Wednesday, 23 December 2015

On Agents of Influence

(Originally on 21 Dec. 2015)

Some time ago, I was enquired what are those agents of influence I had written about. Agent of influence is one of the roles in which an agent can work on behalf of a foreign power. The role and working ways of an agent of influence are quite different from those of, for example, an agent provocateur or a useful idiot – two other types often mentioned in texts about information warfare.

An agent can act on behalf of other players also, besides foreign states – companies and corporations, political parties, lobbies, and even civil society organizations use agents. The so called change agents constitute an example of the consult jargon that has spread to civil society. This article deals primarily with agents working for a foreign government in Finland, but the principle is the same also in private sector, and especially so in regard to agents of influence because they do much the same that lobbyists and change agents do – i.e. try to influence matters and affairs in favour of their agenda.

Agents of influence are usually found to be more difficult to expose and counteract, compared with such agents of foreign powers who do things like steal secret documents, bribe officials of railways and the post or the cleaning-lady of a defence institution's IT centre, install explosives, or cultivate a terrorist group to destabilize a country. This is for the reason that agents of influence very often do not need to break laws in any way.

Unlike lobbyists openly working to promote the interests of let's say eastern trade, agents of influence act in a more conspiratorial manner and seek to conceal the fact they work for a foreign power. Their effect is much bigger if they manage to present themselves as 'impartial' or even experts and authorities of the issues in question.

In some occasions they may also use the so-called false flag – meaning they would claim to represent quite different an interest party than the one they really work for. In such cases there may be similarity to the actions of provocateurs, who commonly use the false flag as they seek to foment controversies, incite hatred against a group, or just divert attention and move the gravitational centre of the opinion spectrum. False flag is rarer with the agents of influence. Much more common for them is to present their agenda as 'impartial' and 'pragmatic'. As agents of influence are supposed to be taken seriously, provocateurs take care of the loud barking, which indeed makes the message of the agents of influence appear moderate.

Russia has penetrated all systems in Finland on such a high and deep systemic levels that she can obtain any relevant information available in Finland, if she so wishes. Russia's capacity enables her to analytically or operatively utilize information available in Finland in more effective and focused manner than what Finland's own capacity allows. It is exactly in the analysis and operationalization of information where the Finnish capacities are rather weak. Finland is able to utilize information available in her own country, let alone elsewhere, only to the extent within her limited capacities.

Therefore, Russian agents need not concentrate in traditional espionage. In a country as open as Finland, the main task of Russian operatives is influence, not espionage – however, this does not refute the fact that Russia is overwhelmingly the most active and the most aggressive actor also in espionage. It is nothing new that in Russian information warfare influence takes priority over espionage. This was the case also in the Soviet times, which has been discussed in public for instance by the KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov.

The Finns had better understand especially how crucial role activities of influence have as compared to the illegal methods used in espionage. I am afraid that in the stubbornly legalist Finland this is still not quite understood, as discussion is still centred at the protection from traditional espionage, terrorism, and cyber threats targeting vital infrastructure. Not at the integrity of information content – that is, at knowing things – which is the target of the most intensive efforts of Russian agents.

The targets of the agents of influence include what Finns think they know, which situational understanding they have, what opinions they hold of things, where is their attention – and through the influence in these what is called 'reflexive control' in the terms of Russian information warfare takes place. That means, the target is successfully manipulated to act in the way desired by the manipulator, through compromising influence in his informational integrity.

Finland does not seem to find ways to counteract against agents of influence in any way because the latter are unlikely to commit to anything illegal. The country has a long tradition of exclusion, on purely ideological grounds (the so-called 'general reasons'), those opinions and individuals that were deemed anti-Soviet in the old times or anti-Russian in contemporary terms from the acceptable consciousness. Yet the reverse has proven very hard in Finland. An agent of influence may act however strikingly and yet no control mechanisms for his exclusion take place, not even in the most critical tasks regarding national security and informational integrity.

It is in most cases not illegal to lie and to manipulate, and this is truer still in regard to more subtle methods. Finnish mentality is conditioned to watch over decency and good manners in various, more irrelevant matters, yet when it comes to the 'general reasons', legal offenses need to be rather blatant before anyone deems it appropriate, or even possible, to do anything. It sometimes seems there's no limit to those offenses even at high treason or at support for terrorism, if 'general reasons' are in question.

If Finland does not fix the basic systemic problems in informational interest and informational ideology, there is a risk that new investments in electronic intelligence, costly technological solutions, or information bying from external subcontractors may actually only constitute subvention of the adversary's intelligence from Finnish tax revenues.

What kind of things, then, are the agents of influence engaged with?

It is logical to assume that they do at least two kinds of things: Firstly, they spread information and opinions that support their agenda. Secondly, they seek to prevent the spread of information and opinions that run counter to their agenda.

In the first case their impact is similar to that of propaganda, but it is usually more focused and sophisticated. Agents of influence whisper to the ears of decision-makers and opinion-makers – for example, politicians, civil servants, journalists, and academics. In the second case, they seek to form filters and obstacles to the ears of the mentioned groups, to obstruct reception of correct information and undesired opinions, for example by discreditation, questioning, and conditioning such information and opinions.

Spreading wrong or biased information is typical activity for agents of influence. The information operations they conduct or support are often detectable by their calculated timing. It usually happens in the very situations when Russia has an interest in spreading false information or in changing the topic. An influence agent's informational operation is often also synchronized to coincide with the flooding of similar or similarly inclined content by the media-distributed propaganda machinery and troll factories.

Influence to attitudes and opinions is another form of activity, more long-termed and often more difficult to detect. It consists of manipulation of the opinion spectrum of decision-makers and opinion-makers as well as the general public opinion. Russian information operations targeting attitudes have sought, for instance, to generate negative conditioning towards Moscow's opponents and entire nationalities. This has resulted in unconscious negative or at least suspicious 'gut feelings' towards those peoples who have stood on the way of the aggressions of Russia or her allies – for example Chechens, Albanians, the Baltics, and Georgians. Finns have occasionally been quite eager to resort to condescension and mock at small East European nations, let alone further-away ones, without noticing their attitudes have fallen prey to manipulation.

Individual people are also targeted with similar methods of manipulation: agents of influence seek to generate negative or ridiculing conditioning towards critics of the Kremlin, politicians, intellectuals, researchers, or journalists. Many Finns, who may consider themselves serious and respectable, hardly notice how they add to the choir of mock and undermining, although in regard to someone else, those parts of their brains that call for respect and rational approach would immediately be activated at such. Manipulation of attitudes usually affects through emotional conditioning.

Propaganda is often divided into white and black propaganda, and this is the case also with information operations and influence to attitudes. What is basically true, or meant to enhance positive image, is called white propaganda – it is also practiced by Western countries, including Finland seeking to spread information and reports that are flattering to the country such as the Pisa results, or beautiful and pure ideas of Finland. Black propaganda is more characteristic to actors like Russia: it doesn't shun outrageous lies or smear campaigns. There are naturally various shades of grey between black and white propaganda.

Another standard practice of the agents of influence is to brand certain subjects by stirring controversies. When those topics that are particularly sensitive to the 'general reasons' are branded as controversial, rational conversation on them becomes difficult. Discussion gets polarized and emotional, which in the Finnish culture works particularly well in favour of the manipulators.

Agents of influence are skilled to exploit the cultural characteristics of their target society. Finns are rendered vulnerable to influence by many oddities of our communication culture. As an example, Finns are exceptionally touchy about dissent in opinions, and they generally seek to avoid debate, taking it personal and considering it a threat to the desired consensual state of communication. In contrast, Finns overrate vagueness and purposeless verbosity when it helps to avoid expressing opinions – often at the same time at the expense of also content. It is an old cliché that Finns ceaselessly wonder what the others think of them, but not a baseless one. Finns consider it wise to remove from topics that risk bringing up debate – that is, differing opinions. The Finnish culture is one of avoiding communication and certainly preferring silence to dissent.

Finland also has a culture of avoiding responsibility, although this may be a rather new cultural phenomenon. Opinions are usually expressed in passive form, or otherwise in a way that would make it seem as if the speaker doesn't express his own opinion but rather something 'generally thought', or an idea originating somewhere else. It enables the speaker to avoid responsibility for what he states. This characteristic of the Finnish culture makes the work of an agent of influence easier, as when they spread false or biased information, fellow Finns don't demand them to explicate their personal opinion let alone take responsibility for it.

One of the most important uses of power in a state system is nominations. Democracy tends to decentralize power, which means that each individual only does his or her part in a large machinery of decision-making. Therefore political power at its most practical is to push the right people to the right places in order to make those decisions desired. Seasoned professionals of politics are professional in exactly this kind of machinations. Unfortunately, so are also foreign intelligence organs, with their agents of influence.

In Finland, positive pushing of one's favourites to favourable positions for influence requires existent power positions or the so-called 'good fellow networks', sometimes just a good game-eye in situations where parties distribute seats among themselves, or in other words, reach political compromises. Here I will not comment on the extent to which foreign states may already possess extant formal power positions in this country. It is natural that from such positions it is rather easy to machinate agents of influence directly to key positions.

Negative influence, however, is easy in the Finnish culture also from outside the formal power positions. For example, spreading malicious rumours and disinformation about individual persons has been standard activity for agents of influence since the Soviet times. In Finland, such activity is particularly effective because Finns are in general timid and avoid controversies. They would rather not take the risk than check the veracity of rumours. In such a culture those who do use malicious disinformation to block nominations have an advantage, and further enhance the culture of timidity and harmlessness.

Another method of person-level influence, slightly more radical than the spreading of rumours, is the use of threats. It typically takes place in form of covert threats, which do not fulfil the criteria for illegal threat (a legal offense) and therefore doesn't trigger criminal investigation. Alternatively, it consists of anonymous messages and phonecalls, so that even when the criteria for illegal threat would be fulfilled, the culprit is not known, or finding out the sender would require means that are so far outside of the legal options for Finnish authorities.

Agents of influence obviously also probe for weaknesses and practice stirring of conflicts. In such practices they should not be confused with another category of agents, the talent-spotters, whose tasks include identification of persons as potential targets for the operations of professional intelligence operatives – for example for cultivation, recruitment, or 'kompromat' [compromising operations, usually targeted against a person's reputation by framing the target as pervert, mentally ill, politically incorrect, criminal, or something else that seeks to discredit him/her].

Simply leading – or misleading – discussion is a routine activity of the agents of influence. They will, whenever possible, help Finnish politicians, reporters and audience to fuss about what's irrelevant, and to silence about what's relevant. Once again, the careful timing and synchronization with the narratives offered by Russian propaganda often make such deliberate guidance detectable.

Finally, it is necessary to practice some caution against the other extreme: While healthy suspicion is usually beneficial, all-engulfing paranoia is malignant. Not all information consists of lies, and not all lies constitute deliberate operations of influence. One should not keep his own mouth shut in fear of agents of influence – quite the contrary, one does better in promoting open and honest information culture, where it makes sense to analyse and organize information, and where the existence of opinions is not feared or shamed, not even for 'general reasons'.

If I have managed to raise the reader's level of consciousness in recognizing a relevant dimension of informational influence, it means my own information operation has been successful. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

A Finnish Book on Lustration

(Originally on 20 May, 2015.)

An interesting booklet was published this year in Finland, named Lustraatio ("Lustration"), written by writer and activist Jukka Mallinen, journalist Martti Puukko, and researcher Arto Luukkanen, who is specialized in Russia. The book was edited by a young publishing entrepreneur Pekka Virkki. From the perspective of my current country of residence, Ukraine, it was interesting to read Finnish thoughts about lustration and about potential applications of this principle to cleaning out the mess left behind by Finlandization.

To the extent that the word lustration is at all familiar for Finns, it became known as one of the key demands of the Maidan demonstrators, and a slogan in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity. The word is derived from ancient Roman purification rituals, but it was in active use in Eastern Europe when the communist regimes collapsed and societies wanted to settle scores with their past.

The idea for example in the lustration processes of the Baltic countries, Poland, and Czech Republic was to cleanse bureaucracies and state elites from the henchmen of the KGB and its sister organs. Those who admitted their sins often got acquitted from formal criminal charges, while if they tried to conceal their past and got caught, they would lose their official positions. Lustration was also an important element to counter corruption, as corruption was usually closely linked with the power relations of the former communist regimes and especially their security organs. Lustration would prevent secrets from poisoning the reconstruction of democratic, European, open societies.

Another key conception of the book is Finlandization, a name originally given by West German press to the peculiar Finnish practice of pleasing Moscow. In line of that practice the political elite of Finland was self active in restricting the nation's sovereignty and societal freedom, whereas Finnish media and academic circles learned to practice self-censorship, to discriminate the wrong-opined, and to condition their thinking into what Moscow would be likely to tolerate.

The problem, as perceived in the book, is that unlike many East European countries, Finland did not, after the Cold War ended, sort out and investigate the connections and compromising relationships of its political, bureaucratic, economic and military elite with Soviet security services. Secrecy continues to poison the healing process of Finnish society, and has provided useful tools for the newly ruling KGB regime in Russia, which is known to have returned to use KGB instruments of influence to manipulate decision and opinion-makers in Finland and other European countries.

I have to admit that I had not yet read the book in its entirety when my attention was drawn to it by a series of strange reactions by some Finns. One such was published by the Russia researcher, Professor T. Vihavainen, in his blog, where in a critique soaked in insinuations and allusions, he dared not to name the book or its writers - although the target was evident. Another, equally odd and obviously defensive piece, the head of the Finnish National Archive Dr. J. Nuorteva attacked Dr. Luukkanen's archive research in the customers magazine of the Archives Service, Akti. Nuorteva's main point seemed to be that opening the Soviet archives was an "unwise" move from Ukraine, and if a Finnish researcher would study those archives, it could endanger access to cooperation with the archives of the Russian security service FSB, successor of the KGB. If anything, such reactions indicate something of the nature of what is wrong in the Finnish atmosphere concerning any opening up of the era of Finlandization.

The book of Mallinen, Puukko and Luukkanen is focused on the legacy of Finlandization and the lack of its deconstruction in Finland. Yet they also bring up a lot of historical analysis and context, from the era of Finland as a part of the Russian Empire (1809-1917) to the experiences Poland has had of post-Cold War lustration in the 1990s. Luukkanen throws around also examples from Germany's "management of past" (Vergangenheitbewältigung) and South Africa's "commission of truth".

Puukko writes about the Polish lustration experiences which he saw as a contemporary witness. People in Ukraine and to a large extent also in Finland have tended to think that it was exactly Poland that was the great success story in lustrating the system and reforming it into a European democracy. Yet Puukko's deserving contribution reminds us that it wasn't all that smooth there either.

What we often forget is the passing of time. Poland had time for its painful past management and reform work since the early 1990s. Back then the Yeltsin administration still sought to reform Russia into the European direction. A decade later at Putin's ascendance to power in Russia, Poland had already gained a critical head start to Western integration. Ukraine didn't have such an advantage since the Orange Revolution took place there only at the end of 2004. After that the country still made a major setback in 2010 into Yanukovich's reign, and another revolution was required to rid Ukraine from that. The latter started from an uprising in November 2013 and peaked at the Revolution of Dignity in February 2014.

Another large East European country might constitute a better reference point for Ukraine, namely Romania which in the 1990s first lagged clearly behind Poland and the rest of eastern Central Europe. Mystical fires occurred in the archives of the Securitate after Ceauşescu had been overthrown. Critical materials were destroyed, and thereby also the old powers resisted in power until the large demonstrations of 1995-1996, which finally pushed for a real power change and launched lustration in Romania. I remember how still in the late nineties many complained to me the miserable state of Romania, its corruption, and appeared convinced the country can never become an EU member. Well, things changed. Although Romania and Bulgaria are still the poorest of EU member states, reforms did take place in them and these countries changed significantly from what they were still in the nineties.

In any case Puukko narrates in a convincing way about the problems caused for the Polish society by the shortcomings in handling the communist heritage, the weakness of lustration, secrecy over the more shadowy sides of Lech Wałęsa's background, and from the fact that the representatives of the former communist security services could benefit from old power relations and from the information they possessed about people. I would have been delighted to read Puukko's views also about today's Poland, its active role in the events of Croatia, Georgia, and Ukraine, as well as about the Smolensk airplane crash.

Mallinen's elegant essay contribution sketches a kind of cultural autopsy for Finlandization and its historical backgrounds, which go back to the authoritarian traditions of the times under the tsar. Luukkanen touches upon the same topic for instance in his introduction of the activities of Bishop Jacob Tengström (1755-1832) as a useful collaborator of the Russian Empire, and a finlandizer of Finland even before the term was known. In Finlandized Finland, many reasonings were afterwisely constructed for why Tengström's conduct was to be seen positively. After all, he was advocating Russia's interests. It seemed not matter that from an objective point of view his actions constituted treason against Kingdom of Sweden, of which Finland was part.

In his essay named From the Duress of Things to the General Reasons, Mallinen traces the tsarist roots of Finlandization to the Diet of Porvoo in 1809, where the gentry of Finland paid homage to the Russian tsar - quite treasonably at their motherland Sweden - and to the meeting between Marshal Bernadotte, who had been installed as a king in Sweden, and the tsar in Turku in 1812 - where this marshal of Napoleon promised to the tsar, without consulting the Finns, that Sweden would no longer seek the return of Österland [the Eastern Land, i.e. Finland]. In more recent days neo-finlandizers have however praised "the policies of 1812" as an eternal basis for Finland's position. It appears they wish to return the border of Russia's sphere of interest to the Gulf of Bothnia.

Mallinen's inspection reminds us of the habits of the national conciliatory elite, who has since the times of the tsars beaten St. Petersburg's will, and later Moscow's, into the thick skulls of Finns as a necessity - a duress of things. Later the same thing was known by many other euphemisms, too: general reasons, geography, or friendly relations. It was not before the years of oppression that really awoke people to resistance, which created dynamism in the nation. Mallinen's portrayals of Finlandization in Finnish academic and cultural life are in fact awkward to read. Unfortunately myriad examples tell a sinister tale about a return to similar habits under Putin's reign.

Regrettably the book makes no reference to the materials that the journalist Juha-Pekka Tikka gathered in Cambridge from the KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin's archive, concerning KGB contacts in Finland. Tikka reported his findings in an interesting series of articles in Verkkouutiset along the late summer and autumn of 2014. Even though the materials of the Mitrokhin archive would have been available for Finnish researchers for a rather long time, there has been some peculiar unwillingness to process them in Finland. The book also fails to refer to the information recently discussed by the intelligence historian Kimmo Rentola, partly based on Tikka's revelations. Rentola himself has a leftist background.

Furthermore, it would have been appropriate to note Ambassador Alpo Rusi's remarkable work and publications that were prompted by his own purgatory as a target of spy suspicions - accusations to which a court process found him not guilty. Over the past years Rusi has published many findings from the archives of the KGB's East German proxy. His case also constitutes a good reminder of the fact that many of those who were noted down as contacts or subjects of development in KGB or Stasi archives had done nothing wrong. People regularly ended up there because they were interesting to the foreign intelligence organs due to their job or another reason. The fact that many of those who had a file were innocent should, however, not prevent honest investigations on KGB penetration in Finland. Quite the contrary, when such things are not investigated and cleared, the shadows of distrust remain haunting.

It is often repeated in Finland that during the decades of Finlandization (or its aftermath) there was never an Eastern spy exposed in the Finnish Security Police (Suojelupoliisi, a.k.a. Supo). This is not a good news, as we should place the emphasis on the word exposed. Tikka's findings make a strong case for that the leadership of the Supo was seriously compromised. This was also discussed by Rentola in his article in Tieteessä Tapahtuu. This inevitably raises thoughts about why the few cases of high treason in Finland have mostly targeted the careers of people who have been known for their pro-Western stands, or contacts who have been either burn or otherwise turned harmful for their eastern employers. Meanwhile, those who have been exposed by opened archives to have worked as agents for the Eastern Bloc, have appeared to be protected by continued immunity.

The book outlines a Finnish tradition in which our political and economic elite have made a deal with the devil. Members of the elite have gained various benefits from this - money, peace and stability - but the soul of the Finnish nation has been repeatedly maimed in the process. The pathologies and fetiches of the Finnish political culture are symptoms of this soul damage.

There have been periods of time when one evil has been useful in ridding Finland from another. In other times Finns have been prepared to pay a shockingly high price for peace. While such policies can be argued for in certain situations, this should not lead to the conclusion that Alexander II, Kerenski, Lenin, or Hitler, were great benefactors and friends of Finland. It just was that Finland's cause happened to fit their power-political calculations at given times.

To a certain extent Finland can benefit from a fame of balancing acts between bigger players. Even in the current leadership of the state, the idea of sitting on a fence has gained a frightening amount of popularity. They should just remember that they cannot afford being stupid in such a game. Otherwise the same game will quickly lead them to war - or even worse, to the demise of the Finnish nation. It is not rarely that the "friends" have made their plans include the destruction of Finland as a nation - genocide, deportation to Siberia, absorption by a "more remarkable" nation, or just a role as a simple puffer or front.

Finns are destined to play for their freedom and existence just like Afghans, Chechens, and Georgians have done for millennia, sandwiched between bigger empires. That was long before the game - and civilization - arrived in our northern woods. This game does not treat well those who are naive and stupid. On the other hand, one should not overestimate one's ability to be cunning, because cunning can only bring tactical victories - in strategy, resources and power still rule.

Finland has stumbled and humbled itself in ways that have repeatedly jeopardized the future of our nation. Yet we have had some luck with us. One should however not count much on luck in geopolitics. One should not trust in empty deals: "an agreement, eto tolko bumaga," like the film about the February Manifesto remarked. It does not make sense to bow at royalties and other totem animals, like some of our pompous academics have done in a spell of decorations and favours. Especially one should not trust blindly in our political and economic elite, who have repeatedly manifested their willingness to sacrifice the freedom of their people on the altar of their own short-term interests.

It is largely thank to free, armed peasants that Finland has been saved from much worse. Also Georgians and Chechens can be grateful for quite similar things, in somewhat different circumstances, for their continued existence as nations.

Editorial work of the Lustration book has been decent, although it could have been more meticulous. The articles, and especially Luukkanen's parts, still contain needlessly many typos, missing words, and transliteration errors, which at least the editor should have checked and corrected. Luckily the number of factual errors is much lower. Yet it should be noted that Timo Kivimäki, who was convicted in Denmark for espionage targeting his own students for the Russian intelligence, was not hired afterwards for a position in the Aleksanteri Institute (as claimed by the book) but in the Department of World Policy, of Helsinki University.