- - Sunday, August 5, 2018



By Jeff Pegues

Prometheus Books, $24, 287 pages

As the son of civil rights activists in uber-racist Alabama in the 1960s, CBS reporter Jeff Pegues is justly appalled at racial slurs, whatever the source.

But he was particularly offended when his research for this book turned up examples of Soviet attempts to stir racial animosity in the United States dating back decades.

The KGB did not like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for several reasons. As Mr. Pegues writes, “His calls for non-violent protests didn’t suit their recipe for stirring up civil unrest. They believed more militant leaders such as the Black Panthers were more apt to ignite violence.”

So the KGB “launched a campaign that included forging documents that portrayed Dr. King and other prominent civil rights activists as sellouts, calling then ‘Uncle Toms’ who were secretly in cahoots with the U.S. government.” False articles were sent to the African press.

The major lie: “President Lyndon Johnson had secretly planned methods to keep black people in a subordinate status and had bribed King to tame the civil rights movement.”

When King was assassinated in April 1968, he KGB changed its slant, “depicting him as a martyr and implying the U.S. government was behind the assassination.”

Mr. Pegues cites this bit of KGB nastiness to reinforce the contention of his book: That Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was yet but another chapter in a campaign of kompromat (compromising material) waged against America.

Such activities were known to our intelligence agencies for years. In the 1970s and 1980s, CIA exposed the widespread Soviet distribution of forged documents that purported to show U.S. officials making comments tailored to enrage foreign governments.

As one officer familiar with this history explained to me, “Now the Russkies use the Internet — not pieces of paper — for their mischief. Technology does have a downside.”

For whatever reason, the forgery campaign attracted little public attention. Now, however, the subject is of keen interest, for, as Mr. Pegues writes, the public is realizing that “the Russian propaganda machine seeped into the fabric of our democracy by poisoning our free speech.”

As the justice and homeland security correspondent for CBS News, Mr. Pegues had interview access to intelligence officers of all ranks, ranging from James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, former CIA director. Understandably, many sources are unnamed.

As he writes, intelligence agencies and other government officials have maintained that the Russian operation “did not alter votes.”

A major reason is that the election system is dispersed — “clunky,” in the apt description of former FBI director James Comey.

Whether the Trump campaign had any connection with the Russian effort remains a matter of highly-partisan debate, and no matter what is concluded by the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller III, the question is apt to be debated for decades.

Mr. Pegues‘ account favors neither side in the 2016 debate. But he is unflinching in his criticism of Russia’s using lies in attempts to shape American public opinion.

“This is warfare,” he states bluntly. “They attempted to compromise our voting booths and influenced us, without our knowledge, thereby waging an invisible war.”

James Lewis, a former intelligence hand now with he Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts the blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin is convinced that America has a secret plan to destroy Russia,” he says. In pushing back, “he discovered he has got a great opportunity to do things that the Russians have wanted to do for decades, like destroy NATO

“Remember, he is a former KGB agent he knows the playbook. He’s acting in a way that goes all the way back to the Tsarist intelligence services “

Mr. Pegues offers an explanation as to how a controversial memo by a retired British Secret Intelligence Service officer got into FBI hands.

The “dossier,” as it is termed by the media, was commissioned by a yet-unknown person at the Democratic National Committee. Of challenged accuracy, its 30 pages alleged that Russia had “compromising” information about candidate Donald Trump.

Sen. John McCain — not a Trump friend — learned of the dossier at a September 2017 security conference in Canada. His source was a former United Kingdom ambassador to Moscow. The ambassador supposedly said the dossier had information that was “a mortal threat to the U.S. democratic system.”

As Mr. Pegues relates, Mr. McCain asked a trusted friend, David Kramer, formerly an assistant secretary of State, to go to London and obtain a copy. Mr. Kramer did so, and “McCain hand-delivered it to the FBI.”

Mr. Pegues ends with a plea to tighten security over the machinery — much of it electronic — of voting places.

Given Russia’s unquestioned skills at meddling with American minds, could meddling with election results be far behind?

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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