A Kompromat Mystery
Collapsing the Austrian government with a video
The Austrian vice chancellor, HC Strache an extreme right wing politician, was exposed in a brilliant piece of kompromat that has collapsed a government in a weekend. When deploying weaponised kompromat the correct channel is via the most damaging source. Politicians are most exposed to public perceptions, a shared knowledge base primarily influenced by public mainstream media. Strache’s political capital was no match against the double barrelled blast from SZ and Der Spiegel – two major German language newspapers with Pulitzers and reputations for good journalism.
German language media covering this story has mostly been focused on the fallout, which is considerable. The coalition government needs Strache’s party to remain in power. The scandal forced Strache to resigned (not exactly what was predicted) and there’s now a snap election (strategically bad for the existing coalition government.) The impact of the kompromat is massive, a government has collapsed between Friday afternoon and Sunday, because of just one video tape? All fascinating no doubt, but…where did the kompromat come from? Did the impending European elections trigger the release? The only article looking at these questions is in German, so mankind may never know the answers.
Kompromat, it’s a hell of a drug
HC Strache’s undoing was the content of the video and audio files which show he is willing to sell out Austrian interests for dirty Russian money, that he is racist against Serbs and Croats, and that he wants to impose Hungarian style press restrictions on Austria’s free press. This latter is important both because of its repugnance to the Austrian population, but also because it ensures that no news organisation will defend Strache. Very few industries will elect to cut their own throats.d
UPDATE: The meeting was in July 2017, when Strache and his Freedom Party were not yet in power. While it was clear to everyone watching Austrian politics that Strache would be a major player after the next election, at the time he was just the ambitious head of a political party that’s “a bit Hitlerish.”
The kompromat video shows a 7 hour meeting – facilitated/translated by Gudenus, and his wife Tatjana Gudenus – between the two principals: HC Strache and a pretty “niece of an oligarch with close ties to Putin.” Readers may recall the last time a “niece with ties to Putin” was in the news – when Papadopoulous was recruited by the Russians. (Maybe a pretty niece is just standard kompromat tradecraft these days?)
UPDATE: some corrections below.
In the kompromat video the niece infoms HC Strache the Russians want to “invest” 240 million euro, of dubious origin, to help the extreme right wing party win elections. All the Russians ask in return is a few “favours” at some point in the future. “Done!” says Herr Strache, “The best use to me of this huge bribe of dirty Russian money with strings attached would be to purchase Austrian newspapers and influence public opinion. This will go great because I plan on implementing restrictive Budapest-like-laws to limit the freedom of the press in Austria!” “Also,” he continued, “you should launder half a million to 2 million euros into my party. You can use the same shady method that our existing billionaire backers (such as [name drops some ppl]) use when they illegally donate money. Have I mentioned how much I hate the Serbs and the Croats? I have a lot of racist things to say about them! That reminds me about the time I went to Russia to meet with Putin’s advisors and plan for strategic collaboration. I did that. A lot.” Sadly, it seems the video ends before he could explain the best way to kick a puppy or burn down an orphanage.
A professionally created kompromat event, such as the meeting with Putin’s friend’s niece, is thoroughly planned out ahead of time. The target is intensely investigated and their vulnerabilities and susceptiblities enumerated. A dossier is prepared with talking points for each weakness crafted to elicit compromising statements. One does not prepare and record a 7hour meeting for kompromat then “just wing it.” They plan everything and ensure they address all the overt reasons, and clandestine reasons, for the meeting.
Regardless of who arranged, conducted and executed the kompromat event, it was done to professional standards.
More questions than answers, coming right up
Other than the extremely damaging content of the kompromat, there are a few things worth noting. It was filmed in June 2017. Whoever setup the meeting and produced the kompromat has kept it in storage until deciding to deploy now. Who? And why now?
UPDATE:There are two events – possibly three – here that we need to analyse. The first event is the kompromat collection. The second event is the leak, the dissemination to the public. These dual events are what make this analysis so hard, the best fits for the collection event are terrible fits for the leak event. And vice versa. This is examined more closely in the second post “Kompromat of Solace.”
A detailed list of analytic confusion
Who has the capability [means], intent [motive] and opportunity to conduct this operation. I have no idea, but I have some thoughts:
- If it was a political opponent then sitting on the kompromat for 2 years would take an enormous about of willpower and a high risk appetite, not only could the blowback be severe, but a lot can happen in politics in 2 years – although not apparently, Brexit.
- A civil group opposed to right wing populist policies? Maybe, although it seems quite elaborate and expensively done. And again, the blowback could completely neutralise the effects of the kompromat – “Strache was setup by people who hate him, of course it makes him look bad, this is pure propaganda!”
- The Austrian Intelligence services looking to clean house so they can get back into the good graces of the EU intelligence community. This is a bit far fetched, in particular how would the services have the authority for this op? Still, it would explain the professionalism, the patience, and the timing (just before the EU elections.) It is certainly possible that the services decided to take matters into their own hands to protect their country from Russian influence. It is just unlikely that any one at a Service risked their career in a highly illegal operation on the slim chance it might protect the country from Russian influence.
- Could the Russians have done it? Absolutely, and if they did setup the meeting they would also have produced the kompromat as a matter of course. Why they would deploy it now is another question. Maybe he failed to deliver and they are punishing him? Maybe they want to cause Austria to become involved in internal politics as it sorts out the mess?
SPECULATION: In the absence of any other evidence, I think the Russians are a good fit (except for the deployment.) Russians almost never use kompromat because that burns it completely and burns any opportunity to recruit the asset in future, they like to keep their options open. I must mention that even if the kompromat was produced by the Russians and released to advance the Kremlins policy objectives, it doesn’t mean it must be dismissed out of hand.
HANDLING LEAKS: As always, the difficulty is making an ethical choice by weighing up the motives of the source, the content of the leak, and what serves the greater good of the public. In a case where the kompromat reveals that a high placed politician tried to trade favours for bribes, then exposure is clearly in the public interest, regardless of the source.
Information Warfare, bigger than “fake news”
Make no mistake, weaponising kompromat and deploying it against a sitting government is pure information warfare. As with all information warfare, the most powerful results come from the truth. The only lie in the kompromat is the identity of the Russian woman, the promises and offers she made to Strache (who they all knew was soon to be a major political power). His opinions, views, and attitude are all authentic because he genuinely believed that he was in a meeting with a representative of the Kremlin. This is how he would react if there really was a bribery offer from the Kremlin in exchange for “favours.”
Prepare the kompromat. On my mark, leak for effect…Leak!
This is one style of conducting a leak operation. It is not the only method, but it is based on sound principles that have been known to work in the past. Different leaking goals will be better served by other strategies, but if your leak package has damning evidence that you want make public quick, this is a known good approach.
Step 1: Make someone pay attention.
Successful leaking is a harder that simply putting a bunch of data into an email and sending it to a generic inbox at a newspaper. Unless there is a dedicated service set up to handle high priority leaks (such as SecureDrop) then the only alternative is the personal email of a journalist. One who’s beat means they’ll cover the leak. Once we are sure our leak package will be examined, we must ensure that positive action is taken.
Step 2: Get them read and understand it.
The data package itself has to be prepared for the journalist’s analysis and story writing. Essentially you must create a press kit and structure the data so that the journalist will have less work to do. If the targets are not familiar to the majority of the media’s audience, make sure there are clear simple write ups that contextualise them. If the topic is complex, provide an explainer for the journalist. Make sure to indicate why the leak is important – what makes it in the public interest:
- Timeliness and
Trim the data to make sure that it doesn’t have unrelated content (or worse, exculpatory content!) so that everything in the package supports your main goals.
Step 3: Force them to publish, but control the timetable
We need the journalist to operate on our timetable, not theirs. Fortunately, journalists respond to incentives making it a simple matter to goad them.
In 2016 the Russians creating the Guccifer 2.0 persona were under considerable time pressure and so they used the same trick to ensure that the story was covered immediately. They contacted The Smoking Gun (which has a reputation for releasing full documents), and Buzzfeed (which has a large distribution.) Either one of these outlets would have been sufficient, but to make sure that it was not spiked and it was published in a timely manner, both outlets received the leak package.
Send the leak to two different journalists at media outlets in the same market space. Neither journalist will be willing to risk the other one getting the scoop. In the case of the Strache kompromat, half of the video was sent to SZ and the other half to Der Spiegel. They both received audio. The two newspapers cooperated, pooled their resources and information, and coordinated their coverage and release timelines. Great stuff!
In summary, a solid leaking methodology
- Get the package to a high priority story queue by sending it directly to the correct journalist, or by placing it in the high priority queue for leaks.
- Make the leak clear and unambiguous. If the targets aren’t household names in the media market, provide a press kit explaining who they are and why it matters. Trim the leak to just the juicy bits, package related materials together, include explainers.
- To control the timing of the release, and ensure the story isn’t spiked, make sure that at least two competing media agencies have the data. The incentive to have the scoop will push them to publish with haste.
Destroying a government with a YouTube video
A minor caveat up front, I know as much about Austrian politics as someone who just learned about it from newspaper articles on an information warfare attack. UPDATE: I’ve now had several explainer courses on Austrian politics. Thank you! (Now please stop.)
The power of information warfare is bigger in the Information Age than it was a century ago. The ability to use information to mould social perceptions into a state that supports a particular world view is easier now than ever before. Despite social media having a significantly larger reach than traditional media, as gatekeepers to “important news” the media are still the heavy hitters in the information warfare space. Ignore the Facebook trolls, the Twitter bots, and the Instagram memes – this is how you info war.
As always, if you like watching right wing politicians sell out their country for bribes from the Kremlin smash subscribe, grab some hidden mic audio from my SoundCloud “Putin’s Niece,” and check out my store for authentic merchandise: shop.putinsniece.com