Are Russia and the US Actually Different When It Comes to Meddling in Foreign Elections?

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"The Waltz." Art by Mr. Fish.

On this week's installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Robert Scheer challenges guest David Shimer on the fundamental conclusions of his new book, “Rigged: America, Russia and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference,” regarding the “intentions” for US covert operations versus those of the Soviet Union/Russia.

Excerpted and lauded in the New York Times and elsewhere in the mainstream media, “Rigged” outlines covert operations in various countries by both nation-states, including American interference in 1970s Chile and post-World War II Italy, among others, but has been best reviewed for its deep dive into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Obama Administration’s subsequent response and whether, as has been frequently alleged, it was all key to Donald Trump’s shocking upset of Hillary Clinton.

However, in a period where vilification of Russia, China and Iran have ratcheted up in what some see as a purposeful attempt by both Republican and Democratic hawks to reignite Cold War tensions, scholarly history can be weaponized to advance an agenda – or just sell books. Engaging from different historical worldviews, Scheer and Shimer engage in a spirited conversation on an old yet timely debate.

“The basic argument throughout your book,” posits Scheer, “is that when the United States … has interfered or intervened in elections, you say it was in the interest of furthering democracy in those nations,” but when Moscow has done it is in the interest of “furthering an ideology.” The question hangs: Is this not a false distinction?

Shimer argues that while there are certainly similarities in that both sides were trying to help “the candidates they liked” to win, the United States believed it was acting explicitly to save democracy, “because the Soviet objective, of course, was to get Communists into power, and those Communists would, as in Eastern Europe, stop holding elections.” He added: “The second difference is that in the post-Cold War period, Russia’s doubled down on this weapon, whereas America has moved away from it — and in my opinion, moving forward, should ban it.”

However, he draws a distinction between American “operations to stage coups, which were to tear down democracies; that's a separate bucket, things like Guatemala and Iran, but actual operations to manipulate electoral campaigns” — which perhaps raises more questions than it answers.

Scheer also notes that Shimer largely relied on former and current members of the American foreign policy establishment and CIA as sources, bar one Russian interviewee (a former KBG general). This included “unparalleled access” to President Clinton and his former adviser Lawrence Summers, as well as Sen. Harry Reid and former CIA directors David Petraeus, John Brennan and James Clapper. Shimer argues this focus was balanced by his research in Soviet secret intelligence archives, and denies the book, which received healthy media attention upon its recent publication, “is sort of a megaphone for American officials.”

Listen to the full conversation between Scheer and Shimer as the two discuss the past century of covert electoral manipulations by the rival powers, as well as differing views on Russian interference in the 2016 election, in particular, and the nuances of American exceptionalism, in general.



Joshua Scheer