Tag Archives: grifters

Schindler Jumps the Shark (Safe for Work Edition)

Christmas came early this year, folks. For quite some time, John Schindler was riding high as the King of the Russia Grifters. This is because unlike McKew, Mensch, Dworkin, or Garland, Schindler actually has a background in intelligence. Sure, someone like Eric Garland can tweet about “This is America” being a Russian propaganda video with subliminal coded messages in the background and there will be no consequences because everyone outside his personal audience of #Resistance wine moms knows that he’s always been a batshit buffoon with zero background knowledge. But a guy like Schindler, who’s taken seriously by other ex-spooks and mainstream media outlets? He’s got a reputation to maintain, right?



Let me tell you, dear readers. When it rains, it pours, and today was a goddamned Biblical flood.

Of course griftshark Molly McKew smelled the blood in the water and had to chime in.


Yes, the idea of a plane crashing at a poorly-equipped airfield in bad weather that had already diverted one plane that day in Russia, a country with a notoriously bad air safety record at the time, seemed “impossible.” This woman has testified to Congress.

So what actual evidence does veteran intelligence operative Schindler come up with? Well not much, as it would turn out. I’m not going to go through this line-by-line but I’ll provide the highlights.

“From the outset, right-wing allies of the fallen president smelled a rat—a Russian rat, that is. Poles know their neighbor well, and Kaczyński had no illusions about Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime. It seemed beyond suspicious that Poland’s government died in a disaster on Russian soil—particularly when the Kremlin is led by a man who came of age in the KGB, the very same people who executed and covered up the Katyń massacre.”

In case you’re not familiar with Schindler, he’s very much inclined to the right. In fact a lot of the stuff he writes sounds like the kind of stuff you hear from American paleoconservatives who tend to love Putin. I get the feeling that Schindler’s only beef with Trump is the Russia ties. But as for the people he’s talking about in Poland, keep in mind these are the same people who claim that Lech Walesa worked with the secret police.

Also, like any good conspiracy theorist, Schindler misrepresents the “official story.”

“However, investigators determined that the crash occurred due to a chain of human errors and could be explained without nefarious mystery. Russian and Polish official inquiries into the disaster, both published in 2011, were not in complete agreement, yet they broadly concurred that pilot error was to blame. Both reports asserted that Smolensk, a military airfield lacking modern civil navigation aids, was shrouded in dense fog that fateful morning and, on the approach, the pilot (who was overtaxed by managing the landing and radio contact with the Smolensk tower simultaneously) misjudged the glide slope and flew the Tu-154 into a forest a half-mile short of the runway. After hitting a birch tree with its left wing, the aircraft spun and flipped on its back, hitting the ground with sufficient force to kill all passengers on impact.”

Here there is an important detail Schindler is leaving out, one which is substantiated by audio longs from the cockpit recorder. It seems that the possibility of diverting to another airport due to the low visibility may have been discussed in the cockpit. The crew decided not to, presumably out of fear of angering the president after a similar incident in 2008. Now I suppose you can doubt that was a factor, but you shouldn’t leave it out because it is significant.

Next Schindler talks about the handling of the investigation on the Russian side:

“Even more embarrassingly, the Kremlin was remarkably slipshod in its handling of the dead. Sent home in sealed coffins, many of the bodies had been swapped or misidentified. In 24 cases of reexamination in 2016, half of the coffins opened contained the wrong remains. Even the coffin of President Kaczyński included the remains of two other victims. Such carelessness inevitably led to questions about what else the Russians had mishandled—or worse.”

First of all, a lot of this can be explained in two words- It’s Russia. They don’t have a great record on handling accidents and disasters like this. It’s amazing Schindler doesn’t take this into account. I mean he seems to realize that Putin is a dictator presiding over an extremely corrupt authoritarian society, right? That kind of society naturally leads to things like bodies being mishandled and investigations getting botched.

Do I think Russian authorities may have deliberately held back some things? Of course. Even though relations were better back then, Putin, his inner circle, and his security agencies still had a paranoid mindset. No doubt they saw this as a source of potential embarrassment and probably suspected that if they turned over certain evidence the evil Americans would use it to concoct some kind of “provokatsiya,” as they like to call everything. So by holding things back they may have risked looking guilty of hiding something, but in their minds they denied their enemies some major propaganda material.

Also, it’s very important to note that when the Russians are behind something, their standard tactic is to start putting out dozens of alternative explanations in order to muddy the waters. We saw it with MH17, with the Salisbury poisoning, and now with the Douma chemical attack. The fact that Russia’s actually stuck to the same story in this case suggests they might actually be innocent in this case (apart from having a dismal air safety record).

And speaking of stories, Schindler only tells us one version of Law and Justice’s assassination story, the one that involves bombs being on the plane. Now to be fair, his reasoning is that a veteran air crash investigator claims to have found evidence of an explosion inside the plane prior to the crash. However, that’s not the only theory that’s been floated. For example, one version seriously alleges that the Russians may have used “artificial fog” near the airport.

Throughout the article Schindler puts the term conspiracy theory in quotes. For you newbies out there, if someone is continually complaining about the hypothesis they advance being dismissed as a conspiracy theory, it’s quite possibly a conspiracy theory. And before we take this conspiracy theory apart, let me remind you that this particular theory alleges not only a conspiracy involving Russia, but also with the Polish government at the time. So yeah, it’s a conspiracy theory.

First let’s start with the problem of motive. I typically hate these qui bono arguments because they are as weak as they are incredibly easy to twist and manipulate. That being said, Russia had absolutely no reason to assassinate the president of a NATO country in 2010. Sure there was the Georgian War in 2008, but 2010 was well within Obama’s “reset,” rising American investment in Russia, and pre-Magnitsky Act. Putin had officially stepped down to become prime minister, making him look far less dictator-y than he would in 2011 when he announced his plan to return to the presidency after changing the constitution. This is also the era when visa-free travel to the EU for Russian citizens was being seriously discussed. The South Stream pipeline as in the works, Viktor Yanukovych was in power in Ukraine. The West was still happily accepting boatloads of dirty money from Putin’s cronies. Why screw all that up?

As I already pointed out, however, motive arguments are often weak, either way, so let’s look at the concrete facts. Dismissing the idiotic artificial fog machine claims let’s look directly at the bomb-on-plane version Schindler goes with. Schindler’s best evidence is that the guy saying he found evidence of an explosion prior to the crash is a well-known air crash investigator. That’s great but people with credentials get things wrong all the time. One of my personal role models, James Randi, has spent the better part of his life duping scientists or watching scientists get duped. According to Randi, there are several reasons why this happens, one of which is that people with expertise and a lot of experience often have trouble admitting when they made a mistake. For example, you could be a veteran member of some US intelligence agency, and then, possibly because it helps your career, start endorsing the idiotic conspiracy theory of an authoritarian, far right party led and supported by delusional idiots. It could happen.

Here’s a video of Schindler’s expert telling Polish authorities his opinion. It appears he’s giving his opinion based on what he was shown by them, and it’s not clear what exactly he was shown or how it was presented to him:


Whatever he saw, there are huge problems with the bomb theory. First of all, I’d imagine security for the Polish president is more or less as tight as it would be for any number of world leaders. Would the Russians seriously think they could get a bomb on the plane, undetected, in Warsaw?

More importantly, the weather around Smolensk was very crucial- you can’t have the president’s plane just exploding in mid-air on approach. Someone could catch that on a phone camera. Some eyewitness would talk. So how could the Russians be sure the visibility would be so poor at that airport at that time? Russia is known for having very unpredictable weather. Also, how did they know the pilot would not divert? How would they have activated the bomb then? If you claim it was on a special timer, how could they be sure the plane wouldn’t be delayed in Warsaw? Or that it wouldn’t divert to Moscow, or that it wouldn’t land quickly on its first attempt in Smolensk and then blow up on the ground in front of media cameras? The plane exploding in air, on the ground, or pretty much anywhere else except where it actually crashed would blow the whole thing wide open.

Also, we know very well that Russia has a much subtler way of eliminating opponents- poison. Wouldn’t President Kaczynski probably eat at some point in Smolensk? Poisoning would be a far safer bet. Oh what’s that you say? Poisoning would have led to suspicion? Well his fucking plane crashing in the fog led to a bunch of conspiracy theories so what’s the difference in that case?

A lot of Poles joined in that Twitter thread to drag Schindler for his antics, but being a veteran intelligence operative, he was able to fend them off using the finest tradecraft:

And of course there’s the time-honored rhetorical tactic that is definitely not used by conspiracy theorists:

Kremlin POV, “just asking questions.” Classic.

If I seem harsh on these people you need only to look at these two responses. See I spent some time living in a dictatorship where people who question the authorities are often accused of working for foreign intelligence agencies, where everything that goes wrong is a vast Western conspiracy, and where you’re told you can never really know what happened. In other words, I lived in a place run by John Schindlers, and it kind of sucks. It’s literally destroying that country and to be honest I don’t see too much hope for it.

Schindler, McKew, and all these other authoritarian grifters are basically building an American version of the paranoid Putinist mentality. And what’s worse is that decision makers just eat all this up because it’s exactly what they want to hear. Democrats losing all over the country? It’s the Russians! No need to change your weak-ass platform or campaign strategy! People upset about a pipeline or police brutality against black Americans? It’s just the Russians getting them riled up through Facebook! No need to actually engage with the American people and actually solve anything.

I cannot overestimate the danger of allowing this kind of paranoid, conspiratorial attitude to spread further than it already has in this country. Once you’ve lowered yourself to the Kremlin’s level, they’ve got you. That’s when they can tell everyone: “You see? They’re no better than us.”

That’s how they win.

Escape from Shawshank (of Stupid)

It’s been a couple days and I’m still overwhelmed by the stupidity that flows from the new think tank called “Investigate Russia.” As is the case with all charlatans in this internet age, the best its defenders can come up with is “LOL THEY MAD!”

Incidentally, that’s basically the same selling point RT uses– they show quotes of American and other Western politicians ranting about RT or Sputnik, and say “Look! We must be accomplishing something!” Then at some point they show Putin or someone from his administration and RT and Sputnik get another massive infusion of cash (much of which no doubt disappears into the pockets of the people at the top).

I don’t know where to begin or end with this idiocy, so I’m going to put forth some of my main points in no particular order.

First of all, I find it funny when some of these people scoff at their apparent lack of Russia expertise. After all, was it not the centrist types who bemoaned the lack of respect for expertise when it comes to issues like Brexit or Trump? Was not the failing of the American people in 2016 a failure to know and acknowledge the facts about politics, the economy, and so on? But of course when it comes to waging information war against a resurgent Russia that is supposedly using an innovative new hybrid war doctrine- who needs experts?

Another thing I find annoying is the willful blindness towards the state of American politics that these people seem to encourage. There is nothing I hate more than someone pretending not to know about events that happened in recent memory for the sake of making a partisan political point. We all know Republican voters, for example, who voted for George W. Bush twice, but called Hillary a “warmonger” in the last election. Many of those same people also pretended that the American economy was doing just wonderfully until Obama got in office (they forget that the crash happened in 2008, whereas Obama wouldn’t be president until January of 2009, and thus inherited all that).

Now what we’re seeing is Democrats or their sympathizers talking about how Russia has sowed discord and polarization into our political discourse starting in the last election. Did these people all just forget that even before Obama was elected president, right-wing media was calling him a Muslim extremist, a foreign-born citizens ineligible for the presidency, a Marxist, and a fascist? Did they forget that back in the early 2000’s, questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq was enough to get you labeled a traitor and, by some people, an “enemy of the state?” Please, centrists- tell me when you think American political discourse wasn’t incredibly polarized.

I’m sure some people with an academic background in American politics could show that it has ever been thus (our polarization today pales in comparison to the period running up to the election of Lincoln in 1860, for example). But if I’m trying to be practical and keep it relevant I’d say that what we see today is an outgrowth of 9/11. If 9/12 was the day we all came together, it seems like 9/13 is the day we decided that half the country was either going to nuke the world (Republicans) or surrender vast swathes of territory to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda (Democrats). It all went downhill from there. Back in the 90’s, talk about black helicopters and invading UN troops was fringe theory you would only hear at gun shows. By Obama’s election it had become mainstream.

And yet Team Anti-Deza and its legion of fans (who seem to be die-hard Hillary supporters still hoping there’s a magical way to overturn last year’s election) seem to be sincerely acting like they don’t know about any of this. They act as if none of this stuff was a big deal until last year, when they heard about RT and Sputnik for the first time in their lives. They actually seem to think that a significant amount of Americans might have switched their political views based on $100,000 worth of Facebook ads. I guarantee you that anyone who saw those ads reacted with “Yep! That’s old Crooked Hillary alright!” or “This is Republican bullshit!” and moved on. That’s where we were at that point, and that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

I’m starting to get tired of writing about this topic so I’ll sum up with something I alluded to in a thread on twitter the other day. Yes, Russia is waging an information war against the West, though not for the reason most people think it is. Defending against information war isn’t like defending against a conventional war. It’s more like counter-insurgency, perhaps even more complex. Imagine a war in which shooting the enemy actually makes them stronger unless you manage to shoot them precisely in the back of the kneecap or their right elbow. In such a scenario, it makes no sense to line up machine guns and pour into the enemy with a hail of lead. Information war requires nuance, deliberate strategy, and indirect approaches (OMG GERASIMOV DOCTRINE!!!). But what it requires most of all is something I’m afraid US leaders don’t want to countenance, and it might explain why they’re always going to be more amenable to listening to the likes of McKew or Max Boot.

Speaking for America, our politics have devolved to where they are now because for decades, both parties have shown almost open contempt for their constituencies. The Republicans openly praise policies which fork over more public resources to the super-rich and leave Americans destitute, while the Democrats assure us they’re very upset about all that but any attempt to change the system would be essentially demanding a multi-colored flying pony. In the 1990’s, the GOP decided to go full culture war, making anyone who disagreed a degenerate traitor. In the same election the Democratic party, under the leadership of Bill and Hillary, happily threw the working class under the bus and embraced all manner of neo-liberal policies as well as “compromise” with the Republicans. In 2016 we could see the disaffection on both sides. Trump’s victory in the primary was a revolt against slavishly pro-business policies; GOP voters wanted a politician who spoke like the talk radio pundits they listen to on the radio, the people who get them fired up. Democrats also rebelled by voting for Sanders, but the Clinton machine won and, contrary to the abject lies of some of her supporters, the overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters held their nose and voted for Hillary (much more than Hillary supporters who voted for Obama in 2008). And though Trump won, I get the feeling that nobody in America at this point is really satisfied with the result.

I look around at my old city, and while I see improvements, I also see ominous signs. A centrally-located shopping mall that used to be the mecca of my youth is now dying. On one street I see block after block of stripmalls with just a few businesses open- the rest are just vacant, their tenants long gone. We’re far from Rust Belt level degeneration here, but when I left this was one of the fastest growing cities in the US. These conditions, especially when paired with a political system that seems openly disdainful of the population, build anger, resentment, and cynicism. Here we have fertile soil for Russian propaganda to take root. Or if you prefer another analogy I’ve made in the past- our immune system has been compromised, allowing the virus to spread.

Our media is also contributing to the rot. It pretends to care about the issues I raised above, but instead they blamed poor working whites for Trump when in reality it was largely middle to upper-class whites who supported him. This message just tells rural and working class whites that they are to blame, that they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them, and that they’re basically beyond hope because their cities and towns are dying with no solution in sight (Hey! Just learn to code!). And after the media moved on from the poverty porn, they went into full Russia! Russia! Russia! mode. Do you have any idea how infuriating it is for a working class American who’s concerned about the state of the country to turn on the TV and see endless babble about Russia? You might as well be talking about Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe. Yes, Russia did interfere with the US election, and yes there are serious improprieties in the relations certain members of Trump’s campaign had with Russians, but this is one story. I’d also argue it’s one part of a much larger story about the influence of money in politics and the way capitalism puts profit above things like ethics.

Now this might seem like a digression, but everything in those three preceding paragraphs goes to explain why our governments prefer to listen to people like McKew and not people who actually know what they’re talking about. The McKews, the Schindlers, the Mensches- they don’t tell the government they have to change. It’s basically perfect the way it is. Russia is just a foreign policy issue- and American foreign policy can never actually be wrong, only misguided. According to their narrative, America has every right to cry to the world about Russia interfering in its election without ever acknowledging that the US has a long history of doing this same thing, often more egregiously and with fatal results, without apologizing for this behavior, and without voicing a commitment to ending this kind of foreign policy all around.

And what about the polarization of American politics? It’s certainly not the fault of the Republican party’s long history of courting extremist groups and conspiracy narratives. It’s certainly not the fault of the Democrats continually throwing their constituency under the bus, breaking promises, and lecturing their voters about how real change isn’t possible so they should be satisfied with means-tested unpaid internships in New York City-based startups. No- American political discourse was totally rational and refined until RT showed up. This is what our leaders want to hear; it absolves them of both guilt and any responsibility. The Russia grifters are basically selling miracle diet pills to people who don’t want to get up off the couch and stop eating junk food all day.

Whatever these grifters peddle as solutions, you can bet they’ll have nothing to do with improving American education, healthcare, or living standards. If anything we’ll probably see some Silicon Valley-sourced bullshit like an AI algorithm designed to “fight Russian fake news on social media,” but which inevitably ends up weeding out countless stories which are factual, yet critical of US foreign or domestic policy. Beyond that, we’ll probably see a whole plethora of fact-checking sites which will basically be copy-pasting stories from already existing fact-checking sites, as if anyone who believes Soros is funding antifa to start a civil war in order to justify a UN military invasion is going to be swayed when a government-funded website tells him that story is confirmed “FALSE.” This is the kind of idiocy our politicians will happily piss away our tax dollars on. That and salaries for grifters, of course.

And naturally, the grifters are easily spurred to anger when someone endangers their grift by questioning their expertise or their claims. So expect to be labeled pro-Russian or worse, a Kremlin agent, if you question any of these people. Meanwhile the real Kremlin agents will continue having a field day making fun of these grifters, picking that low-hanging fruit, and using their idiotic output as material from which to weave their narrative about “Western Russophobes and their paranoid hysteria!” This is largely why the entire Russian state press is apparently laughing their asses off about the Morgan Freeman video.  This is also why I suggest Team Anti-Deza ought to be labeled for what they actually are- unpaid Kremlin PR.

Rise of the Russia Grifter Class

If you ever need a quick example of how capitalism does not, in fact, direct resources to the best possible uses, you need look no further than the massive self-help or management consulting industries. Largely unregulated, any silver-tongued charlatan can hawk some kind of psychological snake oil and millionaires if not billionaires will bury them in piles of money. Product development is pretty easy. Just come up with deep-sounding platitudes, common sense advice repacked in your own unique way, folksy wisdom, and of course, counter-intuitive “facts.” The efficacy of what you’re selling cannot be easily measured, so the only way you’re going to fail is if your audience gets bored.

Those who peddle this bullshit may go by many names- consultant, guru, therapist, pundit, lobbyist. But there is a much more appropriate term for such people- grifters. We live in a world that is rife with inequality and arbitrary or unjust authority. As such, those with power require the services of those who help justify something that cannot be justified with logic or concrete evidence. They need people to reassure them that they are wise, politically savvy, and morally upright. They need these people as much as they need lawyers, courts, the police, etc., and for the same reason- they perpetuate and sustain the conditions of capitalism. Of course when we speak about the grifters this way it is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, the grifters themselves have agency and they are basically entrepreneurs trying to survive in a market society. But this doesn’t change the fact that they are peddling bullshit because the market actually demands, nay requires, a lot of bullshit to keep running.

Since 2016 we’ve seen the rise of a new grifter class, the “Russia expert” grifter. To be sure, they started to appear around 2014, when Western politicians suddenly realized that the Kremlin is hostile to their interests (because there was literally no way to notice this prior to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas). However, 2016’s big story about Russian meddling in the US presidential election signaled to grifters everywhere that there was money to be made in the Cold War 2.0.  Enter the instant Russia expert.

Probably the best examples of this would be Eric “Game Theory” Garland and Louise Mensch. The latter, being a politician, is a natural grifter. As for Garland, he’s some kind of management consultant, which means he’s definitely skilled in the art of bullshit. But for every big-name grifter you already know, there seem to be new ones popping up left and right. What are they after? Grants? Cushy think-tank jobs? More media exposure to hawk their services? And what services, specifically?

It seems that one new mutation of the instant Russia expert (often identified by a total lack of Russian language knowledge and/or significant experience in Russia) is the Russian propaganda expert. This is someone who claims to have special insight or expertise into Russian “information warfare” techniques. Since the US and EU both seem interested in some kind of counter-propaganda (because it’s relatively cheaper than actually fixing the problems that make them vulnerable to that propaganda in the first place), there’s definitely money on the table.

How do you know you’re dealing with one of the new Russia grifters? Well one thing to look for is an utter lack of new insight or revelation in their writing. Most of the time they are just rehashing others’ work. There’s never any meat to their explanations- it’s just safe predictions or blatantly obvious observations. For a case study look no further than this piece by Brett Bruen, for The Hill.

The first thing we need to look at is Bruen’s bio, which I quote in full here:

“Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.”

Hmmm… Solid academic credentials no doubt. But notice anything missing there? Russia? Eastern Europe? Europe? Now apparently he has diplomatic experience, but given that Obama’s foreign policy was not much better than previous administrations, I’m not going to be automatically cowed by that CV. The biggest warning sign is “D.C.-based consulting firm.” I smell a lobbyist. But let’s not judge too quickly. Let’s see what insight this guy can give us into Russian information war in the near future.

“Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.”

What does kicking it into high gear even mean in this context? When exactly was it in low-gear? How do we even measure this? While Russian election meddling has had very mixed results, we can only assume that those responsible for Russia’s information war prefer to keep their lucrative positions, and will thus continue to fight for funding. Does this mean they’ll increase their activities? Maybe not. They may decide to use more subtle, efficient tactics. They may jettison a lot of poorly-performing propaganda techniques to focus on those which get more attention. Basically this prediction is meaningless.

“First, the congressional races are an even easier target.”

Are they, though? First of all America’s House of Representatives is largely the product of massive gerrymandering back in 2010. In general, Congress as a whole has a very low turnover rate. If actual American candidates have such a hard time challenging incumbents, how will the Russians challenge them? There’s also the question of why Russia would even attempt to influence the outcome, but of course Brett has an answer for this.

“Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted.”

Oh right! The Senate passed that bill to increase sanctions on Russia and require congressional review for any presidential proposal to remove or ease the sanctions! That’s it! The Russians will want to influence the midterm elections in order to get people into Congress that would approve of Agent Trump’s efforts to remove sanctions! It’s so simple!

Oh wait a minute…That recent sanctions bill passed the Senate with a vote of 98-2. Looks pretty bipartisan to me. The Magnitsky Act, arguably the first sanctions against Russia, was also a bipartisan move. The majority of Republicans seem more than happy to pass sanctions on Russia, and you know the Democrats are game since the party’s elite is still convinced that Russia is totally responsible for ruining last year’s planned coronation.

Now given these obvious facts plus everything I’ve already pointed out about incumbents, low midterm turnouts, and gerrymandering, tell me exactly who Russia is going to back in 2018. They’re not going to have a pool of Dana Rohrabachers and David Dukes on whose behalf they can intervene.

Let’s also not forget that apart from this new sanctions bill, foreign policy is typically the domain of the president. Therefore it would be extremely difficult for the Russians to even figure out who they should support, assuming they could even find a significant number of useful candidates (and they won’t).

Moving on…

“Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.”

There’s a lot of people in high-up Russian circles who would definitely, if not publicly, dispute that “unmitigated success” characterization. For one thing, Americans were clearly capable of making American democracy look like a circus- just look at the Republican primaries alone. But while the Russians have definitely scored from the outcome of the election (and keep in mind nobody has come up with convincing proof that Russian meddling had more impact than poor campaigning or other domestic factors), they also stand to lose a lot. As Mark Galeotti has pointed out time and time again, Trump is unpredictable, and Russia’s biggest advantage was the predictability of its opponents. The continuation of sanctions and the surprise cruise missile strike on Syria were just two examples of how Trump’s unpredictability is a major headache for the Kremlin.

“The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.”

Oh hey, why am I quoting this paragraph? No reason other than to show that it is utterly superfluous. There is nothing of value in it whatsoever.

“The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious.”

Eeeehhhh…No. It’s actually quite the opposite for the reasons I pointed out above. See the Kremlin has to have candidates it wants to win in order to properly interfere in the election. See Wilders, Le Pen, etc.

“Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news.”

Huh? Who assumes that people in small towns get most of their news only from local outlets? Big cities have local outlets, and people in smaller towns and cities still have internet, cable TV, etc.

“The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated.”

What exactly is this based on? Local journalists have often uncovered serious scandals, often better than those working for big corporations with no local expertise and a shoestring budget.

More importantly, manipulating the news at this level might arguably be much harder, because smaller locales have a more tightly-knit community. Pizzagate, a ridiculous conspiracy theory that was cooked up by American morons on the internet, got traction because it centered around a restaurant in a hipster-ish (or so I’ve read) area of DC, a major city where many Americans have never been (I, for example, have only been to the airport for a short layover). Now just imagine someone trying to manipulate the local Smallville Weekly Examiner with a story claiming Ma and Pa Walton’s Country Home Family Diner is running a secret child sex-trafficking ring. As stupid as the Pizzagate conspiracy was, it’s much easier to believe terrible things about people when they are faceless others living far away in places you’ve never been.

There’s another problem with trying to manipulate local media and interfere in congressional races- first of all there’s a lot of them, and second, there are a lot of local issues to learn about. One thing we’ve seen with Russian trolling efforts is that they are often laughably poor. Casey Michel on Twitter has often provided numerous examples of the hilariously bad English seen on a pro-Russian “Texas separatist” Facebook page, for example.


“Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.”

Again I’m forced to ask how they’re supposed to get around the gerrymandering issue and who are they planning to back, because so far this looks like a pretty shit plan to me. It’s important for me to point out here that I’m not saying they won’t try to interfere in the congressional elections. I can even see the value in interfering simply to cause disputed elections and more domestic chaos. But the author is clearly implying that the Russians will try to interfere with a specific goal of achieving certain outcomes and he has ignored so many basic features of the 2018 elections that if I hadn’t read his bio, I’d assume he was a foreigner. Russian perhaps?!

So far what we have here is something that was clearly intended to sound like analysis, but which is utterly devoid of any real content and utterly lacking in any sort of insight. It would have been much better if he’d just written “They interfered in the last election and they’ll probably keep doing it because it causes a lot of problems.”

“Having coordinated America’s first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I’m all too familiar with how they work.”

I feel like if this is what his background is, I should have at least heard of him so far. In any case, Europe and America were way behind Ukraine in countering this propaganda. Furthermore, much of the counter-propaganda effort has boiled down to nothing more than fact-checking. While this is useful, it doesn’t really do much to rollback the effects of the propaganda. The main reason for this is that the West has no suitable counter-narrative. They don’t even seem to think a counter-narrative is even necessary, beyond some platitudes about human rights, democracy, and a “rules-based order.” But that’s a topic for another article.

In any case, being in charge of such a new effort doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. In this case I’d actually argue that I have more expertise with such propaganda having been in several target audiences for Russian propaganda, plus my experience in Russia and my connections who work or used to work in the Russian state-run media.

“The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts.”

Tradecraft! One hundred intelligence points awarded!

Seriously though, is the successful manipulation of facts really an exclusively Russian propaganda feature? This is one of those cases where it is definitely not whataboutism to say that tons of actors, from politicians to pundits manipulate facts. If anything Russian propaganda, in certain contexts, is unique in the sense that it will often totally invent stories almost out of thing air, and then continually repackage them until you can’t easily determine the original source and thus can’t tell whether they are real or where they came from. Even this is not terribly original. I’d say the most unique thing about Russian propaganda is the fact that they will do this often with very poorly concocted stories which are easily debunked. They seem to believe there is some value in the continual use of such poorly constructed stories.

“They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race. “

Here there is some truth to this, but what is new or insightful here? What do we learn from this? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said by plenty of people for the past two or three years now. Also he’s ignoring how much of RT’s content actually comes from mining Western conspiracy theories. It seems zero effort has been made to attack homegrown propaganda. Gee, I wonder why that might be…

“There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won’t come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn’t write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.”

So the country that has acquired a reputation for cyber-attacks will keep doing them. Okay. Could have saved some words there. Also, earlier he points out that important races will be decided in smaller towns where people get their news from local sources (his assertion). Now we’re supposed to believe these people will be browsing Wikileaks? Will local reporters see the material on Wikileaks and report on them? That’s possible. But it’s also possible that for the reasons I stated above, it will be easier for them to investigate and find out they are false.

“Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018.”

Did someone forget to tell him that Russia’s efforts to do this in France failed miserably this year? In fact, Macron’s team even found a way to play the hackers at their own game.

“Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place.”

Again. Gerrymandering. Candidates hostile to Russia. How are they going to deal with any of that? Are they going to somehow get voters to write in some local Putin-loving defective en masse? What’s the plan here?

“It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, “Red Dawn.” Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.”

Um no, it will be nothing like Red Dawn, especially since even if this did actually happen as you say, the Russian propagandists don’t literally come to America at all. The only sense in which this analogy works is that this article is analogous to the kind of right-wing paranoia that inspired Red Dawn.

“So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures?”

Gee, Brett, I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I bet you do, and you’ll happily tell our government what to do, for a modest fee of course!

I’m going to leave Brett for a bit and just say that this Russia grifter class is not just a group of harmless wannabe spies. Apart from the money and resources they suck from governments, they actually aid Russian propaganda efforts in two ways. One way is by portraying Putin as being more powerful and influential than he actually is. Putin’s domestic propaganda, which is the propaganda most important for his survival, incidentally, is almost entirely dedicated to portraying the Dear Leader as a defender against Western encroachment. Not only does he stubbornly oppose them, but he trolls them while doing it. Another way is by the propagation of Garland/Mensch-like conspiracy theories. These tend to generate a lot of low hanging fruit that can easily be picked off by pro-Russian writers. A favorite tactic of the RT Op-Edge is to pick on the easily debunked claims of some Western journalist, and then imply that all Western coverage of Russia can be dismissed for its Russophobia.

The other way it helps Russian propaganda is by securing and increasing funding for outlets like RT and Sputnik. As Alexei Kovalev has pointed out many times in the past, Western government hysteria about these outlets has become a kind of performance metric for them. They collect quotes of Western leaders angrily railing against RT and Sputnik and then use them as proof that they are doing something. This, of course, is basically just scamming the Russian government, but in terms of information war the effect helps the Russian propaganda machine.

So if they don’t actually turn back Russian propaganda and basically help it both indirectly and directly, why are these grifters the darlings of the Western establishment these days? Why can’t someone like me get in on this Russian propaganda-debunking business, given my experience?

The draw for the grifters lies in the fact that they tell Western leaders what they want to hear. “All those social problems you refuse to deal with? That’s not your fault. It’s Russia. They’re exploiting those problems.” This is particularly pleasing because it means that people who keep talking about those problems, activists, for example, can be tarred as Russian propagandists, doing the bidding of the Kremlin. You know, that almost reminds me of this other government I know, but I digress.


Bullshit self-help gurus succeed because they tell their clients something they want to hear. Sometimes, the therapy works. Many times it doesn’t. Most of the time it’s impossible to measure.

So it is with the Russia grifters. They’ll keep spitting out lots of intel-speak like “tradecraft” and “active measures” and they’ll keep raking in the dough until there’s a new big threat on the horizon. We’re witnessing the decline of the phony Islamic terrorism expert (see Sebastian Gorka)  and the ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. I’d imagine the next incarnation will most likely be the phony Chinese propaganda expert, but looking at Chinese foreign-language propaganda so far, it looks like it will take a while before Western politicians can be successfully duped into seeing it as an existential threat.


UPDATE: I’ve updated the piece regarding the Senate vote, as a source I read today said it was 98-2 and not 97-2 (I’d seen the figure somewhere before and assumed someone abstained). Also it appears the new sanctions bill discussed in this article is floundering in the House, with the opposition coming from Republicans. They’re claiming that it’s a constitutional issue, but I think it’s pretty clear what’s really going on- all House Republicans are compromised Russian agents!