Class 15. Racism as a National Security Threat, Part I
Why racism is the gift that keeps on giving...to our adversaries.
If you’re following along on the syllabus, we are closing out our historical exploration of Soviet active measures and heading into their modern incarnations. (If you’re just joining the course, you can jump in right here — I’ll refer to previous lectures as needed as we go along and you can catch up at your leisure!) For the next module I am going to focus on Russian electoral interference in the U.S. specifically, even though it is only one tactic in a much larger toolbox, mainly because it has been dissected so thoroughly from many different angles — intelligence experts, journalists, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Justice Department, and experts in online disinformation, to name a few. It’s therefore an excellent case study to understand how these operations intersect with our digital landscape.
To transition to that topic, though, I want to establish the one big thru-line from the Cold War to today in terms of the most exploitable vulnerability Russia can weaponize against us: America’s racial divisions. I included the New York Times video above in writing about this topic because three of the “seven commandments” identified in it rely on conditions which have to preexist in the target society:
Rule #1 (Find the Cracks): A social fissure
Rule #3 (Kernel of Truth): A history or narrative the target already believes, which will make the disinformation confirm that belief and ring true
Rule #7 (Play the Long Game): A division that is deeply entrenched enough that it can be exploited over time
Can you think of anything that fits that bill in the U.S.? I’ll take racism for $1,000, Alex. (Hey look, it’s a Daily Double!)
We saw the best example of this in Class 1, with Operation Infektion. Remember that this hugely successful disinformation operation — the claim that the United States military created the AIDS virus to kill Blacks and homosexuals — was based on suspicions within the Black and gay communities themselves about the origins of the virus. And those suspicions, in turn, were based on “nuggets of truth” — a real history of government-sponsored medical experiments conducted on Blacks and “connecting the dots” to the communities that were most impacted by the virus. The KGB just capitalized on this suspicion and belief.
In fact, the Soviet’s ability to weaponize racism against the U.S. was so successful during the Cold War that the U.S. had to defend its global image by depicting America as place of racial harmony. In Class 8, for example, we saw how the State Department and the CIA used Black jazz musicians to wittingly and unwittingly aid in this counter propaganda effort.
But this thru-line is most vivid in the juxtaposition of some lesser-known active measures operations exploiting racial divisions during the Cold War with the Kremlin’s current activities, which were highlighted in an indictment filed by the Justice Department just last month. That the exact same narratives are being utilized in operations separated by more than half a century attests to how our own failure to address the deepest and most fundamental rift in our social fabric continues to pay dividends to our enemies.
Let’s compare them:
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