- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2017

The assertion by American spies that Russian hacking gave Donald Trump an edge in the election is dominating headlines, but almost no attention has gone to an entirely separate focus of the report circulated Friday by the U.S. intelligence community — the influential role played by Russia’s government-owned, and increasingly high-profile, satellite news organization.

No less than half of the 25-page report centered on the activities of RT, the global English-language operation formerly known as Russia Today that intelligence officials described outright as the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” whose tentacles have spread at an alarming pace across the U.S. digital media landscape during recent years.

While intelligence officials did not specifically estimate the size of RT’s U.S. audience, they cited the outfit’s own claim to be reaching about 85 million Americans, and Friday’s report included a sobering chart that said RT content on YouTube receives about eight times as many total views worldwide as that produced by CNN.

The report also outlines how RT employees have “actively collaborated with WikiLeaks,” the web-based recipient of material that Russian intelligence agents are accused of hacking from the Democratic National Committee’s network from July 2015 through at least June 2016.

The report stops short of claiming RT had a hand in delivering such material to WikiLeaks, but cites Russian media reports that RT is “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and to receive access to “new leaks of secret information” from the organization’s founder, Julian Assange.

More broadly, the report outlines how, beginning in March 2016, RT and Sputnik — another Russian government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content for U.S. and international audiences — began aggressively tilting their reportage in favor of Mr. Trump with the goal of undermining U.S. election coverage by America’s own media outlets.

RT and Sputnik “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment,” the report said. It’s a message Mr. Trump, himself, was seen to promote as a core tenet of his campaign for the presidency.

U.S. intelligence officials also noted how the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has, within RT, established an arm called “RT America,” which Friday’s report said “has substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.”

“The rapid expansion of RT’s operations and budget and recent candid statements by RT’s leadership indicate a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest,” the report said, adding that “RT America has positioned itself as a domestic US channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian government.”

The report separately noted how overall Russian media — RT included — has “hailed President-elect Trump’s victory as vindication of Putin’s advocacy of global populist movements — the theme of Putin’s annual conference for Western academics in October 2016 — and the latest example of Western liberalism’s collapse.”

A blast from the past

The most surprising aspect of the report’s assessment of RT may be that the majority of it was actually written by U.S. intelligence officials back in 2012, but was not declassified for public consumption before Friday.

A 7-page “annex” that comprises the main 14-page section of the report is stamped with a footnote indicating that it was “originally published” in December 2012 by the intelligence community’s “Open Source Center,” now known as the “Open Source Enterprise.”

The reason for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s decision to dust off the Annex and declassify it for release at this time is unclear.

The overall report also has the appearance of being hastily assembled in comparison with the meticulous detailing and thorough reporting more typical of intelligence community reports. For example, a response to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study of former CIA detention and interrogation programs produced a 136-page document in 2014.

Officials may have included the 2012 annex to beef up Friday’s report due to a lack of meatier technical intelligence on Moscow’s hacking activities — the heated political football at the heart of the intelligence community’s accusations. Alternatively, officials at the CIA, FBI and NSA — all of whom contributed to the report — may simply be keen to alert U.S. lawmakers to how deeply concerned is the intelligence community about RT’s growing influence.

The concentration on RT, meanwhile, could draw scrutiny to Mr. Trump’s inner circle, specifically retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, whom the president-elect has tapped to be national security adviser. Mr. Flynn has made semiregular guest appearances as an analyst on RT during recent years and was a guest at the organization’s 10th anniversary gala last year in Moscow, where he sat beside Mr. Putin.

While that hangs in the backdrop, a mysterious twist relating to RT occurred in Washington in November 2015, when Mikhail Lesin, a former confidant of Mr. Putin and one of the organization’s founders, turned up dead in his room on an upper floor of the Dupont Circle Hotel.

RT and other Russian media reported that Mr. Lesin had died of a heart attack. But a report issued months later by the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the cause of death was “undetermined” and revealed how Mr. Lesin’s body was found with “blunt force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities.”

It was unclear why he was in Washington at the time of his death, although he’d reportedly resigned from his roles in the Russian government before traveling to the U.S. capital.

Information warfare

The Moscow Times reported last year that RT’s annual budget is about $307 million. Prior to Friday, the prevailing narrative around the organization among Washington insiders was focused on its deftly outstripping the influence of U.S. government-sponsored media in international markets in recent years.

A December 2015 report by The Washington Times outlined how Russia had reorganized and intensified its propaganda machine so effectively under Mr. Putin that some U.S lawmakers saw Washington as badly losing a global messaging war to RT’s increasingly modernized blitz of anti-U.S. content.

“It’s remarkable to see the sophisticated media offense that Putin is conducting across Eastern Europe, Central Europe, the Middle East and Latin America through Russia Today,” Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told The Times at the time. “We’re just not countering it effectively.”

Since 2005 RT has grown into a worldwide operation perhaps best described as Moscow’s version of the BBC. As of last year it claimed to be available to an audience of some 700 million across more than 100 nations, with viewers soaking in its 24-hour content in English, Arabic and Spanish.

This is not to mention the expansion of RT’s web-based news platforms in those languages, as well as German and French and the entirely separate web-news platform SputnikNews.com. The site is generated in 35 languages, with its English language content so successful at penetrating the American landscape it has been linked by the Drudge Report.

In the lead-up to releasing Friday’s report, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. spies should prepare to fight a far more aggressive information war against Russia.

Mr. Clapper told lawmakers that the U.S. has fallen far short not only in efforts to counter Russian cyberhacking, but more basically to tell America’s version of world events in the face of foreign criticism. He recommended reviving the so-called U.S. Information Agency, a Cold War-era office that once oversaw a bare-knuckle public diplomacy campaign against the Soviet Union.

“We need a USIA on steroids,” Mr. Clapper said, adding that the presently defunct agency — it was dismantled in 1999 — could prove an effective bulwark against Moscow’s powerful propaganda operations.

Carlo Munoz, Andrea Noble, Tom Howell Jr. and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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