Everyone meddles in elections
With the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of Russian nationals for meddling in the 2016 elections, Americans have every reason to be indignant, angry, and upset that a foreign power would seek to sow discord among us for its own purposes.
But as a piece in the New York Times notes, the U.S. too, has meddled in foreign elections -- many of them, in fact. And among the nation's intelligence community members, that meddling isn't necessarily a bad thing:
Most Americans are understandably shocked by what they view as an unprecedented attack on our political system. But intelligence veterans, and scholars who have studied covert operations, have a different, and quite revealing, view.
“If you ask an intelligence officer, did the Russians break the rules or do something bizarre, the answer is no, not at all,” said Steven L. Hall, who retired in 2015 after 30 years at the C.I.A., where he was the chief of Russian operations. The United States “absolutely” has carried out such election influence operations historically, he said, “and I hope we keep doing it.”
Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades, whenever American officials were worried about a foreign vote.
“We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947,” said Mr. Johnson, now at the University of Georgia. “We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners — you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.”
The United States’ departure from democratic ideals sometimes went much further. The C.I.A. helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and backed violent coups in several other countries in the 1960s. It plotted assassinations and supported brutal anti-Communist governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
They are quick to draw a line between what the U.S. has done in the past, and what Russian has done recently (and may try to do again this election year):
American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said.
Equating the two, Mr. Hall says, “is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns — the motivation matters.”
What about historical context?
Over time, more American influence operations have been mounted not secretly by the C.I.A. but openly by the State Department and its affiliates. For the 2000 election in Serbia, the United States funded a successful effort to defeat Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist leader, providing political consultants and millions of stickers with the opposition’s clenched-fist symbol and “He’s finished” in Serbian, printed on 80 tons of adhesive paper and delivered by a Washington contractor.
Vince Houghton, who served in the military in the Balkans at the time and worked closely with the intelligence agencies, said he saw American efforts everywhere. “We made it very clear that we had no intention of letting Milosevic stay in power,” said Mr. Houghton, now the historian at the International Spy Museum.
Similar efforts were undertaken in elections in wartime Iraq and Afghanistan, not always with success. After Hamid Karzai was re-elected president of Afghanistan in 2009, he complained to Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, about the United States’ blatant attempt to defeat him, which Mr. Gates calls in his memoir “our clumsy and failed putsch.”
At least once the hand of the United States reached boldly into a Russian election. American fears that Boris Yeltsin would be defeated for re-election as president in 1996 by an old-fashioned Communist led to an overt and covert effort to help him, urged on by President Bill Clinton. It included an American push for a $10 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Russia four months before the voting and a team of American political consultants (though some Russians scoffed when they took credit for the Yeltsin win).
Spies, disinformation, pay-offs, propoganda...it's been going on for a long time. The ends may have been very different, but the methods? Not so much. We have every reason to be outraged that Russia stuck its nose in our elections. But it's not unheard of, it will happen again, and we will do our share of the influencing somewhere in the globe.