Revelations about Russia’s use of social media in the 2016 elections are being used as a pretext for suppressing dissent by some dubious counter-terror “experts.”
By Max Blumenthal / AlterNet
This September, Oklahoma GOP Senator James Lankford alleged that the widely popular #taketheknee Twitter hashtag that promoted NFL protests against racial injustice was, in fact, a Russian influence campaign spawned by Kremlin operatives. Hours later, Lankford’s claims received uncritical coverage from the New York Times’ Scott Shane and Daisuke Wakabayashi, who asserted that Russia was attempting “to influence social media discourse and foment division in the United States.” The assertion by Lankford added fuel to a wider narrative darkly insinuating covert Russian influence behind Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.
The New York Times cited a new organization called the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) as the source of the allegations about the NFL protests. According to the Times, the ASD has tracked 600 Twitter accounts supposedly “linked to Russian influence operations” and exposed their nefarious agenda. A day before Lankford’s comments, the ASD asserted that a Russian online influence network had amplified the trending hashtag promoting NFL protests, #taketheknee, with the aim of promoting racial disharmony in the United States. Given that ASD refuses to name the Twitter accounts it is monitoring, the allegation is almost impossible to verify.
ASD researchers and advisors have become go-to pundits for mainstream reporters seeking expert opinions on Russian online meddling. They have been endorsed by John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and chief of staff for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Julia Ioffe, the Atlantic’s Russia correspondent, has also weighed in to promote the ASD’s efforts. Both highlighted the ASD’s Hamilton 68 Dashboard as a scientific barometer of Kremlin influence over the American social media landscape.
According to the New York Times, the ASD is a “public policy research group in Washington,” and a “bipartisan initiative” with no apparent agenda other than scrubbing the stain of subversion out of American democracy. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund, one of the most respected think tanks in Washington, the ASD has been granted the patina of credibility.
However, an investigation by AlterNet’s Grayzone Project has yielded a series of disturbing findings at odds with the established depiction. The researchers behind the ASD’s “dashboard” are no Russia experts, but rather a collection of cranks, counterterror retreads, online harassers and paranoiacs operating with support from some of the most prominent figures operating within the American national security apparatus.
Andrew Weisburd, an ASD fellow who inspired and helped design its Hamilton 68 dashboard, has been solicited by the New York Times and Washington Post for expert quotes on Russian meddling. Neither outlet bothered to mention Weisburd’s well-documented history of online vigilantism, including his founding of a one-man, anti-Palestinian web monitoring initiative that specialized in doxxing left-wing activists, Muslims and anyone he considered “anti-American.” Weisburd’s murderous and homophobic fantasies about Glenn Greenwald, the editor of a publication the ASD has flagged without explanation as a vehicle for Russian influence operations, have also passed without notice by reporters promoting his findings.
In recent days, the ASD’s master Kremlinologists have branded major American online outlets including the Intercept, Antiwar.com, ESPN, and even the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes as vehicles for Kremlin propaganda. ASD researchers emphasized that the outlets they placed within Russia’s supposed influence network were merely “relevant to Russian messaging themes.” But they failed to explain how they became relevant, making it almost impossible to know why the outlets listed on the dashboard were being amplified by any Russian influence operation, or whether they were at all.
The first part of this investigation introduced the ASD’s most prominent figure, Clint Watts, the self-styled national security expert whose high-profile—and factually deficient—Senate testimony introduced America to the supposed menace of Russian bots. Watts flaunts a bio that makes it appear as though his opinions on Russian “active measures” are backed by academic credentials. However, he has no record of scholarship on Russia, does not appear to speak Russian and has no professional experience inside Russia. He has, however, confessed to wasting “billions” of taxpayer dollars on a failed “influence operation” allegedly waged by the U.S. military in the Middle East. As a fellow at the right-wing Foreign Policy Research Institute, Watts has urged American intelligence agencies to encourage jihadists to carry out terrorist attacks against Russia and Iran.
The composition of the ASD’s advisory council has also been exempted from mainstream media scrutiny. A look at the Beltway power players behind the group reveals a collection of military interventionists from both parties, all united in their desire for intensified conflict with Russia. They include neoconservative former Bush advisors like Kori Schake and Democrats like Jake Sullivan, an ardent military interventionist who served as the top foreign policy advisor to the 2016 Clinton campaign. Another Clinton surrogate, the former CIA director Michael Morrell, advises the ASD. Morrell has said that the U.S. should support Islamist insurgents in Syria in order to “have the Russians and the Iranians pay a little price.” Morrell added that he wanted to “bomb [Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s] offices in the middle of the night.”
To round out its board of advisors, the ASD recruited the most recognizable face of neoconservatism in Washington, Bill Kristol. A founder of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and a vocal supporter of every war the U.S. has waged, Kristol complained in 2014 that Americans were “war weary.” He clamored for a public relations campaign to influence them in favor of open-ended military operations, urging a “rallying” of pro-war spirit. This year, Kristol openly endorsed a “deep state” coup to oust the Trump administration.
(Kristol’s son-in-law, Matthew Continetti, is the editor-in-chief of the Free Beacon, the neoconservative online outlet that served as the initial financial channel for funding the “dirty dossier” composed by a former British MI5 officer named Christopher Steele. Produced by Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm, the 35-page memo alleged that Vladimir Putin manipulated Trump through “kompromat” [compromising material] he gathered by secretly filming prostitutes urinating on Trump in the presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz Hotel. The document’s most lurid claims remain unsubstantiated.)
The ASD appears to have only one figure on its board of advisors who could be described as a Russia specialist—Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Obama administration. In the early days of his tenure. McFaul invited tensions with Moscow by hosting a series of meetings inside the American embassy with protest leaders and internal opponents of the country’s leadership. The former diplomat has become a human factory for quotes on Russiagate, serving reporters with a reliable stream of soundbites reinforcing the narrative of Russian interference. He is currently housed at the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank that has provided a place for fellow militarists like Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld to cool their heels, while sponsoring neoconservative initiatives like the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
The ASD’s main sponsor is the German Marshall Fund, a trans-national think tank founded under the watch of German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1972 to advance the special relationship between the US and Germany. As journalist James Carden explained, the Marshall Fund’s sponsorship of a group like ASD signals a radical break with Brandt’s conciliatory approach, which carefully balanced ties to Washington with an “Ostpolitik” that stressed diplomacy toward his neighbors in the Warsaw Pact. The German Marshall Fund has not named the ASD funders pumping donations into its coffers, describing them on its website as “family foundations.” German Marshall Fund public relations manager Kelsey Glover responded to specific questions about credentials of ASD researchers and the funders behind the initiative by directing me to explanations already featured on ASD’s website.
Defining ‘content attacking the U.S. and Europe’ as Russian propaganda
The ASD’s Hamilton 68 dashboard purports to “help journalists and ordinary people alike identify Russian messaging themes and detect active disinformation or attack campaigns at the start.” At first glance, it appears to be a scientifically accurate device for tracking Russian online influence. However, a closer examination of this seemingly data-centric initiative reveals a hyper-politicized project grounded in dubious methodology.
On their Hamilton 68 dashboard, ASD researchers claim to track the activities of 600 Twitter accounts supposedly linked to the Kremlin, along with the media outlets that seem to echo their messaging. If visitors to the dashboard read the group’s explanation of its monitoring methodology, however, they will learn that not all of the accounts it tracks are controlled by Russian trolls. Some are simply “openly pro-Russian users,” or those who “amplify themes promoted by Russian government media,” while others that are monitored “have been influenced by the first two groups” and “may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network.” No information is provided to explain how Russian “themes” are identified.
Virtually any theme that emanates from Russian news services like RT and Sputnik is grounds for monitoring by ASD, even when they are based in fact and have little connection to any Russian foreign policy initiative. As Carden documented in the Nation, ASD researchers have a penchant for labeling factual reporting featured on RT and Sputnik’s Twitter accounts as “Russian propaganda” purely on the grounds that it casts the US and its allies in a negative light. The ASD openly states on its dashboard that it considers any “content attacking the U.S. and Europe” to be Russian propaganda.
More curiously, ASD has explicitly refused to name the Russian bot accounts that it claims to track. The group explained, “We are not willing to publicly attribute even one specific account incorrectly.” This makes it impossible to know if the group has attributed any accounts correctly.
In perhaps the only case in which the ASD named one of the “Russian” Twitter accounts it was tracking, the group fingered a Twitter user named Marcel Sardo, branding him as the possibly robotic ringleader of a sinister Kremlin-driven influence operation. But when the New York Times’ Scott Shane investigated Sardo’s identity, he discovered that the account in question belonged to an actual human—a 48-year-old computer programmer from Zurich with no ties to the Russian government. Indeed, Sardo was a private individual who openly sympathized with Russian foreign policy.
The questionable methodology behind ASD’s Hamilton 68 dashboard was conceived by a team of researchers who earned their stripes in the so-called war on terror. They include J.M. Berger, a self-styled terror expert who has focused exclusively on Sunni jihadism. Also lending a hand was Jonathon Morgan, a computer scientist who worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Neither of these figures has demonstrated any record of research, scholarship or journalism on Russia.
Then there was Andrew Weisburd, an ASD fellow whose vigilante tactics have provoked allegations of bigotry, extremism and malicious harassment.
Islamophobic agitator and former Putin admirer
In early 2015, as tensions between U.S. and Russia simmered over conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and NATO expansion in eastern Europe, a computer programmer named Andrew Weisburd created a blog called “Kremlin Trolls.” The site aimed to undermine recognizably pro-Russian news and opinion sites by publicizing their domain locations, IP providers and the personal details of those behind their operations, including phone numbers. This project was soon folded into a blog purporting to expose “KGB style active measures,” which relied on the same techniques of blacklisting, doxxing and harassing that Weisburd had perfected years before when earned notoriety for his role in the mass shuttering of websites of Palestinians, Islamists and leftists.
According to the Atlantic, Weisburd launched his online crusade “because he was mad—mad that Yasir Arafat had rejected the peace plan at Camp David in 2000, mad that al-Qaeda had blown up the buildings in Manhattan he grew up around, and mad because he had read that Hamas was teaching Palestinian kindergartners to hate Israelis.”
There was also a strong body of evidence suggesting that Weisburd himself was simply mad.
Raised by parents in a mixed Catholic-Jewish marriage, Weisburd confessed that he developed a strong attraction to Jewish identity after his mother sent him to Catholic school at an early age. He also complained about the presence of “gay priests” in his school. As he came of age, Weisburd developed a strong attachment to the state of Israel, and an apparent affinity for some of its most extreme elements. While targeting websites he considered extremist, he sprinkled in a heavy dose of ultra-Zionist commentary, Islamophobia and fulsome admiration for Vladimir Putin.
An attic in Carbondale, Illinois, was the base for Weisburd’s one-man war against online extremism. He focused heavily on hardline Islamists and jihadists, publishing the phone numbers of their IP providers and encouraging his followers to pester them until they agreed to shut the sites down. He also hounded Palestinian political factions and their supporters, as well as American leftists. His vehicle was Internet Haganah, a personal blog he described as “one part combat mission, one part intelligence operation, one part grassroots political action.”
Though Weisburd’s website has been defunct for years, a portion of its archives was recovered for this article, and it offers a portrait of an enthusiastic Zionist rallying support for the Israeli military’s draconian crackdown on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city in 2002. The blog also features pornographically Islamophobic screeds blaming Arab Muslims for the Holocaust and accusing Palestinians of “child sacrifice.”
Internet Haganah was also a platform for the writings of Daniel Pipes, a vehemently anti-Muslim scholar who has accused Barack Obama of being a Muslim apostate, called for the razing of entire Palestinian villages and described Muslim immigrants as “brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.”
Weisburd might be known today for his obsessive efforts to counter Russian interference, but back in the months and years after 9/11, he was an unabashed admirer of Vladimir Putin. On Nov. 12, 2002, in a post on Internet Haganah, Weisburd honored Putin as his “Tough Jew of the Week.” Putin is a member in good standing of the Russian Orthodox Church, but Weisburd concluded that an angry tirade the Russian leader launched against radical Islamist terror somehow qualified him for the “Tough Jew” award.
By 2005, national media was taking notice of Weisburd’s prolific efforts and puffing him in lengthy features as an online anti-terror hero, or a “solo maverick,” as the Atlantic put it. None of these outlets, from Wired to Newsweek, seemed interested in Weisburd’s anti-Muslim extremism, and few scrutinized the ethically dubious tactics he was accused of employing against his targets. Weisburd had boasted to reporters that he had forced hundreds of Islamic extremist websites offline, however, it was unclear which of these sites deserved to be censored.
Naziri, an administrator of a chat community for Shia Muslims called fitriyyah.org, protested that his site had been forced offline by Weisburd’s vigilante efforts. Naziri claimed that his site was targeted for supporting terrorism despite its opposition to the tactics that Sunni extremist groups like Al Qaeda have used to massacre his fellow Shia. Naziri maintained, “we always have and always will unequivocally oppose the aforementioned illegal and immoral actions which masquerade under the term ‘jihaad.’”
He explained how the host of his site had been “threatened over one hundred times in one weekend when Weisburd called for [the site host] to be ‘pressured’ to stop hosting us… It was all people calling him and threatening his life and safety over the weekend that Internet Haganah called for these illegal tactics to be implemented.” Naziri claimed that many of the threats emanated from the Jewish Defense League, a violent extremist group which has been responsible for the terrorist assassination of an Arab-American civil rights organizer, firebombing Russian diplomats and Palestine solidarity activists, and attempting to murder Rep. Darrell Issa.
By his own admission, Weisburd did not speak Arabic, had no scholarly background in Islam or the politics of the Middle East, and no record of any time spent in the region. What’s more, he had no credentials in law enforcement, though he would later earn a master’s in criminology. He was an ideologically driven vigilante, acting according to his own rules, and according to his targets, was walking a fine line between legal conduct and malicious harassment. But Weisburd’s methods were not without utility to a government that was surveilling and prosecuting American Muslims and antifa activists with unprecedented ferocity.
Victims of Weisburd
In a post at the left-wing news and discussion forum, Indymedia, a group of anonymous leftists who described themselves as Victims of Weisburd spoke out about the tactics they had withstood. “Weisburd decides what is ‘threatening,’” the authors complained. “He has decided that effective criticism of George Bush, for example, is threatening. He has decided that display of upside-down U.S. flags on websites is threatening. He considers all effective dissent threatening.”
The self-described Victims of Weisburd went on to accuse him and his allies of “hacking into the personal computers of their targets,” “getting ‘volunteers’ inside of web service providers and telecom companies to illegally provide the information,” and “report[ing] innocent Americans engaged in legal dissent to federal authorities provoking wasteful investigations which take resources away from the fight against terrorism.”
Evan Kohlmann, another self-styled terror expert who has collaborated with federal authorities, painted Weisburd’s tactics as self-defeating. “I understand the sentiment but they are doing damage. They are making these guys stronger,” Kohlmann commented to Newsweek, referring to anti-jihadist vigilantes. “They are giving them antibodies.”
A decade after Weisburd was credited for driving hundreds of supposedly extremist sites from the internet, it is unclear what has contributed to the fight against online terrorist enlistment. Today, the internet is filled with an unprecedented number of jihadist websites and recruitment videos that boast eye-popping aesthetic sophistication, and social media is bristling with supporters of Islamist extremism. But as the online jihadisphere expands, so does the bog of national security agencies and private contractors that specialize in transforming geopolitical crises into fantastic profits. For characters like Weisburd, this has meant a wealth of lucrative opportunities.
Murderous fantasies about Greenwald, blacklisting his publication
By 2011, Weisburd had transformed himself from solo maverick to a respected cybersecurity expert called to testify before Congress. In December of that year, Rep. Patrick Meehan introduced Weisburd to a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security as an expert who had overseen “training and briefings to the FBI and CIA” and supposedly authored a textbook “comparing jihadi and street gang videos on YouTube” for the FBI Counterterrorism Division.
The hearing was dedicated to the danger of online jihadist messaging and was held two months after President Obama authorized the assassination of Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and his 15-year-old son, Abdelrahman, both American citizens. According to a congressional transcript, Weisburd’s anti-Muslim Internet Haganah was profusely promoted during the hearing.
Within three years, after earning a living at the intersection of the counterterror and Islamophobia industries, Weisburd expanded his repertoire to encompass the Russian menace. Once an admirer of Vladimir Putin, whom he bizarrely hailed as a “tough Jew,” Weisburd now mocked the Russian president as a gay “queen” who “will slay you in the outhouse.” Weisburd also speculated that Putin had personally recruited journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is openly gay, as his personal concubine.
Greenwald had earned international attention when he oversaw the release of confidential National Security Agency files provided to him by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Published at the Guardian and Intercept, the damning revelations of a Big Brother-style surveillance state sent national security hardliners like Weisburd into a petulant frenzy. On Twitter, Weisburd openly fantasized about the murder of Greenwald, whom he branded as a “traitor.”
“When Glenn Greenwald accidentally drowns in 2″ of water it will not be the slightest bit surprising,” Weisburd commented. Upon hearing that Greenwald was set to testify before Congress, he wrote, “I wonder if The Greenwald has lined up a… bodyguard yet for this trip?” (Weisburd has appeared to fantasize about poisoning Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.) In another instance, Weisburd mocked Greenwald’s sexuality and imagined deploying a “honeytrap” operation to compromise the journalist’s integrity.
Though this sort of blood-curdling banter is hardly unfamiliar in the halls of America’s national security state, where even Hillary Clinton was accused by State Department sources of proposing a drone strike to kill Assange, what made Weisburd’s vendetta against Greenwald significant was the way it revealed ASD’s Hamilton 68 Dashboard as a de facto political blacklist.
On September 28, Greenwald published a factual report on how a widely disseminated story alleging that Russian government hacked voting machines in 21 states was debunked. Hours later, Weisburd took to Twitter to proclaim, “The Kremlin’s minions are pushing Greenwald’s latest at the Intercept hard tonight. Is it permissible yet to say Glenn is a Kremlin tool?”
That same day, Weisburd boasted that ASD had listed the Intercept on its Hamilton 68 Dashboard as a top platform for Kremlin influence. He thus revealed the censorious agenda behind the ASD’s methodology. As with the leftist and Islamic-oriented websites Weisburd had targeted for destruction in his halcyon days, he and his colleagues were seeking to suppress outlets that deviated too sharply from the official American line on “Russiagate”—and to punish any journalist that rankled their sensibility.
Kelsey Glover, the public relations manager of the German Marshall Fund, did not respond to specific questions regarding Weisburd’s violent fantasies about Greenwald, or his apparent use of the Hamilton 68 Dashboard as a vehicle to settle scores with the journalist. The George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, where Weisburd is housed as a senior fellow, also did not respond to a list of questions sent by email.
Lobbying for government labeling of media
The ASD’s dashboard is not the first initiative aimed at stamping media organizations with the “Russian influence” label. Soon after Trump’s inauguration, a mysterious new group called PropOrNot published a blacklist of some 200 American media outlets, branding them all as Russian “online propaganda.” Those named by PropOrNot included an array of progressive outlets including Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, and Truthdig. Among the criteria PropOrNot identified as signs of Russian propaganda were, “Support for policies like Brexit, and the breakup of the EU and Eurozone” and, “Opposition to Ukrainian resistance to Russia and Syrian resistance to Assad.” PropOrNot called for “formal investigations by the U.S. government” into the outlets it had blacklisted.
The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg promoted the flagrantly McCarthyite initiative with a favorable front-page write-up, whitewashing the anonymous figures behind PropOrNot as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds”—almost exactly how mainstream reporters have described the ASD’s staff. Timberg even quoted Weisburd and cited a post-election report he co-authored with Watts on supposed Russian meddling. (Weisburd has no known role in PropOrNot.)
The Washington Post’s puff piece on PropOrNot was promoted widely by Clintonite dead-enders and hailed by former Obama White House staffer Dan Pfeiffer as “the biggest story in the world.” But the operation swiftly fell apart as a chorus of progressive journalists exposed the shambolic methods and anti-democratic agenda behind it. An expose of PropOrNot eventually found its way into the pages of the New Yorker, where Adrian Chen branded the group as a propaganda operation in its own right. Ultimately, the Washington Post was compelled to append its report with a lengthy editor’s note stating, “The Post… does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet.”
While PropOrNot has faded into obscurity, the ASD is treated by mainstream media as a serious and eminently scientific initiative despite its use of the same shoddy, hyper-politicized methodology. The difference between the two outfits lies primarily in marketing: ASD has publicized the identities of its researchers and flaunted their national security credentials. More importantly, its reputation has been burnished by an elite cast of advisors and the august reputation of the German Marshall Fund.
But behind both PropOrNot and the ASD lies a censorious agenda that aims to deter news consumers from dissident sources of information. This was made clear when the most prominent figure attached to the ASD, Clint Watts, lobbied Congress to impose a social media rating system of all online media, and with a specific eye on “Russian influence.” Citing an op-ed he wrote with Weisburd, Watts called for a “Consumer Reports for news.” To counter “Russian disinformation specifically,” Watts urged Congressto support a social media rating system. His plan called for news to be given a “score” for accuracy and political “orientation,” describing the system as “the equivalent of a nutrition label for information.”
Watts’ proposal might have seemed novel, but it was not unprecedented. Back in the early 1990s, as white suburbanites fretted over the impact of rap music on their children, ultra-conservative moral crusader William Bennett and former civil rights leader C. Dolores Tucker lobbied Congress to obstruct the sale of gangsta rap. Though Bennett and Tucker failed to realize their most censorious goals, they managed to pressure the music industry to apply labels to music containing explicit content. Sales of rap music continued to skyrocket despite the warning labels, or perhaps because of them.
The congressional hearings convened this month on Russian social media meddling presented a liberal analog to the conservative freakout over Snoop Dogg and Too Short’s lascivious lyrics. Cries for the suppression of “Russian disinformation” reverberated from Capitol Hill, as lawmakers called for driving Russian-backed media like RT and Sputnik off American airwaves and demanded YouTube ban their material from its platform solely on the basis of its foreign source. The U.S. Department of Justice recently demanded that RT’s American bureau register as a foreign agent, an unprecedented request from a credentialed news agency, while pressure from Congress prompted Twitter to ban advertising from RT.
To justify its seemingly arbitrary decision, Twitter cited a widely panned U.S. intelligence agency report that accused RT of “promoting radical discontent.” According to the report, RT’s transgressions included “alleg[ing] widespread infringements of civil liberties,” hosting a third party presidential candidates’ debate, and “opposing Western intervention in the Syrian conflict.”
As the government’s crusade against Russian meddling widens, it appears increasingly like a pretext for online surveillance, ramped up securitization of social media and the suppression of dissent. In such a paranoid environment, the labeling of online news with a “nutrition value” may not be far off. Wherever the meltdown leads, Americans can rest assured it will all be justified in the name of preserving our democratic freedoms, while ASD’s Watts calls on the government to “quell information rebellions” with censorious measures imposed from above.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican Gomorrah, Goliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.