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Could The Russians Seize Congress?

Above photo: The U.S. Capitol at night from the Library of Congress, 2021. Diane Krauthamer, Flickr.

The Russians have been coming, off and on, for seven-plus decades.

While these conjured imaginings may be laughable, the consequences of a culture of Cold War fear are far from funny.

The Russians are coming — or coming back, better put.

As the November elections draw near, let us brace for another barrage of preposterous propaganda to the effect Russians are poisoning our minds with “disinformation,” “false narratives,” and all the other misnomers deployed when facts contradict liberal authoritarian orthodoxies.

We had a rich taste of this new round of lies and innuendo in late January, when Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who served as House speaker for far too long, asserted that the F.B.I. should investigate demonstrators demanding a ceasefire in Gaza for their ties, yes indeedy, to the Kremlin.

Here is Pelosi on CNN’s State of the Union program Jan. 28:

“For them to call for a cease-fire is Mr. Putin’s message. Make no mistake, this is directly connected to what he would like to see. Same thing with Ukraine…. I think some financing should be investigated. And I want to ask the F.B.I. to investigate that.”

O.K., we have the template: If you say something that coincides with the Russian position, you will be accused of hiding your “ties to Russia,” as the common phrase has it.

Be careful not to mention some spring day that the sky is pleasantly blue: I am here to warn you—“make no mistake” — this is exactly what “Putin,” now stripped of a first name and a title, “would like to see.”

There is invariably an ulterior point when those in power try on tomfoolery of this kind. In each case they have something they need to explain away.

In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the polls, so we suffered four years of Russiagate. Pelosi felt called upon to discredit those objecting to the Israeli–U.S. genocide in Gaza.

Now we have a new ruse. Desperate to get Congress to authorize $60.1 billion in new aid to Ukraine, Capitol Hill warmongers charge that those objecting to this bad-money-after-bad allocation are… do I have to finish the sentence?

Two weeks ago Michael McCaul, a Republican representative who wants to see the long-blocked aid bill passed, asserted in an interview with Puck News that Russian propaganda has “infected a good chunk of my party’s base.” Here is the stupid-sounding congressman from Texas, as quoted in The Washington Post,  elaborating on our now-familiar theme:

“There are some more nighttime entertainment shows that seem to spin, like, I see the Russian propaganda in some of it — and it’s almost identical on our airwaves. These people that read various conspiracy-theory outlets that are just not accurate, and they actually model Russian propaganda.”

I read in the Post that McCaul’s staff abruptly cut short the interview when Julia Ioffe, a professional Russophobe who has bounced around from one publication to another for years, asked him to name a few names.

So was this latest ball of baloney set in motion.

A week after McCaul’s Puck News interview, Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican who, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, swings a bigger stick, escalated matters when, reacting to McCaul’s statements, reported that this grave Russian penetration was evident in the upper reaches of the American government, as again reported in The Washington Post:

“Oh, it is absolutely true. We see directly coming from Russia attempts to mask communications that are anti–Ukraine and pro–Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor.”

Masked communications uttered on the House floor: Hold the thought, as I will shortly return to it.

The VOA Rendition

The taker of the cake — so far, anyway — arrived last week from Voice of America, the Central Intelligence Agency front posing as a radio broadcaster, under the headline, “How Russia’s disinformation campaign seeps into U.S. views.” Same theme: The Rrrrrussians are poisoning America’s otherwise pristine discourse in an effort to block authorization of the assistance bill, which also includes aid to Israel ($14.1 billion) and Taiwan ($4 billion).

To drive home its point, VOA quotes a lobbyist named Scott Cullinane, who works for something called Razom, which means “together” in the Ukrainian language. Razom is a non-governmental organization “formed in 2014 to support Ukrainians in their quest for freedom.” That is, Razom’s founding coincided with the coup in Kiev the U.S. orchestrated in February 2014.

Razom works with a variety of Ukrainian NGOs to advance this cause and sounds to me like a player in the old civil-society-subterfuge game, though one cannot be sure because, on its website and in its annual reports, it does not say, per usual in these sorts of cases, who funds it.

Here is a little of VOA’s report on Cullinane’s recent doings on Capitol Hill:

“On a near daily basis, Scott Cullinane talks with members of Congress about Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a lobbyist for the nonprofit Razom, part of his job is to convince them of Ukraine’s need for greater U.S. support to survive.

But as lawmakers debated a $95 billion package that includes about $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, Cullinane noticed an increase in narratives alleging Ukrainian corruption. What stood out is that these were the same talking points promoted by Russian disinformation.

So, when The Washington Post published an investigation into an extensive and coordinated Russian campaign to influence U.S. public opinion to deny Ukraine the aid, Cullinane says he was not surprised.

‘This problem has been festering and growing for years,’ he told VOA. ‘I believe that Russia’s best chance for victory is not on the battlefield, but through information operations targeted on Western capitals, including Washington.’”

Straight off the top, there has been no Washington Post “investigation.” The Post simply quoted two paranoid congressmen without bothering to question, never mind investigate, the veracity of their assertions.

Beyond this, the question of Ukrainian corruption is another case of the sky being blue. There is no “alleging” the Kiev regime’s corruption: It is thoroughly documented by, among other authorities, Transparency International, which ranks Ukraine among the world’s most corrupt nations.

You see what is going on here?  This is an echo chamber, ever treasured by the propagandists.

Puck News, a web publication of no great account, puts out a warmongering reporter’s interview with a warmongering congressman, The Washington Post reports it, another congressman seconds the assertions of the first, the Post reports that, and then VOA joins the proceedings to report that well-established, beyond-dispute facts are Russian disinformation.

And the echoes multiply, like the circles in a pond when a rock is tossed in. Here is how Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily whose Russophobia dates to its founding during the U.S. occupation after World War II, reported on the assistance bill immediately after the VOA report:

“The controversy about the aid, which has already passed the U.S. Senate, is reflected in numerous posts on social media and articles on news sites. As The Washington Post reports, one actor has played a decisive role in this: the Russian government.”

When propaganda is king, you have to conclude, what goes around keeps going around.

It is well enough to laugh at this silly business, transparently calculated as it is.  Except that this kind of chicanery has a long history, and we learn from it that the Russians have been coming, off and on, for seven-plus decades. The consequences of these conjured imaginings, we also learn, are very other than funny.

When I decided to write the book that came out last autumn as Journalists and Their Shadows, exploring the past was essential to the project. If we want to understand our “press mess,” I call the current crisis in our media, we had better understand how it got this way.

In the course of my researches into the exuberant anti–Communism of the early Cold War years, I came upon a lengthy takeout Look magazine published on Aug. 3, 1948, under the headline, “Could the Reds Seize Detroit?” This piece was exemplary of its time.

“Detroit is the industrial heart of America,” the writer began. “Today, a sickle is being sharpened to plunge into that heart…. The Reds are going boldly about their business.”

Before he finishes, James Metcalfe — let this byline be recorded — has Motor City besieged in “an all-out initial blow in the best blitzkrieg fashion.” The presentation featured masked Communists murdering police officers and telephone operators, seizing airports, blowing up bridges, power grids, rail lines, and highways.

“Caught in the madness of the moment, emboldened by the darkness, intoxicated by an unbridled license to kill and loot, mobs would swarm the streets.” Communist mobs, naturally.

It is easy to read this now with some combination of derision and contempt. Do we have any grounds to do so? Are we doing things so differently now?

There were dangers implicit in the Look piece. It published Metcalfe’s paranoic fantasy a year and a few months after President Harry Truman gave his famous “scare hell out of the American people” speech to Congress in March 1947. Look was in essence recruiting the public as the Truman administration launched the Cold War crusade.

Representatives McCaul and Turner are on a recruitment drive of the very same kind. They are not lying to one another in any kind of effort to clean up Congress. Do not wait for them to lift a finger on that score. They are lying to you and me in what amounts to a scare-hell operation.

And the danger this time is the same as the danger last time. It is the cultivation of a climate of fear wherein the American public is to acquiesce as the new Cold War proceeds and all manner of laws and constitutional rights are abused.

Last Friday the House reauthorized, for two more years, the law known as Section 702, which allows the intelligence cabal to surveille Americans’ digital communications — without warrants and on U.S. soil — if they claim to be targeting foreigners suspected of subversive activities.

What does this have to do with the way the paranoids on Capitol Hill, reporters at The Washington Post, and professional propagandists at VOA are currently carrying on about assistance to Ukraine?

Nothing. And everything.

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