‘Political Nervous Breakdowns’ and ‘Threat Perception’ — A Bette Dangerous Interview with ‘Russia’s War On Everybody’ Author Keir Giles
In this Q & A with Giles, we discuss political nervous breakdowns, the importance of threat perception, destroyers of democracy, collective amnesia, and identifying and defending against aggressors
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This interview transcript is from Bette Dangerous Founder’s Day salon on February 4, 2024.
‘Political Nervous Breakdowns’ and ‘Threat Perception’
A Q&A with Keir Giles, author and Russian cyberwar expert and Senior Consulting Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) London.
Of Russian Spies and Attempted Hacks
HSC: Before we get into questions about Russian active measures and information warfare, please tell our audience about the recent breaking news on an attempted phishing attack that involved you.
KG: Yes, the new report about Russian spies impersonating Western researchers in ongoing hacking campaigns is what you are referring to. In this particular case, I was saved by the fact that I'm really bad at reading emails. So by the time I came to look at an attachment that somebody had sent, I was sitting still, calmly, and could think: ‘Wait a minute, this doesn't quite look right, because this person doesn't normally write from a Protonmail address, and there's no reason why they'd be sending me a PDF that is password protected’.
And of course, the password protection is so that virus scanners can't intercept it on its way to you. So with all of that in mind, I continued the conversation with the attackers, getting them to send more and more of the different attachments, while also talking to cybersecurity companies and journalists. Because it looks very much as though this was precisely a Russian phishing campaign. And that's what they subsequently confirmed — the cybersecurity firms that were involved, the UK National Cybersecurity Center, et cetera. Also, this has all the hallmarks of being our friends in Moscow, who are attempting to access my email inbox for political effect in the UK.
Now, that it has been written up, unfortunately, it's become clear that there are a lot of people across the West, and particularly in the United States who have fallen for this, and whose emails have been accessed by the other side, but not used yet. And some of those people, unfortunately, are not at all comfortable talking about it. They may be embarrassed, they may feel guilty that they've done this, but it means that they're not actually cooperating with the FBI or the cybersecurity companies, whoever it is that might be able to offer them help. That's a bit of a problem, because of course, if they don't tell all the people that have sent them emails with potentially compromising content, that is a problem for everybody in that entire network. So we may see in the next few weeks and months, some of that stuff actually being leveraged against the US, particularly when it comes up to election season.
Of Rotten Herrings and Long Shadows
HSC: Wow, I did not even think for one moment about all the people who can potentially be affected. It's not just the target. It's the target’s associates. That's very important. Thank you for explaining that.
I also learned something from Zarina Zabrisky today about the rotten herring effect. So say emails are hacked — the DCCC, DNC, Podesta, whatever. The majority don't even read them. It's just that there is now a stink associated with it. I'm the kind of docunerd who reads footnotes and indictments — I read everything. And when I read Hillary's emails, what I found was a staff devoted to her as they try to do the labor of democracy. But nobody reads it, there's just a stink now associated with her and her campaign.
As somebody who is, I think, the leading expert on this stuff can you talk about how this is part of the point of a physical hack, to cast this long shadow and create a smell that gets associated with the target in order to make them radioactive?
KG: Yes, certainly. And of course, that effect is augmented by the people who will take this and run with it in the country that's being targeted, not the Russians, but their enablers, their facilitators, in the UK or US, wherever it may be, who are doing it on behalf of the Russians, or sometimes for their own short-sighted political aims, not realizing just how much damage they're doing to their own country.
So there are different problems that come up — you don't know, when somebody does deliver a dump of emails onto a website somewhere, how many of the emails are genuine?
It doesn't matter whether or not somebody has, in fact, engaged in some political activity that somebody wants to discredit. You can easily forge emails to make it look as though they did, and very few people are going to have the wherewithal to actually check through them and assess what is legitimate.
But then, of course, it gets into open media space, and it becomes a target for reporting by legitimate organizations — it also becomes a news story in its own right. And that's been an ongoing conversation in media behaviors now for several years.
What should be the right response when it looks like a nice, juicy story that is politically relevant, but it's based on material that has been hacked and potentially forged? Some media have reached the right conclusion and don't touch it because it's part of an attempt to harm your own country.
Others have not quite got there. And of course, they run with the story and they get the headlines and they get the clicks.
As a result, we have an ongoing case like that here in the UK where one of the victims of this hack-forge-dump attack was Sir Richard Dearlove, who used to be head of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, corresponding with a group of his similarly retired friends about the ways in which they might like British politics to go. And of course, this has blown up into a huge story because it fits the narrative that some of our adversaries would like us to all believe, that a shadowy cabal, this group, the Illuminati behind it, were directing everything. Unfortunately, there are British media that are still seizing on all of the things that have been pulled out of these emails and making up stories out of it, which is really doing the Russians’work for them.
HSC: It's just so incredible. I always try to get to the most helpful thing first. And when we interviewed you a year ago, when your book first came out, you said that it is imperative that Western leaders stand up, address their country and say, ‘We are target nations of information warfare,’ and when that happens there can be this cascade effect people have. First of all, they're aware, second of all, there can be resources to alert citizens about information warfare and inoculate people. A year later, that not happened in America. And, you know, my team at RadPod wrote an open letter to Joe Biden on all the things that we want him to say. We were actually asked to write a speech for him. I don't know if he ever saw it, or where it got hung up in the hierarchy of things. So we wrote an open letter. What else can we do? When all of us are watching people that we love have their minds hacked by active measures in Russian information warfare?
Of Political Nervous Breakdowns
KG: Well, it's not just in the US that it hasn't happened. It is the same situation across the West. It is the frontline states, the ones that actually recognize the existential nature of this threat of this challenge, that are actually in a position to have the political will to do something about it, and the resources. So time and again, when you look for the case studies of how to ensure media literacy, how to ensure a healthy information environment, you look to places like Finland, like the Baltic states, like the ones who know that if they don't ensure that, they are hugely at risk, and you don't look at the countries that think they're insulated by distance, and think they have the luxury that actually this is somebody else's problem.
But it's actually got worse because of that lack of political leadership. That lack of statesmanship that we've seen in not talking to populations about what exactly is at stake is now also extended to the fact that nobody is willing to talk about the direct and immediate military threat that is now becoming very much more real from Russia.
So again, the frontline states are rearming as rapidly as they possibly can, because they know they are the next target. And the danger to them has just becomesubstantially worse as a result of political nervous breakdowns in the US and the EU, meaning that that front line in Ukraine is now very much under threat.
But still, west of Warsaw, there is not the recognition that the threat is real. And so you have this chorus of voices getting stronger and stronger, saying it is urgent, we are in 1937, we have a limited amount of time to prepare ourselves to defend our societies and our countries.
But still you don't have that political leadership from the top actually recognizing the challenge and doing something about it. So information warfare is important, but we've got even worse problems to deal with at the moment.
HSC: I am going to quote our friend Rich Logis, who was a two-time Trump supporter who said that he was basically sucked into the vortex of what he described as the Maga Cult, and he said that he was kept in a state of trauma, desperation and panic. And when we talked to Zarina today, she said that information warfare is designed to keep you in stress, confusion and discord. And I just thought to myself, I've always known MAGA was active measures, but seeing the parallels between how this person was just always in the state of panic and desperation, of fear. He finally was able to snap out of it. But how much of what you see being fed toward MAGA — what I find is now the MAGA-QAnon cult merger — do you see as being part of Russian warfare against the US?
KG: This is a subject that came up in some detail a few days ago, when at Chatham House we were presenting a report on lessons learned from Russia's information war on Ukraine — there are some things that Ukraine is doing to protect itself, which again, provide us with case studies of how to do it for the rest of the world.
But one of the points that really came out there wasthat it's hard now to distinguish between what the Russians have done and what the Russians have inspired. Because you have so many political actors, not just in the United States, but around the world, looking at the damaging measures that Russia has undertaken, and the ways in which they've had this pernicious influence on information environments, and the destructive ways in which you see these information warfare techniques being replicated.
How to Tankie
HSC: You wrote the NATO Handbook on Russian Information Warfare in 2016, and I threaded it on Twitter in 2019, because of the suggestion by a Twitter rando who became a friend. I see this as the fight of our lifetime. I am always looking for ways to wake people up, and I used the analogy of the tarantula hawk wasp injecting a tarantula with poison and turning it into a zombie as it slowly dies while the hawk wasp larvae feast on its decaying corpse.
Jen Sanko is here, the filmmaker from the Brainwashing of My Dad, and we both feel that we have Invasion of the Body Snatchers going on with people's minds in the West. We know from your work, that Russia — the Russian people — were ground zero. In the late 90s, they were appreciating the potential of democracy and what that would be like and then Putin comes in and everything's pushed toward totalitarianism. The state goes online, they push everybody to the right and you end up with what you have present day — a country where everyone watches game shows all day long, as I told by a friend there. And I feel like this is a moment in time where everything's at stake. Can you help me relay the urgency?
KG: Well, first of all, just backtracking a bit to how you mentioned Twitter. Your friend and mine, Darth Putin KGB, has written a book called How To Tankie, about how to be one of these mindless acolytes of authoritarian powers in the West.
He is currently preparing a second book, which is called How to be a Master Strategist, that should hopefully be released in a couple of months. It focuses on some of these techniques, on the ways in which you set people against each other and trap them in lies, and bring them into the circle of people around you who are powerless, other than to do what you want.
And again, there are parallels with the text there and the processes that we see going on in cults QANon, MAGA, et cetera, now becoming more and more widespread in otherwise healthy democracies.
But in terms of the urgency, coming back to that Chatham House report on Ukrainian information resilience. For years, we were asked, ‘Why is it that Russian information warfare is important? How significant is it? What can it actually achieve?’
And you'll remember from the NATO Handbook the levels of ambition that Russia sets forwhat you can do with information warfare are multiple — it's tactical, it’s operational, and then it’s strategic right up to and including regime change.
So Russia does believe that you can use information tools alone to change the regime — to change the ruler in a particular country, which of course, if you adhere to the idea that it was, in fact, Russian influence that swung the first Trump election, then that's a massive success in doing precisely that.
HSC: Yes, without a doubt. I am doing a series on the 2016 election attack, and the evidence bears that out.
KG: Now take the case of Ukraine and all of these ways in which the Russians undermine the target society — they erode trust in governments, in institutions, they set people against each other, they create the conditions so that when there is a crisis, up to an including an armed invasion by Russia, there is no resistance.
KG: So the state falls over and they have their swift decapitation operation that they thought was going to happen in Ukraine. But what Ukraine demonstrates is both what is at stake, but also how you can actually go about countering all of these campaigns. Ukraine shows really the extent to which this can be absolutely catastrophic, in an existential manner, to a country if they are within reach of Russia, but still absolutely disastrous for a democratic system even if you're an ocean away.
HSC: When Zarina Zabrisky stayed with me over the summer for the premiere of her film, Under Deadly Skies, it took me a minute to really understand why she could not wait to get back to Ukraine. Bombs are not falling on my head at the moment in Los Angeles. But she could go back to Ukraine, where everybody knew there was a war. And nobody was confused about what was going on. And everybody was uniting against this enemy. She doesn't even call Russia an enemy because she says it's like putting it on the same playing field. She said it’s a sickness… But I understand that now. I continue to lose people to the MAGA-QAnon merger.
Russia’s War On Everybody
KG: The title of my last book was Russia's War On Everybody for a reason, because everybody is involved — everybody's a target. It is the way in which one of the levers through which Russia seeks to influence a society is mass consciousness.
So anybody that is caught up in any of the debates on social media is being affected directly by some of these campaigns. And it also works in other ways that are less directly connected with the information or with the messaging.
At one extreme is what’s happening in Ukraine. In Ukraine, you can have your family murdered, your apartment destroyed, your life turned upside down, the effects of Russian aggression are clear.
But even if you're far away from Russia, you're still affected in ways that you don't necessarily understand. For instance, if Russia is conducting ransomware attacks against your government, citizens of the target nations are paying the enormous cost of that through their tax money. And it is a way in which Russia imposes costs on the economies of countries around the world, which actually directly affects people.
I spoke to so many people in the frontline states, people who were in defense, in politics, all of whom were saying, ‘Well, strictly speaking, Russia isn't my job. But because it's there, it takes up a vast amount of all of the effort that I have to do and a vast amount of the energy of my state, just fending off the damage, and it has a direct impact and a direct cost’.
HSC: Thank you so much. Let’s go to audience questions.
Q. Do you consider Brexit a Russian operation?
KG: That is a really good question. And unfortunately, nobody can answer it. For no particularly good reason. The reason why we can't give a definitive answer is because the British government — successive British governments — chose not to investigate whether there was in fact direct Russian influence on the Brexit referendum, probably for not very good reasons.
They didn't want to actually discredit the outcome of the Brexit referendum by making it plain that there had been successful foreign interference.
The problem with that, of course, is the secondary effect. If you don't know that your electoral processes — your referenda processes — do, in fact, still have integrity, then you are discrediting them yourself by simply not actually looking into whether in fact they had been genuine or not.
And this was part of a long-running argument between opposition politicians and the British government that was several years long, where the opposition was trying to prod the government into actually having a serious look at Russian foreign interference. And the government at the time was resisting firmly.
There was eventually, in July 2020, a parliamentary hearing where there was a report released by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, simply called ‘Russia’, which listed not only some of the campaigns that had been ongoing, but also the failures of the British state to actually take countermeasures. The people in this investigation found, to their astonishment, that a lot of what was being done by the Russian agents of influence in the UK was actually perfectly legal. There was no law against working as an agent of a hostile power. So that's the kind of thing that that the UK has slowly been starting to put right since then. But there's still this big gaping hole, which is the whole Brexit question.
Spy vs Tankie
HSC: To your point, we have Tucker Carlson in Moscow allegedly going to interview Putin. He has been a propagandist and an enforcer of the Putinist narratives in America, which I think makes him some sort of unregistered foreign agent. And when you see him going abroad to do an interview at a time when clearly those of us here are aware that we are continually targeted with mind war, what does that signal to you?
KG: It signals that the problem of trying to work out whether somebody is a useful idiot or an agent of influence is one that the United States like so many other countries simply hasn't tackled yet. Because in a way, the impact of what those two groups of people do is the same whether somebody is repeating Russia's narratives because they have convinced themselves that actually they are correct and true despite the harm to their country, or whether they are paid or used by Russia to actually do this work for them. Itdoesn't really matter in terms of the impact, but it does matter in how you treat those two different types of individuals.
And one of the things we've been arguing for a long time is that establishing these distinctions should be a counterintelligence issue.
There should be resources devoted to actually understanding the motivations for the people who do things that are so blindingly, obviously detrimental to their own country and assisting a foreign power, like most of what Tucker Carlson does. But the fact that this is not acted on suggests also that it is not being investigated, or if it is, then not in the right way — asking the wrong questions, in precisely the way that the Muller report did. It's not just the United States, that's a widespread problem across most of the West, if you look west of Warsaw.
HSC: I just feel like, what are we doing? There's a great quote from Justice John Paul Stevens, when Citizens United happened, and he wrote the dissenting opinion. And he said, you know, you've just given Tokyo Rose the same weight as the Commander of the Allied Forces. We have to seal off these vulnerabilities. And we're not doing it quickly enough. Okay, another question — can you share with our friends what France did right that we did not do when Macron was hacked?
KG: Yes, the Chatham House report also deals with the importance of threat perception — it is the recognition that the country is under attack by these means, and that this is actually important and needs to have something done about it. In terms of France doing something right back in the day - well, think back to the US presidential election in 2016. France saw what happened there and took steps because its own presidential election was a few months later, so they had the advantage of a bit of lead time to amend the treatment of media reporting of the elections. So it was an example of what can be done if there is the political will to recognize this as a problem.
Russian Propagandist Qualities
HSC: Thank you. Here in America we had Roger Stone trafficking conspiracy theories with a white supremacist cell based on hacked goods by the GRU. Can you please reiterate your line about what unites the most ardent Russian propagandists.
KG: If you look at the individuals who do this, and particularly the ones where there cannot be any doubt that they are doing the work on behalf of a hostile power, some of whom may actually not just not just appearing on television, but going to the frontlines in Ukraine and carrying out information activities against Ukrainian POWs, for example, including against British individuals who have ended up captured by the Russians. And the really striking factor is how many of them are convicted sex offenders, and they display personality traits which suggests that they are deeply, deeply damaged individuals. And this ties in with a theme or pattern that have been actually taught in KGB classes for how to recruit agents — look for the damaged personalities, look for the losers, look for the people who are consistent failures in everything, because they will have a grudge against the societies that they can blame for their own failures. And that can be exploited to actually attack those societies. This is something we see Russia doing on a daily basis. Whenever you scratch the surface of some of the most repellent individuals that are doing this work, you find that those same personality traits are repeated again and again.
Q. I hear Joe Rogan just signed a new contract with Spotify for $250 million, multi-year. And, of course, he's plugged into Elon Musk and Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson. Is there an awareness in your circles of how people like Joe Rogan, are using machismo and comedy to mobilize more supporters for the right, including Trump?
KG: Yeah, absolutely. It's, again, part of the same problem. Because the overlapping motivations for why people do this make it quite different, difficult to untangle and pull the thread on exactly what the underlying motives are. Because the damage that these people do to Western societies and to democracy is actually also highly lucrative. It makes them an awful lot of money doing this stuff. So if you have to try to work out what exactly the primary factor is that leads them to join in this club of destroyers of democracy, it's actually really hard to discern from the outside. And that's where, again, it is a question that is impossible to arrive at from open sources, which makes it in most countries a counterintelligence question, because these are undoubtedly people who are working against the interests of our countries. And it's really important to know why exactly.
Psychos in the Psychosphere
HSC: Speaking of the vicious circus in the psychosphere, andy thoughts on the untimely ending of our ‘friend’ Prigozhin?
KG: Yeah, lots of thoughts. Yevgeny Prigozhin was a one-off and is the kind of phenomenon in Russian politics that is perfectly normal for Europe of the 1500s scenario. As a condottiere working on the frontline he decides he's actually going to turn around and march on the capital with demands. That's something which is just a symptom of the way in which Russian society and the Russian political system is half a millenium behind the rest of Europe.
But he was also an anomaly in that system as well, because he was always recognized as a potential disruptive force. This is something that we were writing about as soon as he actually acquired the power within the Russian war system, because he sat outside that stable pyramid of power that keeps Russia on track with Putin at the top and everybody else locked into this network of interests and not wanting to disrupt it, because then of course, you put your family, your wealth, your life at threat, because you're disrupting the system, which has a self-preservation instinct. Because he was outside that and more to the point he had an armed force behind him, it was a unique set of circumstances. He had an argument with the Kremlin. And he also had the means by which to drive that argument home. So I think it's probably very unlikely that Putin and those around him will allow a Prigozhin-like situation to arise again, because they've been burned once.
A Strange Paradox
Q. At what point did Russia intersect or seize the opportunity to align with the US oligarchal plan post-FDR to destroy democracy by right-wing religious extremists, along with Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes?
KG: The key word in all of that is opportunity. Because so often, Russia doesn't invent the problems that it exploits in other countries, but it will exploit and use existing social phenomena.
And it's a strange paradox, because sometimes Russia is actually good at studying its victims, particularly if they are far away, or they're perceived as alien, and sometimes it's phenomenally bad at it, particularly if Russia thinks that the people they are attacking should by rights be part of its empire anyway. And that's the reason why they never understood properly that Ukraine was not behaving the way that they assumed it would because of the way they were conducting their information campaigns, because they thought it was a province of Russia, made up of frustrated, slightly inferior Russians that ought really to be governed from Moscow. They could not have been more wrong.
If they look further afield, if they look, for example, at the United States, at Syria, at places where they're engaged in Africa, then they really put in the work, they look for those opportunities. They look for those levers, they look for the trends and the elements of social discord that they can ride and exploit in order to get their way.
And time and time again, if you look across the really simple examples across the West — what are the trends that Russia pushes at? What are the buttons that they press in order to get what they want? In the United States it's race and guns. In the UK, potentially, it was Brexit - it still is when they actually can reach that message. Across Europe it’s migration, et cetera. They know what the headline issues are that they're going to go for.
D-Day Is Now
HSC: Thank you so much, Keir. Yeah, the reason Americans need to work our shit out is that in 2014, Russian spies were sent here to figure out what our vulnerabilities were and they exploited the hell out of them, and they're continuing to do so today. And that is our failing. The book is Russia's War on Everybody. Keir Giles, I'm so glad you were here today. One last line you can leave us with, about why Americans need to toughen up their mindset, because I'd like to think I'm going to talk to you after November and everything's gonna be peachy keen. I can't promise that.
KG: No, I'm afraid not. And, sadly, the possible arrival of Trump again in power has been treated as D-Day, for those of us looking in to the US from outside the US. It is the point at which the West is suddenly thrown into crisis, because how do you stop the world burning down without the support of the United States? That is what everybody is bracing for.
And that is the conversation that is happening across not just in Europe, but across the global West, because that underpinning foundation of global security might just suddenly be wiped away.
And we've already seen around the world how many conflicts are erupting as a result of this perception that the United States has taken its hands off the wheel and is no longer that deterring element to try to keep things stable.
It's Gaza, it's Venezuela, it's the Red Sea. Multiply that, and every week the conflict map is updated with some bad person around the world who has seen an opportunity and seen this vacuum of attention by the US, and the West more broadly. And as a result, they're taking advantage of it. That is getting worse very rapidly, even before we have Trump potentially back.
‘Collective Amnesia’ — The Conversation US Needs to Be Having
HSC: Please tell us the conversation we should be having in the US — so that's the last thought we leave everybody with. Tell us the conversation we're supposed to be having in America — simply stated — that we had a Russian asset, he's now coming back and telling us he's not going to make the same mistakes he made last time — like that's what we need to be talking about. That's our five alarm fire.
KG: It is one of the most striking things about the debate about the upcoming election in the United States. Everybody seems to have forgotten what happened the last time Trump was in power. There seems to be this collective amnesia about the way in which nobody who followed Russia's long term objectives for the United States was in any doubt that he was actually pursuing those policies to the detriment of his own country. And now people want to put him back in again.
HSC: Thank you so much Keir. We're going to do everything in our power to take your words and put them into action. I thank you so much always for all the work you do and being such an awesome human being and for always exceeding my expectations. 🤍
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