An ex-CIA analyst on the dangers of Trump’s Fox News obsession.
Last month, the AP reported that Russian intelligence agencies were pursuing journalists around the world in the same way they typically target politicians and government employees from hostile states.
Much of this activity, according to the report, was aimed at dissident journalists and bloggers who are perceived as threats to the Russian regime.
But Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst and current adjunct professor at American University, believes that certain foreign spy agencies are very likely targeting one specific private institution: Fox News.
The reason is simple enough: the president of the United States watches Fox News — a lot — and therefore the channel has enormous influence on what he thinks, tweets, and does. As of last November, Trump had tweeted about the Fox News show “Fox & Friends” 88 times, according to the Washington Post’s Philip Bump.
I reached out to Peritz and asked him to lay out his case. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
If you were a Russian spy, why would you target Fox News?
I wouldn’t merely say a Russian spy, I’d say a spy from any hostile intelligence service. We all know that the Russians are a hostile intelligence service, but they’re not the only game in town. It’s not like the Chinese are not involved in targeting media personalities. It’s not like the Iranians or other countries aren’t also targeting journalists. It’s important that we don’t make this purely about Russia.
That said, if I were a hostile intelligence service, I would want to target the media source that the president, senior members of Congress and all their aides, many people in the Defense Department, people in the State Department, and the intelligence community watch. Fox, whatever you think of its content, has real power. They have all these networks into the government, but also into private industry and former government officials, who in turn influence the government.
So to put it simply, an intelligence service is looking for a way into power, and Fox News is certainly that. It’s also very, very hard to penetrate the U.S. government, but it’s pretty easy to penetrate a media organization.
So it’s not about the content of Fox News programming so much as the influence they have on powerful people?
It goes beyond influence. Obviously, that’s a major component of this, but we know that the president specifically interacts with Fox News and with Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity on Twitter, and many of his ideas seems to be plucked right out of Fox’s talking points. We know that he talks to Sean Hannity. I’m sure that he talks to other people. There’s a regular interface, a dialogue that goes on between the president of the United States, presumably his senior-level officials, and this one particular company.
On the one hand, wouldn’t it be great if you were a hostile intelligence service and you could influence a person like Sean Hannity? I do not believe that Sean Hannity is a Russian asset, but that’s not the point. If you’re a spy, maybe you try to work his producers or the person who does his makeup — you look for any way inside that world.
Can you walk me through the approach or process? A spy agency decides Fox News has captured the president’s attention, so they start to monitor it closely. Then what?
First, let’s start with the easier part: collecting information on the president. We obviously have his Twitter feed, which is a gold mine for intelligence. How many other world leaders are there where we literally know what they’re thinking about every day, with no filter? How many other leaders just say what they feel when they feel it, almost every day? Twitter is an invaluable insight into the mind of this man, and every foreign intelligence agency knows it. Imagine if we knew this much about Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. It would be a massive intelligence gold mine.
So back to Fox News. A spy agency will notice, as I’m sure everybody has at this point, that the president watches Fox News a lot: specifically programs like Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity’s program. This means the president’s senior staff and senior members of Congress and the intelligence and diplomatic community are also watching, mostly because they’re all waiting for the president to make his decisions.
An intelligence service wants to collect information before it’s widely know, before it reaches decision-makers and the public. If you’ve co-opted a production assistant on one of these TV shows, they can tell you what’s coming, what message they’re going to pump out. They can send you an email or they can let you know what Fox News is going to be talking about and when. So they already know the script, and that’s one way to collect information.
And what would you do if you wanted to start influencing this process?
Well, you try to nail down the person writing the scripts for Fox & Friends and you try to move key narratives around. You start putting ideas into the system, ideas which, eventually, will reach the president of the United States. This is not as difficult as you might expect. These are TV people; they’re not government people. They don’t expect to be co-opted by a hostile intelligence service, so these things happen very fast and without people really knowing it. They’re susceptible to blackmail.
If you’re a spy looking to compromise or gain leverage over a journalist, be it at Fox or anywhere else, how would that process work?
The CIA has a general way of doing it, which is spot, assess, develop, and then recruit. You can say, “I want to target this organization. I know all the production assistants on Fox & Friends. Here are all their names.” Then you do a little bit of research on them, and then you bump into them at a party, or you go out for a drink, or you ask them out on a date, or you have your kids play with their kids at soccer. You facilitate some sort of contact, and then you see whether they’re interested or they have any vulnerabilities. Maybe this individual has money problems. Maybe they have a gambling problem. Maybe they’re cheating on their spouse. Then you use your knowledge to leverage access, and you’re in. That’s a very crude way of putting it, but that’s basically how it’s done.
Have you seen any evidence that something like this is happening?
I do not see any direct evidence that this is currently occurring, and that’s why I wrote the piece. I don’t work at Fox News, so I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. I wrote this as a warning to the people who do work at Fox News, people like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and the people that work for them. Whatever they believe or don’t believe, they are targets.
The producers and assistants on these shows have probably never considered the possibility that their emails might be compromised or they might be subject to blackmail by a foreign national, by a foreign intelligence service, but they ought to be careful. That’s all I’m saying.