During the 65 years of the Cold War, the CIA proved itself more adept at covert operations than the KGB.
Following our victory over the Soviets in 1989, the CIA lost its focus. It needed a new raison d’être. (Terrorism, at that point, was something other countries had to worry about.) Considering that covert operations fall under Clausewitz’s definition of war – the continuation of politics by other means – the CIA found a fitting role for itself as a contractor for the Pentagon. With the post 9/11 operations in Afghanistan (a country already familiar to the Agency) the CIA became, for all intents and purposes, a branch of the military – the branch which, for example, has the responsibility for flying armed drones.
Just like any branch of the military, the CIA openly maneuvers for control of certain operations, and will just as openly take credit for its successes. The “covert” aspect of the CIA has become ceremonial. Its “no comment” stance on its drone operations comes with a grin and a wink.
With Russia’s resurgence and China’s emergence, spheres of influence again have become an object of international anxiety. (Same old same old: US, Russia and China.) Will the CIA make its covert capabilities available to the American financial/industrial complex, which is on the front line of the battle for spheres of influence? Or has it been thoroughly militarized? Who knows?
Whatever covert political actions – as opposed to military ones – the CIA decides to undertake will be – at first, anyway – clunky and amateurish compared to the polished covert political operations of the FSB.
For a decade or more, social scientists, political scientists, philosophers, psychologists, pedagogues, public relations consultants, spiritual leaders, journalists and op-ed writers, broadcast personalities, and advice columnists have been telling us that we have lost our grasp on reality, that – thanks to a relativistic education system or the limitlessness of the internet or mass narcissism or the loss of traditional values or fluoridation, or to some or all of the above – people no longer can tell the true from the untrue and have fallen back (comfortably) into believing what they want to believe.
Marketers, political campaigners, technical entrepreneurs, have taken advantage of this new soft reality, but it has not had an effect on statecraft – with one notable exception. Whether its source is a characteristic of the national personality or habits of systemization formed in the mills of Marxism, the Russians understood the strategic potential of what, in other capitols, was still regarded as an only academic formulation.
Politically destabilizing your adversaries is an old tactic. Athens and Sparta used it against each other. With a technical aptitude not much more advanced than that of the Geek Squad, the Russians have turned our new fungible reality into a weapon for undermining democratic electoral systems. Virtual Russian spies worm their way into social media, virtual Russian agents provocateurs incite discontent and fanaticism among partisans (on both the left and the right), and Russian propaganda organs sit squarely in the midst of our cable TV news channel line-up, and are blandly cited on Google News.
The Russians are just as skilled, or just as brazen, in manipulating soft reality for defensive purposes. With their brilliant grasp of the consequences of the disintegration of truth and knowledge into belief and information, they have understood that deniability is no longer only a rhetorical exercise. Even the most obvious, clearly documented facts, such as the presence of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine and the Russian manufacture of the rocket that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, can be undermined by a few doctored photos and a few “eyewitness” reports. Those who – for one reason or another – want to believe the Russian denials will believe them. That is enough to tarnish all news about Russian activities in Ukraine with the taint of fakery.
Political destabilization by a foreign power is, arguably, an act of war. At least, it falls under the heading of aggression. Deterrence may be an effective strategy against conventional military attack, but we obviously are helpless against attacks via the internet, be they instigated by the Kremlin or by a cell of stoned adolescents in some boring little city in Estonia.