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Foreign Election Interference: Who is to Blame?

Photograph Source: Bill Smith – CC BY 2.0

Ever since the Russian election interference in 2016, the New York Times  has been blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for the new Cold War with the United States.  On July 2, it ran a front-page article that headlined the United States “stands on the sidelines” while the Kremlin conducts a “wave of aggression.” On July 1, the Times ran an oped article by former national security adviser Susan Rice, reportedly on the short list as a possible Biden vice presidential candidate, describing a White House run by “liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”  In view of the blame being assigned to Putin, perhaps it’s time to remind readers of the Times of the U.S. record of intervention in foreign elections.

The New York Times has always taken the view that U.S. election interventions have “generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates” whereas Russia has “more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule.”  Too bad the Times could not interview Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh, Chile’s Salvador Allende, or the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, who were targeted by the Central Intelligence Agency and replaced by brutal regimes that ruled for decades.  Allende and Lumumba, moreover, didn’t survive the violence that the CIA orchestrated.  The revelations of assassination plots in Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam finally led to a ban on CIA political assassinations in the mid-1970s.

The grand master of election interference and regime change is, of course, the CIA, which was created in 1947 and immediately began to interfere in elections in Europe.  France and Italy were the primary targets as “bags of money” were “delivered to selected politicians, to defray their expenses,” according to F. Mark Wyatt, a former CIA operative.  The road got much darker in the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953 and the installation of a brutal military regime in Guatemala in 1954.

The CIA released a small batch of records on the 1954 military coup in Guatemala, but it has not declassified materials on the CIA-assisted Guatemalan security forces responsible for the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans since the coup.  The CIA trained and supported notorious security forces throughout Central America, particularly in Honduras, where the Battalion 316 operated brutal detention centers throughout the country.  The United States and the CIA were responsible for installing abusive authoritarians in Nicaragua and El Salvador as well.

American national interests were rarely at stake in any of these interventions.  Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, put it best when he facetiously described Chile as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.”  Kissinger simply could not see “why the United States should stand by and let Chile go communist merely due to the stupidity of its own people.”  The CIA’s installation of the Shah of Iran in 1953 was the original sin that continues to plague U.S.-Iranian relations.

A Carnegie Mellon scholar, Dov H. Levin, examined the historical record and determined that there were more than 80 overt and covert election influence operations by the United States from 1947 to 2000 as opposed to 36 Soviet and Russian operations in the same period.  The United States relied on various clandestine means, including breaking into political offices to steal codes.  In 1996, the Clinton administration intervened overtly and covertly in the Russian election to make sure that Boris Yeltsin was not defeated by an old-fashioned communist bureaucrat.  The United States engineered a $10 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to Russia and assigned American political consultants to Yeltsin’s campaign.

The Russian intervention in the U.S. election in 2016 was merely a technological version of the kind of political influence operations that the KGB and the CIA conducted throughout the Cold War.  The digital interventions were far less costly and risky than the clandestine operations of the CIA and the National Security Agency over many decades.  We may lack a full understanding of the extent of U.S. intervention over the yearsm but we know a great deal about the Russian effort to use social media to attack Hillary Clinton, to boost Donald Trump, and to sow discord in the United States. We still lack information on the nature of the cooperation that existed between the Trump campaign and the Russian influence operation.  I’m sure that my former CIA colleagues would find nothing unusual in these Russian actions.

Too many opinion leaders in the United States still believe that several presidential administrations have failed to take advantage of the so-called U.S. victory in the Cold War.  Self-proclaimed liberals such as Susan Rice even share a point of view with neoconservatives such as John Bolton.  They appear to believe that the “shame of the West” is the failure to capitalize on the winning of the Cold War by not making sure that former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine be admitted to NATO and that recent events in Crimea and Hong Kong justify a new Cold War.  They have exaggerated the extent of Putin’s risk-taking and ignored Washington’s contribution to the sorry state of Russian-American relations.

Unfortunately, a presidential campaign in the United States doesn’t allow for the time or space to conduct a rational dialogue on the importance of restoring stable and predictable relations between the United States and Russia.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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