During the Cold War, the United States fought a war of information (and disinformation) against Communism. The lead agency of that war was the United States Information Agency (USIA), the propaganda arm of the US government, which was dissolved in 1999. But now James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, says we need that group again. Actually, he just told Congress that we need a “USIA on steroids.”
“This is strictly personal opinion, not company policy, but I do think that we could do with having a USIA on steroids,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services committee. “The United States Information Agency [is needed] to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than we’re doing right now.”
Clapper’s testimony to the committee today comes on the heels of a classified intelligence briefing given to President Obama about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The US Intelligence Community has come out to say that not only was Russia involved in the hacking of government emails and the leaks of those emails to Wikileaks, but that Russia had many different motives for doing so. Donald Trump has flatly denied that Russia was involved, without citing his own evidence.
“The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections—theirs and other peoples,” Clapper told Congress, citing Cold War disinformation campaigns of the 1960s and the alleged funding provided to American candidates that the Soviets supported during that era.
“I don’t think we’ve ever encountered a more aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process than we’ve seen in this case,” Clapper said.
When asked about fake news sites, Clapper said that Russia was definitely involved in distributing disinformation to influence the American election.
“Without getting too far in front of the headlights of our rollout next week to the Congress, this was a multifaceted campaign,” Clapper said. “The hacking was one part of it, but it also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.”
“Does that continue?” Senator Jake Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island asked.
“Yes,” Clapper responded.
On Monday, Clapper and the CIA will be releasing a public version of the classified report they gave Obama and select members of Congress today.
So why would Russia want to try to influence the American presidential election? According to Clapper, it’s all about establishing a military presence in the Western Hemisphere that Russia has never enjoyed before.
“The Russians are bent on establishing both a presence in the Western Hemisphere and they’re looking for opportunities to expand military cooperation, sell equipment, air bases, as well as intelligence gathering facilities,” Clapper said. “So it’s just another extension of their aggressiveness in expanding those interests.”
Clapper didn’t elaborate on what a “USIA on steroids” might look like, nor whether it would spread disinformation around the world, as it sometimes did during the Cold War. But perhaps disinformation is in the eye of the beholder.
As head of the USIA, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow said in 1962, “I don’t mind being called a propagandist, so long as that propaganda is based on the truth.”