Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its propaganda against the Clinton campaign is the central question hanging over the investigations -- and the cause of so much consternation within the White House.
As I've said again and again, the Trump team is acting the way guilty people do when they're trying to cover up something. That is almost beyond doubt, so the next question is: what are they covering up and who is guilty?
Well they should be worried. A CBS article reported that the FBI has dozens of agents working on the case in Washington, New York, and London and that the NSA and CIA are collecting evidence in Russia.
A lot more light was shed on this during the testimony of one expert witness in the Senate Intelligence Committee's first hearing this past week. Clinton Watts is a former FBI special agent, former executive officer of the West Point Center for Counterintelligence, and now an academic expert on counterintelligence.
Watts helped broaden the concept of collusion to include using "active measures." We used to think of spying as simply stealing secrets and then making use of those secrets within your own strategic planning. But now, especially in the cyber age, collusion can include "active measures" to spread damaging propaganda -- taking stolen material and redirecting it back at you, making it look like a grass-roots effort. Russian had as many as 15,000 paid operatives, according to testimony at the hearing. That is more what we seem to be dealing with here, rather than old-fashioned stealing of secrets, according to Watts.
He elaborated on his testimony during an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Friday night. The Russians have a network of internet "bots" -- software designed to send out large numbers of "messages" that seem to come from different places to give the impression of a large, genuine response to some story. (At least that's how this old-timer who doesn't speak computerese understands it.)
The Russians then would put out fake news stories, and these bots would "amplify" the fake story. Within hours of something being broadcast by Russia Today TV or Sputnik News, it would be repeated thousands of times on social media in the U.S. This makes it a trending story that brings in more re-tweets and gets it picked up by legitimate news. They did the same thing with damaging bits picked up from hacking into Clinton staffers.
Now comes the interesting part. Often it would be woven into a Tweet or a speech by Donald Trump or a press release from his campaign manager. This would not only amplify the fake news story, it would give it legitimacy and gravitas, since it came from the campaign. Trump apparently knew he was using fake news, because he would give himself cover by framing it as: "people are saying that . . . everybody's talking about it."
Was it intentional collusion or just opportunistic use? What's out of the ordinary here, Mr. Watts said, is the rapidity and the synchronicity with which they repeated the original Russian propaganda messages. There was at least one instance when Roger Stone "predicted" that a certain story was coming out -- and it did, on Russian propaganda. This is the same tactic that Trump himself used in predicting, more than once, that "evidence" that he had been "wiretapped" would be found in a couple of weeks.
Even if it was only opportunistic, why would a legitimate presidential campaign take, as a primary source of material against an opponent, a known Russian propaganda news outlet? Especially at the same time and often in contradiction to its own government's highest level of intelligence analysis?
Put that in the larger context of: (1) all the praise Trump has heaped on Putin as a leader, in contrast to his insults to President Obama and most of the leaders of our allies; (2) his silence on such things as Russia's aggression in Eastern Europe and the assassination of Putin's political opponents at home; (3) his attempts to interfere with the congressional investigations into the Russian connection in his own government.
What other possible reason could explain why a president of the United States would not want to get to the bottom of credible evidence of foreign interference in our electoral process?
Watts also dropped another bombshell. This Russian interference went on during the Republican primary as well as the general election. In fact, it's well established that the Rubio campaign was also hacked by the Russians. This strongly suggests that the Russians had already chosen Trump as their candidate, and that it was not simply retribution against Hillary Clinton, whom Putin blames for trying to interfere in his own last re-election campaign.
Watts says that this is the new kind of warfare that Russia proclaimed that it has developed. It's aim is to undermine and crumble democratic governments from within by: (1) undermining confidence in government process; (2) fomenting schisms within political parties; (3) eroding trust in our elected officials; and (4) blurring the lines between fact and fiction in political discourse.
I would interject my own opinion here. I believe there is ample evidence that Donald Trump has contributed to all four of those aims. Remember his bold boast: "Only I can fix it."?
One more thing: In response to Rachel's question, Mr. Watts said that, unlike the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee for whom he testified, was being conducted like a serious, largely non-partisan investigation. He said they asked good questions and knew what they were doing.
Publicly known information to incriminate at least some of the Trump team of collusion is thus far circumstantial. But Rep. Adam Schiff drew an analogy to show that circumstantial evidence can be very strong and enough to convict.
Imagine that when you went to bed at night, there was no snow on the ground; and, when you woke up the next morning, it was covered in snow. Now that is "only" circumstantial evidence that it snowed during the night. Someone would have to actually see the snow falling from the sky to call it direct evidence that it snowed. However, most juries would take the snow on the ground as proof. I think we're getting pretty close to that kind of cumulative, circumstantial evidence that has no other rational explanation.