Some people listen to far-right conspiracy theorist/radio host and Infowars founder Alex Jones purely for the entertainment value; many of Jones’ hardcore followers, however, take him quite seriously. Former employee Josh Owens used to be one of them. But in a tell-all article for the New York Times, the Texas-based writer explains why he changed his mind and quit what he once considered a dream job.
Owens recalls that he first went to work for Jones in 2012. The writer explains, “Jones — wanting to expand his website, Infowars, into a full-blown guerrilla news operation and hoping to scout new hires from his growing fan base — held an online contest. At 23, I was vulnerable, angry and searching for direction. So, I decided to give it a shot. Out of what Infowars said were hundreds of submissions, my video — a half-witted, conspiratorial glance at the creation and function of the Federal Reserve — made it to the final round.”
Jones, according to Owens, was “unconvinced” that he could “cut it as a reporter” but gave him a full-time position as a video editor. The writer remembers, “I quit film school and moved nearly 1000 miles to Austin, Texas, fully invested in propagating his world view.”
Owens had been listening to Jones’ radio show long before 2012: Jones, Owens notes, first grabbed his attention during “the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency.” The writer explains that around 2008, he was drawn to Jones because “the American public had been sold a war through outright fabrications. The economy was in free fall thanks to Wall Street greed and the failure of Washington regulators. Most of the mainstream media was caught flat-footed by these developments, but Jones seemed to have an explanation for everything. He railed against government corruption and secrecy, the militarization of police. He confronted those in power.”
When Owens first went to work for Jones, he was delighted to be working for him and “believed that the world was strategically run by a shadowy, organized cabal, and that Jones was a hero for exposing it.” But over time, Owens recalls, he became seriously disenchanted with Jones and came to view him as an extremist.
“Jones often told his employees that working for him would leave a black mark on our records,” Owens remembers. “To him, it was the price that must be paid for boldly confronting those in power — what he called the New World Order or later, the Deep State. Once my beliefs began to shift, I saw the virulent nature of his world, the emptiness and loathing in many of those impassioned claims.”
Owens also grew tired of Jones’ angry outbursts.
“Working for Jones was a balancing act,” Owens explains. “You had to determine where he was emotionally and match his tone quickly. If he was angry, then you had better get angry. If he was joking around, then you could relax, sort of, always looking out of the corner of your eye for his mood to turn at any moment.”
One passage recounts:
Over time, I came to learn that keeping Jones from getting angry was a big part of the job, though it was impossible to predict his outbursts. Stories abounded among my co-workers: The blinds stuck, so he ripped them off the wall. A water cooler had mold in it, so he grabbed a large knife, stabbed the plastic base wildly and smashed it on the ground. Headlines weren’t strong enough; the news wasn’t being covered the way he wanted; reporters didn’t know how to dress properly. Once a co-worker stopped by the office with a pet fish he was taking home to his niece. It swam in circles in a small, transparent bag. When Jones saw the bag balanced upright on a desk in the conference room, he emptied it into a garbage can. On one occasion, he threatened to send out a memo banning laughter in the office. “We’re in a war,” he said, and he wanted people to act accordingly.
He also tells a story suggesting that working for Jones could be downright dangerous:
I remember one trip in particular. It was the summer of 2014, and I rode to the ranch in the back of a co-worker’s truck, surrounded by semiautomatic rifles, boxes of ammunition and Tannerite, an explosive rifle target. A few of us left early in the morning, arriving before Jones to film B-roll and load magazines; he had no patience for preparation. When he came hours later, after eating a few handfuls of jalapeño chips, he picked up an AR-15 and accidentally fired it in my direction.
The bullet hit the ground about 10 feet away from me. One employee, who was already uncomfortable around firearms, lost it, accusing Jones of being careless and flippant. This was one of the few times I saw someone call Jones out and the only time he didn’t get angry in response. He claimed he had intentionally fired the gun as a joke — as if this were any better.
April 7, 2017, was a turning point in Owens’ life: that day, he quit working for Jones — and he ended up taking another job at much lower pay.
Jones, Owens remembers, “offered to double my pay, suggested I work remotely and even proposed funding a feature-length film of my own. I said it wasn’t about money and turned him down. To this day, I still don’t know why he wanted to keep me around. He said it was because he cared about me, but if I had to guess, I would say his main concern was losing control.”
Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who was paid $150,000 after she alleged that she had an affair with President Donald Trump, sued Fox News for slander over comments made by primetime star Tucker Carlson.
Federal investigators obtained a recording of Trump and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen discussing a hush-money payment to McDougal, who was paid $150,000 by the National Enquirer for her story about the affair in order to stop it from going public. McDougal alleged that she had a nearly year-long affair with Trump shortly after the birth of his son, Barron.
Carlson alleged on his show last year that McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump, tried to extort Trump.
“Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money,” Carlson said at the time. “Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion.”
Though Carlson did not say McDougal’s name, her image was displayed on screen during the segment.
A guest challenged Carlson’s take, The Week pointed out, saying that “we don’t know that there was actual extortion here . . . that hasn’t been proven yet — nor has it even really been alleged.”
“I’m alleging it, because it’s obvious,” Carlson declared. “It clearly is extortion.”
McDougal responded to the comments by filing a slander lawsuit in New York on Thursday.
“Carlson advertises himself as a reporter of the news and refers to his show as the ‘sworn enemy of lying,’” the suit says. Carlson was “purporting to report on undisputed facts,” when he claimed that McDougal “extorted Trump and that was why Trump caused the payment of $150,000 to be made to McDougal.”
“Carlson’s statements were intentionally false and made with reckless disregard for the truth,” the complaint says. No individual involved in the payment ever “once stated that she extorted Trump,” it continues, adding that American Media chief David Pecker, who ran the National Enquirer, “offered to deal with negative stories about Trump’s relationship with women by, among other things, assisting Trump in identifying such stories so that they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”
The suit goes on to note that both Pecker and Cohen admitted to federal prosecutors that McDougal aimed to sell her story to the outlet and that Cohen promised to reimburse Pecker for buying and killing the story.
“At no time did Cohen, Pecker, AMI or Trump ever accuse McDougal of extorting anyone,” the suit claims. “Cohen, AMI, and Pecker all agree and admitted to prosecutors that Trump directed Cohen to have McDougal paid $150,000, because Trump ‘was very concerned about how this would affect the election.’ The payment to McDougal had nothing to do with extortion.”
The suit also cites the recording Cohen made of Trump, in which “Trump can be heard voluntarily suggesting a cash payment to McDougal.”
Fox News said in a statement to Variety that it would “vigorously defend Tucker Carlson against these meritless claims.”
Eric Bernstein, an attorney for McDougal, told The New York Times that his client was “harassed, embarrassed and ridiculed” as a result of Carlson’s comments.
“Media outlets like Fox News must learn that they can’t mislead for ratings,” he said. “They hurt real people like Karen McDougal when they do so.”
Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty to eight federal charges in New York, including campaign finance violations related to the payments to McDougal and Daniels. He is currently serving a three-year prison sentence.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office obtained a grand jury subpoena for eight years of Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns as part of an investigation into the payments to McDougal and Daniels. An appeals court ruled this week that Trump must turn over the tax returns in response to the subpoena, though Trump’s attorneys have appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
MSNBC host reveals the stunning new evidence in the Ukraine report that blows a hole in Republicans’ defense of Trump
During the House impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, Republicans have frequently pushed the talking point that there couldn’t have been any real “quid pro quo” between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Despite a multi-month delay, they claim, the funds allocated for military aid to Ukraine were eventually released without Zelensky ever investigating former Vice President Joe Biden or his son, Hunter Biden, as Trump wanted. No harm, no foul, these Republicans argue.
Many have explained why this argument does hold up for a variety of reasons. But MSNBC’s Ari Melber, on his Thursday show, outlined a new reason why that talking point is bogus: 14% of the money allocated for military aid to Ukraine remains unreleased, according to the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report.
Melber, on his MSNBC program “The Beat,” explained that merely asking for a bribe is still bribery whether or not the bribery attempt is successful.
“Many Trump supporters have argued — this is very important….. that Ukraine ultimately got the money, and that cancels out any impeachable offense,” Melber explained. But the MSNBC host soon added that merely requesting a bribe in the first place is illegal regardless of the ultimate result.
“It’s not a valid legal defense to bribery,” Melber asserted. “In fact, other politicians are in prison today for unsuccessful bribery plots. So, Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukraine while the money was frozen; that’s what made it allegedly extortion. That’s No. 1. But what’s new tonight: this report also cuts into Trump’s defense on the facts.”
Melber went on to reveal that the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report confirms that according to Pentagon officials, Ukraine still hasn’t received all the military aid from the U.S. that was allocated: 86% of the funds were released, but the other 14% remains unreleased. The MSNBC host stressed that 14% “of the entire money has still has been denied to Ukraine. So, Trump did not actually get all the money back to Ukraine even as he tried to lift the hold to cover up the plot.”
Melber added: “Any time you hear this defense that actually, all the money went to Ukraine — the kind of no harm, no foul defense…. that is factually false. Not all of the money went to Ukraine. And as of tonight, the Trump administration still doesn’t have a good reason as to why.”
Watch the video below:
Unlike the position of U.S. Senator, which is a pretty sweet and exclusive job even for members in the minority, the attractiveness of a job in the House of Representatives is highly dependent on the status of your party as a whole. This is especially true for Republican members who have served in the majority and had the opportunity to shape events who are now feeling the sting of their impotence with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in charge.
Many of these Republicans have no desire to continue to serve in these circumstances, including some who have completely safe seats. This pretty well describes Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia who announced his retirement on Thursday.
Graves, just 49 years old, first came to Congress in 2010, when he won a special election to replace fellow Republican Nathan Deal, who resigned in order to pursue his ultimately successful bid for governor (and to short-circuit an ethics investigation by the House). Then a state representative, he defeated state Sen. Lee Hawkins in an all-GOP runoff by a 56-44 margin. Safely ensconced in a rural district in the state’s northwest corner that’s long given Republican presidential candidates more than 70% of the vote, Graves never faced anything resembling a serious challenge for the rest of his career.
I don’t know Graves’ particular circumstances, but giving up a safe seat at 49 years of age seems to indicate that he’s not enjoying life in the minority and that he doesn’t see things turning around after the 2020 election. It appears that this perception is widespread within the House Republican Caucus:
In terms of raw totals, the number of GOP retirements is running slightly behind where it was in early December of 2017. However, because the Republican caucus is so much smaller now than it was then, on a percentage basis, the GOP is leaving a greater proportion of its seats open.
The Republicans haven’t helped their retainment efforts by limiting how many years members can serve as the chairman or ranking member of a committee. Quite a few of the upcoming retirements are related to this self-imposed rule. Serving in the House minority is a miserable experience, but it’s mitigated a bit for the select few who serve as the top Republican on important committees. By forcing some of these folks out of their positions, they’ve incentivized quite a few highly senior members to spend more time with their families.
However, if the Republicans were optimistic about retaking control of the House, they wouldn’t be retiring at a higher rate than they did two years ago. They know that even if Trump wins reelection, he’s likely to do so without a popular vote advantage. They know that the electorate is polarized in a way that makes House members vulnerable in many historic Republican strongholds. So, even a successful Trump candidacy is unlikely to help them win back the majority.
For this reason, it would be better for them if Trump were not their party’s nominee in 2020. The only way that could happen is if Trump were convicted in an impeachment trial in the Senate and barred from seeking office again. This would open up the nominating process and allow for a candidate who pursues a more inclusive strategy that has more appeal in swing districts, particularly in the suburbs.
Yet, almost no House Republicans seem willing to help this process along. It’s kind of pathological from a political perspective.
Nobody on Capitol Hill rants more fervently about imaginary conspiracies than Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and devoted congressional promoter of Trumpian nonsense. For years, Nunes has regaled America with ideological tall tales, from former President Barack Obama’s mythical “spying” on Donald Trump to Ukraine’s fictitious hacking of the Democratic Party.
It’s all “fake news,” designed to distract voters from the real impeachable offenses of this president and his minions. And much of it emanates from the same Kremlin entities that actually intervene in our domestic politics.
But the fact that Nunes — and the entire Republican leadership — fabricates one phony conspiracy after another shouldn’t be taken to mean that conspiracies never occur. Indeed, the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report outlines a nasty plot that continues in real time and appears to implicate the daffy Nunes himself. It is the same scheme to abuse presidential power, hijack congressional-appropriated military aid, extort the government of Ukraine and frame Democrat Joe Biden that has led to the impeachment of President Trump.
Although the Trump White House stonewalled the impeachment inquiry by refusing to provide most documents requested by the Intelligence Committee, AT&T turned over phone records of a certain Lev Parnas. Famously featured in a twin mug shot with his former buddy Igor Fruman, who was indicted along with him for laundering Russian money into U.S. elections, Parnas is also a “business associate” of Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani. He served as an intermediary and translator for Giuliani, which brought him into the center of the president’s Ukraine scheme.
What the Parnas phone records show is a flurry of calls, back when the scheme got underway last spring, involving him and various other participants including Giuliani, Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing, right-wing columnist John Solomon, somebody in the White House Office of Management and Budget and, of course, Nunes. (The records also show at least one call during that same brief period between Giuliani and a White House number identified as “-1,” widely presumed to be Trump.)
What did this little group discuss in those phone conversations — and the meetings they convened regularly at the Trump International Hotel, just steps away from the White House? That remains to be revealed — perhaps in testimony by Parnas, who has agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee and may yet seek a plea deal from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. At the time those calls occurred, they were seeking to oust Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whose professionalism and honesty posed an obstacle to their plans.
While the investigation to date has uncovered sufficient evidence to prove Trump’s abuses of power, there is much more to discover. It is now clear, for instance, that Giuliani has approached powerful allies of the Kremlin in Ukraine to help him smear Biden. Perhaps the most notable of those figures is billionaire energy monopolist Dimitry Firtash, a Putin ally currently wanted in the United States on racketeering charges.
As a former U.S. attorney with a reputation for battling organized crime, Giuliani may wonder how he wound up in an alliance with a crooked fugitive like Firtash, whose FBI file identifies him as a close associate of top Russian Mafia bosses. Evidently, Giuliani set Firtash up with Toensing and her spouse, Joseph diGenova, who have since met with Attorney General William Barr to plead the Ukrainian oligarch’s case. There appears to be no figure too crooked for Giuliani to enlist in this mission, including the discredited former Ukrainian prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko.
None of these embarrassing revelations, nor the impeachment of his client, have discouraged Giuliani at all. Even as the House Judiciary Committee moves to draft articles of impeachment, the president’s lawyer is back in Ukraine — where he met with the son of that unfortunate country’s former secret police chief, another Kremlin stooge. He is reportedly preparing a “documentary” that will vindicate Trump.
And Nunes is complaining that the exposure of his phone conversations with Parnas somehow violated his “civil rights.” If there is any justice in Congress, he should be looking forward to an ethics investigation.
Like Trump, all of these dubious characters insist that they are determined to root out corruption and restore integrity. Why don’t you believe them?
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Fox News Judge Andrew Napolitano declared Wednesday that he would “certainly” vote to impeach President Donald Trump if he was a member of Congress.
During an appearance on “America’s Newsroom,” Napolitano asserted his belief that “the Democrats have credibly argued that [Trump] committed impeachable offenses” in the Ukraine scandal.
“The easiest one — because this existed in Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — is obstruction of Congress,” he said. “So — by directing his subordinates to refuse to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas, whether it’s for testimony or for documents — that’s an impeachable offense.”
Napolitano continued, “We know that from history, every time the House of Representatives has looked at that with respect to a president. It has found it to be impeachable. On that, reasonable minds cannot disagree without rejecting history and without rejecting constitutional norms.”
At the heart of the impeachment inquiry are allegations that Trump attempted to leverage a White House meeting and millions in military aid, sought by Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as an unsubstantiated theory that the Ukrainian government had conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
On Wednesday, Fox News host Bill Hemmer asked Napolitano, “If you were in the House, would you vote for impeachment?”
“I certainly would. I’m never going to be in the House,” Napolitano said with a laugh, before adding, “I would on that count.”
The judge went on to note that “reasonable minds” could disagree on Trump’s reasoning for withholding million in military aid for Ukraine which had been approved by Congress.
“What was the president’s intent when he held up this aid?” Napolitano asked. “Was it truly to eradicate corruption in Ukraine? Was he truly concerned that American taxpayer dollars would go into the hands of crooks? Or was he looking to use the instruments of a foreign government to help his political campaign?”
Later on in the show, Napolitano weighed in on the House Judiciary Committee’s Wednesday hearing in the impeachment inquiry, saying that it likely would not change public opinion. However, he warned that “letting Trump be Trump is not good enough under the Constitution.”
“We don’t lower the bar because the president has unorthodox ways,” the former judge added. “The bar is intentionally broad and even ambiguous as to what high crimes and misdemeanors are. We learned today that the Democrats apparently intend to include in there things we didn’t know they were going to include, like bribery, like the obstruction of justice allegations which were made by (former special counsel) Bob Mueller long before the Ukraine case came to the public’s attention.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over drafting articles of impeachment, heard testimony from four constitutional scholars about the legal and historical underpinnings of the process. Three law experts called by Democrats said Trump committed impeachable offenses, while one called by Republicans offered the lone dissent.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., suggested that issues in Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election could be included in eventual articles of impeachment. Nadler argued that Trump had obstructed justice both during Mueller’s investigation and the House’s impeachment inquiry.
In his opening statement, Nadler said Trump’s latest actions showed a “pattern of conduct” seen since his first year in the Oval Office.
“When his own Department of Justice tried to uncover the extent to which a foreign government had broken our laws, President Trump took extraordinary and unprecedented steps to obstruct the investigation, including ignoring subpoenas, ordering the creation of false records and publicly attacking and intimidating witnesses,” he said. “Then, as now, this administration’s level of obstruction is without precedent.”
Contact Shira Tarlo at [email protected] Follow @shiratarlo.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) confirmed that at least some of his Republican colleagues are considering the impeachment case against President Donald Trump.
The Connecticut Democrat told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he’s personally spoken with GOP senators who would consider voting to impeach the president, if the House sends approves articles of impeachment requested Thursday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Quick final question, different topic,” said co-host Willie Geist. “Have you spoken to a single Republican colleague in the Senate who’s even considering voting for impeachment?”
“Yes,” Murphy said.
Geist seemed surprised, but Murphy confirmed he had, but declined to name the senators who expressed openness to impeaching Trump.
“It’s a small list, on one hand,” Murphy said, “and by the way, I don’t buy this secret ballot thing. If there was a secret ballot there would still only be a handful that would vote to impeach this guy.”
Murphy said the number of Republicans who would vote to impeach was five or fewer.
“I think that’s probably right,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who went from being the Democratic Party’s most high-ranking impeachment skeptic to being a vocal impeachment proponent, has stressed that the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump needs to move along at a swift and rapid pace — and this week, she asked House Democrats to “proceed with articles of impeachment.” But journalist Charles Sykes, a Never Trump conservative and supporter of impeachment, has a different view: in a December 5 op-ed for Politico, Sykes argues that Democrats need to proceed more slowly so that American voters can have more time to absorb all the evidence.
“Why the rush?,” Sykes asserts. “Democrats, now in the midst of House Judiciary Committee hearings, seem intent on forcing an impeachment vote before Christmas. But moving too fast risks ignoring new evidence that might emerge, failing to pressure key players to testify and/or turn over records, letting the story’s momentum die over the holidays and playing into Trump’s hands.”
The argument that many Democrats have had in favor of a swift and speedy impeachment (as opposed to one that is still dragging on in March or April) is as follows: sure, the chances of Trump being removed from office via a trial in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate are slim and none — but Democrats can at least make their case, lay out the evidence, and move on to the top priority for 2020: the election. Some Democrats fear that if the impeachment inquiry drags on too long, it could become a distraction from the presidential race as well as an abundance of important Senate and House races.
Sykes, however, believes House Democrats are acting hastily. The conservative journalist argues that although the evidence presented against Trump so far has been “quite compelling,” Democrats need to present even more evidence that he is unfit for the presidency.
“In their haste,” Sykes writes, “House Democrats have not pursued the enforcement of subpoenas against the administration figures who have acquiesced to Trump’s efforts to obstruct the probe. The list of spurned subpoenas includes Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; his aide Robert Blair; National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg; Michael Ellis, Eisenberg’s deputy; State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl; Brian McCormack, former chief of staff to Energy Secretary Rick Perry; as well as officials from the Office of Management and Budget.”
Sykes adds, “Nor have (House Democrats) tried to enforce subpoenas for crucial documents against other officials or even attempted to get testimony from Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Defense Secretary Mark Esper. And they have not subpoenaed former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has made it abundantly clear that he knows a lot about the whole Ukraine deal. Here, Democrats may actually hold stronger cards than they think.”
Sykes stresses that it is “possible that new and damning facts” against Trump “will emerge.”
“At this pace, a quick vote in December and a Senate acquittal in January will likely be forgotten by May,” Sykes emphasizes. “That’s the world we live in. So, there is value in slowing down and letting key pieces of evidence sink in for the public. Let the public catch up.”
A former Ukrainian lawmaker who has peddled dirt on Joe Biden’s family was arrested earlier this week in Germany, where he is awaiting extradition to his home country.
Oleksandr Onyshchenko, who had close ties to Ukraine’s former president before fleeing the country to avoid embezzlement allegations, was arrested Friday by German authorities at the request of Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, reported The Daily Beast.
“According to our information, Oleksandr was in the process of seeking international protection and could not be arrested in accordance with Article 33 of the international convention relating to the status of refugees,” said Oleg Ishemko, the former lawmaker’s attorney.
Onyshchenko was arrested as President Donald Trump’s allies continue seeking information about Burisma Group, where Biden’s son Hunter Biden once served as a board member.
The president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani flew to Kyiv this week to hold meetings on that topic, which is also being probed as part of the impeachment inquiry.
Russian internet trolls interfering in the 2016 US election; Russian hitmen murdering Putin’s opponents abroad; Chinese spies manipulating Australian politics while the country’s coast guard ships harass Japanese fishing fleets. These are not random acts of autocratic aggression. They are examples of a new form of warfare that is becoming a bigger challenge for the United States and its western allies: gray-zone conflict.
Once an obscure Russian military concept, the gray zone is now one of the hottest topics in Western strategic debate. As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins explains: “Gray zone conflict is best understood as activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.” Gray-zone tactics are ambiguous and incremental, including the use of information operations (a term of art for fake news), psychological manipulation, corruption, economic coercion, and covert paramilitary activities, like the “little green men” Russia sent in to invade Crimea.
There is plenty of academic debate over the exact nature of this term, but little disagreement that the United States, and the West generally, is on the losing side in an increasingly bitter competition with a belligerent Russia, as well as a subtler but equally determined China. From Ukraine to the South China Sea, these two nations’ bold gambles appear to have paid off. Eastern Ukraine remains in chaos and Crimea firmly in Russian hands, while China’s Navy intimidates its neighbors, ignoring international legal rulings. Now, other revisionist powers like Iran are learning to emulate their tactics: use deniable proxy forces, drone strikes, and cyber-attacks to improve their position without risking all-out war.
Despite the early success these rogue nations have had through adopting gray-zone strategies, defeatism in the face of this challenge is foolish; with skill and focus, the United States can win this conflict.
After all, this is not the first time the U.S. has faced a shrewd enemy that had overcome its conventional military inferiority with innovative tactics. During America’s greatest conflict, the Civil War, the Confederacy had won a series of stunning victories with bold, unorthodox maneuvers, frustrating Northern generals and leaders alike and leading to a sense that the North could not win the war. So, when Ulysses S. Grant took over the demoralized Army of the Potomac, after yet another defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee, he told his officers:“I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do… try to think what are we are going to do ourselves.” That is the spirit the West needs to rediscover to win in the gray zone.
Helpfully, Russia and China have been quite clear about their approach. In 2013, General Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, gave a speech that set out what became known as the Gerasimov doctrine, although he portrayed—quite ironically—that these were in fact Western tactics aimed against Russia.
He described the future of conflict as “shifting towards the widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures implemented with the use of the protest potential of the population. All this is complemented by covert military measures, including the implementation of information warfare and the actions of special operations forces.”
The Chinese approach to the gray zone—referred to as the doctrine of Three Warfares—concentrates on the psychological media and legal tools needed to win without fighting. As Professor Stefan Harper explains, “It is uniquely suited to an age where success is often determined by whose story rather than whose army wins.”
In other words, both countries rely on the ability to shape the specific populations’ information environments through manipulation, corruption, and targeted violence, effectively winning by demoralizing their opponents.
These unconventional methods, from fake news to little green men, aim to destabilize a target without provoking an armed confrontation, which authoritarian regimes know they would lose. This is a serious challenge to democratic stability: Russia has already invaded and occupied parts of a sovereign neighbor, supported extremist parties in Europe, and interfered in U.S. elections. China, for its part, has been refining and exporting surveillance technologies, bullying companies and governments who dare to challenge it, as the NBA has recently learned, and expanding its reach by building illegal artificial islands across the South China Sea.
But democracies often undermine authoritarian rule often without even realizing it—merely by offering an attractive alternative to a system built on oppression and lies. Despotic rulers tend to see this threat as part of a conspiracy against them, or at least, they want their people to see it as such.
The Chinese Communist Party’s complaint that the rise of androgynous celebrities is the result of a CIA conspiracy is one of the more absurd examples. Putin’s claim that the Internet is a CIA plot is another, as was his furious reaction to the Panama Papers, which exposed the fortunes his cronies had hidden away. Meanwhile, the example of nearby democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan challenge the entire legitimacy of authoritarian rule.
While there are areas in which democracies and autocracies can collaborate, the tension is inherent between incompatible systems. For the democracies, building good defenses against gray-zone tactics is a necessary starting point. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Denmark, for instance, have launched successful media literacy programs to help their citizens recognize Russian media manipulation and call out fake news. As a result, they are largely immune to this tactic.
But stronger defenses are not enough. Following General Grant’s example, democracies also need to increase the pressure on authoritarian regimes and go on the offense against the gray zone. Some interventions are direct, like the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Asia’s Uighur language radio, which provides an independent news source to China’s oppressed Uighur minority. Others are subtler. Standing up for the human rights of dissidents and oppressed minorities,—from Tibet and Hong Kong to the brave protesters in Moscow—is not only a moral duty but also good policy. If nothing else, it undermines the authoritarian regimes in power. This requires U.S. presidential leadership squarely anchored in democratic values, from a president who believes in them. We may have to wait until 2021 for that—though let’s hope not until 2025.
Beyond a direct response to gray-zone attacks, there are a series of policies, which Western democracies should be following in any case, that have the added benefit of increasing pressure on authoritarian regimes. Russian government accounts show that 60 percent of its GDP comes from oil and gas resources. Rapid de-carbonization, particularly in Europe, threatens the economic basis of Putin’s rule. Therefore, moving away from dependence on Russian gas and toward a carbon-free energy system should be a priority for all European countries—and one that the US should support.
Similarly, China’s aggressive moves to develop, and export, a model of technologically enabled authoritarian control—and its use of economic leverage to squash dissent—is a central element of the Communist Party’s approach to exerting power. It needs to be challenged. The European Union’s work to defend online privacy is a helpful start.
China uses its increasing economic might as leverage. When the Norwegian based Nobel committee awarded the 2010 Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobao, China retaliated by imposing an economic embargo for six years until Norway promised not to interfere in Chinese affairs again. The lack of support from Norway’s allies was shameful and only encouraged more of this kind of behavior. Any future administration must recognize how understanding the tools of weaponized economic interdependence—and how to use them—has to be a core capability of the United States.
A great weakness of modern autocracies is their reliance on the support of corrupt oligarchs, who steal at home and then hide much of their wealth in the West. Laws that promote financial transparency can put pressure on them while reducing their ability to corrupt Western accomplices. Some interesting recent examples include the U.S .Corporate Transparency Act, legislation that would ban shell companies; the EU’s efforts to eliminate money laundering sanctuaries; and the UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order that allows a court to investigate and freeze the assets of a suspected foreign criminal, or someone politically connected to them. These reforms all build on the success of the Magnitsky Act, which remains to date the most powerful financial tool against murderous Russian kleptocrats.Finally, there is still a military component to gray-zone conflict. The United States and European allies will need to provide fledgling, vulnerable democratic partners with defensive military assets to deter and, if needed, defeat subversion, sabotage, and armed confrontation. The West, however, should be careful not reduce this challenge to just its military dimension.
General Grant would have understood that the position of democracies in this conflict is considerable. With clarity and determination, they can move from a purely reactive approach and make autocrats worry more about maintaining their hold on power than on how they can sow chaos abroad. If they do, they will make the world a safer, and more decent, place.
Simon Clark is the chair of Foreign Policy for America.