Clint Watts Tulsi Gabbard and Hillary Clinton's 'Russian asset' spat resurfaces problematic assertions

Gabbard’s views offer a wonderful vehicle to advance Putin’s agenda amongst America’s populist left. But that doesn't mean she's on the Kremlin's payroll.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard takes a photo with women from Barzi, Syria, many of whom have husbands or family members who are soldiers, during her trip to Syria in January 2017.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard takes a photo with women from Barzi, Syria, many of whom have husbands or family members who are soldiers, during her trip to Syria in January 2017.Office of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
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By Clint Watts, National security contributor, NBC News and MSNBC

This past week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to the media spotlight when she asserted on a political podcast that Democratic presidential candidate and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was “the favorite of the Russians." Later in the interview, Clinton implied the congresswoman was a Russian asset, something she has accused Jill Stein of being.

In response, Gabbard lashed out at Clinton on Twitter and denied any interest in running as a third-party candidate during an interview with NBC. The disagreement has, however, vaulted Gabbard's dark horse campaign into the mainstream. Thus, Clinton and Gabbard have both used the moment to re-up their time in the spotlight. But the biggest winner of this bitterness is the Kremlin. Assertions abound, confusion looms and again, for another election cycle we ask, “is Russia sending agents to win the White House?”

Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election resurrected Cold War espionage terms poorly understood by Americans. Thanks to a litany of fanciful spy thrillers, Hollywood notions of Russian espionage fill America’s social media space. It’s not unusual for a Twitter account disagreeing with someone on the political left to immediately be labeled a Russian spy or a Russian bot. Similarly, any political figure spoken about in the Russian media is a Kremlin agent, a Russian asset or a "Manchurian Candidate." But these characterizations are incorrect, which is problematic for a number of reasons.

Although former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should know better, the public’s confusion over terminology is at least partly justified because intelligence agencies themselves use the word “agent” differently. Movies and television refer to “CIA agents” and “FBI agents,” but in reality an intelligence agent is a person secretly employed by a government to advance that government’s interests. Intelligence agents may also be considered a subset of a larger category of intelligence “assets,” adroitly defined by Ben Stark here as, “anything designed, developed, cultivated or utilized to collect” information.

Intelligence assets can be people or technology employed to acquire specific information. The CIA collects human intelligence through operations officers, once known as case officers, who pursue their mission by recruiting “agents” and developing “assets.” These are not to be confused with FBI special agents who gather intelligence by recruiting confidential human sources, formerly referred to as confidential informants (CI).

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But both agents and assets surreptitiously pursue the goals of a foreign country as directed by the foreign country. The past three years has seen persistent public debate as to whether President Donald Trump was a Russian agent directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Mueller report showed that not to be the case and was always far-fetched. More likely, Russia saw Trump as a vehicle for elevating their goals rather than a target for advancing espionage.

Today, the same goes for Gabbard, whom the Kremlin sees as an agent of influence (not an agent or asset) who can help Russia achieve its goal of splintering the Democratic establishment ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Today, the same goes for Gabbard, whom the Kremlin sees as an agent of influence (not an agent or asset) who can help Russia achieve its goal of splintering the Democratic establishment.

Russia is continually seeking to advance Putin’s policy positions, elevate powerful Americans sympathetic to the Kremlin, erode U.S. citizen confidence in democratic governance and degrade American trust in their own elected officials. To further this goal, Russian influence campaigns identify, engender, support and amplify agents of influence to advance their agenda and policy positions inside America. Agents of influence should be significantly powerful and have the ability to influence the national policy of Russian opponents. Celebrities, politicians, business leaders, journalists and academics all can help spread Putin’s talking points in America.

But importantly, agents of influence come in two varieties: witting and unwitting. Unwitting ones spout Putin’s preferred narratives but don’t realize they’ve been nudged or duped into repeating Kremlin talking points. “Useful idiots,” as they are called in spy talk, tend to be motivated by ego, fame and money, but lack in-depth knowledge on the topics they speak.

Witting agents of influence knowingly advance Kremlin positions in their local audiences but do not receive explicit direction, nor are they necessarily paid to do so. Instead, these so-called "fellow travelers" are often motivated by common ideological principles they share with the Kremlin or a desire to exact revenge against a common enemy — possibly the United States or a Western country.

With both witting fellow travelers or unwitting useful idiots, the Kremlin’s intelligence officers, Russian agents or Kremlin cutouts — coordinating with Putin’s administration — ingratiate, amplify and possibly provide funding. Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin’s courting of the NRA and attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast, a now infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin connected lawyer, the mysterious communications between Trump’s campaign manager and a Russian agent known as “Person A,” Trump campaign associate Roger Stone’s Twitter communications with a covert Russian Twitter account called Guccifer 2.0; these are all relevant examples of the ways Russian agents connect with and support American agents of influence.

So what’s really going on with Gabbard? Kremlin media has lauded the Hawaiian politician in ways that feel similar to Trump’s candidacy in 2015. Russia Today (RT), a state-sponsored outlet, covers Gabbard as if she’s a real contender (despite polling to the contrary), has vociferously come to her defense against alleged American media smears and continues pushing her foreign policy positions as they match the Kremlin’s view.

So what’s really going on with Gabbard? Kremlin media has lauded the Hawaiian politician in ways that feel similar to Trump’s candidacy in 2015.

In 2017, Gabbard visited Syria, allegedly without notifying other Democrats, and met with President Bashar Assad, with whom the U.S. broke off relations after he used chemical weapons on the Syrian people. Gabbard also sympathizes with Kremlin propaganda against the U.S. intelligence community, saying she’s “skeptical” that Assad was behind the chemical weapon attacks.

Gabbard’s views offer a wonderful vehicle to advance Putin’s agenda amongst America’s populist left and turn them against the Democratic establishment. But the best part is she’s doing everything Russia wants naturally. The Kremlin only needs to amplify her, and Trump and his political supporters will help them.

“Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Tulsi Gabbard sow more Democratic division than Moscow could ever dream of,” read RT on Sunday. The outlet isn’t wrong. Just because Gabbard isn’t actually a “Russian asset” doesn’t mean she isn’t a problem. Instead of rushing to pick sides, Democrats need to calmly and clearly face the threat of Russian influence head on. That starts with understanding the terminology and being careful not to throw around hyperbolic terms like Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible."

Just as importantly, Democrats need to challenge Gabbard on her policies, rather than her affiliations. Why does she support Assad in Syria? Why did she travel to Syria? Why does she doubt the U.S. intelligence community assessment that Assad used chemical weapons on his own people? If the U.S. is a war mongering nation, why does she continue to serve these wars as a member of the Army National Guard?

Russian agents are likely seeking to compromise candidates’ campaigns and recruit more agents of influence via social media and the internet. If Putin’s antagonists have not already stretched their tentacles into the Democrats’ rabidly leftist “blue wave” supporters, they most certainly will try in the coming year. Evidence of such infiltration surfaced on Facebook recently.

And candidates, party officials and even activists need to be more careful about associating with Kremlin propaganda outlets, such as RT or Sputnik. If they do voluntarily appear on Kremlin channels, they have no one to blame but themselves for the ensuing blowback. (But remember, appearing on Russian state-sponsored outlets is foolish, but doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a Kremlin operative.)

Likewise, labeling behavior gives the Kremlin a good deal of power to compromise relatively innocent people through incidental contact, by maybe bumping into a Russian ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel, for example, or simply authoring an overwhelming volume of positive posts and articles fawning over a candidate like Gabbard.

Ultimately, despite all our talk of deflecting Russian interference in 2020, our biggest vulnerability appears to not be the public, social media, or hackers, but the politicians and candidates themselves. Their opportunism makes it difficult for them to keep the Kremlin at bay.