NEW YORK—I’ve been reading this indictment of the thirteen people who supposedly disrupted the 2016 election.
Are you kidding me?
These are intelligence agents.
I mean, some of them may be contractors employed by Russian intelligence, but either way, it’s the equivalent of saying the CIA doesn’t know what it’s doing.
You don’t indict intelligence agents. There’s no point to it. There’s no possible outcome that’s better than monitoring the agents, wiretapping the agents, sending spies to collaborate with the agents, or, in a best-case scenario, turning the agents. Given the choice between a public indictment and a secret operation, there are about 700 arguments for secrecy, while I can think of only one for going public: Maybe they will let their guard down. Otherwise, why would we publish a 37-page document telling them what we know and, by implication, what we don’t know?
Remember when Italy indicted 26 CIA agents for kidnapping Abu Omar while he was walking to his mosque in Milan? We were furious about that. We cited sources in Italian intelligence who had told us it was okay, but Italian police and judges were unimpressed and issued the indictments anyway, essentially ending the active undercover careers of all 26, including the mission head in Italy and the station heads in Rome and Milan. Our argument against extradition was essentially, “This is not the way it’s done.” Italy’s argument was, “Not in our house.”
Which makes the public naming of these thirteen Russian nationals absurd in comparison. We’re treating this like the equivalent of the nerve-agent attempted murder in London, whereas these operatives spent most of their time at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg creating fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram; fake IP addresses to mask the origins of various forms of propaganda; and fake money trails so they could pay for everything through PayPal. The most telling detail in the document is that “Project Lakhta,” with its painfully small $15 million annual budget and its staff of eighty, wasn’t just dealing with the United States—these people were creating mischief for other countries as well. Fifteen million bucks to cover the whole world? We indicted thirteen part-time election disrupters. (I’m assuming that the thirteen we singled out were just particularly fluent in English and remembered to use articles—missing articles always being the telltale sign of a Russian trying to pass as an English-speaker.)
For example, the three rock-star operatives seem to be Gleb Vasilchenko, Irina Kaverzina, and Vladimir Venkov. Gleb was good at fake organizations. Irina and Vladimir were good at fake personas on social media. So, given the vast IT resources of the National Security Agency and the CIA, wouldn’t it be possible to write a program that detects the peculiarities of their writing styles and tracks exactly where they are from day to day and what they’re doing? Why would you want them named in an indictment, reassigned to Dresden, and replaced by someone we cannot identify? (Irina is the one who got sloppy with her email security and was caught messaging her mother about having to destroy records so the FBI wouldn’t find them, so she might get reassigned to Novosibirsk instead of Dresden.)
Or how about the three-week barnstorming trip by Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva, the two women who were apparently so good at their jobs that they passed for American political organizers in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, and New York, while gathering intelligence on divisive election issues, “purple states,” and the like? Why not just get some good photos of Aleksandra and Anna, approve their visas in the future, and follow them? What’s the alternative? Put them in an interrogation room and sweat out the reasons they were cozying up to that NRA member in June 2016?
I’m actually in awe of some of these guys, especially the ones who founded Blacktivist, Army of Jesus, and United Muslims of America—all fake organizations that ended up with tens of thousands of followers—but a special award has to go to the comrade who managed to successfully pose as the head of the Republican Party in Tennessee (100,000 followers). This is probably the same guy who got the key hashtags started, especially #TrumpTrain and #Hillary4Prison, although one of the most intriguing things about the operation is that the bosses in St. Petersburg would have been just as happy with Bernie Sanders as with Trump. It was not so much a pro-Trump propaganda campaign as a #NeverHillary. The other intriguing things about the Internet Research Agency (the St. Petersburg operation has many names, but that’s the most often cited) is that, as soon as the election was over, they sponsored both pro-Trump and anti-Trump political rallies, often on the same day.