Sunday, July 23, 2017
Trump and the troops
He truly believes he's running a banana republic:
And this is a little bit scary:
In the fall of 2013, Veterans Today, a fringe American news site that also offers former service members help finding jobs and paying medical bills, struck up a new partnership. It began posting content from New Eastern Outlook, a geopolitical journal published by the government-chartered Russian Academy of Sciences, and running headlines like “Ukraine’s Ku Klux Klan — NATO’s New Ally.” As the United States confronted Russian ally Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrian children this spring, the site trumpeted, “Proof: Turkey Did 2013 Sarin Attack and Did This One Too” and “Exclusive: Trump Apologized to Russia for Syria Attack.”
In recent years, intelligence experts say, Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” — a form of political warfare that includes disinformation, propaganda and compromising leaders with bribes and blackmail — against the United States. Thus far, congressional committees, law enforcement investigations and press scrutiny have focused on Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s successful efforts to disrupt the American political process. But a review of the available evidence and the accounts of Kremlin watchers make clear that the Russian government is using the same playbook against other pillars of American society, foremost among them the military. Experts warn that effort, which has received far less attention, has the potential to hobble the ability of the armed forces to clearly assess Putin’s intentions and effectively counter future Russian aggression.
In addition to propaganda designed to influence service members and veterans, Russian state actors are friending service members on Facebook while posing as attractive young women to gather intelligence and targeting the Twitter accounts of Defense Department employees with highly customized “phishing” attacks. The same Russian military hacking group that breached the Democratic National Committee, “Fancy Bear,” was also responsible for publicly posting stolen Army data online while posing as supporters of the Islamic State in 2015, according to the findings of one cybersecurity firm. And the hacking group’s most common target for phishing attacks in the West has been military personnel, with service members’ spouses making up another prominent target demographic, according to another cybersecurity firm.
While the military and its contractors have long been the targets of cyberattacks from hostile foreign powers, the Russian campaign is noteworthy for its heightened intensity, especially since the imposition of Western economic sanctions following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and for the novel tactics it is employing online. All of it amounts to a new kind of low-intensity or “hybrid” warfare that Western governments are still struggling to effectively counter.
“We are focused on the azalea bushes at the edge of a redwood forest,” said retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, who stepped down last June after three years as supreme allied commander of NATO, where he witnessed a surge in Russian active measures against Baltic states and in efforts to spread negative disinformation about the alliance’s soldiers stationed in Europe.
The active measures campaign has followed Breedlove home and into retirement. In July, emails hacked from his Gmail account were published on the Russian front site DC Leaks, and Breedlove said he was recently targeted with a series of more than a dozen sophisticated phishing emails purporting to come from his bank. Breedlove declined to name his bank but said it is used by the majority of his fellow officers, leading him to conclude the motives of the phishing attack were political rather than financial. “What Russia is doing across the gamut from our internal audiences to military audiences and others,” he said, “is quite astronomical.”
In the 20th century, intelligence agencies looking to build ties with foreign soldiers might have gone through the trouble of sending agents out to watering holes near military bases, waiting for servicemen to show up and gaining their trust one drink at a time.
Now, social media makes it cheap and easy to target soldiers and veterans in their virtual hangouts for intelligence gathering and influence campaigns.
John Bambenek, a threat intelligence manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity, whose work has included investigating the DNC breach, said Russia is one of several foreign powers using social media lures to gather intelligence on the U.S. military. “Some are quite unsophisticated (attractive women sending friend requests), some get more complicated,” he wrote in an email. “Spies understand that a great deal can be discerned about what militaries are up to based on the unclassified behavior of soldiers.”
Forming connections on social media could help foreign states directly communicate with groups of American soldiers, a tactic employed in recent conflicts by both Russia and the U.S. During the first days of the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers were bombarded with demoralizing text messages such as, “Soldier you are just a raw meat for your commanders.” Ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military emailed Iraqi soldiers en masse, encouraging them to surrender, according to Richard Clarke’s 2010 book, “Cyber War.”
The Pentagon is clearly worried. Defense Department spokeswoman Linda Rojas declined to comment on specific activities, but said new technologies have made the military more vulnerable in cyberspace. “The proliferation of internet-based communications and social media applications has elevated the potential for nefarious use that could affect our personnel,” she wrote in an email. Rojas also said the military was working to address the mounting threats posed by hacking and online influence operations. “We make every effort to educate and inform DoD personnel of these threats, while bolstering our network defense capabilities to protect IT infrastructure from outside intrusions,” she wrote.
Becoming Facebook friends with American soldiers also gives foreign agents the ability to post propaganda that will show up on their news feeds.
Serena Moring, a former military contractor from a military family, said she first became concerned about pro-Russian sentiment among soldiers on social media last spring, when an unverified report purporting to relate the story of a Russian soldier who died heroically while fighting ISIS in Syria began circulating among American service members on social media.
“All of the response from the military guys was like, ‘That is awesome. That’s an epic way to die,’” recounted Moring, 39. “It was a very soldier-to-soldier bond that was created through social media.”
Moring said she has become further alarmed as friends of hers in the military, including military intelligence, have become avowed admirers of Putin, and that she now expends considerable effort arguing about Russia on Instagram and Facebook channels geared to military audiences.
In the Wild West of social media, it is difficult to sort out pro-Russian sentiment that is organic—Putin’s approval rating has surged among U.S. Republicans since 2015, and he is often the subject of positive coverage in right-leaning outlets like Fox News—from that which is manufactured. But Breedlove said much of the sentiment is being generated by a concerted Kremlin influence campaign. “People popping up on veterans’ sites and singing the praises of Putin, you can guarantee those are trolls and part of the army that’s sitting over there attacking us every day,” he said.
Putin has made the creation of a pro-Russian “alternative media ecosystem” to, in his words, smash “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the information stream” a top priority of his foreign policy. A significant prong of those operations is aimed at the American military community, and the Russian activity has ramped up in recent years as tensions have increased over sanctions, the annexation of Crimea and the expansion of NATO.
There's more. Wherever you stand on the Russia issue, this just doesn't strike me as a good thing.
digby 7/23/2017 10:30:00 AM