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Election Meddling, by Russia and by US, Is an Old Game

BU’s Wippl hears Cold War echoes in Putin’s pro-Trump efforts

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Joseph Wippl, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations

Joseph Wippl, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations, thinks the United States should counter Russia’s election meddling with its own influence campaign. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

How best to investigate alleged Russian meddling on behalf of Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election, including touchy questions about whether Trump associates colluded with Vladimir Putin’s government? Even the investigators are at each other’s throats over the question.

Amid Democratic charges of foot-dragging, the US Senate Intelligence Committee last week added two investigators to accelerate its probe. The Senate has been an efficiency expert’s dream compared to the House, where Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) recused himself from his committee’s investigation after a secret visit to the White House in March raised concerns about his impartiality.

Joseph Wippl shares those concerns, and he knows intelligence. A veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice of international relations says that a bipartisan investigation is “virtually impossible, especially in the House.”

He holds more hope for the less-polarized Senate, but even so, he adds, people should know that intruding into other nations’ elections is nothing new for either the Russians or the United States.

Wippl’s three decades with the CIA saw postings as an operations officer or manager in Germany, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Spain, Mexico, and Austria. He also spent a year as the CIA’s congressional affairs director, and as such he was the liaison to the intelligence committees of both houses of Congress, participating in briefings, among other duties. He has taught at BU since 2006.

BU Today spoke with Wippl about what’s known or suspected about the election meddling by both sides over the decades.

BU Today: What does your gut tell you—was there collusion by the Trump campaign? Is there a smoking gun?

Wippl: Almost certainly not. There’s no smoking gun. Collusion is pretty subjective. If the Russians handed Trump a bag of money and said, “Here’s something for your campaign,” that would be what I would consider collusion. I’m very skeptical that there was anything beyond words of support.

You say there are precedents for what the Russians did last year, on both sides?

The first covert action that the CIA engaged in was to support the Christian Democrats in the Italian elections of 1948. The National Security Act of 1947 says something to the effect that the CIA will engage in such other activities as the president and the National Security Council shall direct. When President Truman was informed that the Soviet Union was supporting the Communist Party of Italy, he basically told his director of central intelligence, Roscoe Henry Hillenkoetter, ”I want you to do something,” and $10 million was given to the Christian Democrats, who then came to dominate Italian politics for the next four years.

We gave support to the non-communist left in Europe after the war—magazines, labor unions, radio, media placements.

And the Russians were doing the same sorts of subsidies for the Communist Party of Italy?

I think they put about $20 million into their campaign.

Have the Russians ever meddled in our election to the degree they did last year?

No, but they did what they could about not getting Ronald Reagan reelected to a second term [by reaching out to other candidates and claiming Reagan was warmongering]. It didn’t get very far.

I think the difference last year was to use an instrument like WikiLeaks. I think the end result of an investigation is going to be the obvious one: the Russians had a successful influence operation, trying to beat one candidate and having another candidate win.

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn was fired by President Trump after failing to disclose payments he received from businesses connected to Russia.

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn was fired by Donald Trump after failing to disclose payments he received from businesses connected to Russia. Photo by Sipa USA via AP

So is President Trump right when he says Russia’s meddling in the US election last year is being blown out of proportion?

I wouldn’t say that. I would say we will never know what ultimate influence this had on the election. My only other comment is we should be in the game. I think an influence operation directed at Russia would be appropriate. You have to use social media. Putin could be vulnerable to things like: why are you doing these things in Syria? How come your standard of living is a fifth of what it is in Poland? When is Russia going to join the rest of the world, especially the rest of the Western world, in a democratic rule of law?

Another place the Russians are engaged in influence operations is these semi-fascist parties in Europe. There’s probably some financing taking place, like Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russian party in France, for instance. They were subsidizing Communist parties 30 years ago. Now they’re subsidizing nativist parties. Goes to show you if you live long enough, you get to see all kinds of stuff.

Given the rise of social media and fake news, is the American public more susceptible to disinformation than may have been true in the past?

The stuff that some Americans believe is just so crazy: somebody in West Virginia telling journalists the government ordered 30,000 guillotines, Clinton is going to take our guns away, half of the Congress believes climate change is a hoax. There’s no other developed country in the world where people in a parliament believe that. I think we’re very susceptible to that type of stuff.

The White House is withholding documents about Michael Flynn, the national security advisor Trump fired for concealing Russia-linked payments he got during the campaign. Should a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 election?

I am not a big fan of special prosecutors. They spend an enormous amount of time and money investigating issues, and at the end of it, nothing seems to happen. The intelligence committees can carry on their own investigations and hopefully come to a conclusion. Other than that, it appears Flynn did not register as an agent of a foreign power, which he should have done and which could result in his indictment.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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