Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst, providing insight on national security, crime and justice issues. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI, conducting national security and criminal investigations, and as special assistant to the FBI director. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Somewhere in Moscow, an award ceremony no doubt recently took place honoring the group responsible for pulling off one of the greatest feats in spy history.
These intelligence officers somehow managed to launch a foreign influence operation that continues to pay dividends long after being publicly blown. Their success is largely due to a combination of cunning and divisiveness on the part of American officials.
Perhaps unwittingly, the ongoing attacks by President Donald Trump and his allies against special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI have fed Russian efforts to further divide our nation and undermine faith in our national institutions.
By now, we have all become aware of the Russian active measures campaign to sow discord in the United States during the 2016 election season. The operation included publicizing emails stolen from the Democratic Party by cyberintruders in order to hurt Hillary Clinton, dividing American society by using social media platforms to whip up manufactured outrage and potentially targeting the Trump campaign for possible exploitation.
Any one of these offensive operations should have provided cause enough for citizens of all political stripes to rally together and unite against a hostile foreign adversary seeking to undermine American democracy. Taken together, they illustrate a clear and present danger that will no doubt persist for the foreseeable future.
In the minds of some leaders in Russia, a nation in decline that has fallen victim to a downward economic spiral and continuing degradation of political freedoms, a vibrant and successful United States poses an existential threat. Still smarting from the loss of territory following the collapse of the USSR, a prosperous Russia – in their view – is one that can somehow restore the relative power once enjoyed in the days of the Soviet Union.
A strong America, with its penchant for defending freedom and democratic systems of governance, stands squarely in the way of this goal. Unable to mount a successful campaign on the battlefield, Russia instead opted for asymmetric warfare in order to cause political chaos here at home and distract us from our vital role on the global stage. The Kremlin denies any such interference, with President Vladimir Putin calling it “complete nonsense,” but the leaders of the US intelligence community strongly believe the opposite is true.
The reason the 2016 Russian active measures operation remains successful to this day, even after public exposure, is partly due to the fact that intense partisan polarization in this country has caused our once-civil political discourse to devolve into mudslinging. Entrenched partisans now see the other “side” as the enemy, robbing us of both the time and the space to collectively focus on the greater threat from abroad.
An equally malevolent factor aiding Russia is the political fratricide being inflicted on American law enforcement by our own officials. In an effort to defend against allegations of collusion, the White House has turned its sights on the American justice system, with the President claiming himself the target of a “witch hunt” and alleging, without evidence, that he was the victim of illegal electronic surveillance and human spying by our intelligence community.
The White House has been aided by a coterie of consiglieres, like Congressman Devin Nunes (R-California), who have astonishingly accused the FBI of lying to federal judges in obtaining electronic surveillance warrants, and the President’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who compared FBI agents executing lawful court-ordered investigative activity to German stormtroopers. These efforts have been allowed to persist by a weak Justice Department unable or unwilling to forcefully stand up to the bullies and defend the integrity of the career agents and prosecutors doing the investigating.
Long adversaries of the FBI and CIA, Russian intelligence services could not have predicted that the most damaging actions taken against American intelligence services would come from within the US government.
To be sure, the FBI has many questions to answer about its work during 2016 presidential campaign, particularly those involving candidate Hillary Clinton. An independent assessment of the FBI’s actions will soon be released in a report from the Department of Justice’s inspector general. But efforts by conspiracy-peddling partisans to conflate the Clinton and Trump investigations are knowingly disingenuous.
Many former intelligence and law enforcement officials like myself have called these attacks what they are: blatant attempts by politicians in survival mode to undermine the credibility of American law enforcement in order to refute the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation in the court of public opinion.
I’ll leave it to the political experts to determine the utility of such a campaign and whether it is succeeding in achieving its desired political goals. But one thing is certain: These efforts play directly into the hands of the Russian government and will only make our country less safe.
The campaign to discredit our law enforcement and intelligence agencies may serve narrow political purposes by convincing parts of the electorate that the President and his allies are victims of a fictitious, out-of-control national security “Deep State,” but it is not grounded in fact. The more polarized our country remains, the longer the backslapping in Moscow will continue. For the Kremlin, our division is the gift that keeps on giving.