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American agents of misinformation: Tulsi Gabbard, Russian propaganda and article 88

Kremlin apologists spreading disinformation during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine can be found on both sides of the aisle in US politics.

October 12, 2022 - Alan Cunningham - Articles and Commentary

Then US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa. 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore flickr.com

The war in Ukraine is obviously one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century. Russia is clearly failing militarily in Ukraine, much of the developed world has placed harsh (and justifiable) sanctions on the Russian government, and numerous countries been prompted to join or consider joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Many in the United States and throughout the West have seen through Russia’s attempts to justify the war with baseless claims of genocide, and strongly support the Ukrainian people. However, in many countries some still identify with Russia and engage in rhetoric that supports it. For the most part, at least in the United States, this comes from far-right members of the Conservative ideology, including political commentators like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens, but also political candidates like JD Vance in Ohio and Joe Kent in Washington and Representatives Madison Cawthorne, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Paul Gosar. For the most part, these are Republicans, yet there are those who identify as left-leaning or are registered Democrats who strongly support Putin. One of those is former Representative Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard’s background

Many will likely be familiar with Gabbard, given that she was a contender for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 US Presidential Election. Her run catapulted her into the national spotlight, however she has had a wider career than her run for president. Gabbard first entered politics in 2002 at the age of 21, when she was elected to the 43rd District of the Hawaiian House of Representatives. Declining to seek re-election in 2004 after having enlisted in the Hawaiian Army National Guard, Gabbard achieved the rank of officer in 2007 and served on the Honolulu City Council in 2011 and 2012. From 2013 to 2021, Gabbard was the elected Representative for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. During her time in office, she was the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, serving on a variety of foreign affairs committees and subcommittees.

Gabbard is a registered Democrat and has supported a number of  leftist initiatives, including Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for All” plan, calls for campaign finance reform and the legalisation of marijuana at the federal level. Simultaneously, she has often sided with Republicans on legislation that is anathema to Democratic policies such as imposing extra restrictions on Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Gabbard also exhibits an equivocal record on LGBTQ+ rights, while she has accused the Democrats of “weapon[sing] religion for their own selfish gain”.

Gabbard’s foreign policy has often resulted in intense criticism from the left. The Council of Foreign Relations notes Gabbard identifies as a hawk on Islamic terrorism. She has decried US support for militants fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, advocating for Washington working with Russia and Assad to fight terrorist groups instead. For some time, Gabbard opposed the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and is against removing the Assad regime. During her campaign for the Democratic nomination, she sold herself as having an anti-establishment, anti-interventionist foreign policy, which drew support from many controversial and far-right figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke. Also contentiously, Gabbard frequently appeared on Fox News as a sitting member of Congress, making more than 20 appearances between 2013 to 2017, and often opposing Obama’s foreign policy.

Not only is Gabbard’s foreign policy at odds with the majority of the Democratic Party, but her own actions have appalled people both on the political Left and Right. In early 2017, Gabbard held a private meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; in the immediate aftermath, while many foreign policy experts and US citizens were shocked, elected officials were largely silent. This came at a time when the Al-Assad regime’s repeated war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians, were known to the public. When Gabbard announced she was running for President, she defended her actions in a CNN interview; when asked if she had any regrets, she argued that it was important to meet with other leaders, “whether they be friends or adversaries or potential adversaries if we are serious about the pursuit of peace and securing our country”.

Putin’s American cheerleader

While Gabbard’s foreign policy decisions and statements were alarming during her time in office, her most concerning actions have occurred since she stepped down in early 2021. She has since started her own podcast, where she frequently calls for donations, and has remained very concerned with and invested in foreign affairs and politics in general. Gabbard has grown increasingly vocal, while taking a significant turn to the political right.

In appearances on Fox News, in particular on The Ingraham Angle and Tucker Carlson Tonight, Gabbard has openly criticised Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and has called for Democratic congressman Adam Schiff and former CIA Director John Brennan to be considered “domestic enemies” of the US. She considers the pair a greater danger to the United States than the rioters who stormed the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, while she has also warned of “efforts to combat domestic insurgents through surveillance and other monitoring activities”.

In August of 2022, perhaps driving the largest wedge between herself and the Democratic Party, Gabbard guest hosted for Tucker Carlson. During the broadcast, Gabbard said “there’s no denying that the unprecedented raid on [Donald Trump’s] Palm Beach home earlier this week has set our country on a dangerous new course, and there’s no turning back”. She also claimed that US law enforcement had been weaponised “to target the political opponents of the … Biden regime”, a move which had the “hallmarks of a dictatorship”.

While it is one thing for Gabbard to voice her own views, this becomes rather problematic considering her position as a Commissioned Officer in the US Army Reserve and the potential for her to serve Russian government interests as a useful idiot — a term often attributed to Lenin, and which describes a naïve person who can be used to further a political cause without necessarily properly comprehending it.

The danger of Gabbard’s use by the Russian government and the appropriate consequences

Gabbard’s comments are not surprising considering the number of people in both the political sphere and on social media who espouse Russian or non-Western aligned views. However, her comments are particularly surprising given her position within the US Armed Forces. In addition to her political career, Gabbard is a currently serving Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) in the US Army Reserve, assigned to the United States Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs Command-Airborne (USCAPOC(A)) as a Civil Affairs Officer. According to the official webpage of the US Army Special Operations Recruiting Battalion, any Civil Affairs Officer must be eligible for (and maintain) a Top-Secret Security Clearance, one of the most demanding and stringent security clearances within the United States government.

Within the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the military legal system, there is one area in which Gabbard’s comments could land her in hot water. Under 10 US Code § 888 – Article 88, “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct”.

Gabbard’s statements against President Biden have been numerous, while she also took direct shots at Nancy Pelosi, high-ranking members of Congress and the Executive Branch long before she starting hosting Tucker Carlson Tonight. Gabbard has asserted that the Russian Federation and the United States are “not so different” in terms of the censoring of free speech. She also claimed, in the early days of the Russian invasion, that “[Biden] wants Russia to invade Ukraine so that they can impose ‘draconian’ sanctions on the country”, while she also seemed to support Putin using his military to deter Ukraine’s NATO membership as a case of Russia pursuing its own national security interests.

What is of particular concern, however, is the fact that Gabbard’s top-secret security clearance gives her access to sensitive special operations and intelligence information, while she simultaneously operates within a mutually reinforcing dynamic with Russian propaganda outlets. Gabbard has claimed, for example, that the US supports several dozen former Soviet biolabs in Ukraine, which work with diseases like COVID-19, while also accusing the Biden administration of covering this up, claims which are directly based on Russian disinformation. Gabbard’s accusations are in turn rebroadcast by Russia propaganda outlets to further the country’s policy goals. According to The Intercept, Russian media “… featured translated clips of Tucker Carlson or his guest Tulsi Gabbard … attacking the Biden administration” at least four times in the month of February 2022.

In the aftermath of her hosting Carlson’s Fox News segment in August, the government of Ukraine placed Gabbard on a list of American citizens who have promoted Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, Alexander Vindman, the former US Army Officer who testified against Trump during the Trump-Ukraine Scandal, called her out on social media for being a liar and “an agent of Russian disinformation [who promotes] Russian aggression and endanger[s] America”.

Time for a review of Gabbard’s privileges

Gabbard’s actions have greatly benefitted the Russian government. Putin has been gifted a mouthpiece who commands the national attention of his main adversary, and who is supportive of his foreign policy goals. It would be wise for the US Department of Defense, the US Army Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs Command, and the US Army Reserve to reconsider her status within the elite field of Civil Affairs officers, and reevaluate her top-secret security clearance.

Gabbard has met the head of state of a sanctioned nation whose forces were actively engaged in combat with US-allied (and possibly US Special Operations) forces, called the Biden administration a dictatorship, and labelled the senior ranking member of a House Committee a domestic terrorist. She has not distanced herself nor seemed at all concerned that her face and views are being propagated by Russian state owned media for what are clearly nefarious and detrimental purposes. It is time for her privileged military status to be reviewed.

Alan Cunningham is an Illicit Finances Analyst. He holds an MA in International Relations from
Norwich University and a B.A./B.S. degree from the University of Texas. He aims to pursue a PhD
in History from the University of Birmingham in the UK.

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