Most Americans now realize the Kremlin has attempted to influence, interfere, and subvert our democratic system. Recent reports even suggest the Russian intelligence services may have also sought to suborn President Trump himself. This is obviously a critical national security threat and needs to be fought on many fronts. When not outright denying their activity, the Kremlin and its enablers justify their actions by claiming American covert and overt policy abroad is equally intrusive. “You do the same thing!” While it is useful to review and critique our actions — and acknowledge and repair mistakes — these accusations fail both historically and morally.
We have become accustomed to insults, threats and demeaning language aimed at both allies and enemies emanating from the White House. However, it wasn’t long ago that President Ronald Reagan shocked observers with his blunt rhetoric when he labeled the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in a 1983 speech.
In contrast to President Donald Trump’s penchant for insults, Reagan’s comments were a calculated response to a particularly frustrating Soviet propaganda trick called “whataboutism.” Reagan’s ire was piqued by the Soviet attempt to assert moral equivalence between Soviet and U.S. policy. Reagan was reacting to the spread of Soviet narratives in the U.S. and Europe that the U.S. arms buildup implied belligerent intent rather than a response to Soviet actions. In is response to the ‘nuclear freeze’ proposal, Reagan warned his audience to avoid the temptation to “label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
Whataboutism is a favorite tactic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which President Trump has also employed. It is a handy device to divert criticism and derail a discussion by asserting false comparison between two things that are otherwise dissimilar. When questioned about the Russian seizure of Ukrainian Crimea, Putin quickly asked about the U.S. annexation of Texas. Trump pivots from criticism with variations of “What about Hillary?”
Similarly, responses to the Russian assault on the 2016 U.S. presidential election often include hearty doses of whataboutism. Namely, how can the U.S. complain about Russian interference in elections when the U.S. routinely intrudes into the affairs of others? How can we condemn others for the same things we do? As a former CIA officer, I hear it all the time. Indeed, many believe that Putin’s willingness to attack our election in 2016 was due to his personal anger at Hillary Clinton who he believed was supporting opposition forces in Moscow during Russia’s 2012 election.
Any attempt to address this question should look back to the essence of Reagan’s words. It is not only specific acts and tactics that define us, but the intent of our actions. All soldiers kill. However, battle on behalf of humanity and democracy cannot be equated with those who kill in an effort to take away rights, imprison opponents and consolidate raw power.
Likewise, covert activities on behalf of democracy and western values cannot be compared to Russian aggression aimed at undermining those values. It is not covert activity that is inherently wrong. Instead, it matters who does it and why. The details matter.
General Michael Hayden described Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as the “most successful covert influence operation in history.”
I beg to differ.
An even more successful covert campaign was the secret effort by British intelligence to pull isolationist American into a European war to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Germany. We forget it now because of who did it and why. However, it was no less underhanded and manipulative than the Russian effort in 2016.
As the British and French soldiers were fleeing Nazi advances on the European continent in 1940, the British realized that they could not win the war alone and sought to use covert and illegal means to drag the U.S. into war. Run by William Stephenson, a British Intelligence officer codenamed Intrepid, the British Security Coordination office (BSC) was a massive covert operation run out of Rockefeller Center in New York. Stephenson ran a complex secret operation to influence U.S. citizens and policymakers. His tactics included black propaganda, news manipulation, and a variety of illegal activities — including dirty tricks and election manipulation. Among other covert activities, the BSC sought to destroy and silence powerful isolationist politicians in Congress, use media resources and political influence to portray isolationists as Nazis, manipulate public opinion polls (the top official at Gallup was an MI-6 officer), co-opt moviemakers, establish front organizations, forge material to frighten Americans that Hitler had designs on the western hemisphere, and intercept and analyze all U.S. mail and telegraph material destined for Europe and tap telephones. Stephenson even used recruited agents to create the U.S. wartime intelligence service (OSS) and have “their man” installed as director.
As explained in Thomas E. Mahl’s book, Desperate Deception: “In a time of great national crises and dwindling resources, covert operations were the tool that ultimately was responsible for saving England.”
While both England in 1940 and Russia in 2016 used covert means to manipulate U.S. opinion and policy, the two are not equivalent. It’s true, allies spy against allies. They manipulate situations to their benefit and seek insights. However, they do not look to destroy and undermine the basis of our democracy. While underhanded, Britain’s actions in 1940 amounted to a nudge among friends to do the right thing for the cause of pursuing freedom over despotism. Both the Soviet Union and England spied against the U.S. in WWII. One acted bravely to defend civilization from Nazi tyranny, the other cynically offered an alternative form of despotism, prison camps and raw aggression. One covert campaign changed the world for the better, the other for the worse. Such distinctions matter.
The moral high ground in international affairs is not defined by whether or not states defend themselves, or have militaries and intelligence services, but by what they stand for. Nor does the fact that democratic states make sometimes horrendous mistakes mean that they are no better than authoritarian and despotic regimes. Indeed, feeling their oats following a victory in WWII, early-Cold War administrations sometimes flexed their new-found covert authorities overseas in ways that seem ill-advised in retrospect. The fall-out from those activities hurt our legitimacy as the leader of the free world and led to necessary changes in way such policies would be conceived and approved in the future. Today the U.S. engages in covert action at the specific direction of the President and under robust congressional and legal oversight, all within a system that protects free media and engages in regular elections. Legitimate criticism of U.S. overreach comes from a desire to insure the country lives up to its ideals. Unlike in dictatorships, flawed democratic institutions can learn, atone, improve, and be held accountable.
In this sense, assigning equivalence between Russia’s information warfare and the covert activities of the U.S. plays directly into Putin’s hands. As Joel Harding commented recently in his blog, To Inform is to Influence, “In the United States we count our blessings in terms of our freedoms. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on. I often ask, what freedoms do Russians have?”
Of course, judging absolute right and wrong in international affairs is seldom possible. However, it is possible to choose sides and understand that imperfect means are sometimes necessary to protect and promote the best alternative. Soldiers and spies engage in behavior that is only justified by the cause they represent. Both the soldier and the spy engage in behavior that would be unacceptable — and even reprehensible — if not done in direct service of a larger interest. It is therefore the moral cause for which those professionals serve which is what we should judge.
For this reason, many former national security practitioners have been critical of President Trump’s comments and actions. They realize it is precisely this moral cause and higher purpose that President Trump threatens with his dismissal of the liberal world order, attack on legal and ethical norms, and his embrace of tyrants. His behavior potentially damages our domestic political discourse and alienates our allies and friends. Perhaps more importantly, however, our military, diplomatic and intelligence professionals may find it much harder to justify their sacrifices if they sense America is changing it stripes, and no longer reflects noble intentions and a desire to do good in the world. As Trump continues to shred American institutions and values, he is also weakening our ability to act on its behalf. Those who vigorously defend America on the front lines do so because it is special, not only because we happen to live here.