Recently, I wrote that evidence demonstrating Russian involvement in the 2016 election was fragmentary, ambiguous, and certainly not “public knowledge.” The testimonies of both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr did little to dispel this conclusion, but Mueller is scheduled to testify to Congress next week.
Evidence in the Mueller Report
One can hope that this, his second attempt, will dispel any confusion that his earlier efforts only amplified. Even a cursory review of the 448 page Mueller Report will reveal that a great deal of damaging evidence of “collusion” between Trump personnel and Russian operatives, while not technically “criminal,” was sufficient to question the integrity of Trump explanations. Many of these actions were also sufficient to charge the administration with “obstruction of justice,” justifying impeachment and possible removal from office. The Report identified over 150 sanctioned Trump official staff contacts with Russian operatives. Over 1,000 former government prosecutors, from both political parties, have formally declared that such actions justify “obstruction.”
Such evidence, largely unknown to the public, is too serious to ignore. Politically, this testimony, fully vented, could give rise within the Republican Party, of serious efforts to replace the President in 2020.
Although evidence of involvement is real and threatening, it still remains impossible to ascertain its ultimate consequence. As has been charged, openly by Hillary Clinton and many Democrats, did Vladimir Putin actually “steal” the election for Trump? The result is a “contested” election, not unique in history (1876, 1888, 1960, 2000). We are left to speculate.
Influencing political behavior abroad
From the vantage of hindsight and perspective, what do we make of Russian behavior, overall? Is it like warfare and spying, universal and timeless? Or were the Russians of 2016 one-of-a-kind?
The answer to the question need not delay us. There has rarely been a time in history, when a country, a city-state, an empire has not, either once or always, attempted either to infiltrate or to persuade the political behavior of both rivals and allies. It is an essential of world politics, as endemic as the need for money and security and just as demonstrable. Churchill did it to Roosevelt and Roosevelt did it to Churchill (for a history of espionage, see Christopher Andrew, The Secret World, 2018).
The Mueller Report, like everything else, could use context. There is Witness, the memoir of Whitaker Chambers (1951) who recorded his years as a Communist agent spying on American political secrets and transferring these back to Moscow. A whole generation, in the 1940s, was glued to the Hiss-Chambers Hearings when Chambers detailed how Alger Hiss and (alleged) Communists in the four Roosevelt Administrations advised FDR, influencing the Yalta meeting and all of Eastern Europe going over to the Soviets. The Truman Administration was later accused by Republicans of “losing” China to Communism, an accusation that tied the Truman Administration to the Communists over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. This allegation (vastly exaggerated) also played a major role behind the U.S. entry into Vietnam.
These remain only accusations, but the politics behind such “collusion” began the Cold War and determined much of the Twentieth Century.
Then there is the Venona Secrets (1995), containing hundreds of pages of testimony of the decades of Soviet and global Communist spy networks inside most western democracies. The Soviet Union tested their atomic bomb years earlier than expected (1949) due principally to the vast network of spies inside this country and even within the top-secret Manhattan Project (Stalin actually knew about the first U.S. test before President Truman).
Russian espionage and influence operations
The Russians, as a people, have had to be suspicious of foreigners from the earliest days, including centuries of spy networks by agents of the Czar’s secret police. Putin is a Russian; that’s “what they do” (see Hoover Institution, editors, Double Exposure: Russia’s Secret Police Under the Last Tsars, 1957).
Modern Russia, the Soviet Union, was an ideological movement and escalated historic Russian fears with a global mission. Almost immediately after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Leninist agents infiltrated the capitalist world in an avalanche of espionage, disruption, and violent incidents. Nearly the entire 1920s was taken up with the infamous “Red Scare,” wherein Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (his house was actually bombed) and his FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, arrested around 10,000 “anarchists, socialists and communists” and deported 556 back to, mainly, Russia, Italy, and eastern Europe. The 1930s saw more of the same, culminating in the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1938.
The end of World War II (with the Soviet Union as an ally) saw the Cold War begin a new, but familiar, scenario of Russian infiltration attempts, widespread espionage activities, and a phenomenon now known as “McCarthyism.” The whole country (myself included) watched the “Army-McCarthy Hearings” attempt to indict the American military as infiltrated by Communists. Having already claimed that the State Department was, essentially, ruled by Reds, McCarthy was censored by the Senate in 1954 and died in 1957, a lonely and isolated alcoholic. (His daughter, born 1957, is named “Tierney,” my last name. Well, he can’t be all bad.)
The end of McCarthy has not ended history or reality. During the Cold War, the United States Government had an intelligence component in every single nation that had an American embassy. When necessary, these interfered, infiltrated, and intervened to affect the politics of the home regime to align with U.S. needs. The CIA spent millions and sent agents to ensure the anti-communist election victories in France and Italy (1948). New governments elsewhere, the Shah of Iran and Guatemala in particular (1950s), were essentially “made in America.”
Where we are today
Is McCarthy’s “ghost” back, and do we exaggerate Russian influence, as he did? Or do we diminish it, as Cold War opponents of U.S. policies did?
Politicians rarely become national security specialists overnight. They “live and breathe” re-election and use available assets to win. The “Red Scare” of the 1920s was not ideological; it was directed against the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy (leading to the 1924 restrictive immigration laws) and the growth of labor unions. “McCarthyism” was essentially a “witch hunt” for the Senator’s political ambitions.
Who is the target today, Trump or Russia? Trump can be removed, and “Never Trumpers” have been on this since day one. The Republicans, for their part, are now “investigating the investigators.” Russia won’t go away, unless we do what all countries under attack do: close the embassy and send all agents home. That won’t happen, with little left but “party passion.”
Political parties and their interests can be decisive, even with national security the issue (alleged).
As one “insider” noticed, party allegiance:
Serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part versus another, and foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
– George Washington, 1796
Over two centuries later, watch the next Mueller Hearing.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Jorge Santayana.