The unproven narrative that President Donald Trump colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 elections has all the hallmarks of a classic Russian disinformation campaign, says a leading expert.
“It does seem to fit with some of the crazy ideas that have come from the high levels within the Russian government,” said law professor Ronald Rychlak, who co-authored the book “Disinformation” with Romanian defector and former three-star general Ion Mihai Pacepa. Although, Rychlak said, there is a small chance it was a “harebrained scheme” from a couple of rogue officials.
The Trump–Russia collusion theory is based heavily on a debunked dossier from Fusion GPS, an opposition research company.
It has now been revealed that Fusion GPS published unverified claims in its dossier and collected its information from two people currently active in the Kremlin. At the same time, the company was receiving money from a Russian government official and lobbying alongside the Russian government.
Rychlak said Russian disinformation operations generally take advantage of issues around which it can create questions or doubts. It fits with their objective “to have Americans question the outcome of the election.”
“It was a nice way to sort of throw a monkey wrench into the American system—to make Americans doubt, and to discredit the whole system,” he said.
Disinformation campaigns of this sort are connected to the competition between governments for expanded influence on the global stage and the population’s perceptions of those governmental systems. The United States, for example, promotes individual rights, democracy, and its own ideas of rule of law.
It’s because of this competition that countries such as Russia, China, and Iran have viewed the United States and its system as being ideologically opposed to their own. And it’s also why they typically seek to challenge the image and validity of the American system using means that include propaganda and disinformation.
Rychlak said this competition was more apparent during the Cold War, and noted how Soviet disinformation campaigns would often take advantage of global incidents to alter public perception in ways that served Soviet interests.
For example, immediately after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Soviet disinformation painted it as a CIA operation; and during the war in Vietnam, the Soviets likewise used disinformation to make Americans further doubt the morality of the conflict. Both of these operations, Rychlak said, were aimed at making the American people question their decision-makers.
Disinformation is different from other forms of propaganda. Rychlak described it as “a false narrative invented that seems to come from a trusted source. It’s designed to have an air of credibility, or be built around a nugget of truth, but it’s intended to advance a political agenda.”
Rychlak added that disinformation should not be confused with governmental or journalistic bias, where the perpetrators may actually believe the information they’re presenting. Under a disinformation campaign, he said, the agents are actively trying to advance an agenda.
“When you’ve got an outlet, when you’ve got an entity like the former KGB and what we see surrounding the leadership of Russia today, you have to recognize the distinct possibility that it’s intentionally distorting the facts to advance a political agenda,” he said.
Russian Agents Behind the Dossier
Fusion GPS had spread its 35-page dossier on Trump throughout the U.S. government, media organizations, and intelligence agencies. It was initially funded by an unnamed wealthy Republican donor in September 2015, then by an unnamed Democrat client starting in May 2016, after it appeared Trump would win the Republican nomination. Mother Jones magazine published the first story on the dossier in October 2016.
The unverified report was used by the Democratic National Committee to accuse Trump of working with Russia to spread disinformation on Hillary Clinton.
The contents of the dossier were widely unknown until it was published in full by BuzzFeed News on Jan. 10, and its claims were debunked soon after. Yet by then, the damage had already been done. The claims of a Trump–Russia conspiracy became a key talking point of the Clinton campaign, and the dossier was cited as a key piece of evidence in an FBI report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections—despite the FBI being unable to verify its claims.
It was also revealed that Christopher Steele, a former British spy hired by Fusion GPS to collect research for the dossier, had sourced most of his findings from two key Russian contacts he spoke with through intermediaries. One of the contacts was a senior figure in the Russian Foreign Ministry and the other was a former top-level Russian intelligence officer who is still active in the Kremlin.
That the dossier itself had the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign only became widely known when William Browder, CEO and founder of Hermitage Capital Management, testified at a Senate judiciary committee hearing on July 27 this year.
Browder said Fusion GPS was indirectly receiving money from a senior Russian government official in the spring and summer of 2016. He also said that both Fusion GPS and the Russian government had lobbied against the 2012 Magnitsky Act at the same time.
The Magnitsky Act sanctions anyone in Russia responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or violating the human rights of people who promote human rights in Russia, or who expose illegal activities of the Russian government.
According to Rychlak, the dossier, the ties of Fusion GPS, and the effects of the campaign give it the appearance of a Russian disinformation operation.
He noted that while he is “willing to accept it could have been an individual action,” the claims in the anti-Trump dossier align with the often far-fetched claims in Russian disinformation.
A previous version of this article misstated the number of known Russian persons providing funding for opposition research company Fusion GPS. The company received money from one known Russian government official. The Epoch Times regrets the error.