Only three people have ever served as Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. We're honored to have one of them as our exclusive guest, Leon Panetta, whose insight into the critical topic of disinformation is second to none. I'm Paul Brandus and that's the name of this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
Leon Panetta ran the Central Intelligence Agency from February, 2009 through June, 2011. It was on his watch that Operation Neptune Spear occurred. You probably know it as simply, the bid Laden raid, the daring mission that killed the leader of Al-Qaeda. That was in May, 2011.
Two months later, he moved down the George Washington Parkway to the Pentagon, where he served as Secretary of Defense until February, 2013. And by the way, in this highly partisan era, it's worth noting that his Senate confirmation for CIA was by voice vote and his Senate confirmation to be Secretary of Defense was a 100 to nothing vote. Both indications of the respect and gravitas surrounding Leon Panetta.
Our conversation began with his assessment of Russia's war on Ukraine and the Kremlin's disinformation efforts.
First, the Ukraine War obviously has not gone well for the Russians’ numerous battlefield setbacks, logistics, supplies, manpower, on and on and on. What about, Mr. Secretary, in the disinformation sphere, including their efforts to fool their own people about this? How are they doing in terms of the war and disinformation?
Well, there's no question that Vladimir Putin has tried to protect his position and his power by basically telling the Russians what is not true when it comes to the Ukraine and other areas as well. He is a master of disinformation, in trying to tell the Russians that somehow this whole war in Ukraine is justified because they're going after Nazis or whatever crazy reasons he'll throw out there.
And then in addition to that, to not be straight with the Russians about just exactly what is happening, almost 80,000 casualties wounded and those dead and almost 15,000 killed in that war. Not to mention the fact that the Ukrainians have obviously been very aggressive at continuing to push the Russians out.
And that the Russian forces have basically failed to be able to achieve the mission that they went after for a lot of reasons; problems in command, problems with regards to logistics, problems with regards to weaponry. There are a lot of problems that are impacting on the Russians that I think the average Russians has not been made aware of because of Putin's disinformation campaign.
So, the reality is he has tried, I think to be frank, that the Russians because of other sources of information, probably have a better sense of what's going on now. And I think Putin as a result of that is probably more in a corner than he ever has been.
There was a speech today by Mr. Fleming, the head of GCHQ (a pretty similar analysis), who said that basically Putin has boxed himself into a corner here because he has tried to micromanage this. He has really no experience in managing this sort of thing.
He's also surrounded himself with yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear. In other words, a recipe for the kind of battlefield disaster that we've seen. I think you generally agree with that analysis.
No, he's following the book on tyrants and it's a failed path that others have tried to take and basically wind up backing themselves in a corner in order to maintain power. And rather than being straight, rather than really being honest about the challenges that need to be faced, being truthful with his own people, he has tried to portray himself as somehow having the ability to conduct this war single handedly.
And that he has tried to argue that somehow as a result of what's happened there, that they are able to annex these territories and therefore prove that Russia can be successful, when it's all a fraud, when it's all a fraud.
I think that Putin now really faces a choice between whether or not he really does try to find a way to get out of this war or whether he will ultimately end his position and his power in Russia.
Coming back to the disinformation angle, what does this say in your view, Mr. Secretary, about their global disinformation efforts? Prior to this, they had this reputation as of having a very robust capability of meddling in elections, not just here, but in Western Europe and so forth. What does it say at this point about their global efforts?
Well, from the experience of my intelligence job, as Director of the CIA, it was obvious that the Russians have long been engaged in disinformation efforts, not only with regards to the United States but in other places throughout the world.
Putin is KGB and he basically operates like a spy and spies basically operate by disinformation in order to be able to get what they want. And so, that's what Russia has been trying to do, is to try to influence other governments, try to influence other elections, try to somehow destabilize countries that they don't support and therefore weaken their ability to be able to be competitive with Russia.
So, it's a tactic. It's every bit as much a tactic as Putin trying to develop trade agreements with different countries. It's a tactic to try to improve their position. And it's a tactic that you can use successfully once or twice, but ultimately it catches up with you.
It's the old proverb; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. And I think ultimately when you use that kind of tactic, that it begins to undermine your credibility and your stature and ultimately weakens your position rather than strengthens it.
Well, it very well could be … I'm sorry, go ahead.
Putin is now facing the consequences of that kind of strategy.
It very well could be that he took part of Georgia. He took — of course, what he did in Syria, what he did in Chechnya. He really has never been stopped up to this point. It looks like now he's finally bitten off more than he can chew and he's wrestling with a much more robust opponent that is backed pretty firmly by the United States and the NATO.
Well, that comes right out of the tyrant’s playbook, which is that-
That ultimately you overplay your hand. And what takes place is that you find that in many ways, you've planted the seeds for your own destruction by what you're doing. And tyrants try to get their way when they sense weakness on the part of their adversaries.
And Putin, I think for a long time, has sensed weakness on the part of the United States and on the part of our allies and has taken advantage of it, marching into Crimea without having to pay a price, marching into Syria, to Libya and conducting a very bold cyber-attack against the United States and our election system without paying much of a price.
And to a large extent, I think Putin may have thought that even going into the Ukraine would happen so quickly, that he wouldn't pay much of a price either.
And I think what happened is something that ultimately catches up with tyrants, which is that others recognize that they have to draw a line, that they can't just allow you to keep getting away with aggression.
And so, United States and NATO allies by coming together and unifying in opposition to Putin and in support of Ukraine, combined with obviously the quality of fighters that Ukraine has put on the field of battle who are clearly courageous and willing to do whatever is necessary to protect their country, I think that combination has really been deadly for Putin and for Russia.
It stopped the invasion. He's continued to try to use destructive weapons to kill innocent men, women and children. He's doing that as we speak, trying to somehow break the will of the Ukrainian people and he's failed to do that.
And in this war of attrition that was going on for a period of time, he was hoping that he could continue a long war of attrition and again, try to break the will not only of Ukraine, but of United States and NATO. He's failed to do that. The tide of war has changed here. And Putin is now facing a loss of this war.
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Let me shift gears if I could quickly, Mr. Secretary, ask you about, this happened after you returned to the private sector I think, but there was something in 2015 (this is a disinformation related question) called Operation Jade Helm, this Pentagon exercise that stirred up a lot of agitation in places like Texas. So much so that the governor down there, Greg Abbott ordered Texas State Guard to kind of keep an eye on these federal troops.
What was interesting was that a colleague of yours, general Hayden, said that the real driving force behind this … was Russian bots that were kind of stirring things up. And it was so successful that it convinced the Russians in again, 2015, that they could go big the next year in 2016, kind of stir things up in the American presidential election of 2016. What are your thoughts on Operation Jade Helm?
Make no mistake about it. I think the Russians have been very effective at using disinformation, using social media, using online capabilities to be able to drive a particular story line that is not true, but that has an appeal to those that might think it's true. He finds weakness in people and what they're thinking, and then tries to feed that weakness by playing to their paranoia or their fears, or their hates or their prejudices in some way.
He's been very effective at doing that. And it began with that event in Texas. And then as we saw Russians used their cyber capabilities to really impact on our election system. And I don't have any question, but that had an impact, whether it actually determined the election, there's been a lot of theories about that.
But it had an impact and it continues to have an impact, whether it's 2016, 2018, 2020 or 2022, I think they're continuing to do it. Why? Because I think in their experience in 2016, they saw how successful they could be and to literally create instability in the United States of America, as a result of that. I'm sure they were very proud of what they were able to accomplish.
Now, coming back to this theory about how the bully needs to be punched in the nose, which has happened to him in Ukraine, how do we do that with regard to all these cyber-attacks, all this meddling in our elections and dividing us black and white and so forth? How do you punch the bully in the nose that way?
The only thing a bully understands is force. You can't say pretty please. You can't negotiate some kind of rational agreement to deal with these issues. And we've seen this throughout history, is that the only way to deal with a bully is by force.
And my view is that when Russia used a disinformation campaign and used cyber to advance that campaign and undermine our stability in our election process, that the United States should have retaliated using cyber. Cyber is the battlefield of the future. And we know very well that using a sophisticated virus has the potential to virtually paralyze another country.
United States as a result of that, not only needs to develop a good defense, it needs to develop a good offense. We have to make clear to Russia, that we have the capability to make their lives miserable as well.
Well, don't they know that?
I think they know it, but they've never felt it.
All this talk about Russia and disinformation and yet over the long-term, the real true peer rival of the United States, most people think is the People’s Republic of China. They have robust capabilities, also. Tell me about China and their disinformation efforts as well. If you could please, sir.
First of all, I've never quite considered them as sophisticated as Russia in the use of cyber capabilities to advance disinformation. You usually can spot it when they try to do it because it isn't quite as sophisticated as what the Russians do.
Having said that, because China is much more advanced technologically, has the ability to make use of artificial intelligence, make use of the kind of technology that is really on the cutting edge of the future, I think using artificial intelligence gives them a capability to (in an autonomous way), be able to inject themselves in different systems and basically plant disinformation in systems that can really disrupt.
And so, I would not underestimate China's ability to make use of technology in a way that is very difficult, not only to be able to determine whether it's happening or not, but also to counter it. And that's why it's very important for the United States to be able to develop our technological capabilities in artificial intelligence, in cyber, in robotics, in all of the areas that China is now trying to advance in. We have got to be able to not only compete with them, but frankly, we've got to get an edge on them, because those capabilities could very well undermine our security.
The final question that I have for you is the American people, they watch their preferred cable channel, they listen to the radio, they congregate with their tribe. You know how the media is so splintered today. Are people aware? Are average Americans aware that they're subjected daily to this sort of disinformation from say, the Russians?
And also, what in terms of spreading disinformation, anybody here at home can do it too? You can manufacture videos and audio and post anything on some social media platform. How much of this are we doing to ourselves, and what should the average person know about it?
I think without question that from a national security point of view, the use of these kinds of untruths to undermine individuals or policies or the credibility of our institutions, that is a real threat to our security as a country.
We saw what happened as a result of polarization on January 6th and the attack that took place on the Capitol based on a lie, based on a lie. And yet a mob attacked the Capitol and literally brought our democracy to a halt.
Untruths and lies are now very powerful. Sometimes, I find it strange to see a blatant untruth and to then see people repeating that untruth as if it's true. My first reaction is, where the hell did you go to school? What makes you think that that is the truth? Don't you have a mind? Don't you have the ability to discern when you're being defrauded?
Most of us, thank God, believe that we've been taught by our parents or by our religions or by our faith, to really understand what the truth is and what's right and what's wrong.
But they want to believe it.
I understand that. Today, there are campaigns where there are blatant lies and now people kind of take the position to say, when the truth is found about an individual, they basically call it a lie. And then everybody gets behind it and says it's a lie. And even people of faith who basically may support a candidate will say, “No, no, we're willing to ignore that. We're willing to ignore that.”
So, we are living at a time when these kinds of untruths and lies are having a huge impact. I'm not quite sure how to get back to a world in which we respect the truth, a world in which we denounce lies for what they are. A lie is something that when a candidate or when an individual was found to be lying, it destroyed somebody's career. People viewed it as something that was abhorrent.
Today, I honestly think people think that if they lie, it's a tactic and it can win for you. And as long as they think it works, they're going to continue to do it.
So somehow, whether it's through the education process with our children, whether it's through hopefully understanding that there is a morality that we all have to live by, whether we gain that morality by our faith, or whether we gain it at home from our parents, or whether we gain it in school, that there is a right and wrong. And thirdly, there have to be leaders who are willing to stand up and denounce what is a lie.
Not easy to do if you're in a party or in a political situation where somehow everybody is saying, “Oh no, that lie is really the truth.” It's hard to stand up and say, “No, are you crazy? It's a lie.”
So, we need leadership. We need leadership. And frankly, our democracy is not going to survive, unless we have leaders who are willing to stand up and tell the truth.
On one hand, it makes your blood boil. On the other hand, it's just deeply depressing. And there we are. We were talking about Russia most of the time, but these are things, as you say, that we're doing to ourselves. That's the very scary part.
Leon Panetta, secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA and also eight-term congressman, great honor to have you on sir, very much appreciate it, and to hope to talk again soon.
It's good to be with you, Paul and my regards to all of your listeners.
Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate it.
We'll be right back after this message.
Welcome back. Let's bring in Meredith Wilson now, the Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International, also an analyst for this series. Meredith, a whole lot to unpack from Secretary Panetta.
You just heard him say, for example, that Operation Jade Helm, the Pentagon's military exercise back in 2015, I believe was one of the first real attempts by the Russians to stir things up here in the U.S. and they succeeded, which led to even bigger efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. But this stuff actually goes back even further than that, doesn't it?
It sure does, Paul. One of the (that I'm aware of), very first really clear overt attempts at influencing issues politics in the U.S. via social media, because let's remember, they've been doing this forever, was in 2014.
So, in 2014, on September 11th, which of course you remember, two years before that, we had the Benghazi thing go down on September 11th. And of course, September 11th is just one of those days that we're all kind of a little bit more aware of what's going on.
So, in 2014, they attempted to create a scenario online that I think they had hoped would lead to kind of mass hysteria. There was a chemical plant and it's an actual chemical plant in Louisiana. And what they did was they pulled a whole bunch of old photos of explosions and things and claimed that there had been an explosion at this chemical plant in Louisiana.
There was this mass of texts going back and forth in the area. There was a whole bunch of doctored social media that they pushed out all at once in the morning. And this of course didn't actually happen. This was this was all completely made up in the virtual world, but they tweeted to the news media and they tweeted to the local politicians.
And all of the posts that were being made were from these made-up accounts that had been made up like maybe a month or two prior. And when you go back and look at it historically, you can see that these were all sort of made-up accounts.
It wasn't working very well. So, then they started using the Russian accounts too, which made it even clearer that it wasn't actually real.
So, despite this having a very local impact in the company whose plant they said it was put out a statement, said this didn't happen and all of this. And it created some problems for the company itself. It didn't really make the headlines and you actually have to kind of dig back through the internet to actually find anything on it now, because Twitter has long since cleaned those posts off. But there's some good information about it.
Following that, the internet research agency started to get a lot more involved in actual events happening here in the U.S. So, when Ebola hit, not too long after that they started tweeting and started trying to amplify and create concern around that issue rather than trying to create something that didn't actually happen.
And then we saw it again with the Ferguson protests and kind of subsequent issues after that. So, now really anytime there's a major divisive issue here in the U.S., whether it's guns, whether it's a mass shooting, abortion related, you will see the Russian sort of trolls getting involved in that.
But you also see trolls and bots, but you also see now far more than before, that they don't have to do it so much anymore, because we have people right here in the U.S. that will do that.
Yeah, that's the big change. The 2014 example, very interesting. They laid the groundwork with all these phony accounts, as you mentioned and all of that. And boy, now it seems like we just handed to them on a silver platter with our own dysfunction and our own people just making things up, which is very disturbing.
He also rang the alarm bell, Mr. Panetta, in terms of disinformation spread by American politicians. Obviously, a big issue in this election season. He called it the normalization of lying and the willingness by so many Americans to simply believe whatever they are told without checking things out on their own. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, it is worrying and obviously it's something that we watch very closely, and it's a difficult and really intractable issue because it happens on both sides of the political spectrum. But what happened in the lead up to 2016, that we hadn't really previously seen was this sort of just dispensing with all of those kind of institutions that we as Americans have kind of trusted as an arbitrator of more or less truth.
So, our fact checking via the World Bank or even the U.S. government fact checking and having politicians saying, “No, we don't believe that. No, they're biased.” And suddenly people deciding that sort of the basis for what we consider to be truth is not part of their reality anymore.
And so, kind of people creating their own sources or relying on big time outliers for “truth” in oftentimes when it kind of suits their worldview. And like I said, you see this on both sides of the equation, but we've seen a very strong strain of this from the far right. And to some degree from the far left as well.
But what is concerning is that that is moving closer and closer to what we would've previously considered to be moderate and professional politicians, people that would previously, as Panetta talked about, that it used to be that if you were caught in a lie, you were kind of ostracized from the kind of political-
It’d be the end of your career.
Yeah, exactly. And we're not really living in that reality anymore. And there is definitely a portion of this that is part of this whole disinformation problem that we have. Because when you have people who are supposed to be sort of revered in society, who are supposed to be upholding certain moral values and they're not, then the people that follow them also sometimes stop doing that.
And so, that becomes really problematic for (as Mr. Panetta was saying), how we move forward because we can't even agree on basic facts anymore. It's corrosive and over time it undermines everything.
Thank you to Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and for good measure, by the way, an eight-term congressman from California and White House Chief of Staff.
He's currently head of the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan center for the study of Public Policy. Our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Ross, executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. And on behalf of Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International. I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.