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by John Helmer, Moscow 

A junior member of Joe Biden’s team in waiting to take over the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council has recommended the US employ the British method of fighting Russia with the technique of “getting ahead of adversary tactics to strike either just before or immediately after a major decision, vote, or event.”  

Doubt, she concludes, is a Russian tactic of mind control. Truth by itself isn’t enough to  combat the Kremlin. Propaganda is required in advance to ensure public confidence and to deter Russian skepticism.

Rachel Ellehuus wrote this in a report she released at a Washington think-tank on Monday, July 20.  Entitled “Mind the Gaps: Assessing Russian Influence in the United Kingdom”, Ellehuus said “an analysis of the UK experience offers some indicators as to what deters Russia. In the case of the Skripal poisoning, UK officials’ success was due to several factors. First, there was coordinated messaging. Rather than each department issuing its own response (creating gaps for Russia to exploit), the various stakeholders ultimately coordinated their response through the Cabinet Office…Second, the messaging was followed by the public release of evidence to include the identity of the Russian agents, closed-circuit television footage of them around the crime scene, and records of their hotel and flights. Finally, the international community called out Russia on the international norms it had violated. Their words were then followed by punitive measures.”

Ellehuus presented her report in a webinar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She was joined by the British Ambassador to the US, Dame Karen Pierce, and Luke Harding, an info-warfare reporter. Ellehuus’s report and Harding’s appearance were paid for by the State Department. “On the funding”, Ellehuus acknowledged by email, “this is a U.S. government grant from State Department’s Global Engagement Center.”

Ellehuus was a director of European and NATO policy at the Defense Department during the Obama Adminstration; she  now works with a Washington consulting firm called Westexec,  created by Michèle Flournoy, front-runner to be Biden’s choice for Secretary of Defense if he wins election in November;  and by Antony Blinken,  front-runner to be the new Secretary of State or National Security Advisor. Flournoy has been Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor, and he is currently foreign policy spokesman for Biden’s campaign.   Between 2009 and 2012 Ellehuus was on secondment as a US official in the Strategy Unit of the UK Ministry of Defense.

Left to right: Rachel Ellehuus; Michele Flournoy; Karen Pierce.

Everything Russia, Russians or journalists reporting Russia do counts as “malign influence activities”, according to Ellehuus. “These are intransparent [sic], deceptive, or manipulative in nature. In terms of attribution, Russian disinformation efforts are deliberately opaque, drawing on a mix of attributed television and print media, blogs and websites with unclear attribution, and non-attributed social media accounts backed by bots and trolls. Malign influence efforts include, but are not limited to, activities such as disinformation, elite capture, and illicit financing.”

This isn’t racial profiling or ethnic hatred.  Ellehuus makes an exception for “routine activities of statecraft such as the exercise of soft power or legitimate public diplomacy efforts.” Russia and Russians are exceptional there too, she says, because their routines are always hostile. “Feeling constrained by and excluded from an equal footing in the existing international order, Russia calculates it has more to gain from undermining the international system than from embracing it. According to Russia’s zero-sum mentality, Russia benefits when the countries on its periphery are unstable, when strong international players such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany are weak, and when international organizations of which Russia is not a member, such as NATO and the European Union, are divided.”

Read the 30-page report here.

Ellehuus’s starting point isn’t exactly truth or falsehood, philosophically speaking; it’s politics.  If Russians report on the British, she begins, what they say is provably false. If the British report on the Russians, what they say is self-evidently true, including the first premise. “The European Union’s disinformation database captures many such false stories originating from Russian sources—such as claiming that ‘Anglo-Saxons’ conducted hybrid war against Ukraine, or that Syria’s White Helmets are a propaganda action by a U.S.-UK-Israeli coalition, or that the United States and the United Kingdom ordered the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Current efforts appear to be directed at hampering prospects for a classified U.S.-UK trade deal by undermining trust in the relationship. Currently, UK intelligence officials are investigating the posting of classified U.S.-UK trade documents on Reddit in October 2019.”

Ellehuus’s sources are secondary ones, principally a British writer named Ben Nimmo (right). “According to Ben Nimmo of the social media analysis group Graphika, the leak follows a similar pattern to the June 2019 Russian disinformation operation Secondary Infektion. Similarities between the two cases include the same English-grammar errors, reliance on single-use
‘burner’ accounts to post the information, and attempts to amplify
the post by tweeting it directly to senior UK politicians and media. While the fact that the documents were authentic moves this out of the disinformation space, it can still be characterized as an information operation with malign intent.”

Ellehuus credits Nimmo’s publications for her conclusions. She does not identify his employment  and the source of his income.

Independent British academic investigation reveals that Nimmo has been paid by the British government to produce his materials on Russian information warfare just as Ellehuus was paid by the State Department to reach hers.  “In an ‘impact assessment’ dated 19 April 2016 of what was then called the  ‘Institute of Statecraft Project on Russian Influence’, Nimmo is named as sole author of 12 of 22 outputs, and one has Nimmo and Edward Lucas as joint authors. Nimmo appears on a ‘production schedule’ as scheduled to produce 10,000 words on ‘Mapping Russia’s whole influence machine’ by end of June 2016. Nimmo was receiving a monthly consultancy fee of £2500 in January 2016, and in August 2016 he invoiced the Institute for Statecraft for £5000 for ‘August work on Integrity Initiative’. He is co-founder with Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, which received £450,000 from the Foreign Office in August 2018.”

For more on the Institute of Statecraft, Integrity Initiative, Nimmo, Edward Lucas and other operatives, click to read.   

There is a pattern here.  It is that a British Government operation is reported as the source for a US Government operation, both aiming at attacking not only Russian targets, but discrediting whatever is reported in the Anglo-American media that is skeptical of the truthfulness of either government. Doubt, questioning, and skepticism are the operational targets. “Russian disinformation often does not advocate for a specific position or take one side over the other,” Ellehuus concedes. “Rather, the approach tends to simply be to ‘flood the zone’ with a combination of accurate, half-true, and false information—with varying degrees of attribution—in order to introduce confusion and doubt into existing debates.”

Never before in the history of western civilization has doubt, the mental condition, been so precisely identified as a Russian weapon of warfare.

Ellehuus recommends the British Cabinet Office as a model for Russia warfighting for the Biden administration to follow and adopt. For illustration she tells the story of the Skripal affair; for sources of that she cites an “interview with Home Office officials, London, January 14, 2020”; an “interview with Cabinet Office official, London, January 15, 2020;” and an “interview with Keir Giles, Chatham House, London, January 14, 2020.” Giles has been identified in the Foreign Office’s Integrity Initiative operation as one of the “inner core” operatives.  For evidence of the Russian involvement in the alleged attack on the Skripals, Ellehuus also cites the British and NATO-funded Bellingcat group; according to Ellehuus, this produces “independent work conducted by the investigative journalist collective Bellingcat.”

“In terms of post-event information manipulation, UK officials noted an increase in Russian bot activity in the weeks following the March 4, 2018, attack on former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent [sic] Sergei Skripal in the town of Salisbury, some 90 miles south of London. Following Prime Minister May’s formal accusation on March 12 that Russia had orchestrated the attack, Russia’s disinformation machine sprang into action in what resembled an aggressive public relations campaign. It planted stories to deflect blame from Russia and to inundate social media with false stories that cast doubt on fact-based British and European findings. In the week after the attempted assassination, British authorities tracked eleven alternative stories about the poisoning, all of which originated in Russia. In the month following the attack, Russian state-funded media outlets RT and Sputnik put out 138 different narratives, ranging from claims that the nerve agent originated in a UK lab to claims that the story was fabricated to distract from Brexit. Yet as the details of the attack unfolded, Russia proved agile at taking advantage of missteps and contradictions in the UK government’s public communications. British authorities, working closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other international actors, were focused on rapidly confirming the type and origin of the nerve agent used. On April 3, UK online outlet The Independent released a story that quoted Porton Down Chief Executive Gary Aitkenhead saying that Porton Down had confirmed the toxin used in Salisbury was Novichok but had not determined its origin. This was at odds with public statements by then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson days earlier in which he maintained that Porton Down had confirmed both the type and origin of the nerve agent. Russia seized on this contradiction to paint the UK authorities as unreliable.”

“While the UK government moved quickly to correct the record (Porton Down was never tasked with confirming the origin of the agent, only the type), the damage was done. As reported by The Atlantic, a government poll revealed that in September 2019 only 55 percent of the British population had a ‘perception of Russia culpability,’ down from 65 percent in March immediately following the attack. While it is not clear whether this shift in public opinion was a direct result of Russian disinformation efforts, it speaks to a larger problem, namely citizens’ lack of trust in their government to provide true and accurate information on matters of national security.”

“The UK response to the Skripal poisoning demonstrates what a successful response looks like.”

Ellehuus reports the Skripal case was a trial run for a novel command and control system for information warfare run from the very top of the British government. “Throughout 2018, the government took several steps to improve its ability to monitor, identify, and remove disinformation. Measures included expansion of the National Security Communications Team (NSCT)* to tackle the strategic communications aspects of information operations and the Cabinet Office’s establishment of a Rapid Response Unit (RRU) to quickly monitor, identify, and respond to misinformation and disinformation online. For example, the RRU was instrumental in countering disinformation about the type and origins of the nerve agent used in the 2018 Skripal poisoning as well as false narratives about the Syrian airstrikes that same year. Importantly, the RRU’s mandate to monitor trends enables it to act preemptively in countering disinformation, getting ahead of adversary tactics to strike either just before or immediately after a major decision, vote, or event.”

Left: Fiona Bartosch, head of the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), which was ordered by Mark Sedwill as National Security Advisor and the senior Cabinet Office official in charge of the Skripal operation.  Right: Sedwill with his US counterpart, John Bolton, on June 25, 2018.  In the Cabinet Office Sedwill also centralised control over billion-dollar media buying and advertising contracts by the British government.    

Under Sedwill, according to Ellehuus, the Cabinet Office was “charged with heading up all counter-disinformation and counterinfluence efforts for HMG [Her Majesty’s Government]. It is supported in this effort by the Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport].”

Ellehuus was asked whether Sedwill ran the Skripal operation. She says she isn’t sure. “I’m not referring to any one individual but rather that Cabinet Office as government department. Her Majesty’s Government [sic] recognized that many government departments – including the Foreign Office, Home Office, and Department for Culture, Media, and Sport — all had roles to play in combatting influence activities, so gave the Cabinet Office a coordinating role.”

Ellehuus says her report was paid by “a U.S. government grant from State Department’s Global Engagement Center”. Her recommendation that info-warfare against Russia should be centralised on the Cabinet Office model indicates a potential competition when the new presidential administration begins next January between State and the National Security Advisor’s office in the White House.

The strategic objective, Ellehuus’s report concludes, is regime change in Moscow. “An analysis of the UK experience offers some indicators as to what deters Russia….Taken together, this swift, coordinated national response backed by the weight of the international community and imposition of punitive measures exposed Russian malign influence activities and incompetence, embarrassing Russia in the eyes of its citizens. Over time, such reputational damage could cause more serious problems for the Russian government vis-à-vis the Russian people.”

[*] The National Security Communications Team (NCST) is another of Sedwill’s innovations  for control of British information warfare and state propaganda. Located in the Cabinet Office at Whitehall, its staff are required to have security clearances. According to advertisements posted by the NSCT last July  and last December,  the NSCT is also open to one group of foreigners: “certain Turkish nationals are also eligible to apply.”

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