The vast majority of counterintelligence cases I worked in the FBI involved a foreign intelligence service (FIS) conducting what we called “perception management campaigns.” Perception management, broadly defined, includes any activity that is designed to shape American opinion and policy in ways favorable to the FIS home country. Some perception management operations can involve aggressive tactics like infiltrating and spying on dissident groups (and even intimidating them), or trying to directly influence U.S. policy by targeting politicians under the guise of a legitimate lobbying group. But perception management operations also include more passive tactics like using media to spread government propaganda—and these are the most difficult for the FBI to investigate.
As the internet renders useless the FBI’s normal methods to counter foreign propaganda, the reach of these operations has increased a thousandfold. In the past, a failure to neutralize a perception management operation would at least be limited by the reach of “traditional,” i.e., paper, media which are practically constrained to a region or paying customers. But social media platforms can reach an almost limitless audience, often within days or hours, more or less for free: Russia’s Facebook ads alone reached between 23 million and 70 million viewers. Without any direct way to investigate and identify the source of the private accounts that generate this “fake news,” there’s literally nothing the FBI can do to stop a propaganda operation that can occur on such a massive scale.
This fact is not lost on the Russians. Like any country with sophisticated intelligence services, Russia has long been a careful student of U.S. freedoms, laws and the constraints of its main nemesis in the U.S., the FBI. They have always known how to exploit our “constitutional loopholes”: The difference now is that technology has transformed the legal crevice in which they used to operate into a canyon. The irony, of course, is that the rights that Americans most cherish—those of speech and press—and are now weaponized against us are the same ones Russia despises and clamps down on in its own country.
Granted, international diplomacy is a lot tougher than cutting real estate deals in New York, and there’s still a lot of time left on the presidential clock to make Trump great again. But half a year into the Trump era, there’s little evidence of Donald Trump, master negotiator. Quite the opposite, in fact: In several very important areas and with some very important partners, Trump seems to be getting the short end of the proverbial stick. The president who was going to put America first and outmaneuver allies and adversaries alike seems to be getting outsmarted by both at every turn, while the United States gets nothing.
Let’s start with the president’s recent encounters with the president of Russia, a man who admittedly has confounded his fellow world leaders for nearly two decades. Apparently without any reciprocal concessions, the world’s greatest negotiator bought into Russia’s plan for Syria, where U.S. and Russian goals are in conflict; ended America’s covert program of support for the moderate Syrian opposition, then confirmed its highly classified existence on Twitter; and had an ostentatious one-on-one meeting with the Kremlin strongman at the G-20 dinner, sticking a finger in the eye of some of America’s closest allies. It’s bad enough to give Putin the global spotlight he craves while accepting Russia’s seriously flawed vision for Syria. But to do so without getting anything in return gives “the art of the deal” a whole new meaning. Trump’s failure to hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the presidential election is the most egregious example of putting Russia’s interests first and America’s interests last, but it’s hardly the whole of the matter. There’s no other way to put it: Trump has become Putin’s poodle. If it weren’t for Congress, public opinion and the media, Trump would be giving away more of the farm on sanctions, Russian aggression in Ukraine and other issues that divide the United States and Russia. That’s not winning; it’s losing.
Just one of our two parties is interested in checking this president’s abuse. The other, the Republican Party, is indifferent, content to tolerate Trump’s misconduct as long as it doesn’t interrupt or interfere with its political agenda. What defined Thursday’s hearing, in fact, was the degree to which Republicans downplayed obvious examples of bad—potentially illegal—behavior and sought to exonerate Trump rather than grapple with Comey’s damning allegations about the president. Sen. James Risch of Idaho, for example, pressed Comey on his claim that President Trump had asked the then–FBI director to drop the investigation into Flynn, suggesting that—because Trump didn’t give a direct order—we ought to ignore the clear subtext of the president’s statement. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma described Trump’s actions on behalf of Flynn as a “light touch.” Other Republican committee members, like Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John McCain of Arizona, steered the conversation toward the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Still others, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, defended Trump’s actions, blasting leaks to the press as efforts to undermine his administration.
Republican committee members were aided in all of this by the official organs of the GOP, which treated the hearings as a distraction—a partisan frivolity driven by Democrats and the press. “Director Comey’s opening statement confirms he told President Trump three times that he was not under investigation,” said a statement from the Republican National Committee that recommended a strategy of deflection. The RNC additionally argued that “Director Comey lost confidence of both sides of the aisle, and the president was justified in firing him.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, commenting on the procedures, defended Trump’s potentially illegal behavior as the mistakes of a novice. “He’s just new to this, and probably wasn’t steeped in long-running protocols,” he said.
James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony, both written and spoken, is evidence of one political crisis: A president with little regard for rule of law who sees no problem in bringing his influence and authority to bear on federal investigations. The Republican reaction—the effort to protect Trump and discredit Comey—is evidence of another: a crisis of ultra-partisanship, where the nation’s governing party has opted against oversight and accountability, abdicating its role in our system of checks and balances and allowing that president free rein, as long as he signs its legislation and nominates its judges.
Americans face two major crises, each feeding into the other. Republicans aren’t bound to partisan loyalty. They can choose country over party, rule of law over ideology. But they won’t, and the rest of us will pay for it.
Não se consegue ainda perceber bem as consequências do ataque que Trump lançou esta noite sobre a base militar síria de onde alegadamente saíram os aviões que protagonizaram o recente ataque com armas químicas na Síria – ainda não foi confirmada a autoria deste ataque, embora a administração norte-americana afirme que tudo indica que a responsabilidade recai sobre Assad e a posição russa seja realmente risível. Alguns começaram já a condenar Trump por trair a retórica isolacionista em termos de política externa utilizada durante a campanha para as eleições presidencias do ano passado, outros afirmam que o ataque desta noite mostra um aventureirismo perigoso.
Eu prefiro sublinhar que Xin Jinping chegou ontem aos EUA para reunir com Trump e que tanto a China como a Rússia têm apoiado a Síria na ONU, o que me faz crer que a acção algo imprevisível de Trump comporta essencialmente uma mensagem para Pequim e Moscovo: há linhas que não podem ser atravessadas mesmo em contextos de guerra e os EUA não vão assistir impavidamente às acções de russos e chineses que atravessam essas linhas ou que apoiam quem as atravessa.
O ataque lançado pelos EUA é cirúrgico o suficiente para ser uma justa retaliação pela acção inqualificável de Assad, mas também, e mais importante, para servir como demonstração de força e enviar uma mensagem a Putin. E não deixa de ser ridículo ver o presidente russo, tantas vezes aplaudido por muitos por decisões imprevisíveis e demonstrações de força que ignoram ou violam o direito internacional e são justificadas por pretextos dúbios recorrendo a argumentos tipicamente utilizados por potências ocidentais, vir agora argumentar que a decisão de Trump viola o direito internacional, é uma agressão a um Estado soberano e prejudica as relações entre EUA e Rússia. Ora, afinal, o que foram as invasões da Geórgia e da Ucrânia, e em particular a anexação da Crimeia, senão provocações da Rússia a todo o Ocidente e agressões a Estados soberanos violadoras do direito internacional?
A utilização recorrente deste tipo de argumentos por Putin, que não correspondem à prática russa, deixa bem patente a duplicidade do presidente russo que ainda vai passando algo incólume, mas a sua utilização no dia de hoje mostra também que Putin foi surpreendido por Trump e não sabe bem, pelo menos para já, como reagir – o que é muito positivo.