Jan 13, 2021

Axios Codebook

Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of Codebook. This week, we're welcoming former CISA director Chris Krebs to the Aspen Institute, where he'll be chairing a new bipartisan commission on disinformation.

Today's newsletter is 1,485 words, a 5.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Trump's four-year information war

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch. Photos: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Last week's riot at the Capitol was many things, but perhaps chiefly it was the culmination of four years of information warfare waged against the country from within the Oval Office.

Why it matters: A sprawling disinformation campaign led by President Trump — and buttressed by his allies in the media, online and in Congress — has severely destabilized the U.S. and makes further acts of violence and would-be insurrection a near certainty.

The big picture: Transnational conflict and power plays increasingly take place online, in the form of hacking, digital spying and influence operations.

  • Disinformation is a central tool in this arena, allowing nation-states and their online proxies to undermine the civic health of a rival power by spreading lies and preying on societal fissures.
  • Many of the U.S.' cyber defenders devote their lives to beat back these threats from abroad, but that work has been persistently dwarfed by the president's own commitment to sowing destabilizing disinformation within the country.

Between the lines: The attack on the Capitol was a direct response to Trump's refusal — what historian Timothy Snyder has called the “Big Lie” of the Trump presidency — to accept the free and fair election of Joe Biden.

  • That refusal is just the end stage in a years-long, Trump-led construction of a reality built around an entirely parallel set of basic facts.
  • A significant plurality of voters now lives in that reality.

Undermining and delegitimizing his political opponents have been central to what is arguably — rivaled only by falsehoods about COVID-19 — the most damaging front of Trump's information war.

  • First was Trump’s “birther” conspiracy, which sought to delegitimize then-President Obama.
  • Then there was the Trump campaign’s exploitation of emails of his political rivals, which were originally hacked and dumped online by Russian intelligence services, and the president’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge Russia’s culpability in this covert action campaign. This sowed doubt in U.S. institutions and also invited future foreign electoral interference — including online misinformation campaigns.
  • Then there was the attempt by Trump and his close associates to coerce Ukraine into opening sham investigations into Joe Biden, whom Trump then correctly identified as his chief electoral rival.

Be smart: The Capitol siege made it viscerally clear that the U.S. is now fully caught in a self-cannibalizing cycle of information warfare that pits rival domestic political camps against one other.

  • Since these are different appendages of the same body politic, this acutely threatens liberal democracy. It is a greater long-term threat to U.S. national security than the 9/11 attacks, and the greatest challenge for America since at least World War II, because it is a crisis over the very legitimacy of electoral democracy.

Context: This weakening of shared reality between Americans — and dissolution of a sense of common national purpose — has been decades in the making, as historian Daniel Rodgers explores in his book “Age of Fracture.”

Americans of different ideological persuasions increasingly live in separate communities, consume different — and antagonistic — news sources, and communicate on different social networks, with basic cultural signifiers even becoming intensely (and often demagogically) politicized.

Yes, but: The Trump administration has overseen some key policy wins on beating back foreign informational and cyber warfare.

  • DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in particular, launched high-profile anti-disinformation campaigns and sought to strengthen U.S. networks from outside attack.
  • NSA launched a Cybersecurity Directorate.
  • The U.S. military’s Cyber Command sought to “defend forward” against potential malign actors carrying out disinformation operations from abroad.

The catch: You can’t “defend forward” when the call is coming from inside the house. The real and important work done during the last four years to combat online disinformation and on other important national security topics was overshadowed and undermined by the president himself.

2. Biden picks former top diplomat to lead CIA

President-elect Biden has selected William Burns, a retired top diplomat, as his nominee for CIA director, transition officials announced Monday.

Why it matters: Burns’ background is in statecraft, not subterfuge. His appointment may offer an unusual opportunity to better integrate the CIA’s intelligence-gathering, analysis and covert action capabilities with larger U.S. foreign policy aims.

What they’re saying: The pick “means [Biden] intends for American intelligence to serve American diplomacy in a way unseen since the Dulles brothers led those forces in the 1950s. That’s an urgent and monumental mission,” writes Tim Weiner.

Catch up quick: Burns, who currently heads the Carnegie Endowment, was something of a surprise pick.

  • Insiders had believed front-runners for the job included former CIA deputy director David Cohen and former senior CIA official Darrell Blocker.
  • Another well-known CIA hand, former acting director Michael Morell, earlier asked to be removed from consideration for the job after some Senate Democrats signaled their opposition to him over his past statements on torture.

Background: Burns, who retired in 2014 as deputy secretary of state, is a widely respected 33-year veteran of America’s diplomatic corps.

  • He was deeply involved in the Obama administration’s Iran strategy, including leading backchannel negotiations surrounding the Iran Deal.
  • He was also previously the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Of note: Although some former CIA heads, like Richard Helms and George H.W. Bush, were later appointed to diplomatic posts, Burns would be the first career diplomat to ascend to the top CIA post.

Yes, but: Burns’ diplomatic background doesn’t necessarily mean he will eschew the harder-edged aspects of spy work. After all, under the Obama administration, the CIA undertook a concerted covert action campaign to degrade Iran’s nuclear program while also pushing for a negotiated suspension of Tehran’s activities.

3. The online far right is moving underground
Data: Apptopia; Chart: Axios Visuals

The online purge of far-right figures and platforms that followed last week's Capitol insurrection looks to be driving radicalized users into darker corners of the internet, report Axios' Kyle Daly and Sara Fischer.

What's happening: Downloads have surged for messaging apps that are securely encrypted as well as those that cater specifically to the ultra-conservative user.

Driving the news: After Twitter and Facebook shut down President Trump's accounts, many other services and providers pulled the plug on organizations and forums that supported or served as organizing centers for the Capitol attack.

  • The closing of far-right-friendly social network Parler after Apple, Google and Amazon withdrew service drove some users to look for alternatives that commit to not policing right-wing content.
  • More neutral communication platforms like chat app Telegram and encrypted messaging platform Signal are also seeing a major spike in downloads and usage.

Between the lines: Other factors also drove Telegram and Signal's numbers.

  • A recent update to the privacy policy of Facebook-owned WhatsApp has prompted user worry that their data and communications aren't secure there. That — and an Elon Musk tweet late last week urging "Use Signal" — likely accounts for a substantial part of the pop.
  • But experts say far-right users are undeniably flocking to those platforms, where they can in some cases communicate in total secrecy.

"It's absolutely concerning," said Dipayan Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. "And it was only to be expected that extremists pushed off of the mainstream social media platforms would move to end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms."

Go deeper: Kyle and Sara have more here.

4. Cybersecurity fears loom behind Capitol breach

The Capitol breach also put lawmakers' cybersecurity at risk, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Files, emails and other data lifted from lawmakers would have enormous value to hostile foreign powers, cyber criminals and other bad actors.

Driving the news: At least two Democratic lawmakers have said rioters stole laptops from their offices: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

  • The House's chief administrative officer last week advised congressional staff to make a full accounting of all devices and report back if anything appears missing or amiss.

How it works: If any congressional devices or networks were breached, either amid the chaos Wednesday or via, say, a USB drive surreptitiously inserted into a computer, that could mean not only theft of information but also the potential to insert malicious code for future exploitation or mischief.

Reality check: Classified and other highly sensitive information doesn't just sit around on House office laptops, and there's no indication any of the people who stormed the Capitol were there as cyber spies. But even the small risk of congressional networks being breached is seriously troubling, say experts.

  • "I don’t know of [any evidence] that these individuals were able to manipulate data or steal data or destroy data, but I don’t think you can rule it out at this point, either," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security at Auburn University.
5. Odds and ends
  • Facebook took down a pro-Russia disinformation network operating out of eastern Ukraine. (Graphika)
  • The Biden inaugural committee is returning a donation from former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who registered as a lobbyist for a state-backed Chinese surveillance company implicated in the repression of Uighurs in western China. (Axios)
  • Some FBI personnel saw online evidence of planning for violence among rally attendees the day before the storming of the Capitol building. (Washington Post)
  • FBI is investigating whether a postcard sent to FireEye’s CEO days after the company discovered the SolarWinds breach could itself be linked to Russian intelligence services. (Reuters)
  • How an online disinformation campaign within the United States that targeted Chinese dissidents, and later turned violent, was a canary in the coal mine for the riot at the Capitol. (Axios)