Posts Tagged 'Russia'

The great American reset

It now appears all but certain that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and may well have even altered vote counts to put Donald Trump in the White House. Perhaps even more alarming is the emerging evidence that Russian intelligence had been grooming Trump to become president since at least 2015 and quite likely some years earlier, a possibility I discussed in a post last February, Agent Trump. There is no question that Trump was aided immeasurably through the primaries and the general election by a well-fed right-wing propaganda machine. Still, for a political novice to win the nomination over a field that included three sitting Governors, six former Governors, four sitting Senators, and one former Senator is unprecedented. And for a candidate to win the election against an opponent who on the eve of the election led in national polls by three percentage point and who was judged to have an 84% chance of winning is mind-boggling. The fact that Mr. Trump won by small margins in a relatively small number of precincts he was not expected to win fuels speculation of vote-tampering. So too does the confirmed Russian hacking of election systems in 39 states. The oft-expressed claim by the GOP that those hacks only targeted voter registration records is simply ludicrous. The outlines of an illegitimate election are clear.

The wheels of American justice turn slowly, especially when the Party that controls both Houses of Congress has a vested interest in gumming up the works. And while there are mechanisms for dealing with violations of election laws and a process for removing a President guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, whatever those might be, there is no Constitutional provision for dealing with a fraudulent election. Some might suggest that the 25th Amendment could be invoked but if the election was tainted, so too is the entire chain of succession provided for in that Amendment. Rather, I propose the following:

The Democratic National Committee and other interested parties bring suit against the Federal Election Commission challenging the legitimacy of the election. The matter would go to the Supreme Court which could, if the evidence were compelling, order the results of the election voided and the Trump administration, in its entirely, removed from office. At this point, the House of Representatives could elect an interim president to serve until a new election is held. It is worth nothing that nothing in the Constitution requires a popular vote for the President. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that each state choose Electors by whatever means its legislature directs. For that matter, nothing in the Constitution requires that the Electors from each state vote unanimously or that their votes reflect the results of the election. Assuming that having the interim President serve until 2021 is not desirable, that leaves several possibilities.

1)     The Electoral College empaneled in 2016 could be reconvened to elect a new president and vice president to serve out the term. This has the advantage of being quick. However, the legitimacy of Electors chosen in a fraudulent election could be in doubt.

2)     The states could be directed to appoint a new College of Electors to elect a new president and vice president to serve out the term. Again, this could be done fairly quickly. However, the direct selection of the Electoral College by the state legislatures, while Constitutional, would be unprecedented and almost certainly controversial.  

3)      A new presidential election could be scheduled for 2018. This is the option I call The Great American Reset. Henceforth presidential elections would be held on even-numbered years not divisible by four.

After that, when the disaster of the Trump election is behind us, perhaps the Congress will see fit to propose a Constitutional Amendment reforming our badly flawed system for electing presidents, a system that is far too easy for a hostile foreign power to subvert. Naturally, I have an opinion of how that system should function, but that is a different post.

Goose, meet gander

Everyday it is becoming more apparent that Russia interfered in our recent presidential election. As unsettling as that is it is also rather ironic considering that the US has a long and sordid history of doing just that to other countries. A brief review is in order:

Perhaps the most famous example of US interference in another country was the 1953 CIA-engineered coup in Iran that restored the Shah to the brutal Peacock Throne. The animosity that intervention engendered boiled over in 1979 and underlies the tensions between our two countries to this day.

A year later the CIA the overthrew the president of Guatemala and installed the first of a fifty-year line of right-wing dictators. The poverty these despots have allowed to persist continues to play a major role in driving Guatemalans to immigrate illegally to the US. And the malign hand of the US in Central America was not lost on the young Che Guevara who witnessed that coup first hand.

During the same period, the US intervened in the governments of the Philippines and Lebanon, not for the first or last time in either country. And, of course, this was also when the US involvement in Vietnam began as the Eisenhower administration scuttled the scheduled 1955 national referendum in that country. More than 58,000 Americas and perhaps millions of Vietnamese paid for that bit of hubris with their lives.

One of the more notorious examples of US meddling in other nations was the 1973 CIA-backed military coup that took the life of freely elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. It was not until 1993 that some semblance of freedom returned to that country after the death of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The US predilection for interfering in other countries did not begin in the mid-20th Century. Rather it dates to the early part of the 19th Century with the Mexican War when the United States wrested away a significant part of our southern neighbor. Before that we tried unsuccessfully to seize part of Canada in 1812. But that failure did not stop us from trying to grab part of Pacific Canada in the 1840s.

Sadly, the fact is that the US has been the most expansionist, interventionist country in the world almost since our inception. Perhaps getting a small taste or our own medicine from the Russians will, when dust inevitably settles, cause us to reevaluate our place in the world. Even more sadly, it is impossible to see that happening any time soon.

Trump on tap

It has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump’s response to critical news reports is to deflect and lie. The latest flap over his and his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials is a case in point. When the press reported that Trump surrogate and current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador to the US during the campaign, the Donald responded with angry tweets accusing then-President Obama of illegally tapping the phones at Trump Tower. Mr. Obama has denied ordering any such wiretap and both the Director of National Intelligence and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have said categorically that there was no bugging of Candidate Trump or of his campaign. It is worth parsing these statements carefully to try to determine the truth.

First, though, let us consider the process through which such surveillance might be implemented. Before anything happened, someone at the FBI would have to suspect that some law was being broken. That suspicion could have arisen from any of a number of sources. Perhaps NSA intercepted unusual funds transfers between Russian banks and entities associated with the Trump organization or campaign. Persons with security clearances, including, one presumes, Senator Sessions, are required to file reports of contacts with certain foreign officials. Maybe one or more of those reports raised a red flag. It is no secret that the FBI monitors the activities of some, if not all, foreign diplomats in the US. Maybe they saw something that appeared questionable. And then there is always the possibility that someone within the Trump campaign blew the whistle on a perceived impropriety. In any case, if the FBI became suspicious, they might well seek a warrant for a wiretap. That warrant could be issued by a Federal Court in the District of Columbia or, if there were a national security issue at hand, by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. In an extreme case where human lives or critical national security interests were at stake, the FBI could initiate the wiretap before obtaining the warrant but that seems unlikely in this case. With the warrant in hand, the FBI, quite possibly with assistance from NSA, would establish electronic surveillance of communications to and from the Trump offices. Most likely NSA would mount a parallel effort against the backchannels from the Russian embassy for which they would need no warrant. The information generated by the intercepts would be processed and analyzed by the intelligence and law enforcement communities then presented to the appropriate prosecuting authorities.

But this case is a bit different because of the political sensitivity associated with surveilling a nation campaign, especially against the candidate of the opposition party. Against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal everyone involved surely exercised the utmost discretion. Here is how I believe events unfolded:

Sometime in the earlier days of the Trump campaign, the FBI became aware of questionable contacts between members of that campaign and the Russians. Paul Manafort, in particular, clearly engaged in dubious activities. I would not be at all surprised if money were being channeled to the Trump campaign from Russian interests as well—a clear violation of US election laws. Being aware of the political ramifications, the FBI most likely took the matter to the Attorney General who consulted President Obama who told them to stand down until after the election. I suspect that Director Comey’s ill-timed and unethical comments about Clinton emails, that may well have cost her the election, could have been a misguided attempt on his part to be even-handed. In any case, on November 9 or shortly thereafter, I imagine that the FBI took the matter to the FISA court and obtained a warrant to monitor communications between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. After the inauguration, as Trump appointees filtered down into the Federal bureaucracy, someone learned of the top-secret wiretap and informed Trump who responded with a typical tweet storm. Go back and read the statements from Obama, the FBI, and the DNI. They are all consistent with this scenario.

And this, I believe, is the history of the matter heretofore. What emerges in the next weeks and months promises to be interesting at the least and frightening at worst. The evidence of Russian interference in our election and influence over the Trump administration is becoming difficult to ignore or to dismiss as “fake news.” There is a lot of smoke coming from Trump Tower these days and it is hard to believe that there is no fire there.

Agent Trump

Let me begin by noting that I was a Russian linguist in the US Air Force and so I am quite sure that I know more about Russia and Russians than do most Americans. I am also an avid reader of history, so I believe I know more than many about the Cold War and the arms race. That background has led me to the conclusion that the Russians are not, and never have been, the threat to the United States that our leaders have led us to believe.

Russian behavior before, during, and since the Cold War has been entirely consistent with their thousand-year history of authoritarian rule, a national inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, and a strong culture of religious or ideological mysticism. Post-World War II Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was not about communism; it was about fear of Western invasion. By the late 1980s, the Soviets finally came close to achieving strategic parity with the US but the enormous cost of doing so bankrupted the country leading to its economic and political collapse in 1991. Since then post-Soviet Russia has watched as its western buffer crumbled and NATO advanced to the borders of the motherland. Perhaps the last straw was the defection of Ukraine to the West. German troops were again, figuratively and in some cases literally, on Russia’s doorstep. Besides symbolically taking back Crimea, which Ukrainian-born Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ceded to Ukraine in the 1950s, there was little they could do about it.

Throughout the Cold War, the US was two steps ahead of the Soviets in the arms race. Despite the few areas in which they had technical superiority over the US—rocket engine design, for example (current US Atlas V and Delta 4 launchers use Russian-designed engines)—they never had a qualitative military lead over the US and their quantitative superiority in tanks, troops, and nuclear warheads was never sufficient to give them an edge. Perhaps the most ironic incident I recall was the panicky announcement by the Nixon administration that the US was in grave danger because the Soviet Union had tested their first missile with multiple independently-guide reentry vehicles (MIRV). That very same week the US Minuteman III carrying MIRVs became operational. The Cold War was, and its chilly aftermath remains, more about the profits of the US military industrial complex than about defending the United States against a marauding USSR.

There is one field, however, in which the Russians are the best in the world: human intelligence. They cannot come close to the technical prowess of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office but when it comes to developing and exploiting human spies, they have no peers. Which brings me to the real point of this piece: Russian infiltration of the 2016 US election with the aim of accomplishing through subterfuge what they could not do militarily: roll back NATO from their western frontier.

Like any good undercover operation, the compromise of the US 2016 election was developed over a long period. The first thing the Russians did was to identify individuals who could be recruited, knowingly or unwittingly. As Malcolm Nance details in The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), Russian spymasters look for certain character weaknesses that they can exploit to turn a person into an asset: avarice, cupidity, and narcissism. One person fits that profile perfectly: Donald J. Trump.

Just when the Russians began grooming Trump as an asset is unclear. His first foray into Russia was in 1987, a year before he first put his toe into the presidential candidate pool. But the internal chaos leading up to the demise of the USSR forestalled any deals. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a small number of entrepreneurs—if one can call them that—became extraordinarily wealthy privatizing Soviet state enterprises. Many, if not most, of them looked to the West to invest and hide their wealth.  Real estate was a favorite investment, especially in large American cities, and Donald Trump was one of the highest flying real estate moguls in Manhattan. Russian investors lavished money on Trump, buying condos in his buildings and reportedly bankrolling several of his grandiose plans. When those plans collapsed into bankruptcy it is likely that Trump was left owing considerable sums to Russian oligarchs. But it is probably after Trump again considered a bid for the Republican nomination in 2004 that the Russian government recognized that he could be exactly what they were looking for. From then on, Russian cash poured into Trump’s coffers. Persistent rumors suggest that the Russians cashed in their second chip, cupidity, when Trump took the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013 and is said to have engaged in what can only be described as tawdry behavior with Russian prostitutes, who were quite possibly in the employ of Russian intelligence. The last character flaw, narcissism, was probably the easiest for the Russians to exploit. Trump is surrounded by toadies with connections to Moscow.

As I suggested earlier, I think it unlikely that Trump is a witting Russian agent. I doubt that a professional intelligence service would hire someone as volatile and unpredictable. But it does seem possible, and indeed probable, that Trump is an unwitting Russian asset sitting in the White House. His inchoate America-First rhetoric fits perfectly with the Russian desire for the United States to disengage in Europe. Without US participation, NATO will probably reverse its expansion into Eastern Europe. Trump’s belligerence in the Middle East makes Russia appear to many in the region as a sane alternative to the US. His promised torpedoing of the Iran nuclear treaty will surely drive that country farther in to the arms of the Russian bear. His apparent determination to make an enemy of China will strengthen Russia’s position in the Far East while slowing China’s growth as an economic superpower. And his hostility toward Latin America may well make Russia appear a reasonable alternative partner for that region. All in all, Trump being Trump is very good for Russia’s interests.

The evidence that Russian hackers interfered in the US election is incontrovertible. Their finger prints are all over the attacks on the DNC and DCCC computer systems. It seems possible, even probable, that Edward Snowden is a Russian asset. His trail to the position that allowed him to steal so much information from NSA seems hardly accidental as does the fact that after Trump was elected talk started of his repatriation. Contacts between Trump surrogates like Michael Flynn and the Russian government have been too numerous to be coincidental. Key Trump appointees, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have long-standing connections with Russian commercial interests.  

It does not require a conspiratorial mind to believe that, having failed to best the US in overt military and economic power, Russia has, at last, succeeded in beating us through the black arts of espionage where their millennium of experience in insurmountable. Who knows, perhaps it is for the best. Trump himself and his crackpot ideas will not last very long. The very character defects that made him a useful target for the Russians will not likely survive the US legal system very long. The autocracy he threatens will probably mellow into a form acceptable to Americans just as democracy in Russia evolved into a tsarist model with which the Russians are more comfortable. But whatever the future, it seems certain that the Russians have won this round.