A Brief History of U.S. Intervention in Foreign Elections

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Former U.S. Embassy, Tehran, the name currently given to the compound by many Iranians is variously translated as "espionage den," "den of espionage", and "nest of spies".

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U.S. lawmakers and officials continue to respond to CIA intelligence reports that Russia deliberately interfered with the November election in order to get Donald Trump elected. Yet, intervening in foreign election is nothing new, particularly for the United States.

For decades, American intelligence agencies have historically used clandestine tactics to put leaders into office who are favorable to U.S. national interests. This practice of meddling dates back to the early days of the CIA and was seen as a necessary strategy to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s something Tim Weiner has explored in great detail. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on clandestine national security programs, and his books include "Enemies: A History of the FBI" and "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He says election meddling is not a grey area for the CIA.

“Several months after the CIA was created in 1947, it set out to steal the Italian election in 1948 to support the Christian Democrats who were pro-American, against the socialist Democrats, who were pro-Moscow, and they won,” says Weiner. “It’s just the beginning of a long, long story.”

After seeing success in Italy, the CIA took this formula — which involved using millions of dollars to run influence campaigns — and brought it across the world to places like Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and beyond.

“The president [of Afghanistan] after the American invasion post-9/11 was a paid CIA agent, Hamid Karzai,” Weiner says. “The list is very long, and it’s part of what the CIA does in political warfare.”

According to Weiner, the CIA doesn’t act independently to influence governments and electoral outcomes around the world, but it operates under the discretion of U.S. presidents.

“We set up the shah of Iran, who was our best friend for 25 years until he fell, and that created the Iranian Revolution, which we’re still living with today,” he says. “If you want to swing an election in a foreign country and you’ve got a Halliburton suitcase with a million dollars in it, it works.”

Though money has the power to influence an election, information — or misinformation — can have a huge impact as well. A number of independent researchers have connected the proliferation of fake news reports seen during the election to Russia and other Eastern European states, something that the Trump team has dismissed.

Related: The Rot of Fake News

“In denying that Russia ran a successful information war campaign during our presidential election, [President-elect Trump] is alone in denying that this happened,” Weiner says. “We are in uncharted waters. We have just seen the Russian intelligence services, led by an ex-KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, run a number on the United States using information warfare to get inside our heads and, in the opinion of the CIA, not simply disrupt American democracy, but to elect Donald J. Trump.”

According to Weiner, it’s not just the CIA that believes that Russia worked to influence the U.S. election to help Trump.

“The entire U.S. intelligence community, the British intelligence services, and the German intelligence services all are in concurrence — it’s a rare harmony in convergence — that Moscow is trying to destabilize Western democracies, Cold War 2.0,” he says. “What could be more destabilizing to American democracy than electing the great disruptor, Donald J. Trump? These two goals are one in the same, and it’s the CIA’s judgement, its analysis that electing Trump was part of a larger plan to destabilize American democracy.”

On Tuesday, President-elect Trump officially announced that he has chosen Rex Tillerson, the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, as secretary of state. Tillerson has deep ties to Putin, and has made multibillion dollar deals with Russian oil companies in the Arctic.

“[Tillerson’s appointment] alone would be enough to mark Trump as the Siberian candidate,” says Weiner.