(This article was first published on Just Security)
The narrow testimony and contentious questioning of Robert Mueller has raised questions on the political left as well as the right about one of his most significant findings related to Russia’s secret efforts to influence the 2016 election on behalf of President Donald Trump: the social media campaign carried out by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a company in St. Petersburg, Russia, that is often described as a “troll factory.”
While there is more than enough evidence in the public record to make the common-sense case – and to form one of Mueller’s criminal indictments last year – the U.S. “national security” establishment’s penchant for secrecy has undermined his case and threatens to do so again in any push to prevent a repeat in 2020.
In Mueller’s reluctant July 24 testimony to two House committees, two questions about the IRA generated some of Mueller’s most quoted comments. Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, noted that the House Intelligence Committee had issued a report “saying that Russian active measures are growing with frequency and intensity and including their expanded use of groups such as the IRA,” and that “these groups pose a significant threat to the United States and our allies in upcoming elections.”
Mueller agreed. “In fact, one of the other areas that we have to look at, … many more countries are developing capability to replicate what the Russians had done.”
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California referenced Mueller’s February 2018 indictment of the IRA and asked, “Would you agree that it was not a hoax that the Russians were engaged in trying to impact our election?” The former special counsel replied, “Absolutely. That was not a hoax. The indictments we returned against the Russians … were substantial in their scope … We have underplayed, to a certain extent, that aspect of our investigation that has and would have long-term damage to the United States that we need to move quickly to address.”
In addition to the IRA, the February 2018 indictment named its financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, 12 employees, and two other Russian corporate entities controlled by Prigozhin that also funded the troll factory, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. A 58-year-old businessman from St. Petersburg, Prigozhin is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is known in the U.S. news media, misleadingly, as “Putin’s chef” for his catering business. In Russia, he is better known for the private military force he commands. Prigozhin and his co-defendants were charged with fraud and conspiracy while “engaged in operations to interfere with the elections and political processes” of the United States.
Prigozhin shrugged off the charges. “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” he told the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti that month. “I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.” In March 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Prigozhin and the Concord companies, along with the IRA, for their role in its operation.
During Mueller’s testimony, Rep. Tom McClintock of Texas pushed back on the Russia-IRA connection.
“Your report famously links Russian Internet troll farms with the Russian government,” McClintock said. “Yet, at a hearing on May 28th  in the Concord Management/IRA prosecution that you initiated, the judge excoriated both you and Mr. Barr for producing no evidence to support this claim. Why did you suggest Russia was responsible for the troll farms, when, in court, you’ve been unable to produce any evidence to support it?”
Mueller demurred. “I am not going to get into that any further than … I already have.”
“You have left the clear impression throughout the country, through your report, that it — it was the Russian government behind the troll farms,” McClintock pressed. “And yet, when you’re called upon to provide actual evidence in court, you fail to do so.”
The stolid Mueller did not respond.
Journalist Aaron Maté had made the same argument the previous day in the left-leaning The Nation: that the Mueller investigation failed to show any connection between the IRA and the Russian government. Mueller’s report asserts that the IRA was part of the Russian government’s “sweeping and systematic” interference campaign.
“Yet Mueller’s team has been forced to admit in court that this was a false insinuation,” Maté wrote. “Earlier this month, a federal judge rebuked Mueller and the Justice Department for having ‘improperly suggested a link’ between IRA and the Kremlin. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich noted that Mueller’s February 2018 indictment of the IRA ‘does not link the [IRA] to the Russian government’ and alleges ‘only private conduct by private actors.’”
“The Mueller report did not state that the Kremlin was behind the social media campaign,” Maté concludes, “It only disingenuously suggested it.”
From Secrecy to Doubt
Judge Friedrich’s rebuke and Mueller’s unresponsive testimony raise an important question for many people: Is Mueller’s case against Trump overblown?
The answer is no, not if you know the story of Prigozhin and his ties to the Kremlin.
In all likelihood, Mueller didn’t respond to Judge Friedrich’s rebuke or Rep. McClintock’s query because it would have required citing classified material that cannot be publicly discussed, such as U.S. intelligence reports on Putin and his circle. If that’s the case, the secrecy around the IRA and Prigozhin has undermined Mueller’s case, just as U.S. “national security” secrecy has consistently corroded our democratic institutions and faith in American government.
One of Mueller’s biggest challenges in his widely anticipated appearance was to transcend a legacy of doubt left by past presidential scandals. It is clear from near-unanimous Republican dismissal of his findings that he did not succeed. A solid minority of Americans no longer trust their national security and national law enforcement agencies. The FBI, once revered by American conservatives, is now bizarrely but routinely described by Republican congressmen as a nest of embittered liberals out to undo a great president. The CIA is viewed much the same way.
One oft-ignored aspect of the Trump presidential crisis is that U.S. national security agencies how have a huge credibility problem with the American public. The CIA, the FBI, and national security agencies have too often in the past half century betrayed the public trust and hidden the results with official secrecy. Now they are paying the price.
The list of abuses and the lack of accountability is long and dismal: the coverups that followed JFK’s assassination; the plots to kill foreign leaders; the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s; the debacle of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction in 2003; the furtive implementation of the USA Patriot Act’s Section 215 mass surveillance program; and the moral and practical failure of the CIA’s torture regime.
In the wake of failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, accompanied by middle-class decline at home, it’s hardly surprising that those responsible are not trusted. When former CIA directors such as Michael Hayden and John Brennan cogently (or stridently) attack Trump for his lies and corruption, they are derided as “deep state” operators who lack credibility and have a hidden agenda. That makes a certain amount of sense to disillusioned Americans.
Mueller, a former FBI director, is paying the price in the systematic diminution of his earnest efforts. For McClintock and the Trump Republicans, the IRA case reveals Mueller’s overreach, a symptom of a sick establishment resisting a maverick president. For Maté and the skeptical left, Mueller is demonizing Trump in service of a neoliberal elite threatened by Trump’s disdain for their military alliances and faith in free trade. In the political center, a solid majority, 58 percent, think Mueller is an unbiased civil servant. They may wonder why the other 42 percent don’t trust him.
In the case of Prigozhin’s troll factory, Mueller had a case study in the nature of the Russian threat. In legalistic deference to official secrecy, he chose not to explain it.
In fact, the Prigozhin story is essential to questions of impeachment. It sheds light on how the Russian power elite sought to collude with the Trump campaign. Prigozhin does not have an official government position, only informal duties. His position in the Moscow power circle lends credence to (but does not prove) the charges in Mueller’s indictment.
Prigozhin’s culinary moniker might imply to some that he plays the role of an Anthony Bourdain to Putin’s Barack Obama, that he is a social pal and nothing more. Prigozhin is much more than that. The American whom he most resembles is Erik Prince, the connected, multi-brand mercenary who has the ear of Donald Trump. Prigozhin is less Putin’s chef than Putin’s Prince: a corporate soldier of fortune who carries out useful, deniable, and sometimes dubious missions for his king.
Far from being a hoax, Mueller’s IRA indictment cannot do justice to the tapestry of mutual interests that weave Prigozhin and Putin together. Prigozhin helped host President George W. Bush’s first visit to Russia in May 2002. His private military firm, known as Wagner, maintains operational facilities on the premises of tightly restricted military bases in southern Russia. Wagner’s legions operate in conflict zones where Russian state interests are in play, from Ukraine to Syria to Central Africa. Along the way, reliable independent Russian news sites revealed Prigozhin’s ownership of the IRA and the firm’s role in Russian social media influence operations long before the company was indicted by Mueller.
The laconic Mueller did not explain that, since 2016, the IRA has rebranded itself as an emerging media conglomerate. The hub of Prigozhin’s online activity is now Federal News Agency (FAN in the Russian acronym), which generates news stories with strong patriotic themes and praise for Putin. The FAN offices in St. Petersburg are located just a stone’s throw away from where the IRA had its offices.
Earlier this year, FAN claimed it was the target of a U.S. military cyberattack. The strike “was part of the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election,” U.S. officials told the Washington Post.
The sanctioned Prigozhin is now the target of U.S. government cyberwarriors. Mueller certainly couldn’t talk about that in front of the cameras.
In the Beginning
Yevgeny Prigozhin first met Vladimir Putin almost 20 years ago.
“We met when he came with Japanese Prime Minister [Yoshiro] Mori, and then with Bush,” the restaurateur told The Bell, an independent Russian news site, earlier his year. Bell journalists Irina Malkova and Anton Baev reported that Mori had visited St. Petersburg in April 2000. Bush’s visit followed two years later.
“For George and Laura Bush’s stroll along the canals, a double-decker ship with Evgeny Prigozhin’s floating restaurant, New Island, was selected and decorated in the style of an American saloon,” The Bell reported. In the fall of 2003, Putin celebrated his birthday in the New Island. By 2005, Prigozhin boasted he had Russia’s largest catering company, known as Concord. “We did all the G8s, the summits,” Prigozhin told The Bell.
The catering business expanded to the military. In 2011, Concord contracted to supply food to the Russian army. In 2014, Concord moved into military construction. By then, the idea of creating a private military company, a PMC, along the lines of Blackwater, the American firm that the Bush White House deployed to chaotic post-war Baghdad, had taken hold in the high command of the Russian armed forces. “The idea of employing veterans in Russia, where military service for men is avoidable but technically mandatory, evidently struck a chord with the Joint Staff,” The Bell reported.
Prigozhin was assigned the job of organizing the PMC. It was dubbed Wagner, the radio handle of Dmitry Utnik, a decorated Russian special operations commander in charge of mustering the fighting force. In 2015, when Russia came to the aid of the reeling Syrian government, Russian PMCs began fighting in Syria. That same year the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) charged that 5,000 Wagner mercenaries had fought on the separatist side in the conflict in the Donbas region. The number was certainly an exaggeration. Reporter Denis Korotkov, who has received death threats for his Prigozhin reporting, estimates Wagner has 5,000 employees total. Korotkov and others have published the personnel records of dozens of Wagner PMC personnel who served in Ukraine.
Prigozhin’s relations with Putin suffered a test In February 2017, when Russian media reported that anywhere from two dozen to several hundred Wagner PMC personnel had lost their lives in a deadly barrage from U.S. forces near the town of Deir ez-Zor. The Pentagon has kept its comments about the incident to a minimum. According to BBC Russia, Prigozhin has since built a chapel for the fallen PMC soldiers at the Wagner training facility in the Krasnodar Territory of southern Russia.
In short, Prigozhin, financier of the IRA’s intervention in American politics in 2016, is an impresario of pro-government news who handles sensitive international missions on Putin’s behalf. When reports surfaced late last year that Russia was sending troops to Libya, Prigozhin was spotted in a video with the head of the Libyan army and the Russian defense minister. A master of food and power, Prigozhin had arranged for them to lunch.
Lessons for 2020
What does Prigozhin’s collaboration with Putin tell us about Trump and the 2016 election? The IRA’s actions cannot be described as “private conduct by private actors.” Contrary to Maté’s contention in The Nation, it is not “disingenuous” to suggest a connection between the IRA and Vladimir Putin. The IRA social media campaign had implicit approval based on Prigozhin’s relationship to Putin. It is not a “false insinuation” to say the IRA acted with Putin’s approval. It’s a reasonable inference.
Whether the IRA social media campaign made a difference in the 2016 election is another question. The Russian programmers certainly generated a lot of content, most of it under false pretenses of avatars like DCLeaks, Blacktivist, and TennGOP. Rep. Speier cited the Computational Propaganda Project study, which found that Russian social media accounts generated “80,000 posts on Facebook, that Facebook itself admitted that 126 million people had probably seen the posts that were put up by the Internet Research Agency, that they had 3,800 Twitter accounts and had designed more than 175,000 tweets that probably reached 1.4 million people.”
Many scoff at the idea that any one media campaign could be deemed decisive in such a massive election. But in an election decided, essentially, by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states, one factor might have been pivotal. Other critics say the Russian messaging was inferior. “Most of the Russian social media content was juvenile clickbait that had nothing to do with the election,” Maté wrote. But juvenile is not a synonym for ineffective. In fact, fake IRA social media accounts used other content – perhaps the majority — to establish credibility.
What does the story mean for 2020? The threat of such social media attacks, the targeted creation of information pollution designed to change voting outcomes at a mass level, hasn’t gone away. In his testimony, Mueller said he worried that foreign intervention in U.S. elections was becoming “normalized.” When he asserted “many more countries” are as capable as Russia of intervening in the 2020 presidential election, he didn’t name any names.
Three leading candidates are Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. All three have active intelligence services. Two have acting networks of agents in Washington and an abiding interest in re-electing Trump. The other has an existential imperative to defeat him. If we want to know how a foreign power might seek to influence the 2020 election, we need to keep our eyes on the likes of Yevgeny Prigozhin in those countries.
And we need to be aware of how official secrecy can diminish democratic discourse, limit debate, and blind the Congress and the public to the nature of the most imminent threats to democracy, all in the name of “national security.” Fuller disclosure about specific foreign threats is one key to election security in 2020.
(With research by Daniel Ortiz.)