For the past three years, there have been two realities in US politics: there’s the world of pundits and cable news, and then there’s the real world.
In the first, Donald Trump is an inveterate traitor kowtowing to Putin, his malevolent lord and master in Kremlin whose control of Trump is just one of a series of diabolical schemes of global mischief and mayhem. In the second, Trump is the most aggressively anti-Russia president since at least the time Bill Clinton annihilated the country’s economy, and presides over a global national security apparatus that itself engages in every kind of behavior that’s supposed to make Putin the world’s premier supervillain.
Case in point: this recent Yahoo! News report, which comes after weeks of renewed Trump-Putin conspiracizing over highly dubious intelligence that the Kremlin may have been paying Taliban fighters bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan. For many commentators, Trump’s seeming refusal to retaliate over this unconfirmed news was part of a long-standing, some would say suspicious, pattern of Trump being soft on Putin, one that, as in this most recent case, puts him at odds with the brave men and women of the CIA.
According to the Yahoo report, however, Trump in fact gave the agency sweeping authorization rescinding previous restrictions on CIA cyber operations back in 2018, which it has since used to launch at least a dozen operations against “adversarial countries” like Iran, China, North Korea, and, of course, Russia. The CIA’s new powers allow it attack countries’ infrastructure, such as cutting off its electricity, go after financial institutions, as well as hack troves of data and documents to leak to the press or dump online, and make it easier to operate against media, businesses, charities, and other entities it thinks are working with foreign intelligence.
“People were doing backflips in the hallways,” one official is quoted as saying in the report.
Now, operations that might have taken years to authorize are planned and approved in a matter of weeks, says the report. And good thing, too: the attacks on financial institutions the CIA is now allowed to do were previously shelved under Obama, because Treasury officials warned they could destabilize the global financial system. It seems we’ll no longer have to worry that mere trifles like possibly crashing the global economy will keep the CIA’s hands tied.
In an added twist, it was, in fact, “the highest levels of the Obama administration” that nixed these operations in late 2016 against Russia as payback for the DNC dump. It was only under Trump and the coterie of neocons he appointed to lead his administration that discussions to release restrictions on CIA cyberattacks gained steam and, eventually, happened.
Reporting like this has been a staple of the Trump era. Even as cable news anchors, pundits, and op-ed writers — usually the same coalition of Democrat-aligned liberals and Bush-era Republicans now collaborating on the Joe Biden campaign — scream over and over about a nonexistent Trump-Putin conspiracy, journalists covering the national security sector diligently report about the latest norm-busting act of aggression with which the administration is antagonizing Putin, from pulling out of critical arms control agreements and aggressively building up US nuclear capabilities, to undermining Russia’s client states and attempting to elbow the country out of the European natural gas market crucial to its economy.
It’s hard to overstate just how at odds this latest report is with the standard narrative that rank-and-file Democrats have been fed by their favorite pundits the past four years. Instead of clashing with the CIA, Trump has recklessly given them broad, dangerous new powers. Instead of bowing to Putin, Trump allowed the US security state to more aggressively attack his interests (even if, as the report makes clear, most of these cyberattacks have been aimed at Iran). And as many commentators have pointed out previously, it was the former Democratic president who has consistently taken a softer — or rather, more sensible — line against Russia, one that his party now overwhelmingly rejects.
Maybe the most amusing irony of all this is that Trump’s easing of restrictions is intended to facilitate precisely the kind of malicious actions that, according to a swath of Democratic partisans, show why Russia is so uniquely evil: hacking and releasing embarrassing information, and attacking other countries’ financial institutions and infrastructure (though the latter was merely a sadomasochistic fantasy on MSNBC). The Kremlin-linked hacking of Democratic emails in 2016 has, absurdly, been compared to everything from a “low-cost, high-impact weapon” to the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center.
Do these superlatives still apply now that the United States is doing the same thing? After all, as one official told Yahoo, “our government is basically turning into fucking WikiLeaks.” The question will never be answered because, like every story that goes against the prevailing narrative about Trump and Russia, it will be entirely ignored.
Of course, none of this is new, anyway. We know from just the Snowden leaks by themselves, let alone reporting on the 2009 Stuxnet virus attack, that the United States has been the pioneer in the realm of cyberattacks and manipulation of cyberspace. According to some reports, the 2016 hacking was retaliation for the release of the Panama Papers, which Russian officials and some experts believe was a CIA operation meant to embarrass the Russian government. What is new is the ease with which Trump has allowed the CIA to embark on similarly reckless actions.
Trump’s order should be seen as the latest success of a campaign waged by the national security state and Democratic officials to push him right on foreign policy, particularly against Russia. Various aggressive actions taken by Trump, such as his 2018 expulsion of Russian diplomats that was notably more expansive than Obama’s, have been clearly designed to put allegations about his loyalty to bed and neutralize the ongoing Russiagate-related attacks against him.
As one analyst said about congressional investigators looking into collusion in 2017, it was part of “a broader effort by people within the national security bureaucracy to box Trump in on Ukraine.” Or as Graham Fuller, former Reagan official and a twenty-year CIA veteran, put it, anti-Trump ex-intelligence officials like James Clapper and John Brennan were “dismayed at any prospect that the official narrative against Russia could start falling apart under Trump, and want to maintain the image of constant and dangerous Russian intervention into affairs of state.”
Trump himself made similar points in comments that, before the Mueller report debunked the collusion narrative, were interpreted as evidence of his ties to Putin. “This artificial Democratic hit job gets in the way,” he said in late 2017, complaining that “people will die because of it.” He famously told the then Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov after firing former FBI director James Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Or just read what Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who repeatedly clashed with Trump while in that position, told the House Intelligence Committee under oath behind closed doors:
The President, on a number of occasions . . . he has brought up the fact that he thinks his job has been compromised by this assertion that he has had collusion. And he has each time said: I haven’t colluded with the Russians, but it is really hampering what I am trying to do. lt is saturating the news, that everything else I came here to do has been compromised over this.
The pressure from the national security state and those of its former leaders who transitioned into cable news talking heads has clearly worked; it has pushed Trump to be more aggressive toward Russia, authorizing steps that Obama refused to allow the CIA to proceed with. Yet no act of aggression by Trump can sate his warmongering critics, because by design it can’t. If his aggressive stance against Russia were ever acknowledged, what leverage would there be to keep pushing him further?
And it doesn’t only work against Trump. This month, at the height of the Russian-bounties-for-American-lives story, the threat of the Kremlin and Russia was repeatedly cited by members of the House Armed Services Committee to approve a bloated military budget and to block Trump’s attempt to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Isn’t it funny that the fearmongering around Russia seems to only push in one direction: more aggressive international policies, arms buildups, and expanded powers for the US national security state? It’s as if a vast bureaucracy of people trained in information warfare and manipulation has very successfully put that training to use.