What do a Cold War-era conspiracy theory, a modern-day political operation involving a hoax concerning domestic elections, and a global media influence campaign concerning the death of a Saudi operative have in common?
What do a Cold War-era conspiracy theory, a modern-day political operation involving a hoax concerning domestic elections, and a global media influence campaign concerning the death of a Saudi operative have in common? They all rely on old school tried-and-true Soviet methods of disinformation, propaganda, and smear campaigning designed to attack character, ruin reputations, and change the course of history.
The Soviet Union’s most underrated accomplishment in the field of information warfare was its ability to wreak psychological havoc on entire populations by keeping conspiracy theories, dubious accusations, and assertions mixing a kernel of truth with a significant doze of fabrications and live and well in the public mind sometimes for years, if not decades to come. Inspired in part by the old adage “if it bleeds, it leads”, the Soviet became the masters of not only igniting the flame of scandals, but of keeping it burning long past the wick’s apparent length or ability to withstand the heat.
Operation “Infektion” which dates back to the 1980s finds its reflections, in contemporary radical movements connected to civil rights issue. Same playbooks are being used by the actors who were trained by the authors of Infektion – but the data-driven approach to the spread of disinformation makes well-established methodology and discredited rumors seem brand new. In reality, there is no reinvention of the wheel. Where Operation “Infektion” sought to stoke racial tensions in the US and to turn African countries against Americans with the idea of advancing Soviet geopolitical concerns, the modern day spinoff seek to sow internal discord in the US, but also to undermine the faith of Americans in their own governments, exploiting the apparent move away from active engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa, a growing isolationist streak dominant with both parties, and contemporary domestic crises in the United States.
The Russiagate scandal started out as a last-minute Hillary Clinton presidential campaign claim, but quickly grew legs with the involvement of former intelligence officers, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, data analytics firms, and a veritable choir of politicians, journalists, and polemicists of all stripes amplifying the sensational allegations which ultimately petered out into claims of individual malfeasance. However, the investigation of this political scandal took up over two years of the Trump administration and has had a lingering effect on political discourse, the national psyche, and the reflections upon the 2016 elections.
The Khashoggi Affair erupted after the disappearance and presumed death of the Washington Post columnist and former Saudi intelligence officer and government spokesman Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October 2018. Khashoggi’s remains were never found. The choir of the media, as well as US federal legislative bodies, assigned the responsibility for his killing to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before the investigation of the death was completed. Furthermore, any attempts to question some of the initial suppositions and assumptions were met with fierce resistance from the media mavens and the foreign policy circles. With time, however, as the outrage over Khashoggi’s demise has dwindled down due to the natural movement of the news cycle and revelations that raised doubts about his past that also raised questions about the possible motives for a violent death, new angles and variants of this story reappeared in the news, keeping the momentum of continuous mass interest and emotional investment in the story alive long past the expiration date of its newsworthiness, and certainly outshining other instances of murders of that type.
Why and how, over two years after his disappearance, and after various calamities and global events have long since pushed the initial story out of the headlines, are we still talking about Khashoggi? How did those interested in keeping the scandal at peak level and as a permanent mark on the reputation of the Crown Prince, succeeded in keeping this theme as a trending item? What methods successful in previous scandals have been employed, and what were the changes and improvements? This paper will explore this story and examine both the classical elements and the groundbreaking innovations by its orchestrators.
For the purposes of this paper, several terms of art will be used to explain the operations used in all three examples and are stipulated and defined in this section. ‘Character assassination’ is a practice in which a deliberate and sustained effort is made to damage the reputation or credibility of an individual. Social groups or institutions can also be the target” (Icks and Shiraev, 2014). Character assassination of this paper will include both efforts at defamation as defined in the legal context, and all types of smear campaigns, aimed at discrediting the target and putting him or it in a bad light.
Information warfare is “the use of a combination of approaches which may include electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops (Anon, 2020a), to gain comparative intelligence, military, information, or defense advantage, manipulating or suppressing information” (Tsukerman, 2020a) in a way that “deceives, disorients, dismisses, discredits, demoralizes, and eventually, disarms the target” (Tsukerman, 2020b). Disinformation refers to the false or deliberately misleading information that is deliberately spread to deceive. The term is derived from the works by the Soviet KGB “black arts” (propaganda) department (Pacepa and Rychlak, 2013). Propaganda is a form of communications that relies on emotional response from the target, is inherently deceptive – whether as to its source, goal, or underlying premise – and more often than not, is used to create mass appeal, suggestion, or influence (Samoilenko and Simons, 2020). A Conspiracy theory is a belief, often connoting insufficient or non-existent evidence, into an exertion of malevolent influence by a collusion of powerful, often political forces (Goertzel, 1994).[i]
Conspiracy theories and theorists may often ignore more rational and likely explanation and rely on cognitive biases and circular reasoning to assert seemingly complex scientific or analytical explanations (Goertzel, 2010), which nevertheless likely have no basis in reality, and upon closer examination cannot be adequately tied to evidence. Indeed, the very complexity of explanations often require suspension of disbelief and reliance on assumptions to unite those who share this view.
While the more recent data driven approach and the use of technology fuel and facilitate the mass appeal and success of the methods, at the core, the Soviet Union relied on a technique that has become particularly popular in the critical theory classes across Western campuses and in political communications – the art of the narrative approach.
Soviet Disinformation-Peddling: The Importance of Telling a Good Yarn
The Soviets quickly grasped the importance of establishing a sense of identity, emotional connection with the target audiences, and were early in turning storytelling into a form of manipulation of hearts and minds. Despite vast differences between information warfare and typical corporate public relations, both rely on a form of marketing that influences the targets into accepting the offered proposition and falling for the approach. Effective marketing has developed on the basis of studies supporting the importance of emotional appeal and personalized connection (Payne, 2017), including the use of classic themes and archetypes (Houraghan, 2020), which have threaded certain similar cultural elements globally, despite otherwise seemingly irreconcilable local differences.
In other words, the KGB knew how to spin a good yarn – and to get others to buy into, even if they were all skeptical or even deeply cynical about the Soviet reality and governments in general.
An effective narrative is set up to draw the audience in bit by bit. Effective narrators frequently start with thought provoking or funny quotes, personal anecdotes, jokes, or effective historical or literary allusions. Similarly, a scripted scenario for an information warfare campaign will start with an initial dramatic incident or allegation which captures attention. The rest of the methodology is centered about holding that focus for as long as possible and returning the attention to the story whenever it wonders away. In some cases, the ending for the plot is written before the action takes off. In other instances, such operations are completely open ended. Although there is an element of structured design, the spin-masters are also flexible and opportunistic.
If their only goal is to wreak havoc or to damage the target’s reputation, they need not rely on cut and dry paths but will explore the various possibilities for exploitation as they emerge in the natural course of having catalyzed the events in question. Therefore, the beginning may be well defined, and through the unraveling plot, the certain storylines will be deliberately brought in, but the general finale may have variations depending on circumstances and the will of the operatives.
Just as it is important to identify the key elements and twists and turns that make the scenario effective for public consumption, it is no less essential to establish—directly or covertly—the villains and the heroes in the story. At times, the villain will be clear – anyone can easily identify a murderous, tyrannical prince, a corrupt president dedicated to autocrats, or a racist government which has developed AIDS to target blacks in Africa or at home as an antagonist. The “hero” in the story may often be up to the audience to find and define. Though the operatives may suggest the heroes – i.e. the victims of the plot, brave dissidents, the media, the political opposition – a key element is to prod the target audience in identifying in part as heroes as much as with heroes. In this manner, the audience is invited as active participants of the plot to bring down or otherwise besmirch the target and become part of the script with a role to play.
The script eventually takes on a life of its own with intricate subplots and storylines which bring in more and more people, increasing the reach of the original campaign, sometimes even beyond what was intended. As the narrative becomes more entrenched in the popular imagination, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the “villains” to redeem themselves or for the assigned “heroes” to be found wanting in any way. To be effective, the character attack-based yarn needs to be simultaneously primitive and direct, and complicated enough to make it impossible for even the most dedicated skeptics to get to the bottom of the deceit. The conceit in such instances plays on cartoonish hyperbole, in which the villains are bloodthirsty masterminds, and the heroes are saintly and larger-than-life. There is no room for compromises, gray areas, or nuance. It works well, because the public personas or abstract institutions marked as targets are usually unknown and unknowable to most of the target audience, and as such, it is easy to imagine or believe in the worst about them – and the more significant they are, the easier it is to smear.
Therefore, these character assassination scripts often read like Disney films but with the level of detail that could be sufficient for a ten season epic series. Just as it is important to keep the target audience’s mind on the extreme awfulness of the villain and the heroism of the protagonists, obfuscating the story with the multitude of secondary characters and extraneous details makes it more difficult to see past the obviously manipulative nature of the central plot and allegations. In other words, distraction is as much a key element of the information warfare aspect of the plot building as the emphasis on demoralizing the adversary and enthusing and expanding one’s own base of support.
The pacing of the narrative is another key element of the script structure. Following the introduction of the dramatic catalyst event that sets the rest of the story in motion, the tempo must keep up at a relatively intense pace to do the damage as intended. However, if the first “wave” of action does not lead to the desired result, an eventual lull is to be expected. The narrators, however, will keep the campaign burning at a low for as long as necessary to offset distractions and to prepare ground for a new assault. It is essential to build up the groundwork, no matter how waves it takes, to overwhelm the adversary with bad publicity and other reputational complications.
Therefore, after any pause in action, the narrators will introduce new elements whether they were planned initially or were masterminded in the process and unleash a level of informational attack that will leave the target unable to respond to the crisis, and preferably confused and seemingly self-contradictory in trying to defend itself. For instance, if the attack is a public release of a “kompromat”[ii] , such as leaked email, depending on the content, it may be leaked a portion at a time to allow the target to make missteps based on incomplete information and formulate responses that would then be discredited by the consequent releases. The target then ends up entrapped in its own commentary, however truthful and sincere it may be.
However, most of the time, the organizers of such efforts rely on the target not coming completely clean and either providing incomplete responses, omitting material facts, or hiding seemingly irrelevant embarrassing information that nevertheless becomes important to clarify the accusations. Generally, the targets are public figures with secrets to hide or private information that if released in self-defense, could be at least almost damaging as the original attack.
The Philosophy of the Smear Campaign and Character Assassination
Generally speaking, the idea behind a smear campaign is to use the power of the target against him/her/itself. Powerless, insignificant targets are not worth the resources spent on and invested into running protracted campaigns. Only when the star of the target begins to rise that the masterminds of a character attack develop plans to squash it. The model may differ develop on the level of the attack. For instance, in the Soviet work setting, a petty grudge or a minor political difference or rivalry could be sufficient motives to start a campaign of malicious rumors to discredit the adversary, or to get him or her in trouble. That sort of campaign, however, is hardly information warfare even though many of the elements may be similar.
As a political attack or an attack against someone with a celebrity status, however, there are few things more satisfying than taking down some beloved icon off its pedestal or destroying the image and credibility of an influential, feared, and revered adversary (Tsukerman, 2020b). The smear campaign attacks ultimately appeal to emotions rather than a logical examination of facts and calculated business or political risks (which nevertheless will incidentally be taken into consideration on the basis of the level of public outrage). Despite the fact that the “audience” will see its outrage as righteous and its calls for punishment or takedown of the “villain” as heroic and praiseworthy, in reality any premise based on a deceit, particularly if the actor behind it, has a malevolent intent, will appear less to noble urges than base ones, such as the envy of the target’s success or schadenfreude at its fall.
Not all character attacks are undeserved or deceitful. In the heat of the political battle, legitimate opposition research unveiled at the correct moment may disavow the audience of the false premises propagated by the candidate or his supporters. A corporation engaged in unethical practices may be brought to justice or forced to change its way by way of public whistleblowing, investigations, revelations and pressure by its customers and shareholders. Revelations of despicable personal behavior by public figures may sometimes bring a measure of relief to their victims. The three episodes below, however, reveal attacks that are either mostly or at least partially viewed by self-interest, destructive agenda, deliberately deceitful manipulation of information, and a clear effort to break down and destroy the target rather than “fix” some purported wrong.
In all three instances, there is no call for or possibility of redemption or restitution. Even some of the side issues that are morally ambiguous rely on incomplete or deceitful sharing of the information with the public. Even those steps taken by the targets to bring some level of voluntary restitution at least for the sake of pacifying the clamor is discredited and advances the agenda of attacking all of the targets as insincere and manipulative.
In information warfare, character assassination is a tool to create problems for the target, rather than to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. If the aim is to secure victory, then the adversary must suffer a crushing defeat. Therefore, these attacks are a zero-sum game – they continue until either the aim is achieved, or the attack is neutralized whether by an effective response by the target or by identifying and eliminating the source of the attacks.
For that reasons, the use of scandals, the more public and destructive, the better, as a form of psy-ops is less intended for winning hearts and minds than in finding various reasons to attack and destroy the target even if that ultimately does not endear the co-conspirators in this effort to the originators of the attacks.
Psy-ops and Scandals
The prurient appeal of sensationalism has, over time, evolved, particularly in the United States, from the eyeball-grabbing yellow journalism to the proliferation of scandal-centered talk shows such as “Maury Povich” and “Jerry Springer” and reality show drama to online-backed clickbait mixing celebrity gossip, political obsessions, and increasingly, the growth of the “cancel culture”. The rise of “woke” morality created an environment all over the country where even ordinary people who have made supposedly objectionable comments in private interactions can become targets of social media mob rule or suffer professional and personal consequences as a result of revenge attacks (Levin, 2020). Such incidents elevate personal interactions to the level of melodrama that entertains and feeds the self-righteous outrage of bystanders. The reason they draw interest is the same reason scandals of any sort have always drawn interest – they are entertaining, and they make regular people feel better about their own lives (while, perhaps, experiencing schadenfreude over the parties involved).
The increasing appeal of turning personal into public and the accessibility of media coverage over select issues has created captive audiences, residing inside echo chambers, and increasingly polarized not only by the substantive subject matter but by the form that it takes. Public posturing and moral preening otherwise known as “virtue signaling” are driving the scandal culture more than when the options for media were much more limited. By contrast, in the former Soviet Unions, where there was no choice in media at all, scandals were publicly revealed by the government at its own preferred timing, while appealing to the same instincts. They provided a break from the bleak reality even if most of the population was aware that the stories were strategically placed and perhaps completely fictitious.
Arguably, after the fall of the Soviet Union and with the opening of the media, the combination of the rise of popular culture and deliberate push for entertainment as opposed to serious discussion led to the level of popular cynicism where real political scandals no longer mattered, and all other types of scandals held only entertainment value (Pomerantsev, 2014).[iii] In the United States, cynicism has not yet reached that peak, yet being overwhelmed with information about corruption, and allegations that are nearly impossible to prove or disprove without spending all day fact-checking is quickly leading in that direction. This is a perfect environment to use scandals as psy-ops conduits to manipulate public perceptions, direct attention to pre-digested opinions, and destroy any sense of faith or trust in models of positive behavior.
The key to turning a scandal into a successful operation is to create a storyline or situation where one party, specifically as a direct result of the publicity stunt, feels morally superior to another (the target). This means breaking through the general inertia and cynicism and engendering some personal connection between the audience and the subject of the scandal.
The target may very well be defined by the authorities ordering the operation, but the organizers have the creative control over who else is involved in framing the story, and how precisely the image of the target will be manipulated and destroyed. The target’s strengths in the matter are as important as the vulnerabilities, because at least part of the task is to turn the positive attributes into unattractive or repulsive qualities, and to use any lovable or relatable quirks in the worst possible way for the reputation of the target – by turning them into caricatures or by denying their existence altogether and focusing exclusively on the worst possible moments in the target’s existence. If those moments are absent, or are insufficiently acute, or simply unknowable to the operatives, a good scandal will involve a level of fabrication that will have the same effect.
The ultimate goal, however, is to avoid giving any room for the target to be seen as flawed but redeemable, complex but understandable, human and relatable, or leave any room for empathy or doubt. The target cannot be allowed to be seen as a victim of circumstances or be able to defend itself by placing the blame on its enemies. Therefore, a lot of the scandal is about timing and taking advantage of the target’s unique circumstances, such as taking the time to measure the effectiveness and speed of response to other crises or smaller test operations. Complex attacks may be planned for months or years in advance, and then take years to fully take their toll.
The targets may on occasion suffer an immediate downfall as a result of a particularly effective blitz campaign or the release of a devastating information. However, in the increasingly gray climate of ambiguity and data manipulation, and particularly in complex political scenarios where communications can yield an endless array of opportunities, such attacks are less likely – and certain less likely to be immediately effective. For that reasons, patience is required of concerned character attack-based scandal psy-ops, and a long time may pass before the operatives reach their goal. The fog of war in the situation where hard evidence of “guilt” is almost impossible to obtain or to fabricate with sufficient clarity that it cannot be called into question by experts gives the targets more of an opportunity to launch defense campaigns, but at the same time prolongs and enhances the psychological toll of the attack.
There are generally several concentric circles surrounding the target, which we can imagine as a bull’s eye in the center, and the campaign allocates resources so as to reverberate across these different social strata in defining the message. The greatest outward circles consist of the general audience, the mass popular opinion, which is not necessarily particularly well informed or educated about the issue, and may have limited resources or skills to research.
The general level of popular ignorance depends on the situation, but it can be safely assumed that most of the audience will be susceptible to some level of disinformation, biases, logical fallacies, and conspiratorial thinking – particularly during times of social crises. The inner circles will include intelligence communities and government agencies tasked with assessing the issue and developing a response, government officials and business leaders assessing political and business risks of engaging with the targets, as well as various associates, family members, friends, and others who may end up being dragged into the fray either by happenstance or as a part of the operation.
The way the inner circles respond to the campaign and clear growing threat to the target will reverberate up and down the concentric circles and affect both the public opinion and the psychological response of the target itself and its associates. Even government entities are not immune from this model, since they are also comprised of human beings, and prolonged attacks undermining their function will at the very least have a detrimental effect on their ability to perform and execute successfully.
Guilt by Association
Guilt by association is a logical fallacy (Anon, 2020d).[iv] However, for the Soviet intelligence agencies and the political apparatus it was a well-established way of rooting out social spheres of potential critics, or “threats” to the system however it was defined at the moment. It was also a convenient way of asserting power by targeting vulnerable associates of identified victims and spreading fear throughout the general population (Sheehan, 1992).
Scandal based psy-ops included the element of identifying potential individuals who have interacted with the target or otherwise engaged in any activity that could be conceivably interpreted as relevant to the target and may target them as well. The reasons are substantially similar to the bouts of terror in the Soviet Union – to shut down any possibility of defenders of the target arising, to demoralize the target and its allies, to instill a chilling effect on speech and association, to eliminate potential threats to the operation, and to assert one’s own power. Discreditation of tangential, seemingly insignificant targets as a deterrence measure a clear sign of an ongoing political or intelligence operation, rather than a mere social contagion. Furthermore, stigmatizing the target makes it more difficult for it to engage in its own recruitment operations if it is a government entity or to launch an effective counterattack or response if it is an individual or a corporation.
Incorporating all of these elements made Operation “Infektion” such a great success that to this day, some of its elements are classified – in part due to the fact that some of the active members of that operation are alive and active, and in part because its methodology is being applied elsewhere to this day. Nevertheless, some understanding of what made it work is possible based on the publicly available materials.
Operation Infektion was a Soviet intelligence “active measure” (Pike, 1997)[v] that implicated the United States government in a conspiracy theory involving the emerging AIDS epidemic in the 1980s (Boghardt, 2009). Aside from the specialized department directed to spend 25% of its time on such discreditation operations, active measures were part and parcel of most of the Soviet intelligence activity and implicated numerous other bureaus (Ibid). In fact, the Soviet intelligence became best known for disinformation and active measures rather than for the traditional intelligence gathering capabilities (Pacepa and Rychlak, 2013). The operatives involved in the dissemination of the materials related to this story used all possible means at their disposal to send their message, whether through newspapers, radio stations, embassies, other official institutions, or less conventional means (Boghardt, 2009). The context for the campaign included the Soviet Union’s devastation in Afghanistan and the newly elected US President Ronald Reagan’s hard line on Communism (Ibid).
Soviet Union took advantage of the political reality on the ground, as its operations were most effective when tied into specific events and the context of pre-existing developments being relevant to political, social, or cultural circumstances (Ibid). Depending on the scale of the event, one of two types of active measures would be deployed. The first type was relegated to the bowels of the KGB and executed using largely their own resources. Hundreds of such minor operations took place each year (Ibid). The other type of active measure was designated by the Politburo and would involve dozens of agencies, including various news agency, and would be both far more resource-intensive and far-reaching in scale (Ibid).
Operation “Infektion” played off of Western concern with biological and chemical weapons. Fake confessions, intercepted letters, and congressional investigations of controversial biological warfare research could all be helpful in setting the stage for a disinformation campaign (Ibid). Conveniently for the Soviets, the breakout of the AIDS epidemic took place shortly after the controversy over the Congressional investigations (Ibid). At the same time, the United States had formally accused Moscow of developing deadly toxins (Ibid). The timing, therefore, was convenient for the Soviets to turn the US concern with the Soviet threat against themselves and to accuse them of developing the AIDS virus as a form of biological warfare and experimenting on vulnerable black populations in Africa (Ibid). This also gave an opening to stoke racial tensions inside the United States.
USSR launched its campaign on July 17, 1983 through an obscure newspaper called The Patriot, in India (Ibid). It accused the Pentagon of backing a research project that resulted in the development of AIDS and further stoked tensions between the Soviet ally India and the US-backed Pakistan by accusing the US of planning to transfer the biological weapon to the latter for the use against India (Ibid). The accusatory letter bore all the hallmarks of KGB penmanship – references to earlier disinformation campaigns against the US related to the same general subject matter, grammatical errors, and extensive references to US military functions that could strike concern into the general population about issues related to their neighbor (Ibid). These initial efforts were based less in sophisticated psychological studies that now back most complex psy-ops and more in the experiences of authors with the effectiveness of the particular type of rumors (Ibid). This initial letter was followed by a much more detailed pamphlet exploring the same subject with the aid of KGB’s loyal East German ally Dr. Jakob Segal, articles by other authors, and other fabrications (Ibid).
It should be noted that the initial effort was largely a failure which had little effort, possibly due to the lack of structural support from the nomenclature. However, the KGB operatives did not give up but rather the ignited their efforts at a more opportune time in 1985. Several publications and reports accusing of USSR of either blocking the efforts against AIDS battle or producing biological weapons of their own, as well as the need for the Politburo to divert attention from domestic troubles, including the spread of AIDS, provided the ideal conditions for the resurgence of the campaign (Ibid). In its new iteration, KGB went big and opted to publish renewed allegations in one of its primary conduits for disinformation – Literaturnaya Gazeta (Ibid).
Later, allies and front men like Segal were employed and exploited to provide pseudoscientific theories, distribute them to the West, and even fake intelligence operations were organized to create appearances of Western intelligence concern over these efforts. Segal was provided with allies and fellow travelers to continuous his dubious publishing spree (Ibid). Other academics in the West were not only naively sympathetic to the Soviet cause, but at times were willing to suspend their own disbelief of these theories but drew inexplicable conclusions that virology in German circles was solely in the hands of scientists and could not be politicized because East Germans published their theories in a West-German publication (Ibid). Such naive conclusions contributed to the spread of the disinformation and discreditation of the US government.
The US had created an Active Measures Watch Group specifically to address these sorts of efforts and develop effective trajectories for addressing them. They eventually launched a countercampaign to provide the public and officials with accurate information and to discredit the campaign by revealing and questioning inconsistencies in the publications (Ibid). Eventually, the campaign was discontinued after the spread of AIDS in the Soviet Union became a public health threat of such level, that it became permissible to disavow claims that made it impossible to take measures to help the population (Ibid). The disinformation effort was not harmless – it ended up costing lives to individuals who came to believe in the fake news and failed to take appropriate precautions or to pursue effective treatment (Grimes, 2017). Though relatively unsophisticated in terms of available resources by today’s standards, Operation Infektion became the forerunner of contemporary fake news and a standard bearer for the dissemination of propaganda (Ellick and Westrook, 2018). This may explain why many dubious or sensational news stories sounds similar to other dubious or sensational news stories – disinformation campaigns often follow the same script.
Why and How Conspiracy Theories Succeed
In general, the conditions that make conspiracy theories spread widely include individual and groups susceptibility to conspiratorial mindset, distrust in the government and media institutions, individual proclivities, lack of access to accurate information, active propaganda efforts, and echo chambers of the lack minded. In some instances, there may be a deliberate educational element that fosters or contributes to conspiracism, such as the prevalence of cultural Marxism on campuses through the various critical theory classes and influences (Latour, 2004).
Others interpret conspiracy theories as due to having emotionally satisfying appeal in combination of a lack of intellectual vigor and skepticism. Confirmation biases, communal reinforcement, PTSD, mass anxiety due to various specific social stress factors, and psychological projection may be some of the other contributing factors (Swami, 2011). In the end, there is no one explanation; different people may opt to hold on to irrational or baseless belief because they give them comfort or because they need to fit into a group that shares these believes. It may also be due to political trends and stylistic preferences (Hofstadter, 1967).
However, the quality of the conspiracy theory also contributes to its longevity. Some modern-day conspiracy theories are so poorly thought out and delivered that they fall apart almost upon arrival, such as the short-lived Pizzagate scandal (Robb, 2020). Others, like Qanon (Zadrozny and Collins, 2018) and various conspiracy theories with a cult-likes status of their own around the assassination of John F. Kennedy hold mass appeal and establish their own long-term bases. The most enduring conspiracy theories will feed into the zeitgeisth and reaffirm beliefs that emerge out of specific anecdotal scenarios or situations grounded in some sort of injustice and fill in the gaps that have not been fully and clearly addressed by authoritative and reputable sources.
What Kept the Infektion Scandal Going? Dissecting the Method
There were several elements that made the Infektion such a successful phenomenon. First, the conflagration of sociopolitical factors at the time was ripe for the application of preexisting efforts in a more “ripe setting. Second, the operatives involved were able to identify the Western willingness to question their own government, but also correctly understood and estimate the naivete or the willful blindness of a certain portion of the academia to Soviet influence campaigns and other intelligence work. Third was the persistence of the operatives despite the initial apparent failure of the effort. Fourth was the willingness of the Politburo to allocate resources to keep the hoax of that scale ongoing.
Fifth, was the subject matter itself and the fact that the Soviet Union had plenty of allies and fellow travelers who were willing to assist or who swallowed the bait and fell for the messaging. The Cold War bipolarity made it easy for Communist sympathizers and left-leaning fellow travelers to give credence to otherwise dubious allegations. Sixth, the context of the “fog of war” made bizarre biological advancement by either party plausible, and in fact, both countries were indeed engaging in other forms of research and biological weapons development. Seventh, the mechanisms for a counterattacking were responsive and developed at a relatively later date, giving time for the rumors to spread and settle in in the popular mind. As it turned out, even despite official UN withdrawal of claims concerning the US-AIDS connection, the scandal lived on to fight another day.
“Infektion” and the BLM
A recent documentary produced by the NY Times address the history of the Russian fake news and interviews a number of the ex-Soviet intelligence officers who were privy to the events of the day. However, given that these interview subjects are experts in disinformation, it is obvious that the responses they gave were based off approved talking points (Sheen, 2019). The documentary establishes the “7 rules for disinformation” employed by the Soviet intelligence agency. They include:
- developing controversial content, identifying a susceptible audience, and tailoring the consumption in a way that suits the effort’s long-term agenda.
- In the past big lies about government conspiracies worked best; in a contemporary setting, overwhelming the public with the proliferation of “small lies” will have the same, if not bigger, impact.
- Mixing facts and fiction in a credible way is what really makes disinformation relevant and effective; sometimes only a kernel of truth is needed even for the most outrageous and incredible conspiracy theory or scandal to get picked up.
- Conceal your hand – what makes the conspiracy theories or other disinformation efforts by intelligence agencies or governments effective is the level of effort applied to distance the “customer” from the end production. Operation “Infektion” employed a number of stooges, from various parts of the world. In today’s globalized environment, obfuscating the paper trail and covering one’s tracks is much easier. Scandals today include such a number of third parties with various interests in the matter that tracing the roots of the events to one or more original parties becomes a gargantuan task, and if multiple intelligence agencies are involved in giving cover to the efforts, such efforts are likely to remain undiscovered.
- The “useful idiot” naive low-information idealists and ideological fellow travelers have existed in all times and places and will never fully disappear. They carry the water in both simple and sophisticated operations.
- Deny everything – given the complex nature of the “dark arts”, it is easy to place blame elsewhere and even when confronted with the incontrovertible evidence of one’s involvement play dumb and move onwards with a straight face. One’s opponent is unlikely to have the means to expose and enforce the findings in any meaningful way. That may include various deflections, defense mechanisms, or accusing the other side of paranoia or being a paid shill for some nefarious effort to undermine one’s work.
- The long game – patience and willingness to wait for years until one’s effort comes to fruition is the key to “victory” (Ibid).
Although superficially it may appear that the Soviet lost the Infektion, battle, the echoes of the scandal live on. For instance the Black Lives Matter movement that started out in response to allegations of police brutality under the Obama administration and emerged as a political tour de force in the United States and soon became a global effort, in response to the killing of George Floyd by the police, was apparently coopted and influenced by Russia (Julian-Varnon, 2020), and echoed the same types of conspiracy theories and extreme statement against the US government and various groups as what took place during the heights of the civil rights battles coopted by the Soviets, and also during the Operation Infektion. This operation, in fact, was nicknamed “Secondary Infektion”.
Elements of a Good Scandal
Several observations can be made as a result of this story about what it takes to make a really good scandal.
First, it needs to be responsive to an ongoing hot-button issue.
Second, in order to damage reputation or to discredit someone or something, it should involve issues that anyone of any background should be able to condemn. Sex scandals may be of more interest in the US than Europe, while financial improprieties are more likely to turn into a massive social discussion in European states. However outright criminal activity, hypocrisy, and allegations of disloyalty or with foreign actors and entities to the detriment of national interests, will succeed in just about any situation.
Third, there should be a clear direct way to assign blame. There cannot be any muddling discussion of moral ambiguity; the scandal needs a clear wrongdoing a clear target, a clear assigned motive, a simple addressing of the five journalistic “w” questions, and a clear end goal (i.e. bad actor needs to be punished, illegal program needs to be dismantled and government employees need to be fired, an institution needs to be discredited and dismantled.)
Fourth, the story must be presented in such terms that anyone – whether a member of the elite, or a random person on the street – can and will discuss in just about any context. In other words, it must go viral.
What the Soviets Learned About the Western Mindset
As a result of Operation Infektion, the Soviets (and their descendants and allies) were able to understand the vulnerabilities in the American psyche that had allowed them to exploit these same issues even decades after the termination of the original campaign.
First, they learned the ease of infiltration Western institutions, and the susceptibility towards anti-government propaganda due to the leftist higher education, as well as assorted ongoing domestic conspiracy theories that did not need Soviets to be sparked.
Second, the proclivity to political factionalism even within major parties gives a potential adversary an opening to create divisions and play all sides.
Third, most people despite having access to a free media and ability to question and fact check information will rely on authorities of their choice and political or philosophical leaning to tell them what to think, how to think, and how to interpret presented information. That makes it easy for an operative to become credentialed as such an authority and then using the talking points of whatever particular group in question, to start building his own audience.
Fourth, liberal societies generally suffer from a lack of discernment due to Bhe fact of being high-trust communities (Ortiz-Ospina and Roser, 2016).
All of these factors, therefore, made the United States predisposed to future manipulations built on the same premises as the Operation Infektion albeit in a Big Data setting.
The Russian Menace – The Soviet Legend Behind the Russiagate
The Russiagate scandal alleging collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government captured the attention of the American public for over two years. At the end of the day, all of the convictions related to the probe for members of the campaign ended up being related to their personal activities or relatively minor ethical issues. Some of the consequent investigations revealed improprieties in the FBI handling of the relevant investigations. One of the central issues in this saga, however, was less the ultimate legal outcome than a perception of a witch hunt, not too different from the “Red Scare” (Anon, 2020b) of the fifties. The real issue with the Red Scare was not that the fear of Communist infiltration was exaggerated, but that if anything it was both understated and mismanaged due to McCarthy’s personal style and issues (Riebling, 1994).
Likewise, the new Russian scare led to nearly-hysterical coverage of the alleged threat of collusion between the campaign and Moscow, while ignoring Russia’s active measures, such as direct interference in the US elections – and ironically, the possible role Russian intelligence may have played in the creation of the now-discredited “Steele dossier”, a gathering of sensationalist allegations claiming Trump’s longstanding conflicts of interests in Moscow. The chaos resulting from the use of these purported documents led to a massive backlash (Lind, 2020) among the Trump supporters, discredited the media and some of the government officials involved in the investigations, and ultimately may have created some level of sympathy and admiration for Moscow which were not there before.
How and why did that work?
The legendary Soviet intelligence apparatus has wielded respect more through popular culture than by way of the educational system in the United States, which tends to brush aside Communism. Furthermore, despite the general dislike of Putin and his activities in Europe, Russia’s geopolitical positions are hardly the first item of interest for an average American.
For that reason, the threat of Russia’s active measures alone was not sufficient. Recent spy stories, such as the infamous Anna Chapman, were more titillating and entertaining (Weaver, 2010) than scary. Edward Snowden’s escape to Russia did not deter many of his libertarian apologists and political admirers (Phillips, 2015). It was only when the idea of a Russian threat was tied to a controversial candidate and his campaign that it became of interest and priority. Some may have believed the storyline due to the volume of coverage in the media and the level of attention dedicated to it by commentators and government officials; but for others it was more of a justification for their opposition to Donald Trump.
In the end, if anything, the concern about the “Soviet menace” was not the issue that gave “Russiagate” legs. Few have spoken out about the hardcore Stalinists still positioned across US and British campuses (Raymond, 2006). The decades of radicals in US education have left a long-term toll that positioned generations of Americans to be less concerned about the threat of Russia’s (or other countries’) meddling in US affairs rather than more (Hunt, 2015). Of course, as other recent operations and investigations (Lister and Shukla, 2020) have shown, the Russian Ontelligence apparatus is not perfect, and much of the mystique and the legend has been unraveled in recent decades through the revelations of the KGB archives and publications about the bureaucracy, the operations gone awry, and other such stories. Indeed, these agencies suffer from internal factionalism just as their counterparts in the West.
Rather than the James Bondian mystery of the Russian villain, therefore, it is the domestic concern in combination with the hint of the foreign threat that drove the initial success of Russiagate as a campaign.
The Origin of the “Russian hoax” – Truth and Fiction
In the heat of the political battles over the past several years, one of the most prominent and observable collusions that took place was between two separate narratives: 1. Whether or not there was Russian interference in 2016 and whether Trump was denying any such interference in his comments about the “Russian hoax” (Rennenkampff, 2020) and 2. whether or not Trump and his campaign coordinated with the Russian government in any illegal and/or unethical manner prior to his inauguration. The claim that that is, in fact what his campaign was doing, is traced back to the Hillary Clinton campaign comments in what appeared to be an 11th hour last ditch effort to discredit the Republican nominee (Allen and Parnes, 2017, pp. 338-355). At the same time, there appears to be no direct evidence that was publicly accepted by both parties linking Clinton herself masterminded the entire Russiagate effort to link the Trump campaign to Moscow’s active measures (Desiderio and Lippmanm 2020). However, it had been established that the Clinton campaign and the DNC had paid for the Steele to investigate the Trump campaign (Entous and Helderman, 2017), which resulted in the debunked Steele dossier (Scarborough , 2019).
The story gets murky from there. Investigations later revealed that high ranking officials within the FBI had apparently followed the DNC and Clinton Campaign guidance, engaging in illegal surveillance of Trump campaign members on the basis, in part of the clearly dubious Steele dossier (WSJ Editorial Board, 2020), and other information which, ultimately too proved to be a result of questionable methods. Any evidence in the investigation, therefore, was tainted on procedural grounds. The evidence in the Steele dossier may have come from Russian sources, some of whom may have been tied to the intelligence. Portions of the dossier read similar to the Patriot letter mentioned in the Operation Infektion, showing similar style and grammatical errors typical of Russian intelligence efforts. Whether Steele, a former intelligence officer, knew or should have known that he was dealing with compromised sources, is yet another issue with clear parallel with the Operation Infektion “dupes”, “useful idiots”, and “fellow travelers” used to propound pseudoscientific theories in the press.
Old-Fashioned Conspiracy Theory in the Big Data Setting
Russiagate follows the typical conspiracy theory scandal script with elements that clearly benefit foreign state actors looking to exploit the foibles of the Western political system. The villains are easily identifiable – an obnoxious loud unscrupulous presidential candidate and his campaign, and the heroes are the media, the outraged public that did not vote for him, the NeverTrump Republicans, and the intelligence agencies investigating the alleged collusion. Notice that where the US government entities were set up as the targets in Operation Infektion, for the purpose of the instant set up, they are allies. Whether the plot behind the scandal is the invention of power-hungry deep state apparatchiks (Smith, 2019) (former Obama officials embedded in civil service and putting up obstacles in front of the democratically elected president), or whether Russia in fact manipulated the elections far beyond some hacks remains a matter of debate and interpretation. What is fairly obvious is that despite the fact that the legal and political avenues to take down Trump on the basis of this scandal have apparently failed, the rhetoric from the initial claims lives on as it did with the echoes of Operation Infektion in later iterations of Russian active measures (Bump, 2020).
We also know that the operatives who kept the scandal going implemented the following “strategems of influence” with great success:
- Created an environment conducive to the message being sent, enabling the communicators to take control of the situation before the campaign broke down. The polarization created in 2016 election was focused in large part on demonizing Trump on a personal level and therefore tainting anything and anyone even remotely connected to him.
- Establish source credibility – in this case, literally by appealing to authority of the authorities.
- Construct and deliver the message that the operatives wanted the audience to gain – which was very simple at the end of the day – Trump and his campaign were sympathetic to foreign dictators and engaged in practices that could be most charitably described as treacherous and a peril to US national security and other interests.
- Seek to control the emotions of the target audience – by using evocative, emotionally charged language and outright biased headlines and articulated commentary in the media concerning these events, the media positioned itself as the one true defender of patriotism against foreign encroachment and “Putin’s man in the White House” (Samoilenko and Simons, 2020).
Additionally, the employment of third-party actors who presented a cross-over between journalism, political activism, and intelligence research or big data analysis, such as Fusion GPS (Anon, 2020c), and Cambridge Analytic (Isenstadt, 2020) a alumni, added a more effective and far murkier dimension to the storyline. These factors did not change the structure of the scandal but added “strategic depth”, color, and entertainment value.
Russiagate: the Successes and Failures
In some ways, Russiagate was far more successful than Operation Infektion; in other ways, it failed to achieve its goal.
The Russiagate masterminds effectively seized upon the popular mood and growing polarization and exploited the anti-Trump animus to the greatest extent. They had far greater resources available to them than the Soviet bureaucracy did at any point in time, and due to the rise of the online media and multiplicity of TV stations, were able amplify the message manifold. The news concerning Trump’s investigations resonated around the world. There was no need for interruption of the campaign; the momentum continued and gave rise to publicity on years on end. Despite the political and legal fall out, the merits of the claims are being debated in the media through the date of the publication.
On the other hand, it has failed to achieve the goal, which was to smear Trump, and by association all of his supporters. Despite the fact that the mudslinging continued well past the Mueller report announcement and that the various accusations took on new dimensions and manifestations, this particular claim ultimately fell flat. Trump was not significantly damaged either in the international arena or at home by the Russia issue; though many in the Republican camp continue to criticize his rhetoric favorable to Putin, they also bring up the fact of the tough sanctions imposed against Russia by the administration, the military reorientation of US forces from the Middle East in part to confront the Russian geopolitical influence, and the fact that the Obama administration had in fact given Russia both the political leeway (Goodman, 2012) and delivered military successes through its policies in Syria and LIbya, which gave Moscow room to entrench itself in both countries.
Whatever the initial successes of the campaign in causing a political scandal, they ultimately backfired and resulted in resignations of FBI officials engaged in surveillance of the Trump team and in scathing criticism of the media coverage and political hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats.
Whether or not this particular route will be ultimately revisited under future administrations, remains to be seen.
The Russiagate Elements: Through the “Infektion” Lens
While the foreign intelligence involvement in this campaign has yet to be established, if the Russian intelligence, has in fact contributed to the Steele Dossier, they had succeeded in benefiting from wreaking complete havoc on the US political system and having Congress and other bodies tied up in fruitless investigations for at least half of President Trump’s term. These elements of success, presumably would be as follows:
- Develop controversial content – indeed, the salacious details (Stuart, 2019) of the dossier were precisely the type of salvo that sparked public interest even among those who were otherwise detached from Washington scandals.
- Big lies – Russiagate and the Dossier followed Operation Infektion model in establishing a sensational claim that the Republican nominee and his campaign were engaging in unethical and possibly illegal contacts with a hostile government.
3. A mix of facts and fiction: the dossier included just enough details to make someone unfamiliar with Russian intelligence approach make a double take; more importantly the Dossier fit seamlessly with the overall narrative, optics, and political climate.
4. Conceal your hand – if the Russian intelligence agencies were involved, they operated through third hand informants, private actors like Steele, and rode in the back of the US domestic political actors serving self-interest.
5. The useful idiots were abundant during that time and generally consisted of low-information opinion writers, conspiracy theorists, and anyone who was more concerned about Trump’s image than about serving the agenda of foreign intelligence agencies potentially directly contributing to an otherwise unsubstantiated political scandal. Writers, analysts, and commentators of all stripes came out of the woodworks to weigh in; many lost professional credibility and went down with the sinking ship when it became obvious that the sort of grand conspiracy being alleged could not be proven, and that in fact, other actors could be held accountable instead.
6. Deny everything – Putin had repeatedly denied any illegal collusions with Trump, sometimes with a smirk on his face; Russian intelligence agencies steered far clear of the main action and were almost completely forgotten at the end of the day.
7. The long game – it took years for the scandal to draw to its conclusion; although Trump remained in office, the trust in US government and its various institutions was damaged for a significant portion of the US population, which is exactly the kind of result a foreign hostile intelligence agency would have wished to say.
The Russian Connections
Further research uncovered, that it was in fact some of the Democratic members of Congress who were most vocal in accusing their Republican counterparts and Trump of illegal and unethical activity, who had been involved in questionable stories involving Russian spies who were supposed to have been deported back in the Soviet days but somehow remained in the US (Toth, 1992). Adam Schiff made his reputation as a Russian hawk prosecuting an FBI agent who had been honey-trapped by a Russian spy, but as is often the case in stories involving espionage, sometimes the supposed heroes of the story have a more obscure role to play (Dorfman, 2019).
The details of the trial and the political circumstances of the case are all but forgotten now (Cummings, 1985a). However, they do raise a question about whether, at the very least, a hammer will see every turn of events as a nail, and whether Schiff who had boasted about his record on a national security interest, did not fall too easily into a trap that catered to his ego with the Russiagate. The FBI agent was ultimately accused of colluding with a pair of KGB spies exchanging access for financial compensation (Cummings, 1985b). Did Schiff really see no distinction between a case that went on to prove a knowing violation of multiple laws and campaign conversations with various foreign officials who had happened to be in the room?
What Were the Real Scandals?
Ultimately, the investigations of the various FBI officials involved in the surveillance-related improprieties are far more scandalous than the claims related to Russia and Trump, which, as any good conspiracy theory tends to do, amounted nothing more to a series of divergent and often unrelated episode which the writers of the script attempted to spring together and presented to the public under the umbrella of a systematic and illicit collusion. What some might consider even more surprising is that the Department of Justice ultimately dropped (Goodman, 2020) criminal probes into people like Andrew McCabe who was supposed to be one of the catalysts of the illegal investigations, and he has a new and promising career as a TV analyst.
Given that very few people were brought to justice at the end of the four-year-long process of unending scandals, probes, and investigations, it is unclear whether there is a real conclusion to be drawn from the event, and whether any or all of it ever amounted to a real or “justifiable” scandal despite the sensational claims and accusations from both sides. At least that is the perception the failure to pursue any particular thread here to its conclusion will create for future observers.
The New Media Environment
With the failure of traditional media business model, and the rise of clickbait and journalism-for-hire, the media landscape favors interferences and political battles of all sorts (Tsukerman, 2020a). Reporters and anchors now double as not only opinionmakers, but opinionators, commentators, and political activists, openly taking sides on major stories, advancing specific agendas, inserting loaded language, and denying platforms to disagreeable sources or speakers with opposing points of view. When “owning” or “destroying” the opposing side rather than covering the story becomes the goal of the media, any claim of objectivity disappears, and the new media environment is a free-for-all.
It can be bought up or otherwise intercepted with greater ease than ever before. And when the fact-checkers that are supposed to be verifying facts, instead becomes a policy-driven diktat, the line between opinions and facts becomes blurred beyond recognition. When everyone has “his truth” than no one can speak to the truth. That is precisely the sort of media environment optimal for foreign intelligence agencies, whose disinformation demands favor situations where the difference between reality and fiction becomes ephemeral.
Khashoggi is Dead. Long Live Khashoggi.
We see yet another iteration of the same story in the by now painfully familiar story of Jamal Khashoggi’s death. Khashoggi was a former Saudi intelligence officer, government spokesman, responsible in part, for censorship inside the country under his watch as the head of Arab News in his days, Muslim Brotherhood ideologue who had threatened ideological opponents (AlSaied, 2020) shortly before his death, and a friend of Osama bin Laden (Ibid). He was also a political activist who engaged in anti-Saudi government projects with assorted ideological counterparts (Tsukerman, 2020c), and a Washington Post columnist who had essentially plagiarized articles provided to him by Qatar Foundation International (Mekhennet and Miller, 2018) and edited beyond recognition by his Qatar-educated editor Karen Attiah. After his death, however, he proved to be at least as useful to various interests as when he was alive.
Indeed, immediately following his disappearance inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, he became a cause celebre even for people who have never heard of Khashoggi prior to this event. His new life elevated him to a status of a symbol and martyr for freedom of the press, and his memory became a subject of arguments among people who had little interest in him when he was active in Washington and elsewhere. The case of Khashoggi may possibly qualify as the single most successful influence operation/political scandal since Operation Infektion, and possibly surpass it as such.
Operation Infektion, however, had the advantage of an entire US government agency dedicated solely to the fact of disputing mendacious assertions made by the Soviet shills. The Khashoggi Affair, however, had a preordained conclusion in the court of public opinion before the investigation into the Khashoggi’s disappearance even began. Far from inviting a legitimate discussion and debate about the alternative explanations for the facts of his death, criticism of the handling of this issue by the media and political sphere is shunned, one’s mental state is question, and any reasonable doubt results in instant accusations of conspiracy theorizing or is otherwise ignored. What makes the Khashoggi case so special that it cannot be questioned or debate? That alone is the paradigm of successful propaganda by foreign intelligence agencies – objections and second guessing must be eliminated from the start, lest truth comes out.
A Clean Image Ruined.
At least part of the goal between the likely beneficiaries of this scandal was specifically the reputation damage to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, as a result of this fallout, was quickly relegated from the rising superstars in the international arena to a pariah who cannot venture into the United States, one of the most important geopolitical counterparts for Saudi Arabia, and who is not particularly welcomed in Europe either. Before the Khashoggi affair, despite doubts, criticism, and minor scandals, he was well received on his first foreign tour, and enjoyed a high level of general enthusiasm for his political and social reforms known as Vision2030.
Following the campaign push, he was shunned by world leaders at G20 summit, had 2 Congressional resolutions passed against him effectively calling him a murderer, saw investments withdrawn from the country and relationships with major Western business partners ruined, underwent an incessant stream of negative media coverage to become eventually largely ignored by the Western press, and is now facing additional related scandals and multiple lawsuits in the United States and other countries, asserting that far from being an isolated case of surveillance and assassination (neither element had actually yet been proven), Mohammed bin Salman is nothing short of a tyrant responsible for mass illegal surveillance of dissidents and critics around the world, who, apparently, on a regular basis sends around squads of assassins to dispatch anyone testifying against his methods, all of which, by all accounts have failed thus far. In short, from an image of a white knight in a fairy tale he became seen as a dark prince with innocent blood on his hands (Tsukerman, 2020b).
What Did the Media Learn From “Infektion” and “Russiagate?”
In pushing this narrative, the media – and other commentators – had used the most successful elements of previous or concurrent scandals to their advantage to keep the matter in public interest for as along as possible. However, in addition to the entertainment element for the masses that this debacle held, the effect of these insinuations and allegations was boosted by involvement of many other parties that were benefiting from taking credit for attacking the Saudi Crown Prince, and who in return received positive exposure in the media.
These interests included corporations, human rights NGOs, various government officials, analysts from every conceivable background, heads of various “woke” institutions including museums and universities who severed relationships and returned Saudi funding, big tech corporations, Hollywood and documentary makers, who found a rich subject for never-ending discussion, and last but not least, Western intelligence agencies (Tsukerman, 2020d), who had once enjoyed warm relations with the “Old Guard” Islamist and conservative factions opposed to Vision2030, and who still maintained some level of influence in Saudi intelligence agencies and other institutions. In other words, the media and the organizers of this campaign learned that building broad coalitions sharing the common interest in a particular problematic leader’s failure would bring about far better result than merely relying on past methods of character assassination.
The Collusion of Interests Behind the Conspiracy
There are multiple parties who see Mohammed bin Salman as a major obstacle and would wish him to be removed or destroyed or otherwise undermined at all costs.
First, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and corrupt members of the Royal family and their business associates inside the country see him as an obstacle to power, self-enrichment, and ideological survival of their interests (Tsukerman, 2020e).
Second, there are various tribes with conservative ideology and deep-rooted opposition to factions of the royal family who never fully gave their trust to the young prince – either out of belief that he is too inexperienced to hold such a position, out of personal dislike, or disagreement with his policies, or out of loyalty to other interests and members of the family.
Third, there are certain business interests who see the rise of a nationalist Saudi Arabia dedicated to energy and defense independence as competition and threat to their own economic concerns.
Fourth, there are pan-Arabists who are not religious conservative, but who are nevertheless ideologically opposed to the Crown Prince’s openness to other faiths and cultural groups, and view with displeasure his rapprochement with Israel.
Fifth, Western intelligence agencies or significant portions of them are still beholden to old relationships and have benefited from decades-long common ground build with bin Salman’s predecessors; they view his handling of intelligence as ineffective or otherwise detrimental to their own security; they resent the inexperienced young team that has filled the echelons and the loss of access to both information and the good life that the previous relationships had provided them with. Close cooperation on certain issues benefited their own career prospects even if ultimately was a failure for global security interests due to the fact that Islamists who spread incitement of ideological hatred were in charge of that protests.
Sixth, the media around the world, having lost access to a significant portion of the generous funding provided by the very same interests, shared the same resentment, and quickly found a new opportunity in Qatar and Islamist factions. Furthermore, much of the contemporary media is ideologically opposed to nationalism and see the entire concept of monarchy as anti-democratic. They also view Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms as competition to the general coverage of human rights issues that had won them public accolades and awards. Effective reforms from the government will deny the media access to dissidents and the possibility of gaining following based on coverage of controversies, human rights abuses, and other such issues. There is less interests in writing positive or otherwise anodyne stories about business and culture in Saudi Arabia.
Seventh, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood outside the country see Mohammed bin Salman as a direct political, ideological, and military threat, and despite various differences in approaches and interests, are clearly seeking to depose an unwelcome young leader, who unlike most Saudi monarchs, would not just retire or slip away into the great beyond after a few years of ineffectual stagnating rule.
Eighth, the big tech companies are facing a reckoning with a mixture of ideological wokeness and growing connection with Islamists (Tsukerman, 2020f).
Nineth, many of the human rights NGOs and foreign policy think tanks in Western countries have been infiltrated or controlled by Qatari, Islamist, or Iranian activists (Al-Sharaqwi, 2020).
All other groups – such as Hollywood, museums, and politicians – can be categorized as pandering to woke constituencies and interests, riding a profitable human rights wave, or otherwise benefiting from political donations and support from lobby groups and donors with specific stakes in the matter.
The Elements of the Original Scandal
The original scandal was fairly straight-forward and opportunistic. The Crown Prince who was enjoying the rise in popularity after his foreign tour was enmeshed in various controversies over the summer thanks to the lack of diplomatic acumen by his closest advisers. A number of countries were angered by what was perceived as reckless or arrogant commentary by these individuals; furthermore, they had already mishandled cybersecurity and human rights concerns related to other issues. He had also been blamed for the stalemate in Yemen, as the Defense Minister of the country who was perceived to be the head of the Arab Coalition.
The combination of these factors – the high likelihood of Mohammed bin Salman’s success on some major reforms, including women’s rights issues and aggressive interfaith outreach, with the mistakes made by his circles, and the political climate of heated opposition to Trump and his allies, the Gulf Crisis that had Qatar blockaded in 2017 (Tsukerman, 2020a) following its unwillingness to meet political demands by other Arab states, and the ongoing propaganda war between pro-Saudi consultants and their Qatari counterparts made this particular incident perfect for exploiting the ongoing conditions in the best tradition of Operation Infektion and the Soviet intelligence model.
Once the initial story imploded, following up on its various elements in endless details and keeping up the heat was the easy part. Mohammed bin Salman had managed to make many enemies in a very short period of time, and they were clamoring to get back at him, no matter what strange bedfellows this revenge may have attracted. Therefore, he was quickly and effectively depicted as a villain, who was to be deposed, undermined, or otherwise punished, whereas Khashoggi was painted out to be the hero and martyr of this situation, with the media, Khashoggi’s alleged Turkish fiancé Hadice Cengiz, Karen Attiah, and various members of the Saudi opposition being thrust into the spotlight as the “good guys” and sidekicks fighting for the good cause.
The NSO Affair
One key element that gave significant advantage to the plot was the ability to allege connection between the Khashoggi murder, an Israeli software called Pegasus produced by a company called NSO, and other alleged human rights abuses around the world. Human rights NGOs such as Amnesty, and digital rights organizations such as the Canada-based Citizen Lab, which became the tech expert for Facebook, quickly jumped on board of the campaign. At the center of these allegations was a British Qatar-based professor named Marc Owen Jones, who gained acclaim for his advisory role to Twitter via research for Stanford University, which identified the Saudi accounts to be taken down as bots. Jones, on his own Twitter account, had questioned (Jones, 2020a) the treatment of Hezbullah (Jones, 2020b) as a terrorist organization, and expressed support for Al Wefaq (Jones, 2020c), a radical opposition group in Bahrain, that was designated as a terrorist group for its role in the violent uprisings during the Arab Spring.
Jones provided consultations and insights on this issue. NSO was soon inundated by lawsuits (Tsukerman, 2020f). Confronted by expertise that disclaimed these allegations (Tsukerman, 2020g) in some of the cases leveled at NSO, Jones ultimately refused to testify. The campaign against NSO, however, continued, gaining the surveillance company unwanted public spotlight. Soon, Facebook, Dell, Cisco and Microsoft, brought their own lawsuit against NSO alleging the widespread abuse of its software in targeting user accounts (Asokan, 2020). At least some of these users shared Muslim Brotherhood ideology and figured in other projects involving Marc Owen Jones. NSO has no independent ability to target anyone’s accounts. The brunt of these allegations amounted to an attempt to link NSO’s alleged sale of its software to Saudi Arabia and UAE to human rights abuses allegedly masterminded by Mohammed bin Salman.
Some of the recurring elements familiar from the previous operations include the repetitive claims that rise and fall at various parts of the news cycle, but never quite die down, the reiteration and growing number of alleged victims, and the consistent findings of new wrong doings that somehow confirm the worst expectations about the Crown Prince but never with any definitive evidence.
The Operation Infektion golden standard is also ready identifiable.
- Controversial content – from the very moment the story broke down, none of the major Western publications or NGOs sent investigators to the scene to interview witness or engage in direct research. Instead, they relied on Turkish intelligence affiliated media for rumors, which were eventually disproven. Qatar’s Al Jazeera made assorted salacious claims concerning Khashoggi’s remains that never materialized but kept and grew the audience for a story that would normally be irrelevant to most people, especially in the West (Tsukerman, 2020a).
2. Big lies – the claim that Mohammed bin Salman lured Khashoggi into the consulate to murder him for his criticism of his rule is audacious enough by itself (there are many critics of the Crown Prince who are in good health and have not faced so much as mild criticism from Saudi Arabia). Later iterations of the story of mass surveillance of otherwise unremarkable characters virtually unknown to the world and multiple failed assassination attempts involving large groups of people traveling together defy credibility even of those who find legitimate reasons for the criticism of the Crown Prince’s handling of various issues.
3. A mix of fact and fiction – the factual circumstances of Khashoggi’s death from the start have been muddled by odd assertions, conspiracy theories, baseless speculations, disproven hypotheses, and rumors created exactly the sort of situation favored by Soviet and other intelligence agencies seeking to spread disinformation or create a particular impression, obfuscated by conflicting information and sources. To this day, no one really knows what actually happened.
4. Conceal the hand – Only a few of the interests involved in promulgation of the Khashoggi scandal have been analyzed at any level of depth by most journalists and political commentators. In particular, the potential involvement of anti-Mohammed bin Salman factions inside Saudi Arabia, and their prospective collusion with Turkish intelligence, Qatari funders and media, and international Islamists has been studiously ignored and hushed up. For that reason, plausible alternative explanations for what may have transpired that day and subsequently, were never openly considered.
5. The Useful idiots – an echo chamber of gloating social media accounts, journalists who had never reported on Saudi Arabia, analysts who had never visited the country, and assorted self-proclaimed “friends” and associates of the Crown Prince emerged almost instantaneously to comment on his character and the certainty of his direct involvement and specific intent. None of the journalists have ever fully apologized for relying on questionable or anonymous sources or for providing misleading information and dubious theories.
6. Deny everything – while the Saudi government response to the scandal has been poorly handled and meandering (Ibid), the interests behind this situation took it upon themselves to push forward self-righteous assertions which constituted effective denials of any wrongdoing on their part.
7. The long game – although Mohammed bin Salman did not completely fall from grace as a result of these developments, and in fact, eventually was able to identify some of the individuals involved in plots against him (Al-Rasheed, 2020) – the confluence of powers evidently aligned to take him down did not stop and in fact, after a short lull in action largely due to the drama of the 2020 US elections, resumed active measures designed to keep the scandal in the front news coverage.
Bezos and the Conspiracy Within The Conspiracy
One such effort included Jeff Bezos, who, in 2019, claimed his phone had been hacked when private photos of his extramarital affair leaked to the press. He started an investigation, which, apparently included anti-Saudi activists such as Iyad El Baghdadi. In January 2020, Bezos declared that Mohammed bin Salman had personally hacked him using the Pegasus software through WhatsApp. These technically flimsy allegations recaptured public attention briefly and distracted from Bezos’ own attempts to evade responsibility for his personal life as well as his close associations with the main cast of the Khashoggi affair – Karen Attiah, Hadice Cengiz, and Agnes Callamard, a special UN rapporteur, who had never been critical of Qatar or Turkey, but who had issued a one sided report funded by third parties for the UN claiming that Khashoggi was assassinated by the Crown Prince – without ever interviewing anyone involved in any capacity (Tsukerman, 2020c). El Baghdadi resurfaced claiming that he had been part of Bezos’ security team, though he had never had access to the phone. He did, however, also claimed, that he and Khashoggi had been surveilled by Pegasus prior to Khashoggi’s death, and that both had received US intelligence warnings to that effect and to the risk to their lives. The media covered this aspect of the scandal with gusto, but eventually was forced to backtrack or move on when Bezos was unable to substantiate his allegations (Tsukerman, 2020h).
Hackers, Assassins, Spies, and Lawsuits
Although that particular angle appears to have been exhausted, in part it was indeed a successful set up for the events that followed. By February 2020, the coverage for the Bezos affair has almost completely ceased. In March, the arrests of Mohammed bin Salman’s corrupt Islamist predecessor Mohammed bin Nayef was announced. Almost immediately, the media started to report on the threat to the well-being of the fugitive former head of Saudi intelligence, Sa’ad Al Jabri, who had been detained in the 2017 corruption probe after allegedly embezzling $11 billion in public funding (Tsukerman, 2020d), but who had managed to escape to Canada likely with the assistance from Turkish intelligence. Soon after, Al Jabri filed a lawsuit against Mohammed bin Salman in the US federal court (Runde, 2020), alleging that the Crown Prince had sent out a squad of deadly assassins to take him out in Canada. Very soon after that, Hadice Cengiz, who now claims to have been secretly married to Khashoggi two weeks prior to his death (Miller and Mekhennet, 2018), filed a lawsuit (Barnes, 2020) against Mohammed bin Salman in the United States on those grounds.
In June 2020, an Al Jazeera reporter Ghada Oueiss appears to have been hacked along with 35 other staffers. Several months later she filed a lawsuit in the US Federal court against Mohammed bin Salman and several pro-Saudi owners of Twitter accounts, including Americans, alleging that the Crown Prince had her hacked, and that those accounts were involved in the leak of her personal information (Ibid). She had previously complained of harassment on Twitter by alleged “Saudi bots”. None other than Marc Owen Jones had helped her identify the fact of the hack and shaped the premise of the lawsuit (Cadwalladr, 2020). Some of the other hacked Al Jazeera staffers soon were receiving analysis from Citizen Lab (Marczak, et al., 2020). Nearly simultaneously El Baghdadi made claims against the Crown Prince in Norway where, a local outlet reports, he was targeted by the assassin squad (Krokfjord, et al., 2020). This comes after same claims were shared in the Al Jabri lawsuit. Whatever the merits of these claims, which appear unlikely as far as successful spy or assassination operations are concerned, it is clear that there is some level of coordination among these actors, and that they are pursuing lawfare as a means of gaining additional coverage for their causes, and as a way of damaging Mohammed bin Salman’s (and NSO’s) reputations.
Attempts at Redemption
Although Khashoggi’s son, a journalist, who has been freely traveling between Saudi Arabia and the United States, had publicly forgiven the individuals who had been taken into custody and tried for his father’s death, and although the Saudi government offered restitution according to the local laws to the Khashoggi family, Cengiz and the rest of her associates are out for blood, and an interest in revenge offers no possibility of redemption whether of the target himself or his reputational image. There is literally nothing Mohammed bin Salman could do short of stepping down that would satisfy those who are “out to get him”. Just as importantly, they are dedicated to ensuring that the rest of the world feels the same way.
What is Likely to Happen Next
By the time this paper is published, it is very likely that Mohammed bin Salman will be facing a class action lawsuit or multiple additional lawsuits from the hacked Al Jazeera employees. Other members of Arab Spring activist cadre or Saudi opposition may come out of the woodwork to make sensationalist claims about their own alleged encounter with the “deaths squads”. The Biden administration may take political steps to pressure the Kingdom with respect to these issues; if the Republicans lose Senate, Mohammed bin Salman may face additional censure if not outright sanctions from Congress.
Furthermore, if the Crown Prince does not take measures to put a stop to this campaign of scandals, his reputation may be irreparably damaged, which will have an effect on his international relations. The continuation of overwhelming bad publicity and being dragged through the mud in major lawsuits may lead to internal loss of political supports at the very top level of the Kingdom. At least that is the aim of the attackers – to make Mohammed bin Salman seem like such a liability that the King’s hand will be forced to appoint someone else in his position.
How to Stop a Soviet-style Scandal in its Tracks
There are several tracks that the Kingdom may take at this juncture to put a stop to the incessant scandals:
First, is to get to the bottom of who, in fact, may have or did order Khashoggi’s killing and release that information to the public, putting to rest rumors and conspiracy theories, as well as the lawsuits all directly tied into this issue.
Second, if that is not possible due to the sensitive nature of those who may have been involved, at the very least the extenuating circumstances concerning Mohammed bin Salman’s role in this story should be released so as to absolve him of the public ire. As for the culprits, even if they cannot be publicly named, they may still be taken into custody and put-on trial internally, while the full story without sensitive details is shared as appropriate.
Third, Even if the first two options are not possible, sharing the relevant information quietly with US Congress and other bodies so as to reverse the political effects of this scandal should be done. Simultaneously, action should be taken to get all of the lawsuits withdrawn. Investigation and discreditation of all the relevant interests will reveal the sources of the campaign itself and put a stop to the scandalmongering and the endless stream of character assassination.
Forth, The resolution of any such campaigns involves the reversal of the “hero”/“villain” role and the restoration of the reputation by undoing false premises and disinformation.
Despite the different circumstances involved in all of the above cases, the script they follow is substantially the same. In all cases, the victims are politically powerful institutions or public figures who stand to lose from bad publicity, attacks on the reputations, and abusive, humiliating encounters in the media and other public events. The campaigns against them can be sustained for a long time and result in a great deal of damage and suffering, not just to the targets but their families, associates, and defenders. The agenda goes far beyond their individual reputations but looks to reverse or damage wider political or social trends. Therefore, these endless attacks, though exhausting and repetitive, cannot be ignored into silence, particularly when endless resources and a growing number of supporters are being constantly diverted to keep up the fight. Swift action needs to be taken to reveal the hidden hand, and reverse the effects of carefully propagated falsehoods, amplified manifold by the new media environment.
This article originally appeared at The Washington Outsider. Cross-posted with permission.
Irina Tsukerman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Outsider, a human rights lawyer, and a geopolitical and national security analyst. She has written for and appeared in a broad spectrum of domestic and international media in many languages. She is also the President and CEO of Scarab Rising, Inc., a boutique media and security consultancy.
[iii] Survivors of that culture explain that political cynicism and exhaustion led the Soviet and post-Soviet populations to give up the search for the truth, and therefore become immune to political scandals and outrages, however warranted.
[iv] A guilt by association fallacy occurs when someone connects an opponent to a demonized group of people or to a bad person in order to discredit his or her argument. The idea is that the person is “guilty” by simply being similar to this “bad” group and, therefore, should not be listened to about anything.
[v] Active measures were clandestine operations designed to further Soviet foreign policy goals and to extend Soviet influence throughout the world. These covert methods included leaking of false or compromising information and rumors to foreign media, disinformation campaigns, planting forgeries to deceive the public or political elites in other countries, and active intervention measures in the politics or societies of other countries. These methods are alive and well today and have been actively employed in the manipulation of public opinion, use of communist parties and front organizations in other countries, various forms of interference in elections, and more – all with the goal of weakening the United States and its allies.
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