Russian Method Used by U.S. 2023

Four left-wing black nationalists and three Russians were indicted last week for inciting strife and promoting Russian propaganda, another disturbing move toward criminalizing dissent. Russians allegedly enlisted Americans as spies. That charge draws on recent Russkies-under-the-bed fear and authoritarian regimes’ indictments of international dissidents who receive American money. Hypocritical and risky.

“A federal grand jury in Tampa, Florida, returned a superseding indictment charging four U.S. citizens and three Russian nationals with working on behalf of the Russian government and in conjunction with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to conduct a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign in the United States,” the DOJ said last week.

“Among other conduct, the superseding indictment alleges that the Russian defendants recruited, funded, and directed U.S. political groups to act as unregistered illegal agents of the Russian government and sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda; the indicted intelligence officers, in particular, participated in covertly funding and directing candidates for local office within the United States.”

Free Speech?

“The African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement (collectively, the APSP) in Florida, Black Hammer in Georgia, and a political group in California (referred to in the superseding indictment as U.S. Political Group 3)” are the arrested Americans.

The APSP claims “to lead the struggle of the African working class and oppressed masses against U.S. capitalist-colonialist domination and all the manifestations of oppression and exploitation that result from this relationship.”

That is, whether you agree with the message or not, the organization and its members harshly criticize the US government and its policies, including American support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia, which is protected by the First Amendment.

“The Supreme Court has long considered political and ideological speech to be at the core of the First Amendment, including speech concerning ‘politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,'” the Congressional Research Service noted in 2019.

“A government regulation that implicates political or ideological speech generally receives strict scrutiny in the courts, whereby the government must show that the law is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”

APSP and affiliated organization statements dominate indictment coverage.

“A federal grand jury has charged three St. Louis residents with illegally pushing pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation about Ukraine and sowing discord across Missouri, Georgia, and Florida through the African People’s Socialist Party,” St. Louis Public Radio said.

Foreign Agents

Pro-Russian propaganda? Ukraine misinformation? (Debatable) protected speech. The DOJ says the arrested Americans—Omali Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel, and Augustus C. Romain Jr.—received unlawful financing from Russians Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov, and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov. Natalia Burlinova (charged separately) selected Americans who “had expressed positive attitudes towards Russia and were prepared to continue to collaborate” as potential supporters.

“Ionov, Sukhodolov, Popov, Yeshitela, Hess, Nevel, and Romain are charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government within the United States without providing prior notification to the Attorney General, as required by law,” says the DOJ.

But the U.S. government regularly helps favorable abroad campaigners, and individuals justifiably object when they’re punished for receiving cash to promote their work.

US Foreign Agents

“The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal represents a significant, targeted expansion of U.S. Government efforts to defend, sustain, and grow democratic resilience with likeminded governmental and non-governmental partners,” the Biden administration said on December 9, 2021.

The $424.4 million effort supported independent media abroad, “anti-corruption change agents,” “historically marginalized groups,” and “activists, workers, and reform-minded leaders.” The program received $690 million more.

In addition, the 40-year-old National Endowment for Democracy (NED) “is dedicated to fostering the growth of a wide range of democratic institutions abroad, including political parties, trade unions, free markets and business organizations, as well as the many elements of a vibrant civil society that ensure human rights, an independent media, and the rule of law.” The non-governmental NED claims to be “funded largely by the U.S. Congress.”

In 1948’s Italian elections, the U.S. and Russia directly interfered. Supporting foreign groups and activists, even for good reasons, causes hostility.

Who Else Dislikes Foreign Agents? Russia!

“Two courts in Russia ruled against that country’s leading human rights organization,” NPR reported in 2021. “Russia’s High Court ordered the group’s liquidation for foreign agent violations.”

“For the past four years, the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous,” Human Rights Watch said in 2018. “An enduring, central feature has been the 2012 law requiring independent groups to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined ‘political activity.'”

Russian-style muzzling in the U.S.

In 2023, the US Department of Justice is prosecuting government policy dissidents using the same “foreign agent” pretext as Russia. It’s a shady technique to criminalize dissent by punishing activists with overseas allies.

The DOJ may allege that the APSP spreads harmful pro-Russian propaganda, while the Russians targeted excellent pro-human rights messaging.

“Russia’s foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights—freedoms Russia denies its own citizens—to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen sniffed.

“The department will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt U.S. elections in service of hostile foreign interests, regardless of whether the culprits are U.S. citizens or foreign individuals abroad.”

Let’s underline that free speech safeguards exist because governments can’t be trusted to discern good speech from bad speech. We must not let officials restrict our liberty to criticize them because they don’t like it.

However, the US Department of Justice now labels government critics foreign agents like the Kremlin. Interesting times.

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