The unlikely face of Russia’s information war with the West is a real estate investor in Florida. His name is Scott Rickard, and he is one of a coterie of American conspiracy theorists who have become central in Russia’s latest propaganda efforts. The Russians discovered Rickard through Iranian state media, who had been broadcasting interviews with him since 2012 and billing him as “an activist and former American intelligence linguist.” According to Linkedin, he has worked at a real estate investment company in central Florida since 2007, but over the last year and a half, he has been consulted in Iranian and Russian media over 200 times as a covert affairs expert, in nationally syndicated television, radio, and print. So who exactly is Scott Rickard?
His early interviews on Iran’s Press TV hint at how Rickard achieved his modicum of fame. Press TV is owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and is vehemently critical of Israel, often outright anti-Semitic, garnering criticism from civil rights groups in the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League warned in March that “Press TV has emerged as the Iranian government’s primary propaganda tool to promote a wide range of pernicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in English to a worldwide audience.” Rickard is avowedly not anti-Semitic (“There are many great Jews in the world”) but instead anti-Zionist, and his interviews with Press TV have been consistently in line with his hosts’ political agenda.
For instance, blaming Chuck Hagel’s resignation last month on “the control of the think-tanks and the Zionist military-industrial-complex [and] the Zionist financial-industrial-complex,” is a typical Rickard sound byte. A few months after his first interview with Press TV, Rickard put out a list on Facebook of pro-Israel advocates, and when asked why, wrote on Facebook that he was “keeping track of Zionist asshole traitors.” His articulate hatred of the U.S. and Israel, combined with a purported American intelligence background, made Rickard invaluable to Iran’s propagandists. Credibility issues like his current profession or his dubious connection to the NSA were likely not at the top of their agenda.
Indeed, by his own account, Rickard last worked for the NSA as a linguist in 1987. In the subsequent years, he went into information technology, even consulting for NASA, according to a 2005 corporate bio, before ending up in Florida’s real estate industry. No record could be found of his company, Spacecoast Real Estate Investment Trust, and clues to his identity are tantalizingly vague– state records do have a Scott Rickard as the founder of a short-lived government defense contractor, and local classified advertisements list Scott Rickard as a sales manager at an industrial cleaning service, which stated that Rickard was no longer with the company. Both businesses are located within 15 miles of Rickard’s house, but Rickard would not return emails to confirm or deny his association with them.
Rickard insists anyway that the long time since his intelligence days is irrelevant. “I know more real intelligence than the people inside the NSA and CIA,” he said in an online interview, mostly by ignoring Western media and “corroborating” news from alternative sources. His actual evidence is not presented in any of his interviews, but his expertise is consulted on a huge variety of current affairs issues, with one consistent theme—the threat of American and Israeli influence. It is a hugely appealing message to the government-financed news stations that have given him fame.
Russia’s evolving anti-Western agenda made Rickard’s utility to foreign propagandists especially obvious. His first Russian interview was in June of 2013, a year after his first appearance in Iran, with the English language broadcasting outlet RT. RT is a Russian government financed network to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” It has been integral in communicating the Kremlin’s basic message about Ukraine: the U.S. and Western powers are engineering Ukraine’s civil war. Again, Rickard’s intelligence bona fides and consistently anti-Western commentary made him a very attractive asset.
Propaganda assets were in high demand at RT by March of 2014. February had been eventful: Ukrainian protesters installed a pro-Western government, the pro-Russian prime minister fled the country, Russia invaded Crimea, and then supported an armed uprising in Ukraine’s east. Rickard, who had done only scattered interviews the previous year, was thrust back into the spotlight of Kremlin propaganda efforts. On March 17th, RT aired a nearly half-hour long interview with Rickard about how the U.S. funded street violence in Ukraine and caused the overthrow of the Ukrainian government, beginning an avalanche of press coverage.
Next, Russia’s second largest television network, Rossiya 1, broadcast an interview with Rickard at his home in Florida, translated it into Russian, and rebroadcast it on their sister stations and subsidiaries nationwide. RIA Novosti, the state controlled news service, published two separate articles on the same day featuring Rickard’s expert testimony of CIA and State Department meddling in Kiev. He has since become a regular guest on RT’s talk show “CrossTalk,” where he and the moderator disparage pro-Western guests with near glee. All told, in the month after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Rickard’s expertise was cited in 7 different national news publications in Russia, reprinted in local papers nationwide, and broadcast in television, print, and radio.
His sudden fame in March came as the Kremlin was beginning a new clampdown on Russian media. Journalists were already reeling from the closing of RIA Novosti, Russia’s historic news agency, “reorganized” last December for covering Ukraine’s protests too sympathetically. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, RT host Abby Martin slammed the Russian invasion on air. Another host, Liz Wahl, resigned on air the next day. On March 12th, the editor of the popular news site Lenta.ru was removed after airing an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist and replaced with a pro-Russian journalist, leading 84 employees of Lenta.ru to resign. The founder of Russia’s most popular social networking site, vKontakte, fled Russia in early April, after he refused to turn over data about Ukrainian protesters. Rickard became a Russian news celebrity just as the Kremlin was purging independent journalists from the media.
Scott Rickard is not alone. A constellation of Western conspiracy theorists, brought together though the Internet, has become a vital source to Russian and Iranian propagandists. The tenor of their commentary is much the same as Rickard’s— anti-Western, anti-Israel, and convinced that small groups of the powerful rule the world. Their entrance into Russian and Iranian media represents a fundamental change in the nature of propaganda. Propagandists in Moscow and Tehran no longer dictate the official line, but crowd-source it, drawing on American conspiracy theorists to support their political agenda.
Here, conspiracy theorist is an accurate term — these pseudo-experts are obsessed with conspiracies as a way of explaining world affairs — but the term is misleading. The label of “conspiracy theorist” is used often to write off the people it describes, implying they are eccentric fringe elements. CNN suffered this tunnel vision while interviewing the former RT host Liz Wahl. They broadcast a clip of Scott Rickard, identifying him as “former intelligence linguist,” before dismissing him as a typical conspiracy theorist and never mentioning him by name. Ignoring Rickard and the litany of other “typical conspiracy theorists” is to be willfully blind of their growing clout internationally.
Another example is Veterans Today, part of the Veterans News Network, a group of former military and intelligence employees operating what appears to be a veterans-oriented news outlet, but is in fact a vehemently anti-Israel conspiracy site. Its editor Gordon Duff was criticized specifically by the Southern Poverty Law Center and ADL as an “anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist” who blames Israel for the 9/11 attacks and alleges that Israel’s Mossad created the Wikileaks documents. Duff has been a favorite of Iran’s Press TV, recently traveling with them to a counter-terrorism conference in Damascus, and stating the U.S. left the Iraqi army deliberately unprepared for ISIS. All told, he and other Veterans Today contributors have been cited by Russian and Iranian state news over 300 hundred times in the last year. Oddly, Duff himself has admitted that much of the news on Veterans Today is fabrication:
“About 30% of what’s on Veterans Today is patently false. About 40% of what I write is at least purposefully partially false. Because if I didn’t write false information I wouldn’t be alive. I simply have to do that.” Press TV Interview, March 9th, 2012
On the other end of the conspiracy spectrum is the World Tribune—pro-Israel and accused of being a neo-conservative conspiracy outlet. The World Tribune’s military editor, Frederick A Peterson III, has been shown often on Iran’s Press TV as an example of pro-Israel bias. Even Scott Rickard got a chance to rip into Peterson about Russia’s invasion of Crimea, saying that Peterson had a lifetime of supporting State Department rhetoric and that he needed to “take responsibility.”
The World Tribune’s senior editor, Robert J. Morton, is also an assistant editor with the Washington Times, the publishing arm of the Unification Church, founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The Unification Church has been controversial, accused of brainwashing and investigated by Congress for being used by South Korean intelligence to gain political influence in the U.S. Morton himself is a member.
In 2003, the New Yorker detailed the murky origin of the World Tribune in an interview with Morton. Morton began the World Tribune in 1998 while working at a conservative think-tank. Expecting it to only last a few months, Morton instead garnered millions of hits, eventually turning a profit. The Tribune has advocated a preemptive strike on North Korea, blamed U.S. blackouts on Al-Qaeda, and published articles “confirming” WMDs in Iraq. The latter went on to be cited by The Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly to support the invasion of Iraq. Just as the World Tribune was used as a verbal punching bag by the Iranians, it was used alternately to support a neoconservative agenda at home.
The Centre for Research on Globalization (Global Research) in Montreal illustrates the ease such conspiracy theorists can stumble into importance. Led by University of Ottawa Professor Michel Chossudovsky. Global Research has been accused of anti-Semitism, printing articles that deny the Holocaust ever happened, and accusing Zionist Jews of controlling U.S. media and finance.
Yet, in a now familiar pattern, Chossudovsky is also a prominent contributor to Russia’s RT, RIA Novosti, and other Russian and Iranian news outlets. His articles are consistently supportive of his patrons’ agenda– recently, Chossudovsky took to RT’s op-ed pages, to write an increasingly common story in Iran and Russia—the U.S. is the architect of ISIS. As with the others, it is dangerous to dismiss Chossudovsky as a kook. In January of 2012, an article he wrote claiming to have proof of U.S. and British operatives training Syrian rebels was emailed to Bashar al-Assad himself by a Syrian general. In the leaked email, the general asks simply, “How true is this?”
Rickard and other fringe intellectuals are able to make these arguments precisely because what they discuss is already shrouded in secrecy. The Internet can act to confuse issues as much as it illuminates, using popularity and links to validate otherwise dubious “news sources.” Deft use of the Internet is essential in Russia’s renewed propaganda campaign, or as one expert called it “Russia’s weaponization of information.” Kremlin efforts at disinformation date back to Tsarist times, but the use of American sources represents a fundamentally new dynamic in propaganda, one made entirely possible by the rise of the Internet and 24-hour media coverage.
To that end, Russia has been extremely successful—Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine, and the MH17 passenger jet, almost certainly shot down by rebels, have all become matters of debate between Russia and the West. With few basic facts to agree on, the West’s attempts at negotiating an end to the crisis have stalled. Russian public opinion is also enthusiastic—70% believe that tensions between Russia and the West are a scheme devised by Western governments and more than half believe that the West is controlling Ukrainian politics.
Part of the true power of information wars in the digital age is how ubiquitous disinformation can become. The purpose of using Rickard and his ilk is not to convince Westerners of how they’ve erred, but rather to discombobulate foreign public opinion, while bolstering support at home. The ultimate irony is that these anti-government conspiracy theorists have become instrumental to the propaganda of tyrants worldwide. As Scott Rickard quotes on his Linkedin—“Amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people.”