If you were an adversary of the United States (Vladimir Putin, say), what would you do to bring confusion to the enemy — short of an actual war? You could set out to outcompete us economically, of course, but that’s fairly far-fetched for a not very populous or prosperous country like Russia with only natural resources to leverage.
You could hope to ensnare us in costly foreign entanglements. You would constantly spy on us, of course, probing for weaknesses to exploit. And you would surreptitiously seek to undermine our institutions and turn Americans against each other.
We now know Russia did, in fact, contrive to meddle with our electoral processes, but wouldn’t they also attempt to recruit and use so-called agents of influence against us? What are those? According to our old friend Wikipedia, an agent of influence is a person of some stature who is able to “influence public opinion or decision-making to produce results beneficial to the country whose intelligence service operates the agent.”
Such agents may be cultural opinion makers or may be engaged in such fields as journalism, the arts, academia or, of course, government. Hiding in plain sight, they are often the agents of a foreign power who are the “most difficult to detect, as there is seldom material evidence that connects them to the foreign power.”
Agents of influence can be actual agents, in the spook sense of a witting tool of the enemy. But they can also be fellow travelers or collaborators who share the worldview, aims and intentions of the enemy and proselytize for them without being “directly recruited or controlled.” Or they can be what is described as a “useful idiot,” someone “completely unaware of how their actions further the actions of a foreign power.”
The question confronting America now is whether it has elected a president who is not just the beneficiary of the Russian hacking that elected him, but also a collaborator or useful idiot serving the interests of an enemy.
For certain, the Russians worked to defeat his opponent and elect Trump. And he has incessantly praised Putin and ignored his true nature. He has advocated lifting economic sanctions on Russia, forging closer economic ties with it, and collaborating in a war on ISIS with it.
Trump has further denied Russia influenced his election, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, has ignored Putin’s attempts to control Ukraine, failed to denounce Putin’s attempts to subvert elections in the countries of our Western allies, and his massing of armed forces capable of threatening the Balkan countries.Trump has also failed to criticize Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and has been almost as anti-NATO as Putin himself.
Trump may not be a collaborator or an idiot, but he has certainly been useful to our Russian foes. The question is why? Because he generally prefers tyrants like Putin, Duterte, Assad and Erdogan to democrats like Merkel and Macron? Or is he actually beholden to Putin and his minions for more than his election?
The Steele Dossier suggested the Russians have material with which Trump might be blackmailed into collaboration.There’s some evidence from other sources, including Trump’s son, that his business revenues are deeply reliant on Russia. And there’s also been speculation that Trump, when unable to secure loans through the usual domestic channels following his spectacular bankruptcies, may have turned to Russian banks who are under Putin’s thumb. Being beholden to them could make him pliant to the Godfather’s desires.
At the moment this is all largely guesswork and deduction, but there are an awful lot of strings that seem to lead back to Putin. Given this vast, tangled spider web, it is good that special investigator Robert Mueller is assembling a team to probe the Trump-Russia nexus with expertise in political scandals (Watergate), accounting irregularities (Enron), criminal fraud, organized crime and, of course, counter espionage. They may all be required to ferret out agents of influence who are working wittingly or unwittingly to undermine American interests and to advance the fortunes of America’s enemy.