Foreign policy as scripted “reality”
by Tom Sullivan
Ambassador William B. Taylor’s opening statement in closed-door testimony before the House impeachment inquiry shed light on one element of President Donald Trump‘s efforts to pressure Ukraine that had escaped me. Attorney and former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa tweeted that Trump was pursuing “a covert propaganda op on the American public.” That’s illegal, she emphasized in all caps.
Bill Taylor confirmed today that the release of aid to Ukraine was contingent on a *public announcement* that Ukraine was investigating the Bidens. As I wrote here, this was an attempt to push a covert propaganda op on the American public, which is ILLEGAL https://t.co/Tur8pw2X6G
— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) October 22, 2019
In her October 7 article in Medium, Rangappa explained, “This is explicitly against the law. The 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act prohibits the U.S. government from using covert actions — which include propaganda — to ‘influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.’”
That language now resides under Title 50 of U.S. Code, Section 3093 under “Presidential approval and reporting of covert actions.” Specifically, it prohibits the president from approving such actions aimed at the U.S. Formal findings are required to authorize other actions.
The summary of Trump‘s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated the president wanted Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as a condition for Ukraine receiving military aid appropriated and authorized by Congress. But text messages released Oct. 3 by the House Intelligence Committee indicate Trump wanted more. The White House wanted a public statement announcing the investigation as a precondition for a White House meeting.
Taylor’s opening statement added from a Sept. 8 conversation he had with then-Ambassador Gordon Sondland that if Zelensky did not “clear things up and do it in public,” then “everything” (including release of authorized military aid) would be at a “stalemate.” Zelensky agreed to make that statement in an interview on CNN. It is not clear who suggested that choice of venue.
“… nothing about the proposed statement … indicated that the U.S. precipitated or participated in its creation in any way.”
The Trump administration clearly was “interested in shaping public perception,” Rangappa wrote three weeks ago:
The most important feature of the back and forth between the State Department and Ukraine is their insistence that the public announcement comes from Ukraine alone. It’s not unusual for U.S. officials to be involved in crafting a statement with a foreign country, but typically they are publicly issued as joint statements. Here, however, nothing about the proposed statement, which was drafted and proposed by the State Department in coordination with Giuliani, indicated that the U.S. precipitated or participated in its creation in any way. In intelligence terms, this is called black propaganda.
Black propaganda attempts to conceal the true source of information so that the target (in this case, the American public) cannot accurately assess the credibility of the message or the motives of the source behind it. By having the information emanate from a separate and more credible outlet, the target audience is more likely to believe it.
A unilateral statement from Zelensky would manipulate the American public into believing that Ukraine had independently reached the conclusion that there was a basis to investigate the Bidens and the origins of the 2016 U.S. election interference. By cloaking his own role and motives behind the statement of a foreign country, Trump could corroborate his own claims and have “proof” that his views were not politically motivated, but instead grounded in real facts.
This echoes the George W. Bush White House feeding information to the New York Times’ Judith Miller in support of the Iraq invasion. Bob Simon of “60 Minutes” described it this way, “You leak a story to the New York Times and the New York Times prints it, and then you go on the Sunday shows quoting the New York Times and corroborating your own information. You’ve got to hand it to them. That takes, as we say here in New York, chutzpah.”
In the Iraq case, the “source” was someone close to the White House. Rangappa argues that Donald Trump‘s attempt to covertly “influence United States political processes, public opinion,” etc., using a foreign source is expressly illegal.
Using one of Trump‘s favorite media antagonists, CNN, as the vehicle for torpedoing Joe Biden instead of Fox News, the White House propaganda arm, must have been too sweet for “John Barron” to pass up.