Welcome to the Atlantic Council. A think tank which isn't given to introspection and which ultimately amounts to NATO's propaganda arm. This week, I endured an Atlantic Council echo-chamber to spare you the bother.
The list of lobbyists retained by the club (who prefer to call each other 'fellows') reads like a veritable who's who of professional Russia bashers. From Eliot Higgins to Anders Aslund and Michael Weiss to Dmitri Alperovitch. And its main financial backers include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, the Ukrainian World Congress and the United States Department of State. All entities for whom promoting the "Russian threat" is a profitable, and essential, enterprise.
On Tuesday, the pressure group held a sort of social day for its staffers and admirers. The event was billed as "The First Transatlantic Forum on Strategic Communications and Digital Disinformation in Washington, DC." And it certainly seemed to feature a lot of trans-continental flights as the diaspora flocked back to the mothership for the festivities.
There were three main forums on the day and, as the final one concerned ISIS, I decided to suffer the first two only. Here is what I experienced.
Panel One - "Transatlantic Response to Disinformation: Paving a Way Forward" (all times EDT)
10:12 AM: Your correspondent joins 36 other YouTube viewers for the opening salvos. Five men, all in navy suits, sit down. They are Daniel Fried (an Atlantic Council employee and former US ambassador), Tacan Ildem (a Turkish diplomat until last year, now at NATO), Nils Svartz (a Swedish civil defense director) and Jakub Durr (the Deputy Foreign Minister of Czechia, incidentally lazily described as the "Czech Republic" by the organizers). The moderator, Jim Sciutto, introduces himself as the “bad news correspondent of CNN.” Immediately I start thinking that if all 37 viewers paid €25 a piece each for access, it’d barely cover a return flight from Istanbul to DC. But, luckily, today's nod-fest is directly supported by NATO and a few other vested interests.
11:22AM: Jakub Durr seems really happy to be there. Coming from “Prague, with love", he rejoices in how US government broadcaster RFE/RL is based in the city, dedicated to “fighting propaganda.” This suggests poor Jakub has never read the charter of RFE/RL's parent, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Because its mission statement obliges the network to "be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States," and to maintain "the capability to provide a surge capacity to support United States foreign policy objectives during crises abroad." Which sounds like something very much created to spread agitprop.
11:31AM: Tacan Ildem is now talking about media freedom. With a straight face. He’s from Turkey, the country with the most jailed journalists in the world (81 from a global total of 259). Now, if Ildem were an opposition activist, you could cut him some slack, but, until last year, he was Recep Tayyip Erdogan's representative at the OSCE in Vienna. He then says NATO “has to have its story dominating the information space. If there is a vacuum, others will exploit it.” So perhaps this explains why almost all western media parrots the NATO line?
11:40AM: Sciutto implies that Russia hacked Emmanuel Macron’s emails and timed it precisely for the pre-election news blackout. French intelligence said they found no trace of Russian hacking. Nobody corrects him. And this will become a trend for the rest of the day when panelists spout utter rubbish.
11:45AM: Everybody agrees. About everything. Thirty-five minutes in and there has not been one shred of dissent. Meanwhile, 41 brave soldiers are now watching the video feed.
11:48AM: Sciutto says (in the US) you have “newspapers that are thriving… even bought by Amazon billionaires.” He’s so bored, it appears he has lost touch with reality. As it happens, the American newspaper industry has been dying for some time, much to the chagrin of those of us who love the print medium. The fact Jeff Bezos (the Amazon billionaire) was able to purchase the Washington Post from the Graham family is a direct result of the malaise.
11:49AM: Fried compares RT and Sputnik to Nazi propaganda, which was “world class at the time.” He is animated, but everyone else just looks disinterested.
11:54AM: Sciutto, citing a Twitter question, wants to know if Russia is responsible for the AfD’s success in last weekend's German election. Durr starts waffling about the CSU, says their fall in support (49 to 36 percent) was down to active communication with Moscow and their support for Nord Stream (a gas pipeline). Sciutto asks if Russia is financing the far right in East Germany and Durr replies that it’s an overall strategy we can see in all countries. Of course, he provides no actual evidence for this assertion and seems unaware that the likes of UKIP and Marine Le Pen are domestic creations in the UK and France and that RT is not Breitbart in the American context.
12:04AM: Turkey's Ildim is now talking about “responsible journalism.” Again, nobody pulls him up on how the Ankara authorities treat reporters. If it weren't so early in the day, I'd probably be starting a drinking game at this stage.
12:09AM: The audience questions are very mad. One guy from Lithuania asks how we can stop Russia "getting money." Sweden's Svartz says the Russians are very open about what they are doing: because “it’s on the internet.” Sciutto throws out “like the (pronounced like Geronimo) GER-A-SIM-OV doctrine.” Svartz answers “yes.” This is the level we are at now. Two misinformed people, way out of their depth, confirming stuff that isn’t even real.
Nobody pulls them up. Currently, 35 people are watching this torture.
12:16PM: Simon from Bild Newspaper in Germany says RT is not pushing fake news, rather a different narrative. And he asks "how do we counter it? “
“As odious as RT is,” Fried says… “ I am not in favor of censorship or shutting them down.” He explains that he does agree with the FARA idea (forcing RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents being floated in the American press. “RT can make stuff up much cheaper than CNN can discredit it. Everything coming out of RT is suspect… In the US, journalists who work for RT are not considered journalists but rather paid agents of foreign propaganda," he outlines.
And, with that, part one ends, and everyone heads out for a ten-minute break.
Panel Two: Straight Out of the Kremlin’s Toolkit: Strategies of State Actors
12:44PM: Everyone has had their cup of tea, and part two is about to kick off, with 35 brave souls hanging in there on YouTube. Here we are supposed to have Peter "RUSSIAN PSY-OPS" Pomerantsev (a lobbyist, author, and London School of Economics visiting fellow), Toomas Ilves (a former RFE/RL reporter and President of Estonia), Edward Lucas (a lobbyist and journalist) and Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, who’s is best known for predicting that Donald Trumps’ aides will get jail time after the "Russia investigation" concludes. Which is presumably why he has been picked to perform today. The emcee is Miriam Elder, a senior editor at Buzzfeed, who used to be Moscow correspondent of the Guardian. She is best remembered in the Russian capital for inspiring the reform of its dry-cleaning industry. Thanks to her efforts, you can now get a 24-hour turnaround on a suit or dress, all managed online. Bless her heart.
12:46PM: It appears Congressman Castro hasn’t turned up. But Elder makes no attempt to explain why he is not there. Nevertheless, Ilves may not have noticed his absence because he is busy playing with his phone as proceedings begin. So, from now on Castro will be both the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this event, just waiting for King Claudius to summon him to ascertain the cause of the madness.
12:48PM: Pomerantsev speaks for three minutes. None of his speech makes much sense. He contends that you can’t argue with conspiracy theories. Which will warm the hearts of any 9/11 "truthers" or moon landing doubters among the 47 folks currently watching this charade.
12:56PM: Lucas remarks how “it’s terrific that a new industry is being created out of Stratcom.” Of course, it is, Edward, for you at least! He then claims Russia has been trialing political warfare for 20 years and alleges how it started in the Baltics, back in the 1990's.
1:03PM: Elder brings up the German elections and, amazingly, we have now passed the big '5-0' because 56 people are watching! She asks Pomerantsev what the Russians were doing during the campaign. He observes how “every election is a Russian election nowadays" and claims the AfD and the Kremlin are natural allies, "feeding together," further observing that 20 percent of Germans are living in an alternate reality with no relation to the center anymore. German voters will surely be amused to learn about this Brit who thinks anybody who doesn't support the status quo in their country lives in “an alternative reality.” But Pomerantsev doesn’t seem self-aware enough to realize his own myopia.
1:09AM: Ilves says Thuringia was known as the “valley of the clueless” during the Cold War because it didn’t get West German TV. He then insists the region mostly votes for Die Linke and AfD, missing how Angela Merkel's CDU won the most votes there during the last state election, only three years ago. Ilves also fails to take into account that Thuringia is one of Germany's poorest länder (states.) But, anyway, it wasn’t Thuringia which was referred to as the “valley of clueless” in the first place - it was actually Dresden, which everyone called "Tal der Ahnungslosen." In reality, Thuringia bordered the West and had no signal problems. Once again, nobody pulls Ilves up on this. Instead, they all just laugh, adrift in their own cluelessness. And this is the level of dialogue here. Meanwhile, I am almost falling asleep.
1:15PM: Ilves brings up Valery Gerasimov and his non-existent "doctrine." He observes how it outlines that information is now a weapon. He then insists the EU is too focused on Burma (sic), at Ukraine's expense. This will surely be news to any Rohingya people taking time out from being persecuted by Myanmar's Western-backed regime to watch this bore-fest.
11:19PM: Lucas claims "the Russians" have infiltrated Germany's FDP, CSU, and SPD. Of course, he doesn’t take into account that these parties may feel it’s in Germany’s national interests to have good relations with Moscow. Naturally, this point is never allowed oxygen, and they just assume Berlin is better off being subservient to US interests.
11:20PM: We are now 37 minutes into the second panel, and not a single bit of dissent can be observed. But, to be fair to Elder, she is trying to ask at least half-intelligent questions, unlike Sciutto who obviously didn’t prepare. There are now 61 viewers. Will we break the magic 100 mark? Or even the 70?
11:23PM: Lucas laments the attention given to Russia-Belarus Zapad military exercises. But doesn’t mention that his own CEPA lobby group ran a dedicated webpage with a countdown clock to drum up fear ahead of the exercises. This is the pot and kettle having an argument about the color black.
12:34PM: Nothing much happens for ten minutes. Then, Lucas says EUvsDisinfo (an EU-backed "Mythbusters" operation) is “fantastic.” I am falling asleep. So is Peter Pomerantsev.
12:36PM: Elder wants to know should the EU launch a Russian language TV service? Pomerantsev says he does a lot of work with the European Endowment for Democracy and they are trying to back such a project. Ilves says Russia's TV Rain is based in Riga. This is not true, it’s headquartered in Moscow.
12:40PM: There are now 62 souls watching. Has so much ever been directed at so few?
12:44PM: This farce has totally run out of steam. Pomerantsev is talking about kittens and cocaine. Meanwhile, Lucas can’t stop coughing and Ilves is startled. Pomerantsev repeats the fake Thuringia line. Poor Elder is trying vainly to pull things back on track.
12:47PM: Lucas says you can find yourself dead in Washington, having killed yourself with a blunt weapon. Ilves says “like the founder of RT.” Something, again, which is not true.
12:50PM: Ilves says Russia won’t invade the West because that’s where half its money is. Only Borderlands - like the Baltics - are in danger, in his view. And now it’s all over. Everyone looks excited about lunch, and 51 people are still watching the feed. We still don't know what happened to Congressman Castro. Perhaps he fell asleep during the first panel? Or defected to Moscow and nobody noticed?
Reprinted with permission from RT.