A Democracy’s Ultimate Threat

A History of Covert Election Interference

Rigged, David Shimer
Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference by David Shimer. Photo credit: KGB / Wikimedia, Seattle Municipal Archives / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), CIA / Wikimedia, and Knopf.
Reading Time: 19 minutes

Did you know that the Obama administration actually braced for riots on election day in 2016? That startling fact is revealed in a new book, Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference, by historian David Shimer. 

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Shimer, a Marshall Scholar at Oxford and a Yale fellow, talks about his deep dive into KGB and CIA archives, and his interviews with more than 130 key players — including foreign heads of state, intelligence chiefs, Bill Clinton and his top Russia advisors, US secretaries of state and national security advisors, eight CIA directors, 11 former Trump aides, and more than two dozen members of the Obama administration.

Shimer lays out the definitive history of covert electoral interference, from US actions in Italy in 1948 and Chile in 1964 to West Germany in 1972, as well as many similar Soviet efforts during the Cold War in places like Poland and East Germany. He explains how it all leads directly to the Russian meddling in 2016 — this time with the added rocket fuel of the reach of the internet and social media.

After examining a century-long history of electoral interference, Shimer found that it comes in two forms: either through ballots or propaganda. 

He details how, in 2016, the Obama administration was conflicted about where the threat would come from. He shows that the kind of diversity, division, and disruption endemic to democracy in America make the country much more vulnerable to propaganda. As a result, he lays out just how bad he thinks things might get over the next 95 days.  

Shimer reminds us that Americans are worse off than they were four years ago and that foreign intervention in elections, now more than ever, is a threat not just to the US but to democracies everywhere.

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Full Text Transcript: 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast? I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Nations interfering in each other’s elections is nothing new. Our election in 2016 was not a sui generis event, either in the broad scope of history or even in the history of Russia and the US. In fact, it’s arguable that it’s all an extension of the Cold War efforts between Moscow and Washington. And what we are anticipating in 2020 might very well be an extension of a hundred-year history, a history from which we in the US cannot just play the victim, be it Russian efforts in East Germany in the Ukraine or US efforts in Chile and Italy. The KGB and the CIA have been at it for a long time. The internet has only added rocket fuel to the efforts. Given this history, we should expect nothing less than the full onslaught of foreign and Russian interference in the next 97 days. What we’ve seen so far may be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Jeff Schechtman: To put all of this history in context, bring us up to date, and look ahead to the next few months, I’m joined by David Shimer. David Shimer is pursuing a doctorate in international relations at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. His reporting and analysis have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Foreign Affairs. He’s an associate fellow of Davenport College at Yale, where he received his undergraduate and master’s degree in history. It is my pleasure to welcome David Shimer here to talk about Rigged: America, Russia, and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference. David, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
David Shimer: Thank you very much for having me and for that great and very comprehensive introduction.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s great to have you here. And really at the core of this is this fundamental idea that Moscow and Washington have been playing this game, this cat and mouse game, this electoral interference game for a long time. Put that in context first.
David Shimer: So what I do in my book is I restore history to the subject of covert electoral interference. Because I was quite alarmed, frankly, when after 2016, so many commentators and analysts and citizens viewed Russia’s operation against the 2016 election as somehow unprecedented or novel. And that’s dangerous because if something’s treated as unprecedented, that means there’s no history behind it. That means that there’s no way to understand what Russia actually achieved and what’s changing and what isn’t. And it severely limits the ability of a democracy to prepare for the future. So what I do in the book is I show that in fact, Russia’s operation in 2016 was actually just the latest episode in a very old story. I go through Soviet operations to interfere in elections during the interwar period between the First and Second World Wars. I go through the Cold War when the KGB and CIA, as you said, were going toe to toe in elections all over the world.
David Shimer: I show have Vladimir Putin’s Russia is, again today, interfering in elections globally, but using new and powerful digital tools. And then only then do I examine Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election, which looks entirely different when it’s a part of, in my opinion, that historical arc that it’s meant to be. And then I offer prescriptions for the future. And what really comes out from that is that there are patterns here. There are lessons. There are continuities from which we can learn and which we can use to anticipate what Russia will do next and how America can defend itself in a comprehensive and informed manner.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting to see how the digital version of this is really an extension of what went on on the ground, particularly during, I guess, the heyday of this during the Cold War.
David Shimer: Sure. I mean, I would say there were maybe two peaks. The first peak would be, like you said, during perhaps the early Cold War, the second peak really being our current moment. When you look at what has changed, it’s just the transformation of these operations from local to transnational, from physically spreading propaganda, like leaflets or posters or corrupting journalists and spreading propaganda through newspapers, to just doing that exact same idea, but digitally. Instead of spreading posters and leaflets, you spread tweets and Facebook posts, all designed to manipulate people. instead of creating forged letters or forged FBI files as the KGB was prone to do, instead you just steal and release the private correspondence of people over email. Instead of stuffing ballot boxes physically, you penetrate ballot boxes with your hackers. These are enhanced and turbocharged ideas, but they’re not original ideas. They’re the natural application of what Russian intelligence has been doing for effectively a hundred years, just fitted and taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new digital interconnected world that we all now operate in.
Jeff Schechtman: In taking kind of a 30,000-foot view of this, it really comes down to two very specific areas, whether it’s things the US has done in the past or things that other countries or that Russia and the Soviet Union have done, which is one, having to do with ballots, as you talked about a moment ago, or public opinion. And one of the things that we seemingly got wrong, that the Obama administration got wrong in 2016, is that they were looking at ballots and ignoring the public opinion part. Talk about that.
David Shimer: There’s really a distinction that, as you said, that’s essential to understanding the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s operation. And I interviewed 26 of his former advisors, people like John Brennan and Jim Clapper and Susan Rice. And what really came out of those interviews is that the Obama administration’s focus in the summer and fall of 2016 was on one form of covert electoral, which was the Russian military intelligence systemic targeting of our voting systems, of our voter registration databases, to the point where, according to John Brennan, on Election Day itself, Russian hackers had the capability to alter the voter data and the vote tallies of Us citizens. So the White House, as I reveal in the book, was running a crisis team on Election Day, bracing for that sort of cyber attack. And when you look at each move that President Obama made in the summer and in the fall, it was to seek to deter that, that direct attack against our voting systems and to prepare for such an attack.
David Shimer: But of course, simultaneous to Russian military intelligence targeting our voting systems, Russian hackers were stealing and releasing emails, and Russian trolls were spreading massive amounts of propaganda and disinformation online. And by the time Election Day came around, millions upon millions of Americans had been influenced by that propaganda. And something that really comes out of this history is that to defend an election is to defend against both of those vectors, as you said, to both seek to minimize as much as you can foreign penetration into your information environment, and then also to prevent foreign actors from altering the ballots of your citizens.
David Shimer: The second thing is kind of the bare minimum. If you’re unable to secure your infrastructure, the game is pretty much lost. But it’s by no means sufficient. You also have to work against efforts to manipulate citizens because something that comes out of this hundred-year history of covert electoral interference is that it’s primarily a tradition of manipulating people, as you said, with propaganda, with disinformation and the like. And until you get your heads around that, and the new opportunities afforded by the digital age to do that, you’re not actually defending and securing an election from foreign interference.
Jeff Schechtman: And talk about what America should understand, what the CIA should understand about this, as it relates to the kind of things that they did historically, whether it was in Chile or Iran or in Italy and so many of the other places where the CIA was engaged in this kind of activity historically.
David Shimer: So I think there’s a degree of willful blindness happening today, which is that it’s convenient, or perhaps just easy to pretend as though the CIA doesn’t have a storied history of covert election interference. And that’s just not true. The fact is that the first time the CIA was formerly authorized to engage in covert action at the end of 1947, it was for the express purpose of launching a massive electoral interference operation against the Italian national election of April 1948. The starting point of CIA covert action was electoral interference. And you can issue judgements, and I hope that folks who read my book will, as to whether that was justifiable or not, but that’s not really my concern.
David Shimer: What my concern is, is take those operations in Italy and Chile and Japan and El Salvador all over the world, look at what the CIA did, and learn from it as we seek to defend ourselves now. Because what the CIA did like orchestrating popular initiatives, staging rallies, or voter registration drives, spreading disinformation and black propaganda, seeking to establish influence over foreign politicians and therefore their governments were they elected, these are ideas that are timeless and that are now being applied and weaponized against not only the democracies of the world, but also our own democracy. So we can learn from our own history if we’re willing to grapple with it and recognize that it exists.
Jeff Schechtman: How good were we at doing this during these periods that you’re talking about?
David Shimer: I think the question of effectiveness is a very difficult question when it comes to operations to influence voters, because it’s never possible to say precisely, “This is how effective an operation was.” But I think, perhaps in answer to your question, the CIA believes it was very good at it because after Italy’s 1948 election, there was a presumption inside the agency that the result of the election, which is what the CIA wanted, was a result of the CIA’s influence campaign to manipulate Italian voters, which was sprawling and multifaceted, after which the agency began interfering with that same template in elections all over the world. I interviewed many former CIA officers, eight former CIA directors for my book. And there’s, I guess, a presumption of many people I’ve talked to that folks in the CIA would be reluctant to talk about this history, or they’d be embarrassed or shamed by it. And that’s just not true.
David Shimer: There’s immense pride in the Italy operation, in the operations that followed, where these former CIA officers said to me, “This was us helping pro-democracy candidates, and we were really good at it.” And Italy was a real point of, again, something that members of the agency were really proud of and they thought was effective and worth doing, and that they adamantly have defended historically. So I think the agency believed that it was making a real difference as to whether that analytically was true. I spent a few hours interviewing the CIA’s chief internal historian, and he told me that they still debate inside Langley just how effective these operations were. But in terms of the perception, the perception was that this was a very effective tool in the battle of ideas with and for influence with the Soviet union between ’48 and 89/91.
Jeff Schechtman: And on the other side, how good were the Soviets at it? You had a conversation with the former head of KGB operations in the US.
David Shimer: Sure. I think the best way to understand Russian operations today really is just as the natural evolution of that story. Not because we’re still in the Cold War as it existed in the 20th century, not because Putin is seeking to spread some ideology like communism. He isn’t. But in terms of the actual mechanics of these operations, their actual essence, remarkably consistent because the KGB during the Cold War, for example, in America, targeted four different US presidential elections, sought to sow discord as Russia’s doing today, and also to help their preferred candidates and hurt the candidates they didn’t like, people like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Who by the way, were Republicans, because this is not a partisan issue. This is a threat to our national security that extends across party lines.
David Shimer: And what the Soviets actually did was, again, find and release or forge and release private information, spread propaganda, seek to sow discord and discontent, seek to exploit preexisting fissures, especially along racial and religious lines, which is exactly what Russia has been doing to us in the 21st century, just to get across the internet. I mean, I was struck, going through KGB archives, by how similar the language is to what we’re grappling with now today, things like, “We want to divide Americans in order to show the world that American democracy doesn’t work.” That’s what Putin’s doing now. So this history is extremely instructive. I think the KGB had limits as to how scrawling its operations could be, particularly in America, whereas the internet has abolished those limits and afforded Putin new opportunities to influence our elections at scale.
Jeff Schechtman: And one of the things that becomes abundantly clear, and this is even more profound given what’s going on in this country today, is that it’s pretty clear that diversity and conflict over diversity is such a vulnerability for us.
David Shimer: I think that’s true. Oleg Kalugin, the former KGB general, whom I interviewed said to me, “We always viewed your greatest vulnerability, America’s greatest vulnerability, as its diversity.” In conjunction with its operations to influence actual elections, the KGB was also sowing, as I said, racial discord. One fascinating operation in 1960 was when the KGB forged a letter that they said was from the KKK, a racist offensive letter, sent it to UN delegations from various African and Asian countries. And those countries then caused an uproar over this letter that had been sent to them by the KKK, but really it was the KGB. It became an international incident. And the KGB archives record that this was viewed as an immense operational success because it advertised America’s internal racism and divisions to the world and undermined the notion that America was somehow the leading model or the model that other countries should seek to imitate as in terms of a democracy.
David Shimer: So when we look at our current vulnerabilities, the Soviet and now Russian tradition is to target preexisting fissures, preexisting weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. And we are so much more vulnerable because of the systemic racism embedded in our society, as well as, by the way, because of the dysfunction over our response to the coronavirus and the uncertainty over how our votes are actually going to take place over the next 97 or so days. Because what Russia does is it takes those organic doubts, those organic concerns, and amplifies them, exploits them, spreads disinformation about them, sabotages concerns related to them in order to take a bad situation and make it a whole lot worse. That is the Moscow tradition.
Jeff Schechtman: And within that context, where do we find this idea of the private hacking of people, of private citizens, something like the Podesta hacking?
David Shimer: The way that that has to be viewed is taking the private information about public figures and outing it. It’s abolishing the private sphere, which is, again, a Soviet tradition. In the 1976 American presidential election, a guy named Henry “Scoop” Jackson was running for president, and the KGB wanted to destroy him by finding and releasing private information about him. And they tried to find information that he was secretly gay. They couldn’t find that information. So they instead made a fake FBI file saying that he was gay and sent it to a bunch of newspapers and political campaigns. No one publicized it, but the idea was to destroy him by outing private information about him. What the internet has afforded is the opportunity to completely turbocharge that idea. Because rather than just create and send around one fake document, you can steal and release 50,000 accurate documents from thousands of miles away, sitting on a computer in Russia.
David Shimer: And then instead of having to send those documents to newspapers or political campaigns, you could just upload them directly online through a third-party like WikiLeaks. So the idea’s the same, but the opportunities, again, to infect a country, like America’s information environment have just been so magnified because of how much of our lives and how much of our information is now embedded into the digital world, which makes it stealable. So much less about our lives is actually secure, which opens up enormous opportunities for espionage and for what’s known as active measures, which is actually taking that information and weaponizing it to suit your own ends.
Jeff Schechtman: Coming back to the response of the Obama administration during the election in 2016, why weren’t guys like Brennan and Clapper, who understood CIA history, who understood a lot of this history that we’re talking about, why weren’t they more sensitive to this?
David Shimer: I think that there is … I will not comment on their minds specifically. I think I’ll comment more generally on the two camps. There were officials in Obama’s team, especially the Russia experts who were saying, “We need to focus on the efforts to manipulate people. We need to hit Russia in the summer in order to deter future interference.” That’s what, as I detail, several officials spoke to me about on the record that they advocated this, and it was rejected. Jim Clapper did say in the book that he wished that Obama had retaliated or would have preferred that Obama retaliate prior to Election Day. But I do think that there was a very deep concern about what their retaliatory response would have been by the Russians. Because from President Obama’s perspective, if he hit Russia in, let’s say August over its email dumps, would Putin then respond by saying, “I’m going to raise the stakes, and I’m going to sabotage your actual voting process, which I’ve shown you my military intelligence agency has the capability to do, and therefore I can establish what’s known as escalation dominance over you.”
David Shimer: And I think that froze the administration in terms of … To be fair, that was a real achievement of Putin’s, doing key things at once, both targeting voting systems and running a massive influence campaign. That was the real innovation. And that’s part of what made it so difficult to respond to his operation in real time, because there was this notion, as explained to me by several of Obama’s advisors, that what Russia was doing was bad, but it could be a whole lot worse. So do you try to address the bad, or do you try to avert the worse? And they felt like they were caught therefore between a rock and a hard place.
Jeff Schechtman: All of which creates an environment, it seems, that makes us so much more vulnerable today even than we were four years ago.
David Shimer: I think that’s true. I think folks at DHS might tell you that they’ve secured some of our voting systems. But to me, those are band-aid solutions to a systemic issue. I mean, elections are by nature penetrable. They’ve been penetrable since the days of Vladimir Lenin, they’ll remain penetrable far beyond the days of Vladimir Putin. What makes them more or less actually vulnerable to really effective campaigns of subversion is the functions of a democracy internally. And we’re so divided. We’re so unable to even recognize that this threat exists. We have a sitting president who has said the threat doesn’t exist, while actually soliciting interference in our elections. Simultaneously, we have tens of millions of Americans who don’t even believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. We have many more Americans who have doubts, very fairly, that the vote this fall will be stable and secure as the result of the pandemic.
David Shimer: And therefore in that environment, from the vantage point of that tradition, as we talked about, of exploiting preexisting weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we are so vulnerable to someone seeking to … to a hostile nation stirring up discontent and division within our country, undermining our democracy. Because we have to also keep in mind, and this is essential, what Russia is doing, its primary objective is not to help Donald Trump. Donald Trump is someone that they are helping, but as a means to an end, which is to degrade, disrupt, and ultimately, transform American democracy, because Russia knows that democracies die as corrupted versions of themselves.
David Shimer: That’s why around the world today, Russia is supporting authoritarian-minded and divisive candidates. And Russia will continue to try to divide our electorate and sow doubt within our electorate that our democracy even works as a means of de-legitimizing our very process of succession and way of life, which Vladimir Putin believes is extraordinarily in his interest, and I agree it is. And until we get our heads around that and recognize that this is a national challenge to defend our democracy, we’re going to keep playing into Russia’s hands.
Jeff Schechtman: In the Putin era, is there anywhere in the world that Russia has tried to engage in election interference where it hasn’t worked, where they’ve been met with resistance, that hasn’t gotten them the desired result?
David Shimer: I think that the key case study there is France’s election in 2017. This was just a few months after America’s November 20, 2016 election. The world had seen how the emails of John Podesta and the DNC had taken over, in many respects, media coverage of the campaign. And so they were more aware of that tactic of Russia as it got global attention. And what happened in France’s 2017 election was that Russia-linked hackers used a third party to release stolen emails from the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, one of the two candidates. And what you then saw happen was French journalists, French politicians, and the French public more or less all say at once, “We’re not going to get played like America did.” And there are reasons why, in terms of how the French media works, that that was perhaps easier to actually execute.
David Shimer: But in the end, those emails got very little play. No credible analysts that I’ve seen have said that they meaningfully shifted public debate around the election campaign. And that was really just a question of individual people deciding that they did not want to be manipulated. And I think moving forward, Americans need to keep that in mind. It’s a choice to read, without even thinking critically, stolen emails where you don’t know where they’re from. It’s a choice to get absorbed by the gossip, without questioning who wants you to see this and why. And until we shift the debate toward that, who is attacking us, who is seeking to manipulate us, then again, we are just playing into the hands of our adversaries. Whereas, countries like France have shown that it’s actually possible as a nation to resist this sort of political subversion.
Jeff Schechtman: What else can citizens do as a form of resistance to this?
David Shimer: So I think between now and November, it’s just being as responsible and engaged a citizen as possible. It’s being discerning in the type of content you view and absorb. It’s searching for facts. It’s relying on institutions with fact checkers and credible purveyors of information like national journalist or local media to get your information rather than going on Facebook or Twitter and just taking in whatever you see, which is ripe to be with either just manipulated content or completely fabricated content. It’s voting and being an engaged member of your democracy.
David Shimer: But it’s also staying calm when the unexpected happens, because something that history instructs is that foreign operations to interfere in elections are constantly evolving. What Russia did in 2020 will not be exactly what Russia did in 2016. And when something happens that feels new, it probably is not actually completely new. And also, Russia wants, our adversaries want citizens to be alarmed, to be scared, to say our democracy’s not working correctly. And if we’re able to be steady, to maintain our participation of citizens, to vote, and to have competence in our own processes and also be ready to call out if someone seeks to undermine our own processes, that goes a long way in terms of actually making it so that our elections can’t be corrupted in the way that our adversaries would like.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s the worst case scenario you see for November?
David Shimer: I think the worst case scenario that I see in November … I’m watching for a couple things I’m watching for between now and November, how, let’s say Russia seeks to manipulate voters as it did last time with propaganda in various different respects. I’m worried that on Election Day itself, and in the immediate aftermath, since it’ll take longer than usual to count ballots this cycle, that Russia could either seek to sabotage the voting process as the Obama administration feared four years ago, by manipulating voter registration databases, by sabotaging voting systems to cause chaos and de-legitimize the outcome of the election. I worry that thereafter, if Donald Trump were to allege that the vote was rigged, for example, Russia will amplify those allegations, with propaganda and seek to sow doubt that the election was in fact fair.
David Shimer: And then I’m also watching for Russia’s contingency plan, because something I reveal in the book is that Russia … Putin thought, according to Brennan and Clapper, that Secretary Clinton was going to win. And Russia had plans to continue undermining her administration and to continue interfering in our electoral processes. So there should be no illusion that if Donald Trump were to lose, this threat will just go away. What Russia’s after here, again, is to degrade our democracy. And that will persist regardless of the winter in November. So in terms of my worst case scenario, I think it stretches across those different facets, manipulating voters, sabotaging our voting process, and seeking to undermine confidence among millions of Americans that the election actually was fair. And I think all of those vectors can earn considerable attention and concern and could play out to really damage the sanctity and legitimacy of our process of succession in the coming months.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, how contagious is something like this? If in fact, they succeed even halfway to your worst case scenario, to what extent does European or other Western democracies have to worry about similar things on their doorstep even more quickly?
David Shimer: I think every democracy should be watching what’s happening to each other and learning from each other, and in my perfect world, working together to detect and deter these types of operations. Two years before the 2016 election, Russia was testing many of these weapons in Ukraine and their 2014 election. I interviewed the president of Montenegro whom Russian intelligence sought to assassinate. I also interviewed the former president of Colombia, who said that his elections and information environment are under siege by foreign adversaries seeking to sow discord. We’ve seen in the United Kingdom, I interviewed one of their spy chiefs, very similar ideas around disinformation with social media and the theft and release of sensitive documents. So if we want to know what’s coming, and if other countries want to know what’s coming, we should be very closely monitoring what Russia is doing to each of us.
David Shimer: Because again, this is a global story. This is a global strategy of covert electoral interference. This is not just an American problem, and we can’t view it that way. Because if we’re going to deal with this problem effectively moving forward, we both need to address our own vulnerabilities at home, but we also need to work with our democratic allies again in seeking to form a coalition against this type of behavior and imposing costs jointly against countries, whether it be Russia or others, who seek to manipulate our processes of succession through covert action. Because that’s striking at the heart of what it means to be a democracy, having a process of succession that is up to the people and not up to the GRU and the FSB.
Jeff Schechtman: David Shimer. His debut book is Rigged: America, Russia, and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference. David, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
David Shimer: Thank you very much again for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Cancillería Ecuador / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0), James N. Wallace / Wikimedia, CCCP / Wikimedia, T P / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), and Jerry Paffendorf / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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