Disinformation Watch: The Open Skies Treaty


Some weird stuff has popped up in my Twitter feed this week. Fortunately, I follow experts who are trying to figure it out.

Steffan Watkins is a Canadian who follows ships and planes via the internet. If you like that sort of thing, I recommend you follow him. He is also very sensitive to disinformation and occasionally given to lectures about it. He is very knowledgeable about the Open Skies Treaty.

The Open Skies Treaty (text, fact sheet) allows the nations that have signed it to fly observation planes over other signatories’ territory. It’s an arms control treaty in that it allows nations to follow up on suspicions or just keep an eye on each other. It says nothing about numbers of weapons. The simple fact that nations are open to each other in this way builds trust, which is needed to negotiate on more difficult subjects.

Every arms control treaty has an information side to it: inspections may be requested, or numbers and types of weapons are reported to the other parties regularly. When the US government abrogates a treaty, we lose a window into what the other side is doing. Of course, they get to see the equivalent of what we’re doing.

The Open Skies Treaty, like all well-made treaties, has very specific provisions for what kinds of aircraft, cameras, and routes may be flown. Arrangements must be made to schedule the flights. For flights over the United States, the airplane must be inspected by Americans, an American is on board, and the photos are shared after the flight. Other nations have the same rights for flights over their territory.

Russia does several flights a year over the US, and we reciprocate with flights over Russia. Watkins follows those flights and others that interest him. Last year and this, he told me when the Russian plane was in my area. I think I saw it last year, but this year it didn’t come close enough to Santa Fe.

This week, Michael Carpenter tweeted that the Russians were up to nefarious activities, FLYING OVER CHICAGO AND TAKING PICTURES! This is precisely the kind of thing Watkins likes to debunk, and he did, with places and times for the Open Skies flight. What is surprising is that Carpenter was in charge of the Open Skies program under President Barack Obama and is associated with the Penn-Biden Center. When he was questioned by Watkins and others knowledgeable about the program, he insulted them and cited an old New York Times article containing Republican propaganda. Republicans don’t like this treaty, along with all other arms control treaties. Watkins debunked that article here.

Tom Moore also got into the act. He is a former professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He didn’t believe what Carpenter was tweeting either.

Here’s Carpenter retweeting his first tweet that got the reaction.

And Moore’s reply

There’s more in the thread with others chiming in.

And this morning,

That’s RT, the Russian propaganda network, gloating that Americans are overreacting to an agreed flight. Watkins also identified Russian bots that were pushing Carpenter’s claims.

It’s not clear to me why Carpenter would do this. It’s the kind of thing that can be exploited by Russian propaganda all too easily, and they are going with it. They are both happy to spread Carpenter’s misinformation and to sneer at American overreaction.

So if you run into someone claiming that the Russians are sending spy flights in, now you know how to debunk that. And please do. The disinformation is only going to get worse in the leadup to the election.

Top photo: Defense One

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

Wednesday Morning Open Thread: The Waiting

Gonna watch this trailer again, maybe three or four times, and then go to bed. By the time I get up, it’ll all be over but the (endless) grousing…

Hello, World! Russia Here!

The Russian destroyer Udaloy I forced the USS Chancellorsville to maneuver to avoid collision in the Phillippine Sea today. They were sending a message – look at the guys sunbathing on the flight deck.

The maneuver was planned and approved by the fleet. Probably at the suggestion of Vladimir Putin, or certainly to please him.

If the ships had collided, Russia would have screamed that it was all the fault of the American ship.

The Russian government has been cranky this week over the observances of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The Allied landings on Normandy beaches were the beginning of the end of Germany’s Western Front.

Russia would like to have a word about that. Russia defeated Germany’s Eastern Front, at enormous cost. The message the Russian government was trying to get out was that it was the eastern front that was really the defeat of Hitler. Further, Russia is owed bigtime by the rest of Europe for that.

The Russian role in World War II is often minimized in Western versions of the defeat of Hitler. Russia suffered enormous losses.

But the Russian role is not unambiguous. In 1939, the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to fight together with Germany and divide up the parts of Europe between their then boundaries after the victory. That assured Hitler that he could concentrate on the Western Front and invade France and adjacent countries while bombing the UK. Without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and with the USSR solidly standing with the rest of Europe, Hitler would have had to think twice.

Hitler double-crossed Stalin, of course, by invading Soviet territory in 1941. That forced Russia to fight on the side of the Western allies. Russia could have put up a better fight if Stalin hadn’t purged the generals in 1937. The Soviet military was in disarray, allowing the German army almost to reach Moscow.

Meanwhile, bombing on the Western Front weakened Hitler, and American Lend-Lease strengthened the Soviets. But a competition remained: Soviet spies were sending the plans for American nuclear weapons to Moscow, and there was a race in the Far East to occupy Japan first.

But Russia wants the story to be of the damage it survived and went on to help the Allies win. That is true, but it is only part of the story. Adam Elkus says what I’ve just said with more snark in a Twitter thread.

For the past couple of weeks, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been, to use Adam’s word, shitposting, like this

The anniversary of D-Day is the immediate cause, but the problem goes deeper. Russia, particularly Vladimir Putin, wants to be treated like a great power. Further, Putin has a few problems at home. His popularity is down. There are fights about provincial boundaries in the North Caucasus. People are demonstrating against accepting Moscow’s garbage in landfills in the North. He needs something to get people behind him, and what better than American hostility.

If that hostility can be combined with dissension among Americans, so much the better. So Moscow released a facsimile of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a couple of weeks ago, for the first time. Moscow has refused to discuss the Pact in the past. They aren’t saying much now, but its release could spark strong feelings among Americans whose background is in the countries that suffered from the Nazi and Soviet invasions, along with western controversies associated with those Soviet actions.

Add in some dissing of D-Day to fan other fires. The mixture doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t have to; all it needs to do is rile Americans up an several sides of several issues. And irritate them at Russia, so that they will generate commentary that can be used to show the Russian people how Americans hate them.

The propaganda game was largely being ignored, so some escalation was necessary, hence the incident in the Phillippine Sea. This is genuinely dangerous because it could result in a collision and perhaps escalate further. The sunbathers are essentially offering a middle finger to the United States. Putin’s, perhaps.

The incident should be demarched, but who knows what Donald Trump and John Bolton are likely to do. We could engage Russia on extending the New START Treaty. That is undoubtedly one of the things irritating Putin. Extending New START would be a good thing for both countries and the world. Negotiating a treaty with lower limits on nuclear weapons and better verification would be better, but the base we are working from is hoping that Trump and Bolton won’t withdraw from the treaty altogether.

Russia will continue its propaganda drumbeat. The purpose is to fan division in the United States and to provide material for Putin to try to ramp up his popularity. The best way to respond is to avoid division and call out trolls when they appear.

Information Warfare: The Florida Election Hack

Election hacking in Florida, municipality hacking in Baltimore, and President Donald Trump’s handing of classification authorities to Attorney General William Barr share some characteristics. Our strategies lag behind the realities of dealing with information in the age of the internet. We need to start thinking differently about how we handle information; when to withhold it and when to share it.

I’ll write three posts on ways to think about those situations. We have to find better ways to deal with information and its misuses.

It has taken some time for the story of voter record hacking in Florida to come out, and we still don’t have most of it.

Russian hackers accessed voter data in two Florida counties, but, according to federal authorities, did not change the vote count itself. They may have taken data on voters, which seems to be public. The method of attack was spear phishing, in which an email contains links that install a trojan horse on the target computer. (Reminder: Don’t click on links in suspicious email.)

On May 14, federal officials  briefed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on the hacking. DeSantis says that he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits naming the counties. This is not unusual when someone without a clearance is allowed access to classified information.

But why is this information classified, and what exactly is classified?

If Florida election officials are to provide a secure election next year, they need to know

  • which parts of their system were accessed and how
  • what the hackers did with their access
  • how hackers might affect vote totals
  • what steps to take to avoid these problems

This information will be useful to election officials in other states too. And the general public has a right to know what happened in 2016 and may be happening today.

There are two reasons for not making that information public. First, it is likely part of the counterintelligence investigation complementing Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election and may need to be kept quiet to protect that investigation. Second, the FBI and DHS, the investigating agencies, claim that making it public will impact their sources and methods. This is a common claim of intelligence agencies, probably too common. More on that later.

A leak says that Washington County was one of the counties hacked by Russia’s GRU, the military intelligence agency. It’s likely that we will hear about the other. A strong statement from the investigating agencies on what they found would be the best way to bolster confidence in the electoral system. Legislators have expressed concern about the secrecy, and we can hope that they will press for more information to be made public.

Making this information public could also serve as a warning to the hackers: We know what you are doing and are watching out for you. This message is in the news already, but giving specifics would make it more credible.


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.


Has No One Ever Heard of a Disinformation Campaign Fer Fuck’s Sake

You’d think with the 2016 election being recent history, people would recognize what is going on. I mean, fer fuck’s sake, everyone and their brother has heard of gaslighting by now. Apparently not, though:

THIS IS PRECISELY WHAT BARR WANTED. The reason he sent the initial letter was sent by Barr WITHOUT RELEASING THE REPORT is so that useful idiots and hacks could run around and make statements about how Trump was totally cleared, and then by the time the actual report was released the waters would be sufficiently muddied that it didn’t matter what the actual report said because now there could be a debate about it. It’s what they fucking do with everything. It’s why corporations spend so much money funding alternative studies debating shit that is undebatable, like climate change or whether cigarettes are addictive and on and on.

The media didn’t intentionally misrepresent the report- Barr did and misled the media. That was his intent.