Schadenfreude alert: Who meddles in elections?

Now that Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State is claiming – based on no evidence whatsoever – Democrats have hacked his state’s election, it’s time for a reminder of the identity of the world’s number one election-rigger.

Guess what?

It’s Uncle Sam.

We begin with a video report from The Intercept:

A Short History of U.S. Meddling in Foreign Elections

Program notes:

Meddling in foreign elections is bad. I think we can all agree on that. And almost everyone – bar Donald Trump – seems to believe that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election. So that should be condemned. Here’s the problem, though: U.S. politicians and pundits cannot credibly object to Russian interference in U.S. elections without also acknowledging that the United States doesn’t exactly have clean hands. Or are we expected to believe that Russian hackers were the first people in human history to try and undermine a foreign democracy? In this video, I examine the ways in which the the United States has, in fact, spent the past 70 odd years meddling in elections across the world.

From flagship public broadcaster WNYC in New York comes a glimpse of the depth of Uncle Sam’s ongoing meddling:

For decades, American intelligence agencies have historically used clandestine tactics to put leaders into office who are favorable to U.S. national interests. This practice of meddling dates back to the early days of the CIA and was seen as a necessary strategy to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s something Tim Weiner has explored in great detail. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on clandestine national security programs, and his books include “Enemies: A History of the FBI” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He says election meddling is not a grey area for the CIA.

“Several months after the CIA was created in 1947, it set out to steal the Italian election in 1948 to support the Christian Democrats who were pro-American, against the socialist Democrats, who were pro-Moscow, and they won,” says Weiner. “It’s just the beginning of a long, long story.”

After seeing success in Italy, the CIA took this formula — which involved using millions of dollars to run influence campaigns — and brought it across the world to places like Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and beyond.

“The president [of Afghanistan] after the American invasion post-9/11 was a paid CIA agent, Hamid Karzai,” Weiner says. “The list is very long, and it’s part of what the CIA does in political warfare.”

A report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram adds up the numbers:

Dov Levin, a researcher with the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, created a historical database that tracks U.S. involvement in foreign elections. According to Levin, the U.S. meddled in other nation’s elections more than 80 times worldwide between 1946 and 2000. Examples include Italy in 1948; Haiti in 1986; Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia in 1990; and Serbia in 2000.

A more recent example of U.S. election interference occurred in Israel in 2015. A Washington Post report in 2016 revealed U.S. taxpayer dollars were used in an effort to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a bipartisan report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), $350,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department were used “to build valuable political infrastructure—large voter contact lists, a professionally trained network of grassroots organizers/activists, and an impressive social media platform” not only to support peace negotiations, but to launch a large anti-Netanyahu grassroots organizing campaign.

Through the years, the U.S. has also gone so far as to fund the election campaigns of specific parties; make public announcements in favor of the candidates they support; and threaten to withhold foreign aid should voters favor opposition candidates.

More on Levin’s numerical findings on American interference comes from across the pond, via Britain’s Channel 4 News:

According to his research, there were 117 “partisan electoral interventions” between 1946 and 2000. That’s around one of every nine competitive elections held since Second World War.

The majority of these – almost 70 per cent – were cases of US interference.

And these are not all from the Cold War era; 21 such interventions took place between 1990 and 2000, of which 18 were by the US.

“60 different independent countries have been the targets of such interventions,” Levin’s writes. “The targets came from a large variety of sizes and populations, ranging from small states such as Iceland and Grenada to major powers such as West Germany, India, and Brazil.”

It’s important to note that these cases vary greatly – some simply involved steps to publicly support one candidate and undermine another.

But almost two thirds of interventions were done in secret, with voters having no idea that foreign powers were actively trying to influence the results.

Forbes reports on some of the methods employed:

The U.S. uses numerous tools to advance its interests. Explained Nina Agrawal of the Los Angeles Times: “These acts, carried out in secret two-thirds of the time, include funding the election campaigns of specific parties, disseminating misinformation or propaganda, training locals of only one side in various campaigning or get-out-the-vote techniques, helping one side design their campaign materials, making public pronouncements or threats in favor of or against a candidate, and providing or withdrawing foreign aid.”

It’s not clear how much impact Washington’s efforts had: Levin figured the vote increase for U.S.-backed candidates averaged three percent. The consequences often didn’t seem to satisfy Washington; in almost half of the cases America intervened at least a second time in the same country’s electoral affairs.

Ironically, given the outrage directed at Moscow today, in 1996 Washington did what it could to ensure the reelection of Boris Yeltsin over the communist opposition. The U.S. backed a $10.2 billion IMF loan, an ill-disguised bribe were used by the Yeltsin government for social spending before the election. Americans also went over to Russia to help. Time magazine placed Boris Yeltsin on the cover holding an American flag; the article was entitled “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

The Hill gives a voice to the interventionist hidden hand:

When asked whether the U.S. interferes in other countries’ elections, James Woolsey said, “Well, only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.”

“Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system in order to avoid communists taking over,” he told Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show on Friday night.

Woolsey served as CIA director under former President Clinton. His comments follow a federal indictment released on Friday that accused 13 Russian individuals and three Russian groups of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The Russian embassy to the United Kingdom quoted Woolsey on Saturday, adding the comment: “Says it all.”


There’s lot’s more, after the jump. .

The Atlantic debunks some Republican FakeNews™:

U.S. officials sometimes claimed that the left-leaning candidates America worked to defeat were more authoritarian than their right-leaning opponents. But as the Boston College political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke notes in her forthcoming book, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War, “There is no objective truth to their claim that the leftist parties” the U.S. “targeted were ‘inherently antidemocratic.’ To the contrary, many of these groups had repeatedly committed themselves to working within a democratic framework, and, in some cases, U.S. policymakers even acknowledged this fact.” The University of Kansas’s Mariya Omelicheva, who has also researched America’s Cold War election meddling, told me she “cannot think of a case in which America’s democracy concerns superseded its national-security concerns.”

While the People’s Republic of China makes a quite appropriate comment in the state-published China Daily:

[T]he US, an interventionist nation for much of the post-World War II period, has done things far more appalling than interfering in others’ elections – including regime changes by invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and bombing countries in the name of the war on terror in the last two decades.

Many Americans like to think that their interventions are justified. It is like when US politicians and TV commentators talk about foreign hacking into the US, they have forgotten that the massive cyber army in the National Security Agency is doing the same thing to other nations, only more aggressively, given the US’ technological edge.

They should simply heed Confucius words: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”

The other hidden hand: Corporate Big Brother

Or should we say Big Brothers.

It’s not just elected governments that are intervening elections using powerful forms of intelligence gathering and covert ops.

Our penultimate entry comes from the Center for Media and Democracy:

New documents uncovered by the Center for Media and Democracy show that the billionaire Koch brothers have developed detailed personality profiles on 89 percent of the U.S. population, and are using those profiles to launch an unprecedented private propaganda offensive to advance Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms.

The documents also show that the Kochs have developed persuasion models – like their “Heroin Model” and “Heroin Treatment Model” – that target voters with tailored messaging on select issues, and partner with cable and satellite TV providers to play those tailored messages during “regular” television broadcasts.

Over the last decade, big data and microtargeting have revolutionized political communications. And the Kochs, who are collectively worth $120 billion, now stand at the forefront of that revolution – investing billions in data aggregation, machine learning, software engineering, and Artificial Intelligence optimization.

In modern elections, incorporating AI into voter file maintenance has become a prerequisite to producing reliable data. The Kochs’ political data firm, i360 states that it has “been practicing AI for years. Our team of data scientists uses components of Machine learning, Deep Learning and Predictive Analytics, every day as they build and refine our predictive models.”

Thanks to that investment (and the Supreme Court’s campaign finance rulings that opened the floodgates for super PACs), the Koch network is better-positioned than either the Democratic Party or the GOP to reach voters with their individually tailored communications.

Guess Who’s been busy?

And whilst on the topic of election meddling, a familiar face has popped up in Brazil, where where Jair Bolsonaro, a virulent neofascist has just won the presidency.

Bolsonaro is just the latest embodiment of the global rise of the radical right [see our earlier post].

More on the Brazilian Trump from Foreign Policy [emphasis added]:

Bolsonaro, who is also known as the Brazilian Trump, is currently being advised by Steve Bannon in his campaign. Still in the hospital, after an assassination attempt a few weeks ago, the Brazilian populist combines promises of austerity measures with prophesies of violence. His campaign is a mix of racism, misogyny, and extreme law and order positions.

He wants criminals to be summarily shot rather than face trial. He presents indigenous people as “parasites” and also advocates for discriminatory, eugenically devised forms of birth control. Bolsonaro has warned about the danger posed by refugees from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East, calling them “the scum of humanity” and even argued that the army should take care of them.

He regularly makes racist and misogynistic statements. For example, he accused Afro-Brazilians of being obese and lazy and defended physically punishing children to try to prevent them from being gay. He has equated homosexuality with pedophilia and told a representative in the Brazilian National Congress, “I wouldn’t rape you because you do not deserve it.”

In these and other statements, Bolsonaro’s vocabulary recalls the rhetoric behind Nazi policies of persecution and victimization. But does sounding like a Nazi make him a Nazi? Insomuch as he believes in holding elections, he is not there yet. However, things could change quickly if he gains power. Recently, Bolsonaro argued that he would never accept defeat in the election and suggested that the army might agree with his view. This is a clear threat to democracy.

Oh, as for that familiar face, here’s a tweet from El President’s son, Eduardo, posted in August:

Bolsonaro has clearly learned from Trump, exemplified in this post from the Daily Beast:

Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro declared financial war on the nation’s largest newspaper last week, pledging to boycott the outlet—and any others spreading what he has called “fake news”—when allocating government advertising funds. Reuters reports Sunday that when asked if he would support the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, which has long been critical of his far-right positions, Bolsonaro tersely replied “That newspaper is done. As far as I’m concerned with government advertising—press that acts like that, lying shamelessly, won’t have any support from the federal government.” It’s not just Folha that’s under attack: after winning Brazil’s general election last Sunday, Bolsonaro said that any media groups spreading ‘lies’ will not receive government advertising money, which totaled $487 million last year. This is not the first time that Bolsonaro has attacked journalists, Reuters notes. He has repeatedly labeled investigative reporting “fake news,” and his anti-media rhetoric has prompted attacks against critical journalists across the country—although he publicly condemned supporters who acted violently. “Treating the press as an antagonist is not a new tactic,” a coordinator of an investigative journalism group told Reuters, “but the aggressive tone and frequency of Bolsonaro’s attacks are very worrying.”

For some of his more outrageous Trumpesque quotes, see this piece from the Independent

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