WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Gen. Michael Hayden formerly headed the National Security Agency and then the Central Intelligence Agency. He has just published an important book about how Russia is exploiting a key US weakness: The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.
Kurdistan 24 sat down with Hayden on Friday to discuss his book and its implications for current events. The first part of the interview focused on Russia, while the second dealt with the Middle East.
This report deals with Russia. The next report will present Hayden’s views on the future of the region and its implications for the Kurds, particularly, given his view that the US needs to think anew about the area we call Iraq and Syria.
“Truth” is the theme of The Assault on Intelligence, Hayden told Kurdistan 24, and three basic factors, like the layers of a cake, shape Russia’s ability to exploit the issue.
The first layer is American society. It has become “a post-truth world,” in which decisions are made less on the basis of facts and evidence and more on the basis of feelings and emotional satisfaction.
The second layer is Donald Trump. “We have a president” who “brilliantly identified” this phenomenon during the election campaign, and “continues to exploit it now,” Hayden said.
The third layer is the Russians, who recognized the first two layers and have tried “to further divide us.” It is not as if the Russians have a point of view, “they just want us to have issues,” he explained.
The Assault on Intelligence offers a particularly apt example. Some National Football League players began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump chose to make an issue of it—thereby, rallying his supporters, who, in their righteous indignation, then feel good about themselves.
Those were the first two layers of the cake: the people and the President, after which Russian Twitter trolls and bots joined in the fracas over the kneeling football players on both sides of the debate!
Hayden’s book also explains that Russia has made a special effort to court conservatives, who used to be the political group most opposed to Moscow.
“The most common English words in [the Russians’] faux Twitter user profiles,” it notes, “were ‘God,’ ‘military,’ ‘Trump,’ family,’ country’”—all conservative buzzwords.
Russia’s efforts on Twitter were, it turns out, part of a broader influence campaign that targeted the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of America’s most influential conservative political groups.
The NRA embraced Alexander Torshin, deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank and a crony of Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as Maria Butina, a young, attractive redhead, who enjoyed posing in a cowboy hat, pistol in hand.
The two Russians supposedly established a group to lobby for relaxation of Moscow’s strict gun laws, as if they were a Slavic version of the NRA. But it was a front group, established to penetrate and influence the US gun lobby.
In April, Torshin was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for his pro-Russian activities, while last week, Butina was arrested in Washington DC and charged with acting as an agent for Russia.
A retired US intelligence official scoffed at the NRA’s naiveté. “The change of an economic system (from communism to capitalism) does not predicate the end of centuries long Russian authoritarianism and expansionism,” he told Kurdistan 24.
Russia wants to compete with the US, but lacks the resources, according to Hayden. So it tries to draw the US “down to its level, by dividing, distracting, and diverting us.” It also tries to undermine NATO and “weaken and divide the West.”
The retired US intelligence official has closely followed Russia’s use of the nerve agent, novichok, in the UK, and he suggested it could well be another element in Russia’s influence campaign, aimed at weakening NATO.
In March, Moscow tried to kill a former Russian spy, using novichok, but failed. Then, at the end of June, a British couple were suddenly discovered to have been poisoned with the same, highly lethal material. Apparently, the Britons found what seemed to be a perfume bottle, but it contained novichok. The woman sprayed herself with the poison and has since died, while her partner is slowly recovering.
The retired US intelligence official told Kurdistan 24 that a significant element within Britain’s security establishment believe that the novichok’s reappearance was, in fact, a second attack—and not material sloppily discarded after the first assault.
Particularly given the timing, he suggested that it was likely intended to further undermine UK and NATO confidence in the US. The July 11-12 NATO summit followed shortly thereafter. Predictably, serious strains emerged between the US and its NATO allies.
Trump then visited the UK and more alliance troubles followed, as he endorsed Prime Minister Theresa May’s political rivals. May had said she would ask Trump to protest Russia’s use of novichok in the UK, when he met Putin. But no mention of that followed, even as, a few days later, Trump would hail the good rapport that he established with Putin in their meeting.
The retired intelligence official suggested that all of this amounted to Russia’s “successful weakening of NATO. Moscow is attacking individual NATO member states with a variety of irregular warfare tactics that fit into the overall strategy of alliance fragmentation,” he said.
The Assault on Intelligence cites a 2012 article by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s general staff, which described the “blurring [of] the lines between the state of war and the state of peace.”
“The trend now” is “‘the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population’ (my emphasis),” Hayden writes, quoting the Russian general.
We call this “hybrid warfare”—war, but not in the conventional sense. The US has developed the best technology and military equipment with which to fight a conventional conflict, so its enemies have developed other means of warfare.
Sadly, war seems a constant in human affairs. Rather than fight the US on its own terms, however, its enemies look for weaknesses, and exploit them. The Assault on Intelligence vividly describes such a major vulnerability: a society that no longer seems to understand the importance of being truthful.