Democracy & Elections

The Cyberlaw Podcast: Russia’s Online Disinformation Has a 100-year History

Stewart Baker
Tuesday, April 21, 2020, 1:09 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

In this episode, I interview Thomas Rid about his illuminating study of Russian disinformation, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. It lays out a century of Soviet, East European, and Russian disinformation, beginning with an elaborate and successful operation against the White Russian expatriate resistance to Bolshevik rule in the 1920s. Rid has dug into recently declassified material using digital tools that enable him to tell previously untold tales – the Soviets’ remarkable success in turning opposition to US nuclear missiles in Europe into a mass movement (and the potential shadow it casts on the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the US nuclear navy), the unimpressive record of US disinformation compared to the ruthless Soviet version, and the fake American lobbyist (and real German agent) who persuaded a German conservative legislator to save Willy Brandt’s leftist government. We close with two very different predictions about the kind of disinformation we’ll see in the 2020 campaign.

In the news, David Kris, Nick Weaver, and I trade perspectives on the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari on the question when it’s a crime to access a computer “in excess of authority.” I predict that the Justice Department’s reading of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act will lose, but it’s far from clear what will replace the Justice Department’s interpretation.

Remember when the House left town without acting on FISA renewal? That’s looking like a worse and worse decision, as Congress goes weeks without returning and Justice is left unable to use utterly uncontroversial capabilities in more and more cases. Matthew Heiman explains.

In Justice Department briefs, all the most damaging admissions are down in the footnotes, and it looks like that’s true for the inspector general’s report on the Carter Page FISA. Recently declassified footnotes from the report make the FBI’s pursuit of the FISA order look even worse, in my view. But at the end of the day, the footnotes don’t add much to suspicions of a partisan motivation in the imbroglio.

Speaking of IG reports, the Department of Defense inspector general manages to raise the possibility of political skullduggery in the big Defense of Defense cloud computing award and then to offer a way to stick it to Amazon anyway. Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the bid protest gives the Pentagon a chance for a do-over.

Matthew covers intel warnings about China-linked ‘Electric Panda’ hackers and that the Syrian government is spreading surveillance malware via coronavirus apps. And David notes that a Zoom zero-day is being offered for $500,000.

Nick and I mix it up, first over the Gapple infection tracing plan and their fight with the UK National Health Service and then over Facebook’s decision to suppress posts about demonstrations that protest the lockdown by violating the lockdown. I think that’s highly questionable and not something Facebook would be doing if the first demonstrations had been Black Lives Matter activists in Detroit – or regime protestors during the Arab Spring for that matter. Nick thinks it’s the best way to treat a “zombie death cult.” So, all in all, just the restrained and civil exchange of views you’ve come to expect from the Cyberlaw Podcast.

Download the 312th Episode (mp3).

You can subscribe to The Cyberlaw Podcast using iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts, or our RSS feed. As always, The Cyberlaw Podcast is open to feedback. Be sure to engage with @stewartbaker on Twitter. Send your questions, comments, and suggestions for topics or interviewees to Remember: If your suggested guest appears on the show, we will send you a highly coveted Cyberlaw Podcast mug!

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not reflect the opinions of their institutions, clients, friends, families, or pets.

Stewart A. Baker is a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP. He returned to the firm following 3½ years at the Department of Homeland Security as its first Assistant Secretary for Policy. He earlier served as general counsel of the National Security Agency.

Subscribe to Lawfare