Tulsi Gabbard Is Being Used by the Russians, and to a Former US Double Agent, the Evidence Is Clear | Opinion

Much has been made of Hillary Clinton's implication that Tulsi Gabbard is someone Russia has "their eye on." While Gabbard has responded with claims that she is the subject of a coordinated smear campaign by Clinton, she has steadfastly refused to renounce any Russian support she may be receiving. As somebody who worked against Russian intelligence, I agree with Clinton's assessment—Gabbard's campaign and messaging are at risk of being weaponized to interfere with and manipulate our election.

The allegation that Gabbard may be benefiting from Russian support is disturbing for many reasons. Democracy demands inclusion and debate of all ideas, whether or not they fall within the mainstream of a political party—and this extends to Gabbard as well. Her claims of a smear or McCarthy-style campaign to silence her have a level of legitimacy. However, while we must ensure that all the presidential candidates are free to speak and present their ideas, whether or not they are considered controversial, these messages must be free from foreign amplification and manipulation. Therein lies my chief concern: that Moscow will use its skillful propaganda machine to prop up Gabbard and use her as a tool to delegitimize the democratic process.

Tulsi Gabbard Democratic candidate 2020
Democratic Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard visits "FOX & Friends" at Fox News Channel Studios on September 24, 2019 in New York City. Is she an unwitting Russian asset? Slaven Vlasic/Getty

In order to understand the Russians' goal, we must understand how they think. My understanding of Russian logic comes from the three years I worked undercover for the FBI, as well as from interactions I had with both the Russians and with FBI counterintelligence in the 20-year relationship that began after a Soviet intelligence officer walked into my parents' NYC office. That cumulative experience watching and dealing with Russia for decades brings me to this conclusion: Russian ideology seeks to harm the United States, and they will support anyone who can help them achieve that goal. This is not about pushing ideas that are pro-Russia— that is too small for them. They want to see a retreat of American influence. What better way to accomplish that than to attack our democracy by casting doubt on the legitimacy of our elections.

Russia's success in attacking our democracy is not tied to their ability to recruit Gabbard (or anyone else) to parrot Russian talking points. Rather, their success comes with their ability to influence and manipulate, through amplification, certain messages and candidates that create division. As we saw in 2016, Russia was able to aid Donald Trump by using tailored and manipulated social media campaigns, without even the knowledge or direction of the Trump campaign itself. After all, Russia's goal in 2016 was the delegitimization of our elections; they did not need to coordinate with Trump to make that happen. That's the disturbing parallel with Gabbard: Russia can seek to support her, without her knowledge.

If borne out, Russian support of Gabbard does not mean that she is a Russian-directed operative, or that she has ties with or is in contact with Moscow. As I learned during my operational time working against Russian intelligence, the targeting of U.S. persons for recruitment by a foreign intelligence service does not make that person guilty of a crime. The same holds true if Russia seeks to independently aid the Gabbard campaign. Russia may choose to covertly amplify her message by building what may look like organic and grass roots online support for her. They may take some of her talking points—such as, Assad "is not the enemy of the U.S." or that the U.S. is in "a new nuclear arms race"—and work to increase their reach across social media.

While the amplification of controversial viewpoints is a method by which Russia creates division and chaos in our political process, the solution is not to remove Gabbard, silence her, or stop the vigorous debate of far-ranging ideas. Rather, the solution is to recognize these threats and stop Russia from unnaturally amplifying any one message.

We must acknowledge that their doing so is election interference. We must not assume that Russia's alleged preference for one candidate over another means that candidate is a proxy for Moscow, or some sort of Manchurian candidate. Doing so further plays into Russia's desire to de-legitimize our democracy. Instead, we must recognize the threat that hostile intelligence can have on our core democratic institutions, and acknowledge that our adversaries seek to attack our democracy. We must empower our counterintelligence institutions take the measures needed to ensure that Russia cannot flow money for ad buys, Facebook campaigns or laundered campaign donations. The onus is on us to recognize these threats so that no foreign actor can influence campaign messaging. It is only through a counterintelligence effort that prioritizes keeping the various presidential candidate's campaigns free from foreign interference that we will protect our democratic election process and preserve the free debate of ideas.

The opinions expressed in this essay are the author's own.