Russia's online disinformation has a 100-year history

Episode 312 of the Cyberlaw Podcast

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In this episode, I interview Thomas Rid about his illuminating study of Russian disinformation, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. It lays out a century of Soviet, East European, and Russian disinformation, beginning with an elaborate and successful operation against the White Russian expatriate resistance to Bolshevik rule in the 1920s. Rid has dug into recently declassified material using digital tools that enable him to tell previously untold tales – the Soviets' remarkable success in turning opposition to US nuclear missiles in Europe into a mass movement (and the potential shadow it casts on the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the US nuclear navy), the unimpressive record of US disinformation campaigns compared to the ruthless Soviet versions, and the fake American lobbyist (and real East German agent) who persuaded a West German conservative legislator to save Willy Brandt's leftist government. We close with two very different predictions about the kind of disinformation we'll see in the 2020 campaign.

In the news, David Kris, Nick Weaver, and I trade perspectives on the Supreme Court's grant of certiorari on the question when it's a crime to access a computer r "in excess of authority." I predict that the Justice Department's reading of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act will lose, but it's far from clear what will replace the Justice Department's interpretation.

Remember when the House left town without acting on FISA renewal? That's looking like a worse and worse decision, as Congress goes weeks without returning and Justice is left unable to use utterly uncontroversial capabilities in more and more cases. Matthew Heiman explains.

In Justice Department briefs, all the most damaging admissions are down in the footnotes, and it looks like that's true for the inspector general's report on the Carter Page FISA. Recently declassified footnotes from the report make the FBI's pursuit of the FISA order look even worse, in my view. But at the end of the day, the footnotes don't add much to suspicions of a partisan motivation in the imbroglio.

Speaking of IG reports, the DOD inspector general manages first to raise the possibility that Amazon was the victim of political skullduggery in the big DOD cloud computing award and then to find a way to stick it to Amazon anyway. Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the bid protest gives the Pentagon a chance for a do-over.

Matthew covers intel warnings about China-linked 'Electric Panda' hackers and the Syrian government spreading malware via a coronavirus apps. And David notes that a Zoom zero-day is being offered for $500,000.

Nick and I mix it up, first over the Gapple infection tracing plan and their fight with the UK National Health Service and then over Facebook's decision to suppress posts about anti-lockdown demonstrations that violate the lockdown. I think that's highly questionable and not something Facebook would be doing if the first demonstrations had been Black Lives Matter activists in Detroit – or regime protestors during the Arab Spring for that matter. Nick thinks it's the best way to treat a "zombie death cult serving haterade." So, all in all, exactly the restrained and civil exchange of views you've come to expect from the Cyberlaw Podcast.

Download the 312th Episode (mp3).

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  1. This bit in the discussion of the DoD IG report on, inter alia, Presidential interference in a military procurement contract award :

    but the lower ranking DoD officials who did the actual decision making here said they were aware of the President’s preference but it didn’t influence them

    made me smile.

    Now imagine it – a collection of lower ranking DoD officials (ie career officials not political appointees) – hears that the President would prefer the contract awarded to Company X rather than Company Y. Can anyone conceive of any career officials being moved to award the contract according to the President’s preference when the value of {President} = Trump ? He can’t even get the political appointees to do what he wants, never mind the career officials.

    That the contract went to Company X , when that is what Trump allegedly preferred, is conclusive proof that the career officials did indeed manage to blot the alleged Presidential preference from their minds. Well done them.

    1. The Russian election interference was real, in my mind. Oy vey!

  2. “at the end of the day, the footnotes don’t add much to suspicions of a partisan motivation in the imbroglio.”

    Good thing the partisans don’t need much actual fact to fuel their suspicions, then. I guess?

    1. I’m inclined to agree with Baker’s conclusions, but only because going from 95% to 96% is small, just as is going from 0% to 1%.

      This summarises neatly the most relevant additional info in the footnotes :

      https://www.cbsnews.com/news/footnotes-in-watchdog-report-indicate-fbi-knew-of-risk-of-russian-disinformation-in-the-steele-dossier/

      and it does move the needle on the suspicion of partisan motivation.

      Whether there actually was Russian disinformation involved in the Steele dossier I doubt, but the FBI were certainly warned of it, and yet – eager, they claim, to investigate Russian interference in the US election – neither the FBI nor Mueller felt any inclination to investigate the provenance of the Steele dossier to get to the bottom of this possible Russian activity.

      After a while, if all of your astonishingly inexplicable decisions fall the same way, the most likely explanation is that you’re standing on a slope.

  3. It will be interesting to see what shakes out in DC because it appears that there was a CLINTON-Russian collusion, not a Trump-Russia one.

    And the sad thing is that while he was drunk, Joe McCarthy really wasn’t wrong. And maybe Soviet espionage was for the best, because they then knew that we really just wanted to be left alone and hence wouldn’t start a first strike on them.

  4. >Russia’s online disinformation has a 100-year history
    I didn’t know the internet was around 100 years ago. Maybe the Russians were sending jpeg memes via telegraph?

    1. If you go back 120 years or so , you can include the protocols

  5. I’m sure the discussion of Soviet disinformation activities was worthwhile. Although Mr. Baker did not join the second Bush administration until after the invasion of Iraq, I’m sure he could provide fascinating insights into the disinformation campaign waged by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others, that led the United States to invade a country that posed no threat to the U.S., resulting in the death of almost 4,500 Americans, along with 32,000 wounded, not to mention the deaths of at least 150,000 innocent Muslims.

    1. I’m guessing you didn’t actually listen to the podcast. Which also discussed American disinformation.

      Which apparently started off as rather naive compared to the Soviets, who had had decades of practice before the Americans got going. But apparently the Americans improved with practice.

      One of the interesting points made was that they realised that it was better for a front group to be suspected and rumored to be a US front, than for it not to be suspected. Because when the news came out that it really was a front, it was “meh, old news.”

      This is instantly recognised in modern scandal management, recently prominent in the whole Russia / Trump collusion, FISA, Mueller hoax. Embarrassing details are leaked to friendly media organs, with just the right spin, in advance of the official release of the news, via FOIA or an IG report or whatever.

    2. Here is Congress’s Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq. The Whereas clauses set forth the justification for the action. Point out the clauses that were Bush’s, Cheney’s, Rumsfeld’s (etc.) disinformation, and therefore not true.

      https://www.congress.gov/107/plaws/publ243/PLAW-107publ243.pdf

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