Russia

Experts in this Region

Robert D. Blackwill
Robert D. Blackwill

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy

Thomas Graham
Thomas Edward Graham

Distinguished Fellow

Lori Esposito Murray
Lori Esposito Murray

Adjunct Senior Fellow

Stephen Sestanovich
Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

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  • Russia

    Panelists provide first-hand accounts of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and discuss how the Cold War–era meeting shaped future U.S.-Russia relations and efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons programs.  WALLANDER: Good evening. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, Eyewitness to History: Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik. I am Celeste Wallander, president and CEO of the U.S.-Russian Foundation. And I will be presiding over this fantastic event his history. I am going to introduce our speakers using the titles they held at the moment of that historic event. (Laughter.) You have their bios, and they are well-known to you. But I thought it would be nice to remind you, because we are with eyewitnesses to history, from which perch they were witnessing that history. So, first, we can Steve Sestanovich, who was senior director for policy development on the National Security Council. Ambassador Roz Ridgway, who was assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. And Kenneth Adelman, who was director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Some of those titles—in fact, all the—all the titles still exist, but I’m not sure all the agencies do. (Laughter.) So it’s a good thing we have these witnesses to history, so we don’t lose those important elements of U.S. foreign policy. So I’m going to start—I thought we would start by stepping back a little bit and thinking about what was—what the United States was trying to deal with in terms of priorities and challenges that were posed, generally, in the Soviet relationship, but priorities for the United States and the Reagan administration at the time. And I wanted to ask Roz if you would start with that kind of strategic context for our members and our colleagues. RIDGWAY: I think at the time, starting in 1985, when we were in Geneva, the United States had for some time been looking for a dialogue partner with the Soviet Union because so many of the issues of the day, not just arms control but the regional issues, the Afghanistans, the Central Americas, even the question of how to build an embassy and have it not so wired that you couldn’t talk anywhere except maybe in the garden out in back, and even then it was questionable. (Laughter.) Just a number of large issues and small irritants that had come together to clog up the dialogue with the Soviet Union, and a sense, I think, throughout the United States government, all agencies, that somehow had to be found to have a dialogue partner. But of course, we had to wait for that person to emerge on the Soviet scene and be willing, in fact, to meet with the United States at an appropriate level. And so by 1985, with Gorbachev in place, with Margaret Thatcher telling the world that he was somebody that we could all work with on the issues that were of concern, we went off to Geneva for the president to meet Gorbachev for the first time. And I think it was at that meeting, at the first summit, that so much of what was successful about Reykjavik, and I’m among those who say in retrospect Reykjavik was a success, that the—that the necessities for successful Reykjavik were in large part put in place, starting with the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev. The two men met as equals, very much an objective of President Reagan who was determined to treat Gorbachev with the respect of a head of a state, even though people back in Washington were still, for the most part, calling him names and the like. They met in a private conversation. They emerged from that, I think, feeling quite good about their ability to talk with each other. And then off-program, marched down to a cabin by the water that had been set aside with a fireplace and a fire going. And the two of them walked off and talked. Came out and announced they had agreed on two summits. One in Washington and one in Moscow. Which surprised everyone. It was probably the last item on the agenda. People though it was going to be a tough one to get. The other thing that I would—I would point out is that the agenda was still taking shape. The Soviet side was not at all convinced that human rights belonged in the bilateral agenda. They wondered about regional issues, and certainly they considered probably the bilateral things as embassy management and the like as sort of beneath the dialogue. But in fact, that was not—was not the case. The one instance that I watched in Geneva that I would—I would make a prelude to what these people saw on arms control, using simultaneous translation for the very first time—not that boring consecutive translation where you fall asleep for thirty minutes while somebody speaks in a language you don’t know, and then they fall asleep for thirty minutes while it was translated. It had been agreed that at least in the American-sponsored dialogue that it would be simultaneous translation. The two men met eye to eye, with instantaneous understanding of the words that were being used, in—I think in an incident that most everybody refers to, the president in discussing under arms control—and he had already done, by the way, human rights at length in his private discussion with Gorbachev—says that: Look, I’m willing to give you, we’re willing to give you, access to the SDI technology after all of this takes place, as soon as we get rid of all of the nuclear weapons. And Gorbachev, looking at him across the table, caused all of us to drop our pencils when he said: You won’t even give us milking machine technology. Why should I think that you would give us the SDI technology? (Laughter.) And we had this flashpoint, but it was engagement at that very high level of the two men who were responsible, ultimately for these issues. And it was that and the agreed statement, that started out nuclear wars cannot be won and must never be fought, that both men signed onto that got us headed then to what was supposedly going to be the Washington summit. And if you remember then 1986, it was a dreadful year. Chernobyl in the spring. We had some evidence of the Marine guard having more romances than were good for the security of the embassy in Moscow. There were a number of issues that came up, ending then with the case of Nick Daniloff. And the case of Nick Daniloff just about broke the relationship. We could not find a way to solve it. People kept saying our guy is OK, their guy’s a spy. They said, your guy’s a spy and our guy’s OK. And it was a public discussion as to how this was going to be resolved. It was resolved quietly. Long discussions between Shevardnadze and George Shultz. Referred back then to Moscow. And a formula was arrived at that involved a summit meeting away from the capital, the release of dissidents. And an agreement to return to the arms control agenda. And that all appeared in a letter from Gorbachev to Reagan. And everybody was surprised. It seemed the way out of a difficult situation. It seemed the way to address the issues in arms control that were frozen in Geneva, and to get on then with four-part agenda—again, a new start on human rights, on the regional issues, and the rest. And so it was agreed Reykjavik. Thought there were too many distractions in London. Not so many in Reykjavik. And let’s got to Reykjavik. And that’s what we agreed to. And that was the background. But the men who arrived with Reykjavik, with full teams, were men who understood each other, who knew how to talk with each other, who respected each other even though they violently disagreed on this particular subject of SDI, and who made it possible then to hope that some headway could be made in these vital issues for the United States—with the world watching, knowing that nuclear weapons were the greatest threat for all of them. WALLANDER: Great. Thank you very much, Roz. So, Ken, what was the arms control agenda? I mean, arms control now, I fear this generation of college students is not going to know what that means—(laughter)—but that was the primary—a primary element of bilateral, you know, superpower relations. And you were the one who was responsible for figuring out what would be discussed in Reykjavik. What were the issues you needed to address? ADELMAN: Well, it’s wonderful following Roz, because Roz did a wonderful job as the assistant secretary. And George Shultz was always very, very fond of you, and thought you were terrific. And Steve was the most brilliant guy around for sure on what the Soviets were like and what they were up to— RIDGWAY: I’m not going to buy that car, no matter what you say. (Laughter.) ADELMAN: But I do remember in the Geneva summit when we had lunch with Reagan. And, Roz, you were there. When Reagan came out from the morning meeting with Gorbachev. And he had a little joke for us all. He left his arm out of his sleeve and said at lunch, where is this arm? I had it before we started? (Laughter.) And then Reagan started talking, and in the Reaganesque way he was, wherever his mind would take him. And it took him to the queen, he was riding horses with the queen and talking about Granada for a while. And then, you know, one of us said, well, how about Gorbachev? And, you know—(laughter)—the whole world is here wondering what happened. And he said, well, Gorbachev is just a new type of Soviet leader. And it sounded very profound. I thought to myself, well, he’s never met another type of Soviet leader, but—(laughter)—we’ll let that go. But this was the first Soviet leader he ever met. Anyway, turned out to be true. And we were on our way. We were on our way that didn’t last very long. And the whole purpose of Reykjavik was that Gorbachev, in the summer of—late summer of 1986 decided the whole thing was stuck. And everybody was boring each other like crazy, like we had for many, many years in Geneva for these absolutely sonorific and awful sessions that would repeat each other. And we needed something to crack it open. And so he suggested that they meet. We had set up, and Roz was really responsible, and Steve did a wonderful job, setting up the Geneva summit. And that took about a half a year, as I remember. Reykjavik was a come-as-you-are grab summit. It was, you know, a surprise party summit that was announced, I think, fourteen days in advance. And, you know, the Secret Service went to our ambassador in Iceland, who was very fond of deep sea fishing—so it was kind of a good post for him, to tell you the truth—and said that, you know, the good news is ten days the president’s coming over and taking over the residence here. And he was all excited. And he said, the bad news is you’re going to have to move out. And he wasn’t very pleased about it, and we didn’t see him for the rest of that weekend. (Laughter.) But one of—I think one of the charms of Reykjavik and one of the amazing parts of Reykjavik was because it was so quick. And we had a president and we had a Soviet leader, that really were not buried in memos, were not buried in talking points, were not buried in studies and analysis. And when you look back at the notes—the American notes and the Russian notes of what happened at Reykjavik, I think they were more like themselves than at any time when they were in office. They were saying what came to mind and without any kind of reins on them. And Reagan, you know, would have these pronouncements that were totally against U.S. policy. (Laughs.) And, you know, for example, on, you know, the ABM Treaty and on mutually assured destruction he would just say, well, he thought it was just immoral. Well, that was the U.S. policy, and it had been the U.S. policy for forty years. And presumably he had known about the policy and bought onto it. But he was just denouncing it to Gorbachev. So it was a real natural. It was ten and a half hours. I don’t know if any of you have ever spent ten and a half hours talking to one person for—in one weekend, which is two days—it’s a long time to talk to somebody. And they were doing it without notes, and really very, very little participation by Shultz and Shevardnadze. What’s so surprising is during the ten and a half hours neither president, neither head of state, turns to his one person in the room who is there advising him and says: What do you think? RIDGWAY: I think that there’s a little bit of note passing. ADELMAN: There’s a little note passing, but it was, you know, right on kind of note passing, which is good to do with a president. Oh, you’re doing a great job, kind of thing. (Laughter.) Steady as she goes, right now. But that’s not very helpful. It’s nice, but it’s not helpful. And so the two of them were just by themselves. And it was a remarkable time. I remember at 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, after we had gone into overtime. And Reagan sat in the corner of the second floor of the Höfði house, plopped down. He said: I’ll go down there one more time, but that’s it. And he said, you know, I told Nancy I’d be home for dinner tonight. And I volunteered very kindly, well, she knows where you are. It’s not like you stopped in a bar on the way home, or anything like that. We had 3,200 press on the lawn right there. And that was the only story that weekend. And he said, I know, but I told Nancy I’d be home by now. So we decided that this was going to be the last time down. And it didn’t work because Gorbachev wanted basically to kill SDI. So all the negotiations that we had done the night before, starting at 6:00 at night, ending at 6:20 in the morning. And we reported in the bubble to the president at 8:30 that we had accomplished more than night than we had in seven-and-a-half years in arms control negotiations in Geneva—more that one night—and then Gorbachev on Sunday tied it all to SDI. And we were off the rails then. RIDGWAY: But a question that was with all of us, how many of these concessions—how much of this advance in these Geneva negotiations will following over in the following period? ADELMAN: Right. Mmm hmm. WALLANDER: So, Steve, I want to pick up on something that Ken alluded to, which is that there’s this new Soviet leader, the new general secretary. We had a little hint of what his priorities were by ’86. The terms glasnost and perestroika were being—no one knew exactly how they were going to be implemented. But the important one for what your responsibilities were at the time—(laughs)—new thinking—actually hadn’t been expressed. And so there was a lot of debate. And it was your job for this meeting to figure out, is he—is he a Soviet leader of a new type? Are his—is his agenda such that there’s a space there? Take us back to thinking about how do you figure this out? What were you thinking? What were you advising? What were you writing to the president, even if he was—even if he was not listening to any of his advisors, apparently, in the actual room? SESTANOVICH: Well, but that’s the important point here. You have, just to distill what Roz and Ken are very amusingly telling you. Which is, you have a very deep anxiety on the part of the staff about what the boss is going to do. (Laughter.) And I mean, I remember coming back from Geneva, and afterwards hearing that Reagan had thought Gorbachev was a completely new guy. You know, as he said, Maggie was right, we can do business with him. And so the staff said, well, what makes him think that? And the answer was, well, Gorbachev doesn’t believe in Marxism-Leninism. And we thought, well, how did he come to that conclusion? And you know, in some ways Reagan was right about that. But he intuited it while the rest of us thought, you know, Gorbachev is just doing a number on this guy. And that anxiety was most acute when it came to arms control, because Gorbachev had—his strategy was to play on Reagan’s romanticism. So in the beginning in 1986, Gorbachev makes a big proposal to abolish nuclear weapons by the end of the century. Well, you can imagine all of the harrumphing around Washington about that. Except for one person. Reagan said to Shultz, well, maybe we should ask him why wait until the end of the century? (Laughter.) So, you know, that—again, that’s the sort of thing that makes the staff freak out. (Laughter.) You don’t have any confidence about what is going to happen, but you know what Reagan’s approach is going to be. And in retrospect, we—I mean, in the aftermath we’ve learned what Gorbachev told his colleagues he was trying to do in Reykjavik, which was to throw the president off balance by offering some big proposal that was so tantalizing, just as Ken said, that he couldn’t resist. And we didn’t know what the result of that was going to be. Now, you could prepare for it. We did a session in which Jack Matlock sat down with the president and pretended to be Gorbachev. And he actually spoke in Russian, and he had an interpreter there to do the interpretation for him. But he said, he admitted to the president, you know, we can make this very lifelike. And Jack’s Russian was brilliant, and he had a kind of ill-understood theatrical side. He loved doing this. (Laughter.) But he also admitted—he also admitted, I don’t know what he’s going to say. (Laughter.) And, you know, here’s somebody who spent his whole career understanding the Soviets. And he had no idea what the game was going to be. The game ended up being, you know, Reagan was, in a way, extremely savvy about this, in a way that we couldn’t have prepared him for. You know, his approach to, you know, completely utopian crazy idea was to go one better. You know, I can come up with something even more crazy and utopian than that. And so what the weekend was about was each, for a time, trying to top the other with a more unrealistic idea than, you know, had been put forward by the other guy. And that’s something you can’t prepare for. And, you know, Gorbachev had it thought out. Reagan was kind of winging it, in the sense that he was—you know, he was channeling his inter—his inner nuclear abolitionist. And so, you know, it—what’s the staff going to do? (Laughter.) So I was—you know. WALLANDER: Watch. SESTANOVICH: Yeah. (Laughs.) WALLANDER: Yeah. RIDGWAY: In fairness to the staff, though, in the background, while these two gentlemen are winging it, or whatever you want to call it, the committee negotiations on SALT—or, on START, and the committee negotiations in INF, which were often smaller rooms and all this, were making the kind of progress that suggested that the Soviets had some to Reykjavik with a much more liberal, much more flexible approach on both of those topics at that level. WALLANDER: And I would just recommend Ken’s new book, how he relates especially the famous overnight negotiating session, which on the Russian side for the first time was led by an actual Soviet—see, I’m doing it—Soviet military officer, Marshal Akhromeyev, and explains sort of the dynamics on the Soviet side. It’s just extraordinary. And it won’t surprise many of you, but Akhromeyev had the authority to go quite far, because he knew what Gorbachev wanted. And the scenes you relate of all the kind of foreign ministry guys who were the usual, you know, beat up on the Americans during negotiation, just being totally sidelined by this brilliant military leader, who’s going to give away—negotiate how to give away or get rid of all of Soviet nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement on the American side. It’s really, really amazing. I highly recommend it. ADELMAN: Well, thank you. The book was a lot of fun to write. It’s a key study in leadership. And I learned from that that writing a book on leadership doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader or reading a book on leadership doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader. But I did learn that buying a book on leadership—(laughter)—really makes you a great leader. So I would urge you, if you want any leadership position to do that. But to tell you the truth, I was—I had been telling stories of Reykjavik for all these many years and wanted a film on it. And we’re on the verge of making a film with Brian Garrida (ph), in the audience, who’s the scriptwriter and did a wonderful, wonderful job on the script. And someone said, well, why don’t you write a book about it? And so I said, oh, I don’t know. I’d written five books and that was enough for Moses and it was going to be enough for me. (Laughter.) And they said, well, write your sixth and exceed Moses. So but when I looked in it, I was surprised by many things. And one of the wonderful things I was surprised at is the American notes and the Russian notes of what Gorbachev and Reagan talked about. It is very impressive on both sides. It’s very impressive on the frankness that Reagan used to Gorbachev. When, at one point, Gorbachev says, well, you know, it’s unfair, these—between the two systems. And Reagan is in his flourish there. And he’s saying, well, yours is based on, you know, a dictator and everybody’s arrested if they don’t agree with you. And he went into his whole kind of classic GE show speech about how terrible Communism was. And Gorbachev is sitting there, kind of dazzled to tell you the truth. And then Gorbachev says, well, let me tell you what’s unfair. And Reagan says, what’s unfair? And he says, you know, we see a lot of American films in the Soviet Union. And you guys see no films in the Soviet—you know, no Soviet films in America. And Reagan says, well, because you make lousy films. (Laughter.) And Gorbachev says, no, some of our films are good. And Reagan then says, well, Mikhail, I know something about films. (Laughter.) And so he’s feeling really good at this part about that. You know, he’s on a smooth territory. It’s a lot better than ICMBs, and SLCMs, and throw-weight for him. (Laughter.) And they talk about that. And his frankness is wonderful. His mannerism is wonderful. And his directness—where everybody else is dancing around in all kinds of diplomatic language—his directness was genuine. And like I say, what’s wonderful about looking back at Reykjavik is I believe that the two men who were in office, Reagan eight years Gorbachev I don’t know how many years—something like that. RIDGWAY: Six. ADELMAN: Six? OK. And this is the most genuine either of them were. They just weren’t scripted. And to see them really as the way they were is divine. Now, for us, you talk about the staff, Steve, being, you know, upset. To tell you the truth, Reagan and, I would say, Gorbachev, wasn’t very interested in whether the staff was upset or not, to tell you the truth. (Laughter.) And they were doing their own thing. And for us, the ups and downs of the weekend were thrilling. I mean, it was like an Agatha Christie novel. We had this little house on a little isolated place, in a city of a hundred twenty-five thousand, in a country of three hundred thousand, in the middle of nowhere. And rain beating on the windowsills. RIDGWAY: Which would change to sunshine. ADELMAN: Yeah. And sunshine and rain, sunshine and rain. And the house was thought to be haunted. It was proclaimed as a haunted house. And all the neighbors called it a haunted house, for various reasons. And two characters, over one weekend, have the most amazing spiritual happenings there. So it really was like an Agatha Christie. And we were—we were thrilled to be part of it. SESTANOVICH: Can I break in here just a— WALLANDER: Yeah, let me, and then I’m going to end with Roz. And I know you all are dying to get in this. And I got it. I’ll be there in a second. SESTANOVICH: I think we’re having too much fun—(laughter)—and we’re making it sound as though this was actually maybe a success. And from a long-term perspective, one could say that. But you have to remember that actually this was two guys butting heads against each other for two days, ending in complete disagreement. And I think some of the impact of Reykjavik actually comes from the failure, not from the meeting of minds. Remember Reagan—Gorbachev went back and told his colleagues he had just spent the weekend with a, quote, “feeble-minded caveman.” (Laughter.) ADELMAN: See, I don’t believe that. SESTANOVICH: He did. ADELMAN: OK. I just don’t believe it. SESTANOVICH: I’m sorry. ADELMAN: OK. SESTANOVICH: He might not have meant it—he might have meant it for strategic reasons, to convince his colleagues that he’d been tough. But he—the really important impact of Reykjavik is that for all of the camaraderie and warmth, Reagan was extremely stubborn. And his message to Gorbachev was: I’m not giving in. And so the real turning point in this relationship that Reykjavik represents is the Russians stopped doing the attempts to knock Reagan off-balance, to come up with a more utopian scheme than he can possibly imagine. And instead, the next two years are about kind of giving the Americans what they want. And that means an INF Treaty 100 percent according to American preferences. It means coming to Washington telling Reagan: I’m going to cut off the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It means essentially Gorbachev deciding, I can’t budge this guy with pie-in-the-sky schemes, so I’m going to have—we’re going to have to do something more incremental, so as to create an environment for radical reform. WALLANDER: Well, and delinking SDI from offensive arms treaties. SESTNAOVICH: Absolutely. Absolutely. WALLANDER: So I’m going to end with this opening, Roz, with you. And you mentioned something—or, you referred to, also, that this ended up, although a failure in and of itself, sort of ushering in the successes that followed, as Steve noted. And there’s a tendency for all of us, looking back, to think, well, it was inevitable. You know, the Cold War was going to end, the Soviet Union was going to crumble. But can you—can you kind of help us feel like what did you—or, understand, what did you think was something contingent, something that happened in the relationship in Reykjavik or after, when you then were managing the relationship that if it hadn’t gone in that direction it might not have—it might not have ended the way it did, with the end of the Cold War? RIDGWAY: I think it’s very difficult and somewhat unwise to try to pick the one event. But in the runup to Reykjavik there were a number of trips to Moscow to meet with people. And one of the visits we made was to the—I’ll call him prime minister—Nikolai Ryzhkov. And in a very candid moment, he described how he and Gorbachev had made their way through the bureaucracy of the party and up the ladder, and up the ladder, until finally arriving in senior positions. And, he said, and when we got there the cupboard was bare. I think much of what drove Gorbachev was the realization that he had no economy, that he was in a perilous position with respect to the philosophy, the ideology. They couldn’t afford it. It didn’t work. Everything was bankrupt, it was going in the wrong direction. And here he was, having to somehow survive and pull out some kind of not face-saving victory, but money-saving victory. I mean, they could not afford this race. And I know that people would say, well, that’s you folks back there in Washington who want to say that they were in such terrible economic straits and so on, and so on, because you want to get in the way of the relationship. But the fact of the matter is, they were broke. And there had to be an answer for them. And the answer for them was to somehow stop the arms race moving in a direction they could not afford. And it took a while. And he—Gorbachev, I think, started out very bravely with trying to reform, trying to open up the economy, trying to bring the architecture of their military posture into a more reasonable shape. And he lost. And is that a victory, or just the way things happened? I think in large respect, the posture that Reagan took at Reykjavik, stubborn as he was, was in fact what was the final—the beginning of the final push down the hill for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. WALLANDER: Great. Thank you. All right. So at this time I’d like to invite members to join the conversation with your questions. And a reminder for everyone that this event is on the record. I’d like to ask you when I—when I call upon you wait for the microphone and speak directly into it, and please stand and state your name and affiliation. And because, as you’ve already seen the stories here and the insights are virtually infinite, keep your questions concise so we can get as many in and as many insights from our wonderful experts and panelists as possible. Yeah, here. Q: Jim Kolbe, with the German Marshall Fund. The discussion we’ve just heard tonight, you know, seems to almost demand the comparison of the way this was conducted with the ones that we’ve seen more recently by the current president. I mean, what we’ve heard tonight. Seat of the pants, unscripted, no notes, very much done by the seat of—as you say, by the seat of the pants, we’ve heard here tonight. We have a current president who goes into summits, with whether it is Kim or whether it’s Putin in a very unscripted way and conducts himself in that fashion. But of course, has been much more criticized as a result of that. How would you compare what’s going—the way this president conducts the summits with the way that President Reagan did? WALLANDER: All right. No holds barred on the first question. (Laughter.) Who would like to jump on that one? Steve? SESTANOVICH: Well, let me tell you a story. (Laughter.) When I hear people say, you know, Reagan was unscripted and improvising, I always want to push back because he didn’t read all the briefing books, but he had his concept of what he wanted to do and he was very, very single-minded about it. It was hard to blow him off course. And he was much more capable of articulating that than people tend to remember. When we came back from Reykjavik, the president had to give a speech on national television the next night. And we, NSC staffers, arrived on Monday morning to receive his many-page legal pad single-spaced, handwritten version of the speech. And everybody was horrified. The speechwriters, and the arm control experts, I mean, they all said: On, no, no, no. We’ve got our speech. And so we had to send Admiral Poindexter back to Reagan and say, you know, the staff has got its speech. And he looked at the staff speech and he said, no, no, no, no. I like my speech. (Laughter.) And I read the two, and I actually thought his speech was a better speech. This was somebody who could take a big argument and articulate it in a legal pad, single spaced, over many pages. It wasn’t finished. He—you know, he ended it by saying, you know, you finish it up. (Laughter.) But, you know, I ask you whether the incumbent could do that, all right? WALLANDER: Next? Q: Jan Lodal, Atlantic Council. First of all, it’s great to have you guys talk about this subject. Having sat at the table for about six of these things and three different presidents, it’s fascinating to listen to this one. But let me ask you to be a bit contrarian. I think there’s a case that could be made that Reykjavik failed because it—what was on the table violated a lot of concepts of strategic stability and what made the world safe. In particular, you know, if you got rid of all the offensive forces, but one side had a lot of defensive forces, well, that gets pretty unstable pretty rapidly. And it seems to me that that that’s kind of been a problem we’ve had with arms control negotiations. It happened again a little bit with President Obama’s efforts to look at global zero. It wasn’t looked at very precisely, if you will. And it seems to me that, you know, when you’ve got the (acrimony ?) all sitting there, and other people sitting there, eventually it makes it hard for the presidents to do things when the guys are saying, well, you know, think through this another couple of steps here and it’s not going to be very good for us this way. And then when we have had success, it’s when we’ve been able to work around those kind of problems and make sure that we didn’t actually end up threatening each other in a serious way if the deal was done. WALLANDER: Ken, that seems like it’s in your— ADELMAN: You were right, Jan, that the—what Reagan had in mind for strategic defense initiative was contrary to defense deterrence theory, since Brodie and, you know, all the wonderful theorists in the ’40s and the early ’50s. But Reagan thought it was immoral. He thought that having the world depend on two leaders with guns to each other’s head for the rest of time was a lousy way to run the world. And I don’t know about you, Jan, but I was brought up on the South Side of Chicago, Bryn Mawr grammar school, where Mrs. Obama went to grammar school a few years after me. And at Bryn Mawr on Tuesday morning at 10:30 we went marching down the hall, got on our knees, and put our heads in the locker because the Soviets were going to have a nuclear attack. I remember asking Ms. Mulroy (sp), our principal, how do we know it’s going to be Tuesday morning at 10:30 Chicago time? (Laughter.) And she said that, you know, as principal she had worked all that out. (Laughter.) And I said, well, you know, my head’s in the locker, but my fanny’s still in the hall. Won’t that be burned off? And she said, no, if your head’s in the locker you’ll be fine. (Laughter.) But I remember those days. My brothers remember those days. That wasn’t a very good way to live. And the idea that Reagan had, you can call it pie in the sky and to a certain extent if you’re talking about a wholesale assault the Soviets versus the United States it is unachievable anytime soon, OK? But if you’re talking about a limited nuclear attack from North Korea from, God forbid, Iran, if they get nuclear weapons, from Pakistan, from a rogue state. We have the capability now, all these many years after Reykjavik, to shoot down one, and two, and three missiles. OK, not hundreds, but the tests on that have been very positive over the last five years. Last point I would make on the failure of Reykjavik, this chart I got from the State Department a few years, and it’s the whole nuclear stockpile from 1961 to 2016. And Reykjavik is right there. And this is the Soviet and Russian stockpile, this is the American stockpile. I mean, I think the chart is pretty clear. And was all this caused by two days at the middle of nowhere in Reykjavik? No. But did it start the process? The process is pretty damn impressive. RIDGWAY: It’s the first time one of those negotiations had talked about reductions. ADELMAN: And that was Reagan’s idea. RIDGEWAY: And then they were subsequently achieved in follow-on negotiations. ADELMAN: And that’s why we renamed the talk. The day Reagan took office he said: It’s not going to be START anymore. RIDGWAY: Not going to be SALT. ADELMAN: Not going to be SALT anymore. It’s going to be START, because we want reductions in that. And Senator Ted Kennedy, and even Sam Nunn and others, and Senator Al Gore I think as a congressman then—Congressman and then Senator Al Gore, said basically the Soviets would never agree to those kind of reductions. That’s pie in the sky. Talk about pie in the sky that, you know, they want a limitation on growth. So if they’re at a thousand now, limit it to in ten years they won’t exceed twelve hundred. In other words, they’re going to grow, but you’re going to limit the growth. And Reagan didn’t want that. He wanted real reductions. And that’s why he came up with his first speech on—in 1981 on his plans for nuclear weapons was going to be cut the strategic arsenals in half. And he gave that at his alma mater in Illinois. WALLANDER: Great, thanks. Others? Yes. Q: Hi. My name is Alex Yergin. My question is, was it in any of yours, or anyone’s mind at Reykjavik that the Soviet Union might collapse soon? And if not, what was your vision kind of the long-term U.S.-Soviet relationship? WALLANDER: Steve? SESTANOVICH: Definitely no. (Laughter.) Although I think there was a debate within the U.S. government as to how difficult their situation really was, and how much stirring of the pot Gorbachev was prepared to acknowledge. I think the long-term relationship that was envisioned was one—the good outcome—was one in which the Soviets came to grips with their internal limitations and, on that basis, reformed and home and pulled back their foreign policy abroad. That’s a very, very boiled down version of it. There were plenty of people who said, no, that’s unattainable. I remember, you know, Bob Gates used to come and lecture entering CIA officers about how the internal difficulties were going to make for more progressive foreign policy. And that was an example of how people found it a little hard to get their heads around the possibility of some kind of change, and how the different elements of change would fit together. RIDGWAY: A lot of—a lot of the signals were let gone. Went right past them. They didn’t fit the then-current assessment of the strength of the Soviet Union. But certainly a key one was Gorbachev’s speech in an Asian setting, in which in a very small paragraph he indicated that the Soviet Union would no longer be sending forces to put down local insurgencies or rebellions. There wasn’t going to be another Hungary. There wasn’t going to be another Czechoslovakia. They were going to be staying home. The impact of that quietly in Eastern Europe, in the capitals of the Warsaw Pact, I think was missed by a lot of the people looking at the future of the Soviet Union. ADELMAN: And let me—let me pick that up if I can, Alex, on your very good question. It raises the whole question, what did cause the collapse of the Soviet Union? And the easy answer, and the answer you get from Strobe Talbott and a lot of people who really know the topic very well, I think, is just wrong. And that is, it would have collapsed on its own devices, and that was—you know, it was almost inevitable. All right, there’s lots of things wrong. Number one, at the time of Reykjavik, the CIA was, and declassified material now we know in the official documents, was saying the Soviet Union was growing at 2 percent a year. It wasn’t deficit. It was growing at 2 percent. Now that’s about what America’s growing at right now. So, now, the CIA estimates, you could say, are wrong in various respects. But it wasn’t clear to them or anybody else that there was a precipitous decline, that you always have that. Number two, empires go on a long time. And an economic decline really doesn’t faze them very much, all right? Gibbons ends one chapter of the Rise (sic; Decline) and Fall of the Roman Empire with this wonderful sentence saying: This intolerable situation lasted another three hundred years. (Laughter.) OK? And there’s no reason that governments collapse. If there was, you’d see North Korea where people are eating bark right now, and grass, collapse. They haven’t collapsed since 1949 in North Korea. You’d see Cuba collapse. These countries don’t collapse because of economic decline. And the Soviet Union was not in economic decline. They were probably stable at that point. What I think really was the great historical contribution of Reykjavik, and this is the title that could be considered inflated—the subtitle of my book—the forty-eight hours that ended the Cold War—was that after Reykjavik this guy decides: This guy’s not going to give me what I want, which is SDI. That was the one thing I came here to get. I’m going to have to accelerate my reforms. Reforms were underway at that time, but I have to accelerate. Within a few weeks they called the central committee, they called the—you know, the central—I don’t know what all these words were. But for the first time since Stalin they had a meeting of all the people involved in—leaders who run the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev says: We have to accelerate all this. The reforms were accelerated. They proved to be a disaster. And I think that unwinding of the Soviet Union was because of the reforms, because he couldn’t get SDI. That’s my interpretation. RIDGWAY: And the sad note on that is it led, in time, to the attempted coup that took him out of power, among which of the leaders was Akhromeyev. SESTANOVICH: Who committed suicide. RIDGWAY: Who committed suicide. WALLANDER: Yeah, right here. Q: David Sanger from the New York Times. It’s been a fascinating conversation. We’ve read a lot about what President Reagan thought SDI was, and how well it would work, and maybe overestimated it. What did Gorbachev think? Because it sounds from this as if he actually believed this was all getting ready to go, because if he didn’t believe it he wouldn’t have made that his number-one demand. So was this the great propaganda victory of the entire summit? ALDERMAN: The Soviet KGB files are now open because of the Gorbachev Foundation. And he was fighting with Yeltsin at the time, so he opened up all the papers. They certainly wouldn’t have been opened up otherwise. And so we can see them, David, right now. The KGB overestimated how far SDI was, OK? Gorbachev vastly overestimated what the KGB had told him. So there was a really inflated view of the KGB. Gorbachev read it and though, oh my God, they’re underestimating everything and it’s a lot worse than that. He started out both in Geneva but especially at Reykjavik talking as if SDI was almost built. This increased Reagan who thought, you know, I didn’t think it was that far along but, holy cow—(laughter)—you know, this guy fears it so much it much be something out there. So the two of them were jacking each other up all weekend, as one of you said. They were playing off each other and they were, holy cow, this is really something. So by—you look at the notes. At the end of the Sunday afternoon, it seems like the thing is working, and is all plugged in, and it’s delivering its goods. And you wonder, God, these guys have just flipped out. But it was because of the KGB overestimating, and Gorbachev really fearing it like mad, and Reagan in delirium because he was so happy that it had been working so well. SESTANOVICH: I think one thing you have to add is sort of bureaucratic politics. You had a military that was saying no matter—you know, whether it’s really going to work exactly as promised or only, you know, part of it, we need a much bigger budget. And that was a problem for Gorbachev, because as he said in meetings after Reykjavik and in the—in the following year, we’ve been stealing from our people too long. We have a highly militarized economy. So the—it isn’t—he didn’t necessarily have to believe it would work exactly as advertised. Even so, it could create an internal problem for what he wanted to do. WALLANDER: And I’ll just observe, you know, the more things change. The very same calculations are happening with the Russian military and intelligence services now on American limited missile defenses. I was part of the—during the Obama years—the attempts to cooperate on missile defense. And the Russian presentation of what European Phased Adaptive Approach could do—all the Americans are sitting, like, wow, we didn’t know that. That’s really amazing. We can do all that? I mean, the worst-case scenario tendency within the security services, plus the bureaucratic interests, are really powerful. And when they’re briefing political leaders, it can have this kind of effect. It’s pretty extraordinary. I shouldn’t do that, though. I’m supposed to be calling on people. Yes. (Laughs.) Q: Thank you all very much. I’m Frances Cook, former State Department like Roz. We all know what a role political and cultural memories play in leadership, so I’d like to bring it forward to talk about our current Russian leader that we’re dealing with. Do you think there’s any memory of what happened at Reykjavik or what happened to Russia then and thereafter has impacted? We’ve all heard about the submarine accident. We’ve all heard about his terror at what happened in East Berlin. But I haven’t seen any reflections on Gorbachev’s failures, what impact that had on making the Putin that we’re trying to deal with today, who seems to be as—has more surprises each week than even our own president does. Thank you. WALLANDER: Steve, can I start with you? SESTANOVICH: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, the conventional analysis of Putin and his people is that all of Russia’s problems trace to the ’90s. There’s very little discussion of why the ’90s were so terrible, because a system that did not work had fallen apart. And that understanding of the ’80s is very underdeveloped. You don’t hear a lot of people saying—well, what you do hear people saying, well, Gorbachev overreacted. He didn’t get very good terms for the end of the Cold War. He could have done a whole lot better. But that’s all an attack on Gorbachev. It’s not a systemic analysis of how bankrupt they were, how demoralized they were. I mean, I’d add to what Ken said about the other factors that contributed to the collapse, just a complete demoralization of the leadership. They really stopped believing in their own system. And that kind of picture of the ’80s the Russian are not propagating because it sounds a little too much like today. WALLANDER: It also makes it hard for them to blame the United States. Whereas the 1990s, it’s much easier to point the finger at us. SESTANOVICH: Yes. Yeah. That’s right, yeah. WALLANDER: We probably have time for two more questions. So I want to—sure. And then I have to let you go at 7:30, because I hear that there might be a baseball game? I don’t know. (Laughter.) Oh, or the debate, right. (Laughter.) Q: Thank you for that, by the way. Henry Nau, George Washington University. One of the mysteries about Reagan, for those of us who worked with him, is that he was so modest, he was so disarming, almost in every situation. And he allowed people to underestimate him. Before you told your story to Jim Kolbe, I recalled how—I was on the NSC in the early 1980s—how the little yellow pages would come out of the White House. All of his early speeches were written initially in his hand. And then, of course, you had a huge battle with the bureaucracy to try to keep his version in the speech. So I guess what my question is, from your interactions with him, why do you think he was that way? And is he—you know, do we learn something from this? Do we learn something that maybe leadership is not just about stubbornness or these other virtues? It’s about understanding the world, as I think Reagan did, and having the political gifts to mobilize public support and implement policies to realize that vision. And in the end, you can’t prove direct causation. I’m not suggesting that. But nevertheless, this man was rather intelligent, as well as intuitive. WALLANDER: Roz, can I let you? Please. RIDGWAY: I think there’s a lot to be said about people being comfortable in their own skin, men and women, and how they carry themselves through life. And if they’re comfortable in their own skin, they don’t have to add features to it, or be aggressive, or anything of the sort. And what I’ve tried to tell people about Reagan, and I certainly sat in enough meetings with him. And a couple of time he’d see me enter a room and he’d sort of pat the cushion next to him and tell me to come and sit next to him and all of this. I don’t know that he remembered my name, but he remembered that I was a part of whatever it was. I often say to people, I found Reagan to be the kind of a man who could wear a brown suit to a wedding and get away with it. (Laughter.) He didn’t need the symbols of power or success or anything else. He was himself. He knew what he knew. And he lived life as he thought life should be lived. And that’s the end of the story. Does it produce modest, humility? I don’t know. But it certainly means that people who met him were incredibly, instantly comfortable in his presence. Which allowed him, in cases like with Gorbachev, to really—in many cases Gorbachev may have thought he had the back-footed Reagan, but it was very much the opposite. WALLANDER: Great. Another question, or a comment, or an observation? Yeah, please. Q: Hi. My name is—sorry. My name’s Dan Bartlett. I’m with the Department of Defense.  What lessons can contemporary diplomats or folks that are working on arms control take from this period? We are seeing rapid modernization on the part of the Russians and the Americans in this space. So what lessons would you offer to this generation of folks dealing with these contemporary issues? WALLANDER: That is a super closing question. Let me give each of you—I’d like each of you to address it. ADELMAN: Steve, why don’t you go first? WALLANDER: Steve? SESTANOVICH: Well—(laughs)—that’s a really hard one. WALLANDER: You got one minute. (Laughs.) SESTANOVICH: I would say it’s, you know, aiming high. I mean, Reagan was not interested in incremental change. He was interested in transformation and understanding how stubborn you have to be in order to get that, and how many people you’re going to have to, in your very modest and genial way. I mean, he was impossible not to like, Ronald Reagan. But you’re going to have to tell them no, a lot. And that was the story—to my mind—the story of the Reagan presidency is intense likeability and extreme stubbornness to the point of pigheadedness. You have to be extremely willing to insist on your point of view. WALLANDER: Roz, as our diplomat?  RIDGWAY: But there’s no rule that says you cannot be polite, continuing to inform yourself on whatever the issue is that you’re being stubborn about, and being willing to turn to others around you to ask an opinion and to listen to it. You may not incorporate it, but you have listened to it. And it keeps your mind growing and keeps you sort of in in an even place in what it is that you’re trying to do. But mostly, I also think you have to know what it is—what is it that I am trying to do? And if I can’t get it, where do I go next? WALLANDER: Great. Ken? ALDERMAN: What I love, and to pick up what Steve and Roz said so wisely, what I really loved about Reagan, looking back especially, is how he really had no animosity towards anybody. And this came out constantly, all the time. It was impossible for him to dislike anybody. There was a case where in 1984 he was going on a motorcade with the head of the Republican Party then. And he was, you know, going along, and some guy—they were slowing down because he was going to get out. Some guy was next to him with a big sign: Impeach Ronald Reagan. Worst president since Herbert Hoover, or Chester Arthur, or somebody. And he’s the most terrible guy in the world and, you know, just kind of frantic about it. And Reagan turned and he said, you see this guy here? And I said, yeah. He says, put him down as undecided. (Laughter.) Probably leaning against. (Laughter.) And my favorite, if I can take thirty seconds, my second is after the Granada invasion, where Maggie Thatcher really had a fit and did what’s called hand-bagging, you know, which is, you know, taking her handbag and whacking him. And she was—sent some emissaries to tell how terrible this was. This is an island that, you know, had sovereignty under the queen. It had been a former British colony. They were best friends, et cetera, et cetera. So she called Reagan and Reagan did his, you know, soft-shoe on the phone for a while. And Mike Deaver was listening in on the other phone under the George Washington portrait on the white couches, and Reagan was behind the Oval—behind the desk in the Oval Office. And she started to ramp up because he was, you know, just like tumbleweed. Oh, yeah, thanks, you know—and he was just saying nothing and bobbing and weaving while she was getting angrier and angrier, getting some reaction from him. And finally, she just kind of lost it and started getting out of control. Mike Deaver was so embarrassed on the couch that he thought he was going to break protocol, and interrupt, and say: You know, Madam Prime Minister, you’re talking to the president of the United States, just remember that. And he was kind of all red. And his Irish face was all—you know, all puffed up. And he was just mad about the way Thatcher was talking to Reagan. And all of a sudden, he’s ready to bust in and he hears: “psst, psst, psst.” He looks up, and there’s Reagan behind the desk. He says: Mike. And Deaver says, what? And Reagan puts the hand on the phone. He goes up and he says, Mike, isn’t she marvelous? (Laughter.) WALLANDER: All right. So I am so grateful to all of you for joining us tonight, because there are some other things going on this evening. But I think you made the right choice. I would like to ask you to thank our panelists, who were billed to you as eyewitnesses to history. But I would like to thank them because I think we all understand that they helped make this history. And they kept America safe and advanced our interests during this period. (Applause.) (END)
  • Russia

    Panelists discuss the extent of disinformation, its impact on democracy, and what can be done to prevent, mitigate, and stop its spread. THOMPSON: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Stemming the Tide of Global Disinformation.” I’m Nicholas Thompson. I’m the editor-in-chief of Wired. I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s get crackin’. Rick, how are you? STENGEL: Good. How are you? THOMPSON: Great. You have just spent the last three years writing about disinformation. He has a new book; it will be available later. You spent the last three years thinking about disinformation. Tell me how your thoughts deepened as you went along, because we all know why disinformation’s a problem. There’re some obvious reasons why it’s a problem. But now that you’ve spent more time thinking about it than anybody else, tell us what you learned that we don’t know. STENGEL: I don’t think I’ve spent more time thinking about it than the president has. (Laughter.) What a way to begin! THOMPSON: Yeah. (Laughter.) STENGEL: The other false premise of your question is that my thinking has deepened about it. So my book, Information Wars, is about the time I spent at the State Department countering disinformation, countering Russian disinformation, countering ISIS propaganda. And I had never really seen it before. I’d been a—I was editor of Time for a bunch of years, had always been in media, and after the annexation of Crimea by Putin in 2014, we saw this tsunami of disinformation around it, you know, recapitulating Putin’s lies about it, and it was a kind of a new world. And the idea of disinformation as opposed to misinformation is disinformation is deliberately false information used for a strategic purpose. Misinformation is something that’s just wrong, something that we all, you know, can get in the habit of it. And I saw this whole new world being born. I don’t mean to steal your thunder with the question, but inside we were talking about whether there’s more disinformation relative to correct information now in history than ever before. I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is it’s easier to access it. And once upon a time the Russians, who pioneered something called “active measures,” which was their idea that warfare, the future or the present of warfare is about information, not just kinetic warfare. The way they used to do it in the ’50s was they bought out a journalist in a remote newspaper in India to put out a false story about something and then the Russian media would start echoing it and then it would get into the mainstream. Now, they hire a bunch of kids to work in a troll farm in St. Petersburg and put it up on social media with no barrier to entry, no gatekeepers to prevent it from happening. And I don’t know the answer to whether there’s more of it, but there’s easier access to it. And I do think as we approach 2020, part of the other problem of disinformation is it’s not just a supply problem; it’s a demand problem. People want it. You know, confirmation bias means we seek out information that we agree with. If you’re likely to think that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., you’re likely to believe anything and seek out information that confirms that. That’s a problem, and that’s a human nature problem. THOMPSON: Paul, let me ask you a variation on this, having just listened to Rick. You’ve just published a report on this very topic. You could have written reports on lots of topics. BARRETT: I suppose. (Laughter.) THOMPSON: You’ve got a varied career. Look at the man’s bio. You know a lot of things. Why are you so worried about disinformation right now? BARRETT: Because it is a foot in the land, it is pervasive, and without a good distinction between real facts and fake facts, we can’t run a democracy in an effective way. People can only make honest political choices with real information. And I think we have at key moments and in key places a lot of false information, and intentionally false information. THOMPSON: And is it getting worse? Is it worse today than it was yesterday? Is it worse today than it was four years ago? BARRETT: I think that’s hard to say. I mean, I think it is—it was present and significant in 2016 and has not stopped since, and I think there’s every reason to think that we’ll see it kick up again as we get closer to the next election as well. THOMPSON: Amanda, how worried are you? BENNETT: You know, I’m going to—I’m going to be the dull and boring person at this party, because nothing I do has—I was going to say has anything to do with tech or bots or deep fakes or anything like that. THOMPSON: Help people set up zingers. (Laughter.) BENNETT: Well, let’s hope that that’s true. But my argument is that we are under-valuing the pursuit of straightforward, truthful, honest news and information in our fight to push back this other thing, these fake things. And that disinformation, misinformation—give me your definition of disinformation again. STENGEL: Deliberately false information used for a strategic purpose, nefarious purpose. BENNETT: So I’m the director of Voice of America and yes, we still exist; no, I don’t wear the funny hats anymore; and no, we don’t do propaganda. Thank you. But that definition right there, I will maintain that half of the world at least lives under that condition daily, with no other—no other news or information. And so this is nothing new, the thing that we’re talking about. If you’re talking about the kind of technologically sophisticated things, I’m going to be the boring person to say that this exists in great proliferation throughout the world already, and that what seems to be an antidote to it in many ways is putting something straightforward in front of people. THOMPSON: So I totally buy that. Are you also saying that we talk about disinformation too much in this country? BENNETT: No, I’m saying—I stipulate that everything you guys say is true. Everything is true, we should be worried, these deep fakes are a problem and we should— THOMPSON: And we should talk about it, or does talking about it so much make us think there’s more of it than there is? BENNETT: And this—the article that we just read back there that talks about cynicism, I think if you talk about this type of disinformation and misinformation and its goal being to breed cynicism and confusion, the fact that when you talk about straightforward truthful news and information being possible or desirable people roll their eyes at you, says to me that they’ve already kind of won, that we’ve already come to the idea that we—that that is not an effective way of pushing back at things, but actually we need technological solutions to things. STENGEL: I mean, the thing that has exponentially increased is user-generated content. Remember, the biggest platform in the world, in the history of the world, is all created by content that we put on it, not professional journalists. It’s not vetted. I mean—and so that has—is the thing that has exponentially increased, and because it is created by regular folks and isn’t professional content, the possibility for disinformation, misinformation, anything wrong is that much higher. And one of the things we’ve also—and we will chat about—is the fact—is that the law, the Communications and Decency Act that created all these platforms, does give primacy to third-party content and doesn’t give them any liability for publishing false content if it’s put on by a third-party person, as opposed to a professional journalist like we all are or were. THOMPSON: All right, but let me give each of you a hypothetical. So let’s assume I have two kids; they’ve just graduated from college. They’re really interested in this problem. One of them says, I’m going to go into deep fake detection. I’m going to figure out how to get rid of disinformation. I’m going to help Facebook fix their algorithms so they can identify disinformation. And the other says, I’m going to go be a reporter and I’m just going to tell the truth about everything and I’m going to tweet out all my stories. BARRETT: Well, one will have a job and the other one likely won’t. (Laughter.) THOMPSON: True. But who’s doing the more important work, the work that we need right now? BARRETT: Well, it’s—seem like equally important work. Sorry not to—(laughs)—not to go for your bait, but— BENNETT: I would have said I’ve been a really good parent if that’s—if I have—I have that choice there, I’d say I’ve been a really good parent, that both those things—(laughter)—are incredibly, incredibly useful. THOMPSON: Probably my kids are going to work for troll farms. But anyway—(laughter). STENGEL: You wouldn’t say the reporter. BENNETT: No, not necessarily. I’m not—I’m not saying that one of them is more. I’m saying that right now all this attention is going onto things that, actually, a lot of people out here in the room, it’s more scary because we can’t touch it—we can’t do anything about it—when, in fact, I think what’s happening is that your attention is being turned away from the fact that really truthful—people can distinguish truth from lies. One of the ways they can do it is by seeing things head-to-head and they can make decisions. I mean, the famous example is the Chinese trail (sic; train) derailment. Remember that, when they said nothing here to watch, nobody hurt? And the people that were there doing their—you know, uploading their photos, were showing that there actually was. And that caused a lot of dissonance in the Chinese media ecosystem. So I’m maintaining that not just there’s too much of it or we shouldn’t be doing it, just that there’s something else out there. There’s something else. STENGEL: I would—I’d actually tell my kid to do the deep fake detection, and I’ll tell you why. Because disinformation warfare—information warfare is asymmetrical warfare, right? It’s like a bunch of young people in a troll factory in St. Petersburg, which costs a relatively tiny amount of money compared to an F-35, can do more damage than an F-35. And so it’s asymmetric warfare in that countries that can’t afford missiles or jets or tankers or whatever can engage in this. So that, in that sense, what has also happened is the offensive weapons in disinformation war have matured and evolved faster than defensive weapons. We actually need better defensive weapons, and we need to spend more money on it. So I would argue that somebody who could figure out a system to detect deep fakes instantly would be doing a lot of good for the world. THOMPSON: I appreciate that answer and I also appreciate something you said in there, which is offensive weapons. Should the United States have offensive weapons when it comes to disinformation? STENGEL: (Pause.) Are you talkin’ to me, Nick? (Laughter.) THOMPSON: Based on the way you paused, I am 100 percent talking to you. (Laughter.) STENGEL: Well, I mean, we do have—I mean, I’m not in government anymore, but I think I’m still—have to abide by the strictures of classified information and all of that, or I’ll be prosecuted by the State Department. But I—you know, we do have offensive weapons. I mean, there are—there are well-publicized examples of us using them in Iran, for example. I actually think— BARRETT: But those are cyberattack weapons, as opposed to actually spreading— STENGEL: Yes. BARRETT: —you know, spreading bad information. So what the U.S. Cyber Command does is actually pretty distinct from what we the United States could be doing, which is matching what the Russians are doing with information operations. And we—so far as I know, we don’t do that, at least not anymore, and I think that’s a good policy. I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think we should be in the truth-twisting business. STENGEL: Yeah. So Paul makes a good point, and I talk about this in the book. There’s a—on the spectrum of hard and soft power of information, the hard end of information war is cyberattacks, malware, things like that. The soft end is propaganda, content and this and that. On the soft end we don’t do—I mean, I was involved in the creation of the—of what is now known as the Global Engagement Center, which is a not-completely-funded department which is a kind of whole-of-government department residing at the State Department to combat disinformation. But again, it’s all done in a non-classified way. All the content is labeled U.S. Government. It doesn’t create false information or disinformation. THOMPSON: So what about—OK, so let’s take another example. So Amazon has this thing where they pay tons of people, some of whom work for Amazon, and they pay them to tweet what an amazing place it is to work at Amazon, and they give them scripts, right? And so there’s this kind of this steady flow of—it’s not false; these people may genuinely like to work for Amazon, particularly since they’re being paid to tweet. And so they tweet out, but just kind of garbage. Should the U.S. pay people to tweet out positive things about the U.S. image and tweet The Star-Spangled Banner in Russia? STENGEL: (Pause.) You’re still lookin’ at me. (Laughter.) Well, I— THOMPSON: We got a definitive answer of no. STENGEL: So Amanda and I— BARRETT: But that’s a little different. I mean, the idea of someone—you know, tweeting the United States is great and its enemies are not great. And doesn’t the State Department set up projects and programs that essentially do that? STENGEL: Look, once upon a time, the U.S. Information Agency, which was then folded into the State Department, did create what I would call positive propaganda about the U.S. I was dinged here on another panel a couple of years ago for saying that there’s such a thing as good propaganda as well as negative propaganda. I don’t think propaganda just is automatically a terrible thing and that nations do practice it. So all those trolls will get upset again. But we don’t really do what USIA used to do anymore, you know, in terms of Frank Capra—why we fight and documentaries about great black athletes and things like that. I mean, all of which was true content, it just was used to give people a better picture of the United States. And I always argued when I was in government that we do that already. I think U.S.—I would always want to make people around the world be able to see U.S. media and not only what we say about ourselves that’s good, but what we say about ourselves that’s critical, so people see that we have an open press and what that’s like. I think that sends a great message, which is essentially the message that you send, Amanda. BENNETT: Hmm. The word “message” is a very, very dirty word at the Voice of America because that implies that you are deliberately moving your content in order to achieve a particular end. Yes, I say that we have an offensive weapon, and I do say that this whole argument has in fact won a little bit, because I’m going to tell you what I think our offensive weapon is and I’m going to see a collective eye-roll around the room, which is our most effective weapon is our First Amendment. And I say that we export the First Amendment and that people can tell the difference. Not completely. I stipulate that everything you guys are saying is true, that deep fakes and all this stuff in troll farms are bad and dangerous and hazardous. I’m glad that you guys are paying attention to it. But I’m also saying that—and I’m so glad you brought up that F-35, because my personal budget at the Voice of America is less than two F-35s. If anybody’s out there listening would like to help fix that problem anyplace, that would be great, because I think that we reach, you know, hundreds of millions of people around the world for a very small amount of money. And so the First Amendment, neutral news, truthful news, not messaging, independent of a government. People can tell if it’s—if it’s being moved around. Here’s my—here’s my question right now. You guys all read newspapers still, right? In paper? Any of you in this room? Somebody? Thank you. And sometimes you see these inserts like from the China Daily or from, you know, Abu Dhabi, the City of the Future that kind of stuff? How many of you read them? Have you ever read a single word of them? One word? OK, a couple words out there. And why don’t you read them? Because you know that they are moving something, they are trying to sell you something. You’ll read the newspaper that surrounds it, but you’re not going to read the thing inside. That’s what I’m saying that propaganda is like, and that you can tell the difference. Maybe not if you have good deep fake that’s doing things, but—so I agree that you guys are good, but people can tell the difference and it’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s a very worthwhile thing to do. (Applause.) THOMPSON: All right, let’s move to the platforms, the social media platforms. That was a good answer. BENNETT: That wasn’t the eyeroll I was expecting. (Laughter.) THOMPSON: Standing up for truthful news? Journalists are going to—I’m certainly going to applaud that. All right, let’s talk about the technology platforms. Paul, you’ve just published a report on what they’re doing, what they need to do. Last time when we talked about the 2016 election, we mostly complained about Facebook and Twitter. After 2020 when we’re all diagnosing what went horribly wrong on the social media platforms, which ones will we be looking at? BARRETT: Well, I say in my report that Instagram, which is owned by Twitter, a photo- and video-based— STENGEL: Owned by Facebook. THOMPSON: Owned by Facebook. BARRETT: Excuse me. Forgive me. By Facebook, I apologize—deserves more attention. And the main reason for that is because we already know that it is a disinformation magnet. The Russian Internet Research Agency, the main trolling operation that the Russians ran in 2016, had more engagement on Instagram than it did on either Facebook or Twitter. And experts in this area have pointed out to me that increasingly, disinformation is being conveyed visually, and that is Instagram’s specialty. And I think that’s the platform to focus one’s attention on, at least initially. STENGEL: It’s also harder to find— BARRETT: Harder to detect, that’s a very good point. THOMPSON: Rick, would you agree? STENGEL: I do agree. I mean, I—Paul’s report, by the way, is absolutely terrific, and it’s a great primer, I think, on disinformation, both what happened in 2016 and going forward. The Senate Intelligence Committee report that came out, I think two days ago— THOMPSON: Yeah. STENGEL: —you know, had a lot that Robert Mueller had, and the stuff in my book that Robert Mueller didn’t have—I’m just telling you that too. But one of the things that they did have is that the Russians have actually increased in terms of volume what they’ve been doing since 2016, and largely on Instagram and other platforms that we probably don’t even know about. What Mueller didn’t have—and I want to get to the platform things in a second—is that what the Internet Research Agency was doing was completely integrated with what Russian mainstream media was doing, with Russia Today and Sputnik and TASS. And with the Russian, you know, foreign minister, who used to echo canards and misinformation that was created from the Internet Research Agency and start talking about it at a press conference, and then it was covered worldwide. So it had a much greater impact than just the audiences that the Internet Research Agency was going for. But in terms of the platforms, I do think—and we—and Paul also talks about this in his report—they need to have more responsibility and more liability for the content that they publish. They cannot escape this idea that they’re—that they’re not publishers anymore. The gentleman from NewsGuard here, which is a fantastic new organization that is fact-checking information on the web. I actually stole some language from you about what the companies need to do. They can’t be liable the way Time magazine or Wired is for every word that they publish, but they have to make a good-faith effort to take down demonstrably false content, as Paul talks about. I would argue hate speech, speech that leads to violence, those—there’s no excuse for that, even if it’s framed as political speech. That should just be off, and they should be liable if they don’t take it off. THOMPSON: So let’s do an example. Let’s talk about, I don’t know, the famous example that came up was the video of Nancy Pelosi slowed down so it looked like she was slurring her speech and drunk. So you can make the argument that’s demonstrably false or you can make the argument it was satire. Satire’s got to be a protected form of speech. What do you guys think? Would you take that down if you were Mark Zuckerberg, would you knock that off the internet? STENGEL: I— BARRETT: Well—I don’t want to—I say yes. STENGEL: I say yes. I mean, and I think also one of the things that they did, so they slug-did (ph) or—“slugged” is a journalism word. They had a—you know, a chyron up saying this is not true content, or this is manipulated content. One of the things that influences all of this, and I write a little bit about it in my book, are these cognitive biases. And there’s a terrific dissertation, and I forget the young woman’s name who wrote it, about belief echoes, she called it, which is that this idea that if you see something false, even if you then immediately are told that it’s false, and even are persuaded that it’s false, it creates a belief echo in your head that never gets erased. So to me, part of the problem of putting a caption under the Nancy Pelosi video is that you can’t un-ring the bell. You can’t un-see that. That stays in your brain. It should not—it should not have been on the platform at all. THOMPSON: So you would knock Andy Borowitz off the platform too? I mean, political satire, making fun of things that—pretending that Trump said things that he didn’t say? Because there could be belief echoes with that, even though it’s slugged as humor. STENGEL: You’re trying to trick me now, Nick. I am—(laughter)— THOMPSON: I’m just trying to get some of the complexities here. BENNETT: Do you—do you remember when the People’s Daily re-ran the story about Kim Jong-un being the world’s sexiest man, that was written as satire? And they were like, “world’s sexiest man declared by U.S. publication,” right? THOMPSON: I ran traffic analytics at the New Yorker and sometimes Andy Borowitz’s post would be picked up as true in China, and the traffic spikes we got were killer. (Laughter.) BENNETT: Yeah. Yeah. THOMPSON: All right, so let’s—so we’re kind of ragging on the platforms right now and talking about some of the problems they have. 2016, obviously lots of problems. We had a 2018 election and as far as I can tell, wasn’t a whole lot of misinformation. The only thing that I read about was a bunch of Democrats running a test to try to take—to criticize Roy Moore in Alabama, right? We had very different disinformation problems. So maybe it’s under control. Maybe we’re over-indexing on 2016. BARRETT: Maybe, but I don’t think we should take the risk that that’s the case. You’re absolutely right that the Russians’ level of interference was negligible immediately around the time of the election. We don’t know exactly why that is; they’re keeping their powder dry for 2020, a much more important engagement perhaps. Perhaps the platforms deserve some credit for having gotten more on the stick and more in the business of taking down phony accounts which they are now doing in some numbers, whereas in 2016 they were completely asleep to that. The Cyber Command that we mentioned earlier reportedly ran an operation that shut down the IRA, at least for a few days, around the election itself so that they were taken off the internet temporarily. All those things may have played a role. But the general problem continues. There is disinformation flowing from abroad, not just Russia but also Iran. And I just don’t think this is the kind of problem that you say, well, we had one good outing, so we’re done, all our problems are taken care of. THOMPSON: But are the signs that you’re seeing, right—we’re a year out. Are you starting to pick up a sense that it’s going to be like 2016 or are you picking up a sense that’s going to be like 2018? STENGEL: One of the things in the Senate Intelligence report that I found interesting was this idea that the Russians masquerading as Americans would seduce or entice actual Americans to do their bidding on the Web. You wrote about some examples that they did in 2016. BARRETT: Right. STENGEL: The one that still kills me that actually wasn’t in the final Mueller report—it was in the first Mueller indictment, and I think you mentioned it in your report—that from St. Petersburg the guys from the Internet Research Agency create—did a rally, a pro-Trump rally in Palm Beach where they hired a flatbed truck and an actress to play Hillary Clinton in a prison cell on the back of a flatbed truck, and they did that from St. Petersburg. That was in the first Mueller indictment. I don’t know why he didn’t put it into the Mueller report. But in terms of them using Americans to do their bidding, I would worry about that in 2020. That’s very hard to detect. Because if you persuade somebody in Palm Beach to do something like that again, then that’s an American person expressing their First Amendment rights to, you know, say Hillary Clinton should be in prison. THOMPSON: All right. Let’s spend the last five minutes we have before we go to Q&A, coming up with an agenda for the United States of America, for citizens of America, for the government of America, to lessen the risk of disinformation. Because, as Paul said at the very beginning, democracy can’t function if nobody believes anything. So we should have engineers looking for deep fakes. We should have true and faithful news. The platforms should be looking for this stuff much harder. What else do we need to do? BARRETT: And cooperating with each other to a greater degree than they do, and cooperating with the government to a greater degree than they do in order to exchange information and, you know, sort of suss out threats sooner than otherwise they might. And they need to do a lot of what—a lot more of what they’ve already been doing, hiring more people to review content and continuing to improve their artificial intelligence filters. THOMPSON: Amanda, what else do we put on the agenda? BENNETT: You know, I would go back to the same thing, which is keep your eye on the ball. What are you trying to push back disinformation for? What is—what is the thing you are trying to push it away from? And that, I would definitely strengthen that, and I would not roll our eyes at the 1999 concept that this stuff actually has value. And that it—and it can be believed, that people can believe it. STENGEL: I agree with all that we’ve said. I think vetting mechanisms like NewsGuard and others are valuable. I also think a long-term solution—I mean, one of the things I say in the book is we don’t have a fake news problem; we have a media literacy problem. Lots and lots of people—once I left journalism I realized wow, lots and lots of people can’t actually tell the provenance of information and where it comes from and what’s a reliable source and what’s not a reliable source. It has to be taught in schools, starting like in elementary school. And that’s the reason that so much of this has purchase is that people can’t tell that it’s false and they’re more susceptible to believe it. THOMPSON: All right, so let’s give a lesson to everybody in this room. We’re all going to—at some, point we’re going to see information that might be false. How should people evaluate it? How can we learn media literacy? Members of the Council on Foreign Relations, well educated, but they’re not going to go back to school for this. STENGEL: Well, actually, one of the proposals I have is about—is about journalism, digital journalism being way, way, way more transparent, right? So when—in the day when we did stories, we did interviews, we did research, we talked to people, it was fact-checked, we wrote an outline. I think all of that—you should be able to link to that, that you write the story, in the New York Times there’s a link to “here’s my interview with the national security adviser.” “Here are the photographs we took that we didn’t use.” “Here’s the research I did, this chapter from this great new book by Rick Stengel.” (Laughter.) Oh, sorry. And would every reader look at that? No, but it would show the kind of the—how the building is created and it would create more confidence in the result. THOMPSON: How about changing the law? Should we make the social media companies liable if there’s an excessive amount of disinformation on their platforms? STENGEL: I think so. BENNETT: And I will say what I always say, is write the laws as if your adversaries are going to be the ones implementing them. Just make sure you know what’s going on. You can write them because you think of what you want, but think about—think about a law like that in the hands of somebody you don’t like. BARRETT: And interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg has actually proposed something roughly along those lines, has talked about having some type of government body that would assess the prevalence of bad content on the sites and sort of superintend whether the sites were making progress. I doubt he would go for actually creating, you know, private liability and litigation to flow from that, but the idea is not as far out as you might think. THOMPSON: But he might go for that, because the only company to be able to comply with those laws is his. STENGEL: Is his. Exactly. THOMPSON: And any start-up would be wrecked because they won’t be able to hire all the lawyers and lobbyists they need, which is one of the problems with these laws is locking in monopolies. But, Rick, you said yes, we should change the law. Which laws? STENGEL: Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act, which basically gives all of these companies zero liability for the content that they publish, because it’s third-party content. Now, when it was written—when you write a law to incentivize some behavior, like you write a law saying hey, we need to have more people go to Staten Island, let’s—you know, I’m going to create a law where you can build a bridge, you can have a toll for it for ten years, but then you change the law. The law from 1996 did incentivize this, in a massive way, in a way that unintendedly created all of this other stuff. Needs to be changed now. These platforms need to make a good-faith effort to do that. And one reason they don’t take content down is because if they took content down Congress would go, oh, you’re an editor after all, so you should have liability for the stuff on your content. That’s why—one reason that Facebook is so loath to take things down, because they don’t want people to say, hey, you’re performing an editorial function. THOMPSON: All right. It’s 1:30. I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder, the meeting is on the record. Second reminder, the Council on Foreign Relations is not liable for any defamatory statements that you put in your questions. (Laughter.) Please wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. Stand. State your name and affiliation. Please ask just one question and keep it concise so we can get as many as possible. All right. In the back, in the light blue. Q: Hi. Kathryn Harrison, CEO of the Deep Trust Alliance. You talked about media literacy. That’s like telling everyone who drives their car poorly that they need to go back to school. STENGEL: I agree with that too. (Laughter.) Q: An important—an important part of the solution for sure. But as the equivalent of cars, as the technology for creating videos, images, text get better, faster, stronger, cheaper, is there not an opportunity to make in the technology itself standards, labels, or other elements that would provide the guardrails, the seatbelts, or the airbags for consumers who are viewing that content? STENGEL: What would that be? Q: You could have a very simple labeling system, human-generated, computer-generated. You need to be able to track the provenance—what’s the source, how is it manipulated—but that would at least give you a signal, much like when you go to the movies, you know if you’re going into an R-rated movie that there’s going to be violence or sex or language, versus if you go into a G-rated movie. That’s the first place where we’ve shown kind of information that isn’t real. How can we use some of the models that we already have in society to tackle some of these problems? Because it definitely needs technological as well as human remedies. BENNETT: I often thought that was really interesting. You know, like, I’ve got friends who forward really stupid things like the one-cent tax on emails. How many of you have got friends that forward the one-cent tax on email thing? I think, oh, guys, get a grip, you know? (Laughter.) But on the other hand, I would really love to see something. This thing was posted by something that in the last thirty seconds posted ten thousand other things. I just think that would be a really useful thing to have and it wouldn’t be that hard to do. I mean, Facebook and Twitter can both do that right now. STENGEL: So what—I’m a little wary about the content purveyor creating the definition. Now one of the things that a lot of bills that are out there, like the Honest Ads Act for political advertising, or almost any advertising, is to show the provenance of the advertising. Why were you selected to get this particular ad? Well, it turns out that you bought a pair of Nikes last year and they’re looking for people who bought Nikes in Minnesota. I think all advertising that—and I actually think advertising has a role to play in the rise of disinformation, because automated advertising, when people started buying audience as opposed to brands, that allowed disinformation to rise. So I think the kind of transparency in terms of political advertising and other advertising insofar as that could be applied to content, without prejudging it, I would—I would welcome that. THOMPSON: All right. In the back, who also might be in turquoise—slightly misleading my initial calling. Yes. Q: My name is Aaron Mertz. I direct the Aspen Institute Science and Society Program. A lot of the examples you gave came from very large entities, governments, major corporations, often for quite nefarious aims. I’m thinking about individuals who might have ostensibly good intentions, parents who want the best for their children, but then who are propagating false information about things like vaccines. How do you counteract that kind of disinformation that’s coming from individuals who then can band together, form these groups and then potentially even lobby governments to change policy? BENNETT: I think you’ve just put your finger on one of the real—the real, you know, radioactive things about this whole discussion. How far do you go from vaccines which we don’t agree with to a form of religion we don’t agree with? Let’s talk about Christian Scientists. Would you like to ban that from the internet? I mean, that’s—you’ve just put your finger on the third rail. THOMPSON: So how do we solve the third rail? BARRETT: Well, I would encourage the platforms to diminish the distribution of or take down altogether phony life-threatening medical information. So, I mean, you have to do it carefully, you have to be very serious-minded about it, but I— THOMPSON: Who determined—who gets to determine what’s phony? BARRETT: Hmm? THOMPSON: Who determines what’s phony? BARRETT: I would go with doctors and scientists. (Laughter.) BENNETT: Me. BARRETT: You? BENNETT: I’m going to do it, yeah. BARRETT: Well, I’m less impressed by you. (Laughter.) STENGEL: But to say something that will also be unpopular, when I went into government, and having been a journalist, I was as close to being a First Amendment absolutist as you could be, you know? Justice Holmes, the First Amendment doesn’t just protect ideas that we love, it protects ideas that we hate. And traveling around the world, particularly in the Middle East, and people would say, why did you allow that reverend in Florida burn a Quran? Well, the First Amendment. There’s no understanding of the First Amendment around the world. It’s a gigantic outlier. All of these societies don’t understand the idea that we protect thought that we hate. I actually think that, particularly the platforms, the platforms have their own constitutions; they’re called terms of service agreements. They are not—they don’t have to abide by the First Amendment as private companies. Those need to be much stricter about content closer to what the—what the EU regards as hate speech and other countries do. There’s a phrase called dangerous speech, which is speech that indirectly leads to violence. I think we have to be stricter about that, and I—and the platforms can do that because they are private entities. THOMPSON: All right. I’ve got so many follow-ups. We’ve got a lot of questions. George Schwab in the front center here. Q: Thank you. George Schwab, National Committee on American Foreign Policy. From the perspective of international law, does state-sponsored misinformation constitute aggression? BENNETT: Not my thing. STENGEL: Well, one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time is that the Russians didn’t meddle in our election; they did an act of cyber warfare against the foundation of our democracy. That’s not meddling. I think when there’s state-sponsored disinformation, I think there should be repercussions for it. And part of the reason there’s more and more is that no country pays any consequences for it. I mean, yes, we sanctioned the Russians, or a few Russians, but it’s not a disincentive for them to do more. THOMPSON: So what should we have done? STENGEL: I’m sorry? THOMPSON: What should we have done to the Russians after 2016? We’re not going to nuke them, right? (Laughter.) Like, where’s the line that we’re going to— STENGEL: Well, I think we should have declared—there’s a—something akin to a kind of information national emergency, that our election is being interfered with by a foreign hostile power in ways that we still don’t know, and people have to be wary. THOMPSON: OK. Far right here. Q: Peter Varis, from TechPolis. Richard, you mentioned two cases that you actually worked on, the ISIS misinformation and the Russians after Crimea. It’s obvious that we have a lot more misinformation because the cost has declined. But what’s the difference from a terrorist group or, ditto, an insurrection like ISIS, and a state-sponsored little campaign of misinformation, which is—both are linked to actual kinetic warfare. STENGEL: Yeah. Q: But what’s the difference? Because that helps us to understand the budget difference. With $50 you can have a lot of impact with targeting on the internet, but what did you feel, hands-on, on those two experiences? STENGEL: So I write about both trying to counter ISIS messaging and Russian disinformation. And the former is easier in the sense that the ISIS disinformation, they weren’t masquerading. They weren’t pretending to be other people or Americans. They were digital jihadis, and when then advocated violence, right there was stuff that you could take off. I mean some—and I, in the book I talk about how—what great things that Facebook and Google and YouTube did in taking down violent extremist content. In fact, someone at Facebook likened it to child pornography, where the image itself is the crime; you’re under arrest. Promotion of violence, you’re out. The problem with the Russians is they pretended to be Americans. They pretended to be other people. They were hidden in plain sight, and that is—that’s a lot more difficult, and it’s still more difficult. THOMPSON: All right, let’s get some questions on the left. As far left as we can go. Right here. Q: Speaking of far left. (Laughter.) Peter Osnos with Public Affairs Books. So some of us grew up with Russian propaganda. Then it was called Soviet propaganda. And what we all agreed was that it was incredibly clumsy. So in 2016 and beyond, suddenly those same Russians, now a new generation, managed to create vast amounts of bits and pieces that were considered effective. And you referred to the stuff up in St. Petersburg, and there are people who say it was in Moldavia or some other places. Who was doing all that stuff? Who—low-paid trolls? Who created tens and tens of millions of these bits and pieces, many of which were, I’m sorry to say, very effective? BARRETT: Well, there was a—the main engine for the information operation side of it, as opposed to the cyberattack against the DNC computers, which was brought off by the GRU, the intelligence wing of the Russian military. The information side, the IRA, was run like a company that was owned by a crony of Putin’s and allegedly, according to Robert Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies, was something that Putin himself approved of. So— Q: That’s not the answer. BARRETT: Not the answer? STENGEL: But Peter, I’d make a distinction between effective and sophisticated. What they did was effective; it wasn’t sophisticated. I was a recipient of all the stuff from trolls. I can’t even—I can’t say the words that they said. They couldn’t even spell them. The grammar was atrocious; they had terrible English. We looked at the handbook that the trolls would get when they went to the Internet Research Agency; it’s laughable. But as someone said to me, a marketing guy said to me, you know the emails you get from the Nigerian prince who needs $20,000 to get out of prison and you’re going to get $10 million? I said, yeah. He said, and you know they’re like filled with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes? And I said, yeah. He said, that’s deliberate. Why? Because if you respond to it, they know they’ve got a live wire. So the stuff that the Russians did were for people, as I said before, who will believe these strange conspiracies people, who don’t really know about the Oxford comma. (Laughter.) So they don’t really care about it, and that’s why it’s effective. THOMPSON: All right. Let’s go to the back. The very, very back. Q: Steve Hellman, Mobility Impact Partners. Do you expect more vectors of interference in the 2020 election, particularly Chinese, for example? Do we expect foreign adversaries to weigh in on both sides of the election at this stage? What do you think? BARRETT: Possibly. I mean, I think the Chinese are a possibility. We’ve just seen them active in Hong Kong, where they used Facebook and Twitter accounts, some of them English language, to try to undermine the democracy protestors in Hong Kong. I see shifting the attention over to the United States as only a minor potential adjustment. I think the Russians could be back and the Iranians have already test-driven their information operation. So I think there’s every possibility that there could be more vectors, as you put it, coming from abroad. And in terms of volume, we should remember that the vast majority of dis- and misinformation comes from right here at home where we’re doing this to ourselves, in a sense. So there’ll be that aspect of it as well. THOMPSON: But isn’t one of the interesting questions when you try to think about what countries will try to influence our election is which country has a clear goal in the outcome, right? So who—will China want Trump or his Democratic opponent to win? Like, Russia had a clear goal in ’16— BARRETT: In promoting Trump, and presumably China would have the opposite goal. THOMPSON: Perhaps, unless they think that the backlash Trump has created is beneficial to them. I mean, I’m not a China foreign policy expert, but— BARRETT: Me either. THOMPSON: Who is going to—who has a clear interest in the outcome? STENGEL: One of the things that we saw about Chinese disinformation and propaganda operations was that it wasn’t directed outward. It was much more directed inward, both for the Chinese audience itself and also for marketing the Chinese miracle around the world. They weren’t trying to effect particular political outcomes. I mean, that may have changed, and what’s going on in Hong Kong is evidence that they’re getting more sophisticated about it. But they were not nearly as aggressive as the Russians, of course, and the Iranians, who do also have an interest. But I also would quibble a little bit with—the Russians did end up of course helping Trump, but in the beginning, I mean, their whole goal, and has been— THOMPSON: Helping Bernie first. STENGEL: Well, but their whole goal was sewing disunity, discord, grievance. That’s what they’ve been doing since the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. It was only when they saw Trump starting to lead the pack and praising Putin to the skies that they turned and started marshaling resources about it. I mean, one of the things I write about is that in the beginning, the first six weeks, you know, Trump was made fun of by the Russians just like people here were doing. THOMPSON: All right. Do we have a Chinese foreign policy expert who wants to raise their hand? BENNETT: This poor lady’s been right in front waving her hand. It’s driving me crazy. (Laughter.) Q: I’m Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist. In the New York Times yesterday there was a story with the headline Ukrainian President Says ‘No Blackmail’ In Phone Call With Trump by Michael Schwirtz. He said Mr. Zelensky also said “he ‘didn’t care what happens’ in the case of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that once employed” a son of former Vice President Joe Biden. “In the phone call, President Trump had asked Mr. Zelensky to do him a ‘favor’ and investigate the debunked theory that Mr. Biden had directed Ukraine to fire” an anti-corruption “prosecutor who had set his sights on the company.” “Debunked” was the word of the author, not of Trump. Well, go back to January 23, 2018. In this room, Joe Biden, speaking to the Council, on the record. “And I went over, I guess, the twelfth or thirteenth time to Kyiv and I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee, and I’d gotten a commission from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor, and they didn’t.” I’m eliminating a couple of paragraphs just for time, just to get to the nut-graph. “I looked at them and said, I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch—(laughter)—he got fired.” Now what would you say about this disinformation in the New York Times yesterday? And do you think that they should take down this demonstrably false information? STENGEL: What are you saying is false about it? Q: Well, the writer says that it was a “debunked theory” that Biden directed the Ukraine to fire an anti-corruption prosecutor who had his sights on the company. In this—in the Council here, Biden says exactly that he said we would not give the billion-dollar loan guarantee unless you fired this prosecutor. It seems to me that Biden in one place is telling the truth and in another place he’s not. Maybe we have to figure out that, but I don’t think he lied to the Council. It’s all online; anybody can see it. Therefore, it seems to me the Times wrote fake news and they should be asked to take it down. BENNETT: I think the point that you’re—that you’re actually making the larger point I think people would be interested in is that a reputable organization that does this looks at errors and puts—researches them and corrects them when they make them. If it in fact is an error, then people should correct it. But that’s a generalized principle, and I don’t know anything about the truth or falsehood of what you just said. I’m just saying that’s one of the things you want that Rick’s talked about, is transparency and correction. THOMPSON: Let’s not—I don’t think we want to litigate this, because we don’t— BENNETT: Yeah, we— THOMPSON: We’re not experts on that particular statement. BENNETT: We’re not expert on that. We don’t— STENGEL: If I could just to go in the weeds for a second, having gone to Ukraine several times at the same time that Vice President Biden was there—he was there twelve or thirteen times; I went three times. That prosecutor was a corrupt prosecutor who was shaking down the people he would potentially prosecute who already had exonerated Burisma, the company that his son worked for. So he was saying the prosecutor that exonerated Burisma needed to be fired. And you know who else was saying it? The IMF, the World Bank, the EU, everybody else. It was a corrupt prosecutor. Q: He now says he—(off mic). THOMPSON: All right. Woman at the table behind. Right there. Yes, you. Yes. Q: Going back to the question of whether there was disinformation— THOMPSON: Oh, and your name and affiliation. Q: Oh, sorry. Absolutely. Ann Nelson, Columbia University. The question of disinformation in the 2018 campaign, I wonder whether you were looking at U.S. intermediaries at state-level campaigns. So specifically the National Rifle Association, which has its own apps and its own dedicated social media platforms and they have repurposed Russian memes and as the Senate Commerce Committee minority report pointed out last week, the NRA, Maria Butina, were very heavily involved with the Russian campaigns over a few years, including supporting her attendance at the Council for International Policy. So looking at campaigns such as Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill, where the NRA was extremely involved both online and on the ground, do you still think they weren’t very involved in 2018? BARRETT: Not sure exactly how to answer that. The NRA was active in—I mean, the Russians had certain contact with the NRA. I’m not sure that that is—fits in exactly the same frame as the information operations that we’ve been talking about, but certainly you’re right that the NRA is reputed, certainly by its foes, to stretch the truth on a regular basis and they have that intertwining with certain Russian agents, namely that woman. Beyond that, I don’t really have the—know what else to say. THOMPSON: OK. Gentleman in the far back, in the blue jacket. Q: Hi. Jamaal Glenn, Alumni Ventures Group. What’s your prescription for how to deal with information that doesn’t fall in the demonstrably false category? I want to challenge this notion that some of the Russian operation weren’t sophisticated. I would argue—maybe not technically sophisticated, but incredibly sophisticated if you look at their ability to identify American political fault lines and play to those. Things like race. I have friends exceptionally well educated who played right into the hands of some of these actors. And many of these things weren’t technically false. So I’m curious. What’s your prescription for these things that sort of fit in this non-demonstrably false gray area? BARRETT: Well, I was going to say the platforms, but mainly Facebook, already has a mechanism for what they end up calling false news, which would be broader than in my—in my thinking than demonstrably false information, and they down-rank it and label it, if they—if their fact-checkers have found it to be false, they label it so that when you go to share it, you’re told with a little pop-up that what you’re trying to share here is false, so, you know, think twice before you do it. I think that mechanism, for something that’s determined to be false, but where there’d be some difficulty in calling it demonstrably false, might be the way to deal with that. A certain amount of misleading information, you’re not going to be able to do anything with because you’re not going to be able to know in the first instance where it came from or who’s manipulating it. THOMPSON: But what if it’s true? Q: But what if it’s true? BARRETT: OK, well— THOMPSON: So what if the Russian government is spending money to promote stories that are irrefutably true. Say they’re about— BARRETT: Yeah, then you’re looking for categories of behavior that indicate that there’s some inauthenticity to the accounts that are sending it. The platforms have been moving more in that direction, taking down accounts on that basis. But all of this points to the fact that you’re not going to be able to get everything. No matter how aggressive you are, and not everyone wants to be that aggressive, this environment is going to be shot through with material of questionable provenance. THOMPSON: OK. Right here on the right, gentleman in the orange tie. Q: Michael Skol of Skol and Serna. Isn’t this partially a generational problem? I am one of those who does read the morning papers on—in paper. the Times, the Journal, the Post when there’s a funny headline. But I don’t—I don’t think there’s a lot of people a lot younger than I am who follow this, and which—what are the implications of this, that this problem is only going to get worse because the younger people who don’t pay attention, who don’t prioritize demonstrably true media outlets, are growing up and they overwhelmingly, possibly, there will be a population that’s worse than it is now. BENNETT: Again, let me—let me be the cheerful, non-cynical person in the room. Because we are able to look at digital behavior around the world, and let’s just stipulate that based on what you said, paper is for our generation; digital’s for everybody else. One thing we are finding that is fascinating is that people are coming to look for news and coverage from other countries, and I’ll give you one specifically. In China, what we found in the last six months or so is that the volume of traffic coming out and looking for news on Venezuela has just gone through the roof. Now, why would that be, and who is it? I think it’s because they’re trying to find out things that they’re not being told at home. I think that is a really interesting thing. It says to me that these things are true that we’re saying here.  It is also true that people want to know what’s really going on and they have a search for truth. I know this is, like, 1990s, 1980s, but I still believe that that is true. And we’re watching our digital behavior. When there were the street protests in Iran, our traffic went crazy. Our Instagram traffic went crazy. This is all people coming off of cell phones, so it’s young people carrying their cell phones. They were looking for stuff. So we saw this happening. And so I’m saying that I’m not sure you can say that everybody under the age of 65 is kind of undiscerning and stupid. I don’t actually believe that. Well, sometimes I do, but— BARRETT: Some of us are. (Laughter.) BENNETT: But not often. Anyway— THOMPSON: I would just add that the data from 2016 shows that there is a real generational problem with fake news. But it’s the older people. (Laughter.) BARRETT: Yeah. BENNETT: Yeah. THOMPSON: On the left. (Laughter.) Q: Jove Oliver, Oliver Global. My question is with your journalist hats on, when you see , say, a public figure, maybe the president of the U.S. breaking the terms of service on a certain platform, whether that’s by spreading, you know, disinformation on maybe Twitter or something, what’s the—what’s the remedy for that with your journalist hat on? It’s a public figure. Arguably, what they’re saying is in the public interest. At the same time, they could be causing violence against people or certainly spreading disinformation, which is against the terms of service of these platforms? Thank you. THOMPSON: Or we could even make it more specific. Rick, you sit on the board of Snapchat. Should you kick Trump off? STENGEL: Well, I’ll—(laughter)—I’ll answer that in a second, but I’m going to—the previous question. It’s a well-known fact that stories on paper are more factual than stories on telephones. Wasn’t that the implication of your question? That’s a joke. Q: Depending on which paper. (Laughter.) STENGEL: OK. I think the highest order of magnitude—and again, one of the things that’s been great about this panel, Nick, is you’ve actually caused us to have to think while we’re up here, which is usually not allowed on panels. But to me, the highest value is whether something is demonstrably true or false, rather than the news value of a certain story or the news value of a certain news figure making that statement or the higher protections that political speech has than regular speech. So that was the—that was the story about Facebook and the—now taking off that ad. They were privileging political speech over regular speech, and they—basically they were saying, to me, was that political speech, even if it’s false, is protected, whereas regular speech, if it’s false, is not protected. I would say the highest order is the falseness or trueness and even if it’s a public figure, then that content should be taken off. THOMPSON: Banning Trump from Snapchat? STENGEL: You know, not everything he says is false. And there is a—he is a newsmaker, I believe, and one of the things that—and as Nick mentioned, I’m an adviser to Snapchat. Snapchat does more of a traditional curation of news where the news is linked to a brand, rather than a topic or audience. And in fact, one of the things that I also say in the book is that the rise of automated advertising where you buy an audience, as opposed to buying an ad in Time magazine or the Economist or Wired, is one of the reasons that all of this disinformation becomes out there. And I’m going to say something very unpopular now among my news brethren, that I actually think the movement toward subscriptions also creates a greater volume of disinformation because the true content is now behind a paywall that very—that relatively fewer people can get, whereas the bad content is open and free. So talking about this age discrepancy, young people are now going to think well, I got to pay $68 a month to subscribe to the New York Times but I can get all this other stuff for free, free is a very powerful word in our society. And in fact, I used to say in the early days was, you know, when people used to say information wants to be free, I would say people want free information and we gave it to them and that’s why they are biased in favor of it. So I think the subscription paywall model is also a recipe for the increase of disinformation. THOMPSON: Well, there’s only one way to solve that problem and that’s for everybody in this room to subscribe to Wired. (Laughter.) All right. It’s 2:00. We’re done. Thank you very much to this panel. Please turn on your phones and spread some true information. (Applause.) (END)
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