Cold Warriors Becoming Overheated Over Trolls

In a Wall Street Journal column called "The Clear and Present Danger of Trump," former Clinton adviser William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently proclaimed, "It is time for the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser to confront Mr. Trump, collectively and directly, to inform him that unless he publicly affirms the reality of the Russian threat and authorizes the strongest possible response to it, they will have no honorable alternative to resignation." If this proposed cabinet coup failed, Galston added, "There is a starker alternative. . .. Section 4 of the 25th Amendment gives the Vice President, supported by a majority of the cabinet, the authority to declare that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

Galston’s demand for the "strongest possible response" threatens a military response not mere sanctions, since Trump already signed a tough new sanctions bill on August 2, which Moscow called "a full-scale trade war."

Galston’s "clear and present danger" or "Russian threat" refers to amorphous meddling in the 2016 Presidential elections by "Russians" – not necessarily the Russian government.

On January 6, 2017, the former Director of National Intelligence issued a background brief "Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections." This Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), on behalf of the FBI, CIA and NSA, declared: "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 . . . [to] denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency."

The trouble is, that ICA brief was over a year ago, so it can’t easily explain why Mr. Galston is suddenly so agitated. And over half of the ICA brief was devoted to Russian television being unfair and unbalanced in 2012 – not 2016. The 2012 election is not a clear and present danger.

The only recent news about Russian election meddling is the Mueller indictment of 13 Russian citizens for buying Facebook ads to sow discontent "on a wide range of issues" and "to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump."

The indictment says the organization – a St. Petersburg troll farm called the Internet Research Agency LLC – "created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. The pages controlled by the Internet Research Agency addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including "Secured Borders"); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including "Blacktivist"); religion (with group names including "United Muslims of America" and "Army of Jesus"); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including "South United" and "Heart of Texas")."

The 13 indicted Russian trolls violated US election and visa laws. One of them, St. Petersburg restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin (56), is accused of financing the troll farm. None was accused of any connection with the Russian government.

"According to the indictment," claims the New York Times, Prigozhin is "a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin." That is not true. The Mueller indictment did not claim to have evidence of any ties between Prigozhin and Putin or the Russian Government.

Internet Research Agency trolling is old news. On June 2, 2015 Adrian Chen wrote a long report for The New York Times Magazine explaining that Internet Research Agency "had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a ‘troll farm.’ The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes." Those hoaxes included a phony chemical plant explosion in Louisiana, an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta, and a "rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police." "Several Russian media outlets," Chen added, "have claimed that the agency is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch restaurateur."

Journalists’ recent assertions about ties or links between Prigozhin’s troll farm and the Kremlin are commonly based on the facts that (1) he "has been nicknamed ‘Putin’s Chef’ because he owns restaurants favored by Putin as the venues for state dinners," and that (2) Prigozhin’s businesses (Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting LLC) received government contracts of "10.3 billion rubles [~$23 million] on cleaning in barracks and educational institutions of the Ministry of Defense, and also are engaged in supply of food to Moscow schools." But Concord Catering clients also include many global corporations. Simply being a favorite chef and having government contracts do not constitute compelling evidence of Kremlin involvement in the troll farm.

The troll farm’s amateurish Facebook ads don’t look like the work of sophisticated spies. Facebook reported that half of the trolling ads cost less than $3 apiece. Most are laughable: Examples can be seen here and here. The Economist adds, "Their English was often awkward and their content asinine." And many of these ads appeared after the election. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of ads, tweeted, "I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal."

One of the few election-focused ads depicts Satan on Hillary’s side arm-wrestling Jesus and Trump; this was unlikely to lure many Hillary supporters to Trump. Even if anyone claimed to believe these ads influenced votes, they are no longer a present danger because (1) the operation has been exposed, (2) its members are banned from the US and social media, and (3) its financier has already been severely sanctioned for more than a year.

On December 20, 2016 Prigozhin was one of 7 Russians singled out for an asset freeze and blacklisting under President Obama’s Executive Order 13661 (in response to Russia annexing Crimea) because "Prigozhin has extensive business dealings with the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, and a company with significant ties to him holds a contract to build a military base near the Russian Federation border with Ukraine."

What about the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment? It mainly focused on TV and radio propaganda – not violating US election laws. Trolling merited just a couple of sentences. Citing "a journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency," the ICA opined that the "likely financier" of the troll farm is "a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence."

The ICA was far more worried about legal propaganda from Sputnik radio and RT America (formerly Russia Today). The ICA was alarmed that "The Kremlin spends $190 million a year on the distribution and dissemination of RT programming."

The Obama intelligence team complained that "RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative," but could have said this (and probably did) about Fox News.

Because the ICA feared that RT America was being used "to undermine faith in the US government and fuel political protest," the Trump Justice Department ordered the Kremlin-funded broadcaster to register in the US as a foreign agent last November. In retaliation, Russia required Russia Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to likewise label themselves foreign agents on December 5, 2017. This was a win for Cold Warriors on both sides, but a loss for free speech.

Neither Russian television propaganda nor the pranks of Prigozhin’s dozen trolls present such a "clear and present danger" that would justify an inner-circle coup to remove an elected US President and/or to launch the "strongest possible" measures against the Russian government. Mr. Galston’s call to arms appears way over the top.

Alan Reynolds, an early critic of the Iraq WMD hoax, is an economist with the Cato Institute.

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Author: Alan Reynolds

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of Income and Wealth (Greenwood Press 2006).