In Russian Hacks of Democrats, a Ghost of the Soviet Past

Workers are seen on a roof near a monument of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Moscow, Russia. Jeff Stein writes that the Russians may be turning to their Soviet past by adopting disinformation techniques in their alleged hacks of Democratic Party officials. Reuters

Updated | Felix Dzerzhinsky must be chortling in his Red Square tomb. Nearly a century ago the first head of the Soviet secret police perfected the art of "disinformation," the clever crafting of false information to sow confusion among the Kremlin's enemies. His heirs have brazenly remounted the technique in an all-out attack on the American political system. It's not been subtle.

'We stand for organized terror," Dzerzhinsky famously wrote. "This should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution." When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Muscovites fed up with decades of repression tore down Dzerzhinsky's monstrous statue in Lubyanka Square, site of the KGB's infamous interrogation tombs, but he's making a comeback in the hearts of the Kremlin. In 2005, a smaller bust of the secret police chief, who died in 1927, was restored in the courtyard of the Moscow police headquarters. Last year, city election officials greenlighted a referendum to restore "Iron Felix," as the 40-foot high hulk was known.

Vladimir Putin seems to be a fan–and not shy about it. The Kremlin left its fingerprint on the hack of the Democratic Party's data vaults, investigators say. The person or team of hackers known as Guccifer 2.0 left behind a signature in Cyrillic, "Felix Dzerzhinsky."

"If these are indeed the Russians," Nina Khruscheva, the great-granddaughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tells Newsweek, "it only suggests that they either want to be caught and laugh at those who think they caught them."

It's possible someone else posing as a Russian wants Putin to be blamed for the hack attacks, says Khruscheva–always a possibility in the murky Internet underworld. But that's not likely, according to the Obama administration, which last week pointed a finger directly at the Kremlin.

"We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities," said the statement from the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., and the Department of Homeland Security.

One of their targets, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, had no doubt where the latest attacks on the Democrats originated. "I'm not happy about being hacked by the Russians in their quest to throw the election to Donald Trump," an obviously enraged Podesta tweeted. But, "[I] don't have time to figure out which docs are real and which are faked."

And that's exactly the point of disinformation—a term invented by the Soviets.

"The purpose of developing black propaganda is not to throw a whole slew of fake documents into the stream, but to insert or delete words or phrases into the record which are damaging but [can only] later be disapproved," says Malcolm Nance, a career U.S. intelligence officer and author of The Plot to Hack America, published just days ago. The genius of the technique is that the correction takes days, or weeks, to catch up to the fiction. By then, gullible masses have digested the fabrications as truth.

The best disinformation closely hews to widespread suspicions about its target. Wikileaks's exposure of Hillary Clinton's private speeches to Wall Street bankers, apparently in concert with Russian hackers, seems tailored to further alienate the party's left wing, which is to say on-the-fence followers of Bernie Sanders.

But some of the purported excerpts from her speeches are obvious fabrications, says Nance.

One quote has her saying, "Muslim Immigration and Multicultural Madness have left a trail of misery and mayhem across Germany–with far worse to come because of demographics." She supposedly goes on to say that "Muslims make up only 9% of Berlin's population but account for 70% of young repeat criminals…"

Her purported phrasing about immigration "is on its face ridiculous," Nance says, since it would seem to align her with the xenophobic rants of Trump and his fellow travelers. And "never in a million years," he maintains, "would the top diplomat of the United States use any phraseology or Nazi-like statistics like this."

The same goes for Clinton's supposed embrace of "open borders" in the Western Hemisphere, a quote yanked out of context to feed paranoia generated by the Trump campaign, he says. Days later it would emerge that Clinton actually said, in a speech to to Brazilian Banco Itau in 2013, "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders...powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere."

"What Putin is doing is not precisely disinformation," says former CIA operations officer Jason Matthews, who spent about three decades testing wits with the Russians. "Rather he is engaging in what the old KGB specialized in throughout the Cold War—'active measures,' which are influence operations, including disinformation, designed to achieve a geopolitical goal." Or several, Matthews tells Newsweek.

"Screwing around with American institutions is a piece of a long-range plan to diminish America in the eyes of Europe and other allies, to fracture the Atlantic alliance, weaken NATO, infiltrate and eventually destabilize the Baltics, and to divert attention from his misdeeds in Ukraine and Syria," he adds. And Putin gets to take credit for it with only a coy smile, shoring up his Russian nationalist creds at home. Imagine, meanwhile, Matthews adds, the "steady drip of" Clinton's emails throughout her presidency.

Washington needs to stay cool, counsels Khruscheva, a professor at the New School who graduated from Moscow State University in 1987, during the death rattles of the Soviet Union. (She earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University in 1998.) "Putin was a covert KGB operative, so shadow games must be his thing," she said by email, "but endowing the Russians with the power to bring down American democracy is silly." We will withstand his provocations, but in the meantime, "he is laughing at all of it," she says, the exposure of "lying cunning politicians and vulgar business showmen."

The problem, of course, is that the cunning Putin may overstep, poking a wobbly, unsure Uncle Sam one too many times, setting in motion a new Cold War that won't be so easily controlled.

This story has been updated to include quotes from former CIA operations officer Jason Matthews and to include Hillary Clinton's quote on "open borders."

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts