Foreword Reviews

Reviewer Karl Helicher Tracks Down Jeff Pegues, Author of Kompromat: How Russia Undermined American Democracy

Kompromat cover and author

Trump and Putin. What’s going on?

Why is our president so deferential to the man responsible for Russian invasions, murder, corruption, hacking, meddling, deception, and threats? Could it be that Putin is so brazen because he knows Trump won’t retaliate? What does he have on Trump?

Kompromat cover
We’re dying to know the answers to such questions, and this week’s interview brings us an expert with more insight into the relationship than just about anyone else. His name is Jeff Pegues. You might know him as CBS News’s homeland security correspondent—the guy responsible for their coverage of Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Putin’s minions. Jeff is also the author of KOMPROMAT: How Russia Undermined American Democracy, a new release Karl Helicher reviewed in the July/August issue of Foreword Reviews.

As we worked with the good people at Prometheus Books, KOMPROMAT’s publisher, to line up the interview between Karl and Jeff, we couldn’t help but slip in a cheeky question about why Trump seems to be so smitten with brawny Vladimir. Here’s Jeff’s response:

This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last couple of years. There is a pattern with this president praising authoritarian leaders or dictators. He has not only been very complimentary of Putin but also of Kim Jong Un recently. And he doesn’t just compliment he heaps praise on them! I have a theory about how the contacts with Russia began. In 2015 and 2016, President Trump and the people around him were looking ahead to life after the campaign. They did not expect to win and were planning on capitalizing on the fame with business deals. President Trump praised Vladimir Putin during that period because he envisioned a real estate deal in Moscow. *

Think back to the moments after President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un. You’ll perhaps recall that he kept praising the North Korean leader but also the white sandy beaches in North Korea and how they would be the perfect location for a condo building. He has a tendency to mix diplomacy and business. He also values people with absolute control. Perhaps it’s the way he views his management of the Trump Organization and mistakenly equates running his business with running the country.

And if you really want to get deeper into psychobabble, take a look at his relationship with his father, who obviously had an outsized influence on his life. He also has an outsider’s mindset because the Trumps were frowned upon by New York’s elite. President Trump likely views the US’s Western allies as the establishment while giving Putin and Kim Jong-un the anti-establishment role he has always been tagged with.

What is the meaning of the title, KOMPROMAT, and how does it define the relationship between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Kompromat has been defined as having “compromising material” on someone. In Russian politics, it is considered damaging information about a public figure or politician, that can lead to negative publicity. It can also be used to blackmail or discredit someone, or to ensure their loyalty. I named the book KOMPROMAT because I believe it accurately sums up what US intelligence and law enforcement officials believe is at the heart of the Russia investigation.

When I originally began investigating whether there was coordination between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, an intelligence source raised the possibility that there was kompromat about President Trump.

It was the first time I had heard the word. But during the summer of 2016 my intelligence sources were becoming more and more familiar with the term and its origins. They explained to me what it meant and specifically how Russian intelligence operated to compromise targets. I was told Russians would pick a target, find dirt on that target, and then use the information as leverage against the target. Eventually, reports would start to filter out that the Russians had kompromat on President Trump. Whether that is indeed the case is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been tasked with finding out.

To what extent did cyberwarfare affect the 2016 presidential election? Is it worse than we are led to believe?

Based on what I have been told by multiple sources over a period of almost two years, the Russian cyber intrusions were widespread, and we’re still finding out the extent of those intrusions. So, yes, in my view it is worse than the public has been led to believe. This is in part because investigators can’t reveal everything they know, because some of the targets Russian hackers were after are highly sensitive.

In the private sector take a look at Facebook. It is still coming to grips with how deep into its systems Russian trolls were able to dig. Company officials determined that Russian operatives were using Facebook to create fake personas and plant information. Facebook also revealed in 2017 that it had sold $100,000 in political ads to Russian-backed accounts. There were hundreds of accounts linked to the Russian-operated Internet Research Agency which was later identified in an indictment by the Special Counsel as an Internet “troll” factory that spread divisive political and cultural content to benefit the Kremlin. That’s just the social media aspect.

According to multiple law enforcement and intelligence sources, who have since gone public, Russian hackers sent thousands of malicious emails to targets in politics, think tanks, government, military, and critical infrastructure. They were relentlessly attacking targets during 2016. I remember an intelligence source telling me, “They are hacking the hell out of us, and we’re not doing anything about it.”

I still believe US government officials don’t really know the true extent of the Russian intrusions. It’s almost impossible to know until, for example, a power grid shuts down. As we saw in Ukraine, the Russians are good at shutting down power grids when they want to.

Russian hacking, as you describe, is not new. What is the first known instance of it? How do you rate President Obama’s response to the 2015 hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s network? What should he have done differently?

It’s hard to know the first known instance of Russian hacking. What is easier to discern is when cyber warfare began to rise on the radar of US intelligence officials as a top national security threat.

I looked back on the Director of National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessments and found that as early as 2013 there was a shift in what US authorities viewed as the most pressing threat to national security. Terrorism had been knocked out of the top spot. In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that he and the intelligence community needed to “reevaluate the way they do business.” He said the threats were more “diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history” and that “destruction can be invisible, latent, and progressive.” That’s a fairly ominous warning of the changing face of warfare. During that period, the Russian government evolved in how it was conducting cyber warfare.

Based on what we know now, looking back, the Obama Administration did not do enough to guard against the threat posed by Russian hackers. US officials overall should have been more proactive in addressing the growing cyber threats. As a consequence, the Obama Administration (and specifically, the FBI) was slow to react to the hacking of the Democratic National Committees’ computer network. The FBI actually had primary responsibility but was slow to react. There should have been a quicker response all around and then a conversation about developing a national strategy for countering the threat. Instead, the issue became politicized and to this day government has not developed a comprehensive plan to counter the cyber threat from Russia, China, or other nations that are now emboldened. Leadership of something like this must come from the top. And without leadership the country is not as secure as it could be against these cyber threats.

The outstanding feature of this book is its many interviews with people either fighting cyber attacks or aware of its implications, notably your in-depth ones with former CIA Director John Brennan and former FBI Director James Comey. What insights did you gain from the two men and what are your impressions of them?

I traveled with Brennan in the fall of 2016, before the Russia investigation became politicized. The John Brennan I came to know during that period seemed to be terribly concerned about the WikiLeaks disclosures to come. He told me at the time that we should expect more disclosures before election day. He and I also discussed how unprecedented it was for stolen political information, in this case from the Democrats, to be disseminated as a way to harm one candidate over the other.

But because the 2016 campaign had overshadowed the early stages of the Russia investigation the news related to the cyber intrusions wasn’t really sinking in with the public. While Brennan was sounding the alarm, in what seemed to be a non-partisan manner, the public wasn’t really paying attention. As a result of the attacks from the president, in 2017 and 2018 after leaving the CIA, Brennan began taking on a more partisan tone just as James Comey did in the months after his firing.

Both men have worked on behalf of Republican and Democratic administrations during their decades in government service. They have also seen the underlying intelligence that sparked the Russia investigation. What did they see, and what do they know? Is that why they seem confident that a crime was committed?

Are you optimistic that the US will be able to protect voting records in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections? What must individual states do to ensure that their citizens’ votes are counted?

There has been a haphazard response to the Russian cyber intrusions. It has taken too long for the Trump Administration to respond to the cyber intrusions and to develop a plan to protect election systems.

As I discuss in the book, there are too many election officials, nationwide, who are still raising questions about the effectiveness of the federal response. Our systems are still vulnerable, and no one can say that election systems are 100 percent secure. Perhaps, that is an impossible standard, but maybe it shouldn’t be. There is nothing more important for this democracy than election systems that work properly, without any hint of problems. In my view, individual states must act independently of the federal government to ensure the sanctity of the process.

Currently, what do you see as the greatest challenges posed by Russian cyberwar?

Because there are more phones and computer systems in the US than in any other country in the world, America is arguably more vulnerable in a cyberwar than any other country.

The Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans know that. The Russians have been able to take advantage of all of the targets in the US that seem to be oblivious to the threat. Increasingly, there is more discussion in the US about the vulnerability in our critical infrastructure. What we don’t want to see happen is what occurred in Ukraine in 2015 when a power grid was disabled. There were 230,000 customers left without power. Cyber criminals with links to Russia were responsible. The US Department of Homeland Security studied that attack and learned lessons from it. In a cyberwar the critical infrastructure we count on every day could be the first target.

What is the state of America’s cyberwar program? Can we stand up to the Russians?

The US has some of the most sophisticated cyber capabilities in the world. No one I’ve spoken with doubts America’s ability to respond. The questions that always arise are whether there is a plan for responding, and how far the US is willing to go, in responding.

The Russians are still hacking US targets and are expected to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections. The goal is to undermine democracy. So far, they have succeeded. Just look at how divided this country is and how Western norms have been undermined in different ways.

United States’ intelligence chiefs have stated publicly that they are committed to challenging the Russian cyber threat, but under the Trump administration Putin has been emboldened to do more rather than less. While the Department of Homeland Security has moved to share more information with election officials across the country, it may be too little too late. As I noted in the book, all it takes is for one alleged Russian hacker appearing on YouTube and claiming to have hacked a voting machine for the public to lose confidence in the election process.

What would you like readers to take from your book?

It is distressing to me that so many people in this country have brushed off the Russian intrusions as “no big deal.” They say it’s happened in other elections and that essentially “there’s nothing to see here!”

Russian interference and influence has never infiltrated and affected America in this way. And it is still occurring! Every American should demand that government develop a comprehensive plan to counter the Russian threat in general. More specifically, protecting our elections is extremely important. Vladimir Putin does not want America to succeed. He wants the country to fail so that in comparison Russia looks stronger. Based on my research and dozens of interviews that is his goal.

The election in 2016 showed us all how fragile this democracy is at this moment in history. If Americans, whether they are backing Republicans or Democrats, lose confidence in their vote in upcoming elections the state of this union will not be strong.

Karl Helicher

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