Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation

Jeremy Morris has an interesting post on his Postsocialism blog about the malicious role played by Western intelligence services in shaping narratives of Russia. I’m somewhat sceptical about his thesis – or at least the extent of the phenomenon he describes – but as if by chance, today I also came across a story that kind of backs him up.

Morris complains of two “elephants in the room,” who together distort our understanding of Russia. The first is the “clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT.” I guess that would be me.

The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.” Given my former involvement in the intelligence world, and the fact that I’ve taught courses at the University of Ottawa with members of the Canadian security and intelligence services, I guess that would be me too.

Double elephant!

I imagine that Morris thinks that elephant number one distorts things in favour of Russia, and elephant number two distorts them against. That must make me some sort of push-me-pull-you doing both at once. Perhaps that explains why I always end up occupying the middle ground!

Anyway, I digress, because this isn’t meant to be about me. Back to the point.

“If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’,” writes Morris. I must confess myself guilty as charged. I can be pretty cynical, but I don’t think that everybody has “hidden motives.” People who write what one might call “pro-Russian” articles for RT aren’t doing it for the money or because the FSB has got some dirt on them any more than people writing Russophobic stuff for think tanks are doing it because they’re taking orders from the FBI, MI5, or CSIS. People tend to believe what they’re doing.

In any case, I worry less about spooks and more about the military industrial complex and its funding of think tanks and the like, all of which work together to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies. But even there, the think tankers etc believe in what they’re doing. The problem is that believers get funded whereas non-believers don’t. I don’t think “hidden motives” are the issue.

That said, Morris has a point, in that security and intelligence services do maintain contacts with chosen favourites and feed them information that they hope will further their chosen narrative. The story I came across today illustrates how this works quite well.

A while back, I mentioned a law case in the UK involving Guardian journalist Carol Cadwalladr and British businessman Arron Banks. Banks is suing Cadwalladr for libel for having claimed that the Russian government offered him money for use in the Brexit referendum campaign, and that he lied about his relationship with the Russians. The case is now before the court, and Cadwalladr’s defence is becoming clear.

The Guardian journalist isn’t claiming that what she said about Banks was true, merely that given the evidence she had at the time she had good reason to believe that it was in the public interest for her to report it. So what was this evidence, and where did she get it from? This is where it becomes interesting. For as the Guardian reports,

In her written evidence statement, she [Cadwalladr] said she had obtained two intelligence files from an organisation contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation in Europe on behalf of a government agency, one file of which raised concerns about Banks’s Russian wife.

In other words, British intelligence fed the information to her via another source.

The accusation that Banks took Russian money to fund Brexit received widespread coverage. It was even repeated in a parliamentary report. Yet no evidence to support the claim has ever been produced, and as we have seen, Cadwalladr isn’t trying to say that it was true. In short, it was disinformation. And yet, what prompted it was in part documents leaked by British intelligence to a third party “contracted to undertake work countering Russian disinformation” and then in turn given by that organization to Ms Cadwalladr.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit iffy?

In the first place, the story reinforces what I have said several times before, namely that the “disinformation industry” set up to “counter Russian disinformation” is itself a major source of disinformation. And second, it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.

Maybe Mr Morris is right after all!

42 thoughts on “Spooks, Russia, and Disinformation”

  1. Let me add something to your post, namely: “it reveals an excessively cosy relationship between the media – supposedly an independent guardian of the truth that holds the state to account – and state organizations, including secret intelligence, “state organizations which have in turn major influence on judges and the entire judicial sector in the UK”.
    The Assange case, the ludicrously biased judge are more renowned evidence for the absolute death of justice in the UK.
    It is predictably ominous that rumors (or made-up rumors) can become evidentiary because of how and by whom and how often they came to be repeated. That is, today, how factual evidence gains credibility in the digital world: did it get shared? By whom, how often, becomes reason to speak/write/blog about it and to maintain a sliver of innocence.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, you’re right!

        In 1929, Korney Chukovsky, Russian/Soviet children’s writer, published a long poem titled “Aybolit”. It’s main character is loosely based on Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle. Later, Chukovsky used the doctor character in many other poems. They have all been immensely popular.

        In 1936, Chukovsky published a prose retelling of Dr. Dolittle; it credited Lofting in the subtitle. Тянитолкай (Pushmi-Pullyu) is from this version – it’s not in the 1929 poem.

        The prose adaptation has not been quite as popular as the poems, but still well regarded. I own a 1969 edition of it – this is where the picture comes from.

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  2. “Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing.”

    And rightly so, but it’s been going on for decades and shifting into high gear post-Maidan, so by now somewhat thicker skins may be in order.

    I’ve been hearing increasing irritation from the Russians over NATO expansion since the late 90’s. It’s no surprise that Lavrov, the ever-so diplomatic Lavrov, has himself declared ‘enough is enough.’ The only surprise is that it’s taken so long. Obviously, Georgia was a warmup and Ukraine, with NATO’s hunger pains for Crimea finally out in the open, was the boiling point. Bush was no brainiac but you see what happens when such intellectual lightweights rule the roost and it never seems to get any better. Maybe the ancient Greeks had the right formulation for democracy from the get go.

    Stoltenberg to this day I’m sure, would say with straight face: “NATO had no designs on Crimea, it’s simple Russian disinformation.”

    What more does one need, to understand NATO? Even for those within it, a rude awakening though it may be.

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  3. Carol Codswallop is the name Aaron Banks gave her on twitter. I’ve had the story that the Russians funded Brexit repeated to me by (Brexit) remainers.

    Reminds me of Udo Ulfkotte’s allegations.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

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    1. So, the theory being that Russia thought that separating the UK from the EU and freeing it to meddle unrestrained in world affairs as a US proxy would somehow benefit Russia?

      Interesting.

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      1. “So, the theory being that Russia thought that separating the UK from the EU and freeing it to meddle unrestrained in world affairs as a US proxy would somehow benefit Russia?”

        Don’t expect it to make any sense. From my personal experience Brexit remainers repeat whatever soundbites they’ve heard on the BBC or read in The Guardian etc. It strikes me that its mostly about virtue signalling and being seen to be a good and righteous person, unlike those nasty racist brexiteers who are nostalgic for the empire. The UK may be one of the most secular countries in the world, but we still have preachers and dedicated followers, except nowadays our preachers leading us in what is good and right work in the mainstream media.

        Nevertheless, the UK does not have to choose between the EU or the USA. Its a false choice.

        The EU is a political non-entity and I doubt the UK leaving makes much difference. Victoria Nuland’s famous”F*ck the EU” (2014 when the UK was in the EU, Brexit was 2016) demonstrates the American view, and Russia negotiating with Shere Khan and not Shere Khan’s numerous Tabaquis demonstrates the Russian view.

        Prime Minister Harold Wilson resisted American pressure to join the Vietnam war before the UK joined what was then the Common Market. Of course he was bugged and bothered by the UK deep state for his trouble. I strongly suspect that James Bond doesn’t care much for the interests of the British people and that seems to me to be a problem for any sort of genuine British independence. But I think its worth trying.

        Feel free to point out how and where I am wrong. I am an English working class delivery driver and do not expect to always have the most accurate view on things.

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  4. Of course they are linked. Imagine what would happen if as editor you chose not to run a “Russian planes nearly enter British airspace” story on page 1. You wouldn’t be given the next 3 stories (and your rivals would). Having the stories is far more important than being accurate.

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    1. ‘Nearly enter’ is not nearly enough to avoid losing your place in the queue. The proper headline would read ‘Russian planes intercepted before entering British airspace’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course, one needs to be factually correct yet leave the reader with the impression that Russian warplanes had a clear intent to enter British airspace.

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  5. “The second is “academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.””

    For context – the original quote from the source:

    “Pipes is an example of a type of Eastern European anticommunist intellectual recruited to enthusiastically tell the US government what it wanted to hear about Russia at a particular point in time. A leading critique of détente, his hawkish views came from his flawed reading of Russian history (a kind of historico-genetic autocracy thesis that even at the time was seen as simplistic). The result: advising politicians and the public that the USSR was bent on world domination and a real military and economic threat to US hegemony…

    People like Pipes acted to shape Area Studies as a Cold War industry dependent on the security services for social science research, an issue not just in Russian Studies (96% of all social science funding in the US came from the military in 1952).”

    “Left behind and beyond”, so to say, of this belatedly perceptive “discovery” are, e.g., history of the German and Japanese area and language studies in the North American Academia. Hint: the whole thing really began coincidentally in 1920s.

    I’ve been saying, that Academia (and science in general) is weaponized by the Powers That Be since… like, forever. It is nothing new. It is not even “wrong”, as long as the Security will be the top tie of any given country’s Maslow’s Pyramid. Whining about it shows only one thing – the whiner is left behind by the lucrative state affiliated geshaft.

    What is totally absent (conspicuous absent, I must say) in reb Morrison’s little kvetching piece is the logical admission, that attitudes do shift re: any given country’s Maslow’s Pyramid. What is first pioneered and crash-tested by the military inevitable reaches “commercialization phase”, becoming merely a “public” oriented commodity.

    Now, with the “Russian Studies” in the West a curious thing happened post 1991. It didn’t quite enter “commercialization” phase, while definitely abandoned serious, life-or-death-issue militarized approached. Instead, they’ve become a form of sinecures for the chosen few of the Cold War vets and a cohort of New Westerners (aka weaponized migrants), who ought to be shown that treason to the Old Country pays.

    In short, Western (Capitalist) Powers That Be decided to provide a certain category of their trusted servants with the Basic Guaranteed Income (BGI)tm, while asking nothing in return. This whole set-up had been brought up to light (as it was tearing itself apart at the seams) by none other than Konstantin Alexandrovich “Keith” Gessen, Maria Alexandrovna “Masha” Gessen’s younger brother (whose wife she stole and now is happily married to). He, “Keith”, complained in c. 2017 that “nowadays everyone is a Russian expert in what used to be *our* thing”.

    What we see now, thus, is an attempt of some “Young Turks” to force their way to the trough of the Western Regime’s provided BGIs. Should this thing happen the overall quality of the Russia related research won’t suffer –it’s already nonexistent and driven mostly by the parochial presentism. But, hey – a more diverse and previously unrepresented cast of characters will now derive their BGI in large enough amount to lead a proper “middle-class” lifestyle, thus becoming dutiful consumers. Ain’t it worth breaking several eggs – aka the careers of the “stuffed shirts” crypto-deplorables in the Western Academia?

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    1. Lyttenburgh is absolutely correct here. I myself saw the elimination of serious studies in Russian history in the U.S. “in real time”, as they say. I did my doctoral work in Russian history at Columbia, during 1982-1992. At the time, prospective candidates were required to go through really rigorous colloquia on each of the medieval, Petrine, late Imperial and Soviet periods, with grounding not only in the primary sources for each time period, but in Western, Russian and Soviet historiographies. Studies in each period were led by tenured or visiting specialists of real renown, and, at least in my experience, these were mostly objective in their approach to the subject matter, that is, no Richard Pipes style bloviating. The University libraries held a couple of hundred thousand volumes in Russian – periodicals, monographs and documentary collections of incredible range – that made them collectively one of the most important repositories in the world. Fluency in the Russian language was absolutely necessary. For me, at least a year’s worth of work in the Lenin Library and the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (now renamed, of course) in Moscow was indispensable for my thesis and laid the foundations for further extended research visits.
      Quite obviously, however, after 1991, University administrators decided that “Russia is finished” and the study of its history could now be downgraded. After Marc Raeff and Leo Haimson retired in the mid-1990s, they were not replaced and the whole program was simply eliminated. Lecture series between 1995 and 2016 were given by specialists from outside the Russian field. I think there is now (since 2016) a single tenured professor for the entirety of Russia’s history that gives lectures and a single graduate seminar. I have also understood that fluency in the Russian language is no longer a requirement.
      It is therefore of little wonder that the level of expertise at the service of Western governments is now at the level of Farkas, McFaul and other idiot-Russophobes who think that the Yeltsin era was the golden period of “Russian democracy”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Explains the FBI agents approaching some Americans with the question of whether the Strategic Culture Foundation is some kind of a Russian Intel op?

        About a month later, the US State Dept comes out with a suggestively presented as fact, suspect claim that the SCF is run by the Intel unit of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Awhile later, the US Treasury Department issues a decree, making it illegal for Americans to receive a fee from that venue.

        Meantime, Farkas gets very well paid appearance time at major venues. She has stated blatant lies at Twitter and Facebook without getting blocked for misinformation unlike some other who’ve been more accurate than her. The details on this are very well documented.

        https://original.antiwar.com/Michael_Averko/2021/12/17/ongoing-smear-campaign-against-the-strategic-culture-foundation/

        During the Cold War, Russian studies programs in some smaller schools, not known for specializing in that field, were nonetheless pretty good. After the end of the Cold War, such academic instances greatly diminished. Some prominent academics in that field had to look for different work.

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      2. Perfectly timed to illustrate Miller’s comment:

        “Ukraine is a proud country with a long history. They have known invading forces before – from the Mongols to the Tatars.”

        – Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, speech to the Lowy Institute

        What a gem. Ms Truss didn’t write this speech, of course – someone else did it for her… someone who should’ve known better.

        https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/foreign-secretarys-speech-to-the-lowy-institute

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      3. Well, thank you for providing an “insider” account, Miller.

        Also, it only now occured to me – what befell the “Russian Studies” in the West could be described as Academical de-industrialisation. Like with its “material” counterpar, what is left behind is a pathetic mix of gig-economy and pandering to the trendy activism (“services”).

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      4. Also 2MILLER. Given your status of a (former?) insider. Are there any normal, active historians left, who engage in reasearching non-weaponized topics of the Russian history, while not descending into micro-history (“gig-economy” analogy from my comment above)? Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by discovering Nancy Kollman whose works point out very unfashionable “message” – that Russia was not some kind of “Asiatic despoty”, and that the process of the state formation there followed closely general European vector.

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    2. What is first pioneered and crash-tested by the military inevitable reaches “commercialization phase”, becoming merely a “public” oriented commodity.

      Yep, one of the first associative factors on my mind, whenever ‘The military complex’ comes up. If I read you correctly.

      DARPA and its partners are cogs in the wheel of the larger US Military–industrial–security-media complex, it’s interest groups, ‘servants’, and dependents.

      “I can supply an infinite number of different engines of attack and defense.”
      – Leonardo da Vinci

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  6. The “double elephant” thing reminded me of the Matt Taibbi piece I read yesterday: https://taibbi.substack.com/p/thomas-friedman-roars-back-to-form .

    Mr Morris doesn’t sound anywhere as clownish as Mr Friedman, but still: RT vs the CIA? C’mon. This is nowhere near the infamous “both sides do it”.

    RT is a media organization delivering the point of view of the RF establishment to the public abroad. Delivering it openly and directly. And that’s it, end of story.

    And the CIA is… well.. the CIA is many things, but one thing it isn’t is a media organization. In the context of Mr Morris’ piece, the CIA is a clandestine organization manipulating media organizations (among many other entities). Manipulating all of them, in a covert and coordinated way, behind the scene.

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  7. In the American media circus, there was a case, not sure when, this might have been last year.
    Anyhow, a libel suit was brought against MSNBC loony-tune Russia-Gater Rachel Maddow. Rachel successfully defended herself, based on a heretofore unknown legal precedent, that because she is so clearly demented, nobody should take her seriously as a journalist!

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    1. As I remember, her defense was something akin to:

      “Regarding ‘is a fact’, it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is 😉

      Then her attorneys further delved into the etymology of the word ‘fact’, arguing that in old English it was originally ‘fict’ from which we now have the word ‘fiction’.

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    2. Some of these people know good from bad. Before Russiagate, Maddow had a much better rep.

      The likes of Zakaria and Amanpour periodically do good journalism. There’re others like Lautman, who don’t appear to be as capable.

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    3. To be fair, Yalensis. It must just be some loophole that they are all exploiting, and not an admission of anything. Tucker Carlson was in the exact same position, and used the exact same defense as Maddow. CNN did a video ridiculing him because of it.

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  8. In the meantime, Biden says “everything south of the Mexican border is America’s front yard” – implying it’s America’s PROPERTY? Forget the spheres of inluence talk, we OWN you! Jeez, are these people even self-aware?

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    1. At his most recent press conference, Lavrov schooled the BBC reporter who asked a provocatively insulting question on Russia and spheres of influence.

      Lavrov noted how Blinken questioned the legitimacy of Russian forces being invited into Kazakhstan by the Kazakh government. US government officials can question the regional alliances of others far away from America’s borders and do so in a most hypocritical way.

      Lavrov also spoke of what’s negatively associated with the geopolitically incorrect spheres of influence term. Realist oriented folks who aren’t in a diplomatic position aren’t as negative towards it.

      https://www.eurasiareview.com/24122021-deconstructing-john-batchelors-shows-on-russia-oped/

      Excerpt –

      “Among numerous Russians, the romantic recollection of the past is often balanced by a realistic understanding about the present and most probable future realities running counter to the likelihood of another Soviet Union or Russian Empire. By the way, it’s not as if many mainstream thinking Russians don’t acknowledge the shortcomings of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

      A key difference is their non-acceptance of the negative inaccuracies pertaining to their nation’s past and present. There’re also the categories of some support and sympathy for the Russian Empire/not as much for the Soviet Union and vice versa – indicative of the diversity level among Russians.

      Post-Soviet Russia has formally recognized the independence of the non-Russian former Soviet republics. Keeping in mind the EU and NATO memberships of the three former Soviet Baltic republics, this Russian recognition includes having a noticeable, but not complete sphere of influence approach. That stance is on par with how former colonial powers like France and the UK maintain close economic and/or military ties with some of its onetime colonies.

      It’s understandable for Russia to oppose actions which are unnecessarily anti-Russian and premised on misinformation. I’ve yet to get a good counter to my rhetorical question: If Russia is so bad, then why do numerous territories outside that nation appear more willing to be part of Russia than the entities having a claim on them?”

      ****

      Yeah, Farkas and the Friedmans are more deserving of well paid appearance time

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  9. I… think you’re kind of misinterpreting the Morris’s words about “hidden motives”, Mr. Robinson. His (unspoken) premise seems to be that in the mediasphere people pretend that they’re be objective, they care for truth and facts, and nobly protect the public by informing it of important events (and conclusions one should derive from those events) etc. But that is just a pretense! There are hidden motives, just as you said: “to inflate threats, keep us in a state of fear, and justify increased defence spending and aggressive foreign policies”, and if that requires conjuring up some small (or not so small) lies, eh, finis sanctificat media, breaking the eggs to make the omelette etc.
    So if one “underestimate[s] the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia” — that those are not terribly interested in revealing and propagating the objective truth, — then the one indeed confirms the “fallacy of insufficient cynicism”. It just seems that perhaps you’ve been long enough in all of this to have internalized the idea that the media work just like the (common law) court trials: it’s all about proving you’re right, not about uncovering the truth, even though you have to pretend it is.

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    1. His (unspoken) premise seems to be that in the mediasphere people pretend that they’re be objective, they care for truth and facts, and nobly protect the public by informing it of important events (and conclusions one should derive from those events) etc.

      I mean – there are still people out there who mean it not in the (post)ironic sense?

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  10. It seems to me that this Morris twerp is angry at others for muscling in on his own, anti-Russian turf more than anything . There is no profound analysis.

    Essentially in the echo-chamber or this twerp is an “argument” between the different flavours of antirussianism:

    1. Russia is a mess. Putin controls the people and nothing can be done about it ( the Kasparov theorem)

    2. Russia is a mess. The people can usurp Putin gradually if they follow my Soros drivel ( the Morris or whatshisname theorem)

    Essentially both of these twerps are , dishonestly. misreading whats in front of them , and misdiagnosing that misreading in addition.

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  11. German Navy chief resigns after stating the obvious; ‘Crimea is lost to Ukraine.’ As if its status as an autonomous republic was ever theirs to begin with, other than by an unconstitutional edict by a Soviet dictator and even then, simply to consolidate the management of canal building.

    Imagine the extent of back room support for his opinion in the Germany Navy, if he dared to venture such an opinion in public.

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  12. Roughly speaking; Slovenia’s extra-constitutional secession, sans violent coup d’etat in Belgrade OR referendum was to Yugoslavia what Crimea’s secession, post-violent coup d’etat in Kiev AND referendum was to Ukraine.

    You tell me which secession was more faithful to this so-called ‘rules-based international order’.

    Hmmm?

    Like

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