Alumnus Clint Watts MAIPS '05 knows a thing or two about Russia's attempts to disrupt the political process in the United States. A U.S. Army veteran whose résumé includes service as an FBI special agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Watts appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March, where he testified that the Russian regime has in many respects taken the old Soviet active measures strategy and tactics and applied them to the digital age. Watts, currently the Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), spoke with us from his home in New Jersey.
Why are Russians doing this and what is their end goal?
First, it is important to note that this is not just about us. The Russians have been using these tactics in connection with other elections, such as the Brexit vote and the recent elections in France and Germany. The main goal is to undermine democracy and erode confidence in institutions in the West. Russian security interests are to break up and weaken alliances that challenge their foreign policy. Breaking alliances, NATO, the EU, is in Russia’s interest. They can envision going up against countries militarily, economically or diplomatically on a one-to-one basis, but strong alliances between democracies pose a challenge. The fact that their actions in Ukraine and Syria have not been met with any consequences has emboldened them to act more aggressively. The ultimate objective is to destroy democracies from the inside out, to discredit elected officials and shape opinions. Here in the U.S. it began as an effort to make sure Hillary Clinton, a long time opponent of Russia, did not get elected and then when Trump became the nominee for the Republican Party, they shifted their support to his campaign. The idea in each of these information campaigns is to sow confusion inside Russia’s enemies so that they are fighting amongst themselves. It worked so well that we are still fighting amongst ourselves a year later.
Did the Trump campaign play into Russian hands?
Our political system with its two parties makes us especially vulnerable to this sort of action. These tactics can really bring forward political, social and economic divisions. At times, the Trump campaign amplified the effectiveness of Russian Active Measures by discussing hacked materials or repeating Russian narratives regarding voter fraud and election rigging. The important thing to keep in mind here is that this is by and large an opportunistic strategy. It is not all about Trump. The Russians will amplify anything that is anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-establishment and use it to their advantage.
When you told the Senate Intelligence Committee to follow “the trail of dead bodies” as part of the Russia investigation, what did you mean?
My response was meant to point out a pattern that is worth looking into. It is a good idea to follow the money during any investigation, but in this case there is also a trail of dead bodies. Over the last year or two there has been an incredible number of deaths of people who are potentially tied to this investigation. Russian intelligence officers, diplomats - a string of senior Russian officials who are dropping dead, even in Western countries. Some of them have died from natural causes, but other deaths are suspicious. These are people who could have provided information in the investigations, possible sources.
What can we do about this?
There is a lot we can do and could be doing but we are not doing it. We could have official responses to fake news, connect hacking with the goals of hackers so that we can anticipate how they intend to use this information, educate private businesses, and work with media companies and social media providers. What if mainstream media did not share ill begotten information such as Wikileaks publishes? Then the story would die quickly. This has to be a whole of government approach but at this point it is not clear at all if there is an appetite for that in the current administration.
This interview was published in the Fall 2017 Communiqué.