Exclusive: Despite Western media dominance, the U.S. government wants to stop the world from hearing the “other side” on foreign disputes by “countering” or discrediting those voices, explains Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
“[Russia] is conducting an intensive propaganda campaign directed primarily against the US and is employing coordinated psychological, political and economic measures . . . The ultimate object of this campaign is not merely to undermine the prestige of the US and the effectiveness of its national policy but to weaken and divide world opinion to a point where effective opposition to [Russian] designs is no longer attainable by political, economic or military means.”
With that justification, the Truman administration secretly authorized the start of covert operations by the CIA against America’s wartime ally, the USSR, in December 1947. It was one of the seminal decisions that launched the Cold War.
Fast forward now to March 2016, when the “Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016” was introduced in the U.S. Senate — as if nothing has changed in nearly seven decades.
The bipartisan bill, co-authored by Senators Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, declares that the Russian government uses “disinformation and other propaganda tools to undermine the national security objectives of the United States and key allies and partners” and achieve “a destabilizing effect on United States allies and interests.”
It further asserts that “the challenge of countering disinformation” requires “a whole-of-government approach leveraging all elements of national power,” coordinated by the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence.
Last year, in the same spirit, the House Armed Services Committee sought to add $30 million to funding of the U.S. Special Operations Command to combat Russian and Islamist information operations. It accused Russia of challenging “the NATO system” by engaging in “propaganda, diplomatic and economic measures to . . . preserve and extend its perceived sphere of influence” in Ukraine and beyond.
Philip Karber, president of the hawkish Potomac Foundation in Washington, D.C., agreed that Russia’s success in “hybrid warfare,” above all in Ukraine, requires a much bigger response from the American military. “Against the Russian media machine, you cannot just depend on a free press alone to defend against their multi-front ‘Big Lie’ campaign,” he declared.
Karber is one of many neo-Cold Warriors who warn that the United States and its NATO allies are falling behind Russia in the information war. In 2014, NATO’s Supreme Commander, General Philip Breedlove called on the alliance to prepare responses to what he called “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen,” related to Russia’s support for separatists in the eastern Ukraine.
Similar hysteria spilled into the pages of The Atlantic magazine, which complained that Breedlove had actually understated the threat.
“The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare,” cried author Peter Pomerantsev. “It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. . . . We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.”
Pomerantsev is affiliated with the Legatum Institute, a London-based think-tank that brought together “senior British and American officials” and “top Germans” with “frontline information-warriors from Ukraine” in 2014 to help expose “Kremlin propagandists.”
Alarmists say Russia’s information war is aimed at persuading gullible Westerners to render their governments “largely passive” in the face of Russia’s hostile actions, for example, in Ukraine. (The claim of passivity may surprise some Russians, who attribute their serious economic recession in part to Western economic sanctions.)
Russia’s deadly weapons in this information war are its TV and web channels, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik. Edward Lucas, senior vice-president of the U.S.-based Center for European Policy Analysis, calls RT “a fearsome adversary” and “a corrosive, anti-systemic force.” [Also, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Who’s the Propagandist: US or RT?“]
Russia’s dastardly tactic is to allocate “disproportionate coverage to speakers who echo the Kremlin’s preferred narratives” on controversial issues, according to a recent paper for the House of Commons on “Russia’s Information Warfare — Airbrushing Reality,” by former NATO press officer Ben Nimmo and Dr. Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank.
Among other things, their paper complains, these media channels air Russia’s claim that NATO violated Western promises by expanding after the breakup of the USSR. Apparently, “many Western academics” have been hoodwinked by this claim. (So, apparently, was Der Spiegel, whose extensive report on the issue cited Secretary of State James Baker’s explicit promise to Mikhail Gorbachev on Feb. 9, 1990, that there would be “no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.”)
As a result, the “Airbrushing Reality” paper claims, “Moscow has succeeded in getting across a set of messages which may well hobble European security, and which need to be urgently confronted.”
RT’s Tiny Audience
These alarmists generally offer no statistics to support their warnings about the mass brainwashing of Western viewers. No wonder: RT garnered “less than 0.1 percent of Europe’s television audience.”
It proved only slightly more popular in Great Britain, where it ranked 175th out of 278 channels. The British government nonetheless deemed RT a big enough menace to threaten to revoke the network’s license. Among other sins, it was apparently guilty of airing “anti-Western comments in a late-night discussion on Ukraine.”
Anti-Russian investigative journalists have also gleefully reported that RT is “woefully failing in its mission” and misleading its Kremlin funders by “pretending that it has had a far bigger impact in the Western media sphere than it has, particularly online.” RT’s most popular videos evidently pertain to natural disasters, crime stories and social reporting, rather than politics.
Ironically it took a reporter for the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to admit that the propaganda war isn’t entirely one-sided. As Russia “embrac[es] information warfare for the 21st-century media environment,” he wrote, the “Kremlin has taken a page from Washington’s operations manual.”
The reporter added, as if the USSR had never dissolved, “Soviet intelligence services honed the tactical use of information to gain a strategic military advantage, deploying campaigns of deception, misinformation, and propaganda during the Soviet Union’s decades-long standoff with the United States, which itself used the CIA and other intelligence and information agencies to shape public opinion throughout the Cold War.” (emphasis added)
Created at the end of the 1940s as a propaganda arm of the CIA, Radio Free Europe proudly called itself a “political warfare operation engaged in a struggle against Soviet Russian colonialism behind the Iron Curtain.” But it also sought to counter “communist influence [on] this side of the Curtain” — meaning that it aimed its propaganda toward Western Europe and the United States as well.
Today, the CIA’s former international broadcasting operations enjoy lavish overt support from U.S. taxpayers through the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). For fiscal year 2017, BBG has requested $778 million in funding.
BBG works closely with the hawkish Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, to counter what she calls the “Kremlin’s pervasive propaganda campaign poisoning minds . . . on Russia’s periphery and across Europe.” (Nuland’s husband Robert Kagan is a veteran of Reagan-era “public diplomacy” and “perception management” programs led by a senior CIA covert operations specialist with the National Security Council.)
BBG has increased spending “to engage young audiences who are impacted by Russian . . . disinformation” and “launch digital teams for Central Asia and other areas where Russia supports frozen conflicts.” It created a Russian-language TV program carried by 25 outlets in eight countries along Russia’s periphery, including Ukraine,” to “correct the disinformation that is driving conflict in the region.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also funds an online magazine, The Interpreter, which in the words of one enthusiastic supporter, “relentlessly exposes the liars, scaremongers and cranks who feature on RT’s programmes.”
So all this heated concern among Western politicians, military brass and policy analysts over Russia’s “information warfare” comes despite the tiny market share of Russia-funded media outlets in the West and enormous spending by the U.S. government on its own propaganda.
It also comes despite the almost suffocating homogeneity of major U.S. media and politicians in their condemnation of Russia governance and policies. As the noted Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has rued, virtually no conflict in recent memory has attracted less debate than America’s dangerous revival of the Cold War with the world’s only other nuclear superpower.
Perhaps the “information warfare” alarmists worry that some Russian claims might contain enough truth to sow seeds of doubt in Western minds and spark that long-overdue debate. But spending tens of millions of additional taxpayer dollars to swamp Russia’s voice with our own government’s version of truth is no way to realize the democratic values we profess.
America needs to hear a wider range of opinion — not because Russia deserves particular support, but because wise policy cannot emerge from today’s group think.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]