dropped the completely ridiculous “Trump is a Putinist agent” propaganda they’d been relentlessly spewing since he won the election, a significant number of deluded persons, having swallowed their official vomitus (i.e., the vomitus of Blow and Krugman, and other neoliberal establishment hacks) like the hungry Adélie penguin chicks in those nature shows narrated by David Attenborough, are convinced (these deluded persons are) that the Russians are waging a global campaign not only to maliciously hack, or interfere with, or marginally influence, free and fair elections throughout the Western world, but to control the minds of Westerners themselves, in some Orwellian, or possibly Wachowskian fashion. Worse yet, these deluded persons are certain, the Russians are now secretly running the White House, and are just using Trump, and the Goldman Sachs gang, and capitalist centurions like General McMaster, as a front for their subversive activities, like denying Americans universal healthcare and privatizing the hell out of everything.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, check out #MarchforTruth on Twitter, or its anonymous Crowdpac fundraising page, which at first glance I took for an elaborate prank, but which seems to be in deadly earnest about “restoring faith in American government,” uncovering Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, and reversing his “subversion of the will of the people.” The plan is, on June 3, 2017, thousands of otherwise rational Americans are going to pour into the streets “demanding answers” from … well, I’m not sure whom, some independent prosecutor, or congressional committee, or intelligence agency, or whomever is responsible for ferreting out the Putin-Nazi infiltrators that “respected” pundits like Blow and Krugman (and stark raving loonies like Louise Mensch) have convinced them are now controlling the government. Weirdly, these same “respected” journalists, the ones who have been assuring the world that The President of the United States is a covert agent working for Russia, have failed to even mention this March for Truth, and are acting like they had nothing to do with whipping these folks up into a frenzy of apoplectic paranoia.
Incidentally, one of my colleagues contacted Mr. Blow directly and inquired as to whether he’d be vociferously supporting or possibly leading the March for Truth, and was chastised by Blow and his Twitter followers. I found this reaction extremely troubling, and asked my colleague to contact Mensch and suggest she check with her handlers at The Times to make sure the Russians haven’t gotten to him. However, just as he was sitting down to do that, the “Comey-firing” brouhaha broke, which seems to have brought Blow back to the fold, albeit in a less hysterical manner than his Rooskie-hunting readers have grown accustomed to. We can only hope that both he and Krugman return to form in the weeks to come as Russiagate builds to its dramatic climax.
Oh, yeah, and if Russiagate isn’t paranoid enough, apparently, the corporate media is now prepared to deploy the “Putin-Nazi Election Hackers” propaganda in any and every election going forward (as they did in the recent French election, and as they tried to do in the Dutch elections, and presumably will in the German elections, and as The Guardianappears to be retroactively doing in regard to the Brexit referendum). Any day now, we should be hearing of the “Putin-Nazi-Corbyn Axis,” and the “Putin-Nazi-Podemos Pact,” and video footage of Martin Schultz and a bevy of former-East German hookers engaging in Odinist sex magick rituals in an FSB-owned bordello in Moscow. Soon, it won’t just be elections … no, we’ll be hearing reports of Russian shipments of rocks, bottles, and pointy sticks to the “Putin-Nazi Palestinian Terrorists,” and … well, who knows how far they’re willing to take this?
All joking aside, as I’ve written about previously, what we’re dealing with here is more than just a lame attempt by the Democratic Party to blame its humiliating loss on Putin (although of course it certainly is that in part). The global neoliberal establishment is rolling out a new official narrative. It’s actually just a slight variation on the one it’s been selling us since 2001. I could come up with a sixteen-syllable, academic-sounding name for this narrative, but I’m trying to keep things simple these days … so let’s call it The Normals versus The Extremists, (the Normals being the neoliberals and the Extremists being everyone else). The goal of this narrative is to stigmatize and otherwise marginalize opposition to Neoliberalism, regardless of the nature of that opposition (i.e., whether it comes from the left, right, or from religious, environmentalist, or any other quarters).
Now, as any professional storyteller will tell you, one of the most important aspects of the narrative you’re trying to suck people into is to make your protagonist a likeable underdog, and then pit him or her against a much more powerful and ideally incorrigibly evil enemy. During the Cold War, this was easy to do — the story was Democracy versus the Commies, traditional “good versus evil”-type stuff. Once the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the concept needed major rewrites, as a new evil adversary had to be found. This (i.e., the 1990s) was a rather awkward and frustrating period. The global capitalist ruling classes, giddy with joy after having become the first ever global ideological hegemon in the history of aspiring global hegemons, got all avant-garde for a while, and thought they could do without an “enemy.” This approach, as you’ll recall, did not sell well. No one quite got why we were bombing Yugoslavia, and Bush and Baker had to break out the Hitler schtick to gin up support for rescuing the Kuwaitis from their old friend Saddam. Fortunately, in September 2001, the show runners got the break they were looking for, and the official narrative was instantly switched to Democracy versus The Islamic Terrorists. This re-brand got extremely good ratings, and would have been extended indefinitely if not for what began to unfold in the latter half of 2016. (One could go back and locate the week when the mainstream media officially switched from the “Summer of Terror” narrative they were flogging to the new “Invasion of the Putin-Nazis” narrative … my guess is, it was early to mid-September.) It started with the Brexit referendum, continued with the rise of Trump, and … well, I don’t have to recount it, do I? You remember last year as clearly as I do, how, suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, the Putin-Nazi menace materialized, and took the place of the “self-radicalized terrorist” as the primary target for people’s hatred and fear. OK, sure, at first, there were no Putin-Nazis. It was just that the Brexit folks were fascists, and Trump was Hitler, and Bernie Sanders was some sort of racist hacky sack Communist. But then the Putinists poisoned Clinton, and unleashed their legions of Russian propagandists on the gullible, Oxycodone-addicted denizens of “flyover country,” and, as they say, the rest is history.
In any event, here we are now … stuck inside this simulation of “reality” where Putin-Nazi hackers are coming out of the woodwork, a partyless neoliberal banker has been elected the President of France, Donald Trump is an evil mastermind or a Russian operative, depending on what day it is (as opposed to just a completely incompetent, narcissistic billionaire idiot), and neoliberal propaganda outfits like The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, et al., are perceived as “respectable” sources of journalism, as if their role in generating and occasionally revising the official narrative weren’t so insultingly obvious. Personally, I am looking forward to the upcoming German elections this Autumn, wherein Neoliberal Party “A” is challenging Neoliberal Party “B” for the right to continue privatizing Greece (and any other formerly sovereign nations the banks can get their hands on) in a demonstration of European unity, and fiscal austerity … and, you know, whatever.
If this is the Death of Neoliberalism, just imagine what awaits us at the Resurrection.
C. J. Hopkins is an award-winning American playwright, novelist and satirist based in Berlin. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Broadway Play Publishing (USA). His debut novel, ZONE 23, is published by Snoggsworthy, Swaine & Cormorant. He can reached at cjhopkins.com or consentfactory.org.
The political crisis brought to a head by President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is rapidly intensifying, with calls for Trump’s impeachment and threats by the White House to go even further in attacking democratic rights and constitutional norms.
Trump provoked further recriminations from within the political establishment with his tweeted threat Friday, warning that Comey should be careful what he says to the media and to Congress about his private discussions with the president, because tapes of their conversations might exist. This led to immediate responses from both Democrats and Republicans that any tapes could be subpoenaed as part of the ongoing investigations into the conduct of the 2016 elections.
There were unconfirmed press reports of an impending purge within the White House staff, with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen Bannon and press spokesman Sean Spicer all potential targets. As more than one media commentator noted, this would leave the White House staff under the direction of “Ivanka and Jared,” the president’s daughter and son-in-law, making even more extreme the personalist and quasi-dictatorial character of the Trump administration.
Trump fueled such speculation by suggesting that daily White House press briefings might be canceled, to be replaced by infrequent press conferences by the president himself. He refused to allow any White House spokespeople to appear on the Sunday television interview programs after the networks rejected demands that they refrain from asking questions about the Comey firing and its aftermath.
The Washington Post published an editorial Sunday warning that Trump’s conduct “threatened the independence of federal law enforcement and sullied key institutions of U.S. democracy,” adding that “The president injected himself into an investigation where he has absolutely no right to interfere.” While demanding that congressional and FBI investigations into alleged Russian interference in the US election be stepped up, the newspaper published an op-ed column by Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe calling for Trump’s impeachment.
Even more extraordinary were the remarks of retired Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under President Obama. Interviewed Sunday morning on the CNN program “State of the Union,” Clapper had the following exchange with host Jake Tapper after Tapper asked for his response to the firing of Comey:
Clapper: I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally—and that’s the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system. And I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.
Tapper: Internally from the president?
Clapper is no friend of democracy or accountability. By rights, he should be serving a prison sentence for perjury, having denied under oath, during congressional testimony in 2013, that there was widespread US government spying on the communications of Americans. A few weeks later, the revelations of Edward Snowden exposed him as a liar.
If the retired general, who until January 20 stood at the head of 17 agencies with more than 100,000 spies, analysts and agents, now declares that Trump, the nominal commander-in-chief, is a threat to the institutions of the American state, that is a sign of a state machine at war with itself. This is only one step removed from advocating that the military-intelligence apparatus step in to “preserve order,” the pretext invariably given in country after country for coups and military takeovers.
No one should believe that “it can’t happen here.” Both sides in the conflict within the ruling elite are turning to the military as the final arbiter. Trump himself has filled his cabinet with former and currently serving generals in an effort to strengthen his ties with the military. He has repeatedly addressed military audiences while offering his top commanders free rein to order more aggressive battlefield tactics and troop buildups, and promising police similar leeway within the United States.
The Democratic Party is incapable of raising a single democratic principle in opposition to Trump. It has chosen to oppose the president on the basis of the completely reactionary and bogus claim that he owes his presidency to alleged Russian intervention into the 2016 campaign. Its media supporters have followed suit: two New York Times columnists (Nicholas Kristof and Tim Egan) yesterday suggested that Trump may be guilty of treason, while a third (Thomas Friedman) appealed openly to the military last month to carry out a palace coup.
The world is confronting a crisis of historic dimensions in the center of global capitalism. Decades of social and political reaction, unending war and the artificial suppression of class conflict are coming to a head. Wealth and power have been concentrated to an extraordinary degree in the hands of a narrow oligarchy, while the vast majority of the population is driven into increasingly desperate economic straits and deprived of any political influence.
The dysfunctionality of American society is everywhere in evidence. Crumbling roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, deepening poverty and social misery, collapsing schools, the slashing of social spending and private pensions are in their totality the consequence of the subordination of all rational consideration of the public interest to a manic drive for profit.
Social anger among working people—who see the government shutting them out from any access to decent health care, poisoning the water supply in cities such as Flint to enrich speculators and their bribed politicians—is reaching the boiling point. Both parties and all of the official institutions—Congress, the Supreme Court, the media—are discredited. What is unfolding is a breakdown of the entire framework of constitutional government.
If Trump is a rogue president who accepts no legal or constitutional limits on his actions, he only mirrors the conduct of the corporate CEOs, bankers and hedge fund moguls who crashed the world economy in 2008 with impunity, and now reap untold profits while working people suffer the consequences.
There is no way out of this crisis through the existing political framework. If Trump is replaced through the machinations of the Democrats or its allies in the military-intelligence apparatus, the result will be a further turn to the right, an acceleration of militarism and reaction, and potentially a US nuclear war with Russia. Trump himself can prevail only through the mobilization of ultra-right and fascistic elements, both within the military and outside it, with the most ominous consequences for the social interests and democratic rights of working people.
The only way to resolve the political crisis on a progressive and democratic basis is through the political mobilization of the working class. Only the working class, fighting on the basis of a socialist program, independently and in opposition to the two parties of big business and their stooges in the trade unions, can open a new road forward.
Who can sincerely believe that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for any reason other than to thwart an investigation of serious crimes? Which crimes—and how serious—we can only guess.
The suggestion that Comey was fired to punish him for overzealously mishandling the Clinton email investigation appears laughable: Just this morning, Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino gleefully proposed to release video of Hillary Clinton’s concession call in order to hurt and humiliate her—and top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway laughed along with him.
No, this appears to be an attack on the integrity—not just of law enforcement—but of our defense against a foreign cyberattack on the processes of American democracy. The FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian espionage. Trump’s firing of Comey is an apparent attempt to shut that investigation down.
Whether that exactly counts as a confession of wrongdoing is a question that still deserves some withholding of judgment. Trump is impulsive and arrogant. His narcissistic ego needs to believe he won a great electoral victory by his own exertions, not that he was tipped into office by a lucky foreign espionage operation. He could well resent the search for truth, even without being particularly guilty of anything heinously bad. But we all now must take seriously the heightened possibility of guilt, either personal or on the part of people near him—and of guilt of some of the very worst imaginable crimes in the political lexicon.
Now comes the hour of testing. Will the American system resist? Or will it be suborned?
The question has to be asked searchingly of the Republican members of Congress: Will you allow a president of your party to attack the integrity of the FBI? You impeached Bill Clinton for lying about sex. Will you now condone and protect a Republican administration lying about espionage?
Where are you? Who are you?
The question has to be asked of every Trump law-enforcement appointee: In 1973, Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire the investigator of presidential wrongdoing. Why are you still on your job? Where are your resignations?
The question has to be asked of every national-security official: It’s a lot more probable today than it was yesterday that the chain of command is compromised and beholden in some way to a hostile foreign power. If you know more of the truth than the rest of us, why are you keeping it secret? Your oath is to the Constitution, not the person of this compromised president.
The question has to be asked of all the rest of us: Perhaps the worst fears for the integrity of the U.S. government and U.S. institutions are being fulfilled. If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.
Theodore A. Postol is professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a specialist in weapons issues. At the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, he advised on missile basing, and he later was a scientific consultant to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon. He is a recipient of the Leo Szilard Prize from the American Physical Society and the Hilliard Roderick Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he was awarded the Norbert Wiener Award from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility for uncovering numerous and important false claims about missile defenses.
I have been examining the possibility that the April 4 attack in which a number of Syrian civilians and animals were killed, apparently by some kind of poison, hit an ammunition dump as claimed by the Russians. Videos taken on the morning of the attack show explosive debris clouds from four targets that were hit and provide strong circumstantial evidence that this Russian explanation could be true.
One of the clouds is quite distinctly different from all the others. The stem of this debris cloud has a base area that is five or more times larger than the cloud-stem bases of the other bomb debris clouds. The evidence is consistent with the possibility that this debris cloud was created by an initial explosion, followed by a series of secondary explosions. This situation would be expected if the site was, in fact, an ammunition dump.
Evidence of bomb hit on possible ammunition and chemical storage site.
I also have looked up data on poisonous gases that could be generated by the combustion of plastics, and have inspected photographs of the dead and dying from the Bhopal, India, chemical accident of Dec. 2-3, 1984. Many of the symptoms of the victims from the Bhopal catastrophe are similar in appearance to those observed in victims of the attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria.
Images of poisoned victims of the gas release from a chemical pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 2-3, 1984.
In Bhopal, the gases released were not only extremely toxic but also were capable of burning the skin and eyes. The immediate and most deadly effect of these gases was when they were inhaled. The gases reacted with water in the lungs and created a large generation of fluids that caused victims to drown in their own lung fluids. This effect led to some victims showing foaming at the mouth and nose—an effect that can be generated from many toxic gases and is not unique to nerve agents.
There is no apparent evidence of burns from caustic gases in the pictures of alleged victims from the Khan Shaykhun event. However, the case of Bhopal is distinctly different because of a particular pesticide component that was released during the accident. There is no doubt that a simple mass fire that involves plastics can produce very dangerous materials like phosgene, carbonyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and a variety of highly toxic and dangerous organic compounds. One could expect a considerably more toxic release of gases if an ammunition dump was hit, a facility where a variety of chemicals could be stored, including precursors for the production of nerve agents.
Summary of toxic gases that can be created from combusting plastics. Does not include toxic gases that can be created from other materials released in accompanying explosions.
This evidence is not proof that the Russian explanation for a mass poisoning is correct. But given that there is no evidence to support the American alternative explanation—a sarin release from an airdropped munition at a site identified by the White House Intelligence Report—this additional data does provide some information that is relevant to the ongoing discussions on this matter.
Theodore A. Postol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.