Wack: Enemies are turning tribal instinct against us

Regardless of your political affiliation or interests, in coming months it will be impossible to avoid hearing about the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement in U.S. affairs. Understanding how and why the Russians interfere requires a quick overview of the world of counterintelligence operations. This information is drawn from the published work of retired intelligence professionals from the CIA, National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Counterintelligence, or CI, put simply is spying on the spies to impair their ability to spy on us. It is hard, dirty, complicated work and usually occurs almost exclusively in the shadows. The only time you hear about it is when there are failures. American CI professionals monitor all other intelligence services to keep track of their activities, and actively work against them.


Russian counterintelligence activities are considered to be some of the best in the business. One small example of current Russian operations involves their clever use of social media.

University of Washington computer science researchers Leo G. Stewart, Ahmer Arif and Kate Starbird, in a recently published paper, analyzed social media traffic patterns and found that Russian accounts generated a significant portion of traffic from both BlackLivesMatter and BlueLivesMatter accounts. The apparent goal was to amplify disagreements and provoke fighting between partisans on both sides.

This is an example of the technique of provokatsiya, or provocation. These are activities that sow discord, distract from real problems and divert resources, time and energy.

Kompromat, or compromising material, leverages embarrassing information to influence or control behavior or decisions. The material is usually something associated with what Catholics know as the Seven Deadly Sins, the usual ways humans succumb to basic impulses in humiliating ways. The diabolical thing about kompromat is that it doesn’t have to actually exist to be effective. The mere suspicion of its possible existence, or the possible threat of its exposure, is often enough to compel the desired behavior from the targeted individual.

Dezinformatsiya, or disinformation, is also abbreviated deza. This is the original fake news, false information disseminated and promoted to confuse and bewilder. It is usually a clever blend of facts and lies to provoke curiosity and feed pre-existing narratives, to create confusion, distraction and mistrust. At its most effective, it lures people into a “forest of mirrors” by sowing doubts about the truth of anything, fostering mistrust, paranoia and paralyzing decision-making because no one can agree on what is true.

Aktivniyye meropriyatiya, or active measures, are just that: proactive efforts to interfere. The hacking of email accounts, funneling money through intermediaries, and manipulating advocacy groups to further specific political goals are all examples.

Given that CI tactics work all sides simultaneously, it is almost certain the Mueller investigation will implicate Democrats as well as Republicans, and interest groups on the left as well as those on the right. The Russians will smile as the finger pointing and blame casting escalate even further.

Tribalism is a basic element of human nature, and our country has always had political and social factions, but now enemies of the U.S. are turning that tribal instinct against us to weaken our country. We are at war, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The point of all this is that while the media must do a better job ensuring the quality and accuracy of published information, and social media must also adapt. We all, as consumers of media and citizens of a democracy, must become smarter and more discerning. Otherwise, our enemies will continue playing us against each other while they undermine democratic institutions and weaken our country to damage our interests, and further theirs around the planet.

Robert Wack writes from Westminster, where he serves on the Common Council. He can be reached at