Active Measures – How Putin took the White House – words Calum Russell
“The thing that really changed for us as we started doing research was how far back things went” Jack Bryan
As we join Jack Bryan and his documentary team in their through investigations into Russian collusion during the 2016 election, we find ourselves down a rabbit hole of systemic corruption, political malice and economic greed. Holding a dark shadow over U.S politics, this is a problem, of course, yet to be resolved with the Mueller report continuing to put considerable pressure on the highly contentious leader.
‘Active Measures’, is a phrase made famous in the 20th century in reference to the process of political warfare conducted by the Russians in order to influence the course of world events. An apt title for Bryan’s newest work, which compiles comprehensive studies and opinions from leading world figures such as Hillary Clinton and the late John McCain, to bolster the case for Trump’s collusion with dubious Russian figures.
In discussion with Flux, Jack Bryan discussed both the practical process of putting such an encyclopedic picture together as well as the political ideas that fuel the narrative itself and implore for further conversation.
What motivated you to want to dig deeper on this story? Did you go in with a viewpoint that was challenged at all?
“Yeah, when I went into it looking into this story, we really started to become suspicious of what was going on around June of 2016 during the campaign, everything that we saw after that seemed to back up our suspicions. We went into it with a loose idea, we really started researching it heavily in 2017, the thing that really changed for us as we started doing research was how far back things went. We’d assumed that Trump started getting involved with Russian money in 2004, 2005, but what we found out was in 1984 he had personally sold several condos in Trump Tower to a Russian mobster called David Bogdan. The New York attorney general called that money laundering, and so everything that we looked at, ended up starting earlier and went on for longer than we initially expected.”
The documentary is comprehensive and far-reaching in terms of the sheer amount of research an information that has gone into it. What was your approach when presenting all this information in the stage of pre-production?
“We shift back and forth in the narrative between the Russian side of the story and the Trump story, in order to get the whole thing straight in our heads we compiled a document which we called our ‘bible’, a 120 page document including every incident that we could find that was applicable. Every story throughout that period of time, starting in the 1980s that shed light on what we were looking at. That became our script and so we started creating boards, making connections, writing on windows and stuff like that but eventually I really wanted it in a script format. Any time we needed to figure out where we should start something or where something happened we’d go back to that. It became a very helpful document for us.”
Aside from the practical challenges that come with the production of any film, did you face any backlash or opposition regarding the subject of the film itself?
“Certainly. There are people that don’t buy the narrative but you expect that walking in. The only push-back that was concerning for us was that we’d occasionally get threatening phone calls and voicemails. We’d get followed through train stations in DC, so that was pretty concerning. But no one tells you who they are or why they’re following you, so I don’t know that those were Russians but it certainly heightened my suspicions!”
Did paranoia seep into the production a little bit?
“We were careful, we tried to be as careful as possible, we used only secure locations, encrypted emails, we had a security team that we were working with, we tried to be cautious so that we didn’t have to be paranoid. The thing with being followed and things like that, is that it can lead you down a path to paranoia, and that’s a dangerous place to be. The trick with dealing with stuff like that for me is just saying ‘I don’t know who’s following me, it could be the feds for all I know’, but you have to take that position because otherwise every leaf that blows is somehow working for the Russians.”
Including Hillary Clinton, the late John Mccain and the former presidents of both Georgia and Estonia, how did you go about sourcing these high-profile interviews? Were they all quite willing to get involved?
“My partners in this film were Laura DuBois and Marley Clements. Marley had worked a lot in D.C and did the research and wrote it with me as well, but the main reason I wanted to bring her on was that she really knew how D.C worked in a way that I did not. Her approach was to say ‘If we want to get a John McCain, what we have to do is, not go directly to him, but who we can go directly to is the people whose opinions he respects’. People who run think tanks, people who used to work in his office writing policies, so we approached some of those people, people we knew he thought very highly of and brought them onto the project, explaining to them what we were doing. By the time we got to McCain which was actually early on in the process, he was like ‘oh this is not some crazy conspiracy thing, you’re talking to actual foreign policy people, you’re talking to the people that know this field better than anybody’. Once we got John McCain that made everything else easier.”
Was there anyone you really wanted to interview that you couldn’t pin down? Any republicans that wanted to comment?
“Yeah, first of all we invited every Republican senator to be interviewed, we didn’t tell them a time, we just said we’d love to interview you at your convenience and I believe every single one of them, with a couple of exceptions, all used the excuse that ‘they couldn’t find time in their schedules’. We had a back and forth with Mike Flynn for a while, to see if we could talk to him, really early in the process, before he started talking to Mueller. We tried to get into contact with Christopher Steele, we had a few overtures with him to see if he would be able to do an interview and he turned us down several times.”
The film concludes, stating that Trump is a ‘puppet’ for the Russians. To what extent do you believe this to be true? How much influence do you think they currently have on Trump?
“I think when one hears ‘puppet’, especially when it’s a foreign country, one thinks of spy fiction but I think the best way to think about it is like lobbying. So you have politicians that are basically owned by the oil lobby, now that doesn’t mean that they wake up and think ‘how can I serve the oil lobby’ what they think is when a time for a position for them to vote in some way comes up, ‘How can I vote along with my interests here but not get myself thrown out of office over there’ and so It’s a balancing act.
Trump tried to lift sanctions immediately after he got into office, now the entire congress voted in a veto proof majority to extend sanctions during that period of time…I think that there’s an element of ‘they understand that his hands are tied to an extent’ that there’s a limit to what he can do but they’ve gotten a lot of the stuff that they wanted, the sanctions enforcement has been abysmal and they lifted sanctions against Oleg Deripaska‘s company, he is the main oligarch I would be concerned about being involved in 2016 in a real way.
I think that they have gotten a lot of the stuff that they wanted, I think that it’s very unlikely that Crimea will ever be returned to Ukraine, just because the last 2 ½ years, 3 years it hasn’t happened. So I think that while, if Trump had accomplished his goals of lifting sanctions it would be better for them and if he had somehow convinced members of congress not to sanction them further that would’ve been better for the Russians as well but they’ve got about as much as they could ask from him. He’s still getting away with the notion that they were attacking our elections in 2016 and even the barr summary said that they were doing that 100%. So I don’t know how they could’ve got more out of it than they’ve already got.”
With the recent arrest of Paul Manafort, do you think it’s a matter of time before Trump is dismissed himself?
“I think it’s really tough. 1968 Nixon back channeled with the north Vietnamese to prevent them going to peace talks with Johnson that dive bombed Johnson’s chances, that was him negotiating with a country we were at war with. 1980’s as more evidence comes out about it, it very likely seems that Regan back channeled with the Iranians to not release the hostages till after the elections, in fact till after he was inaugurated. Both of those went completely unpunished, completely accepted and looked past, my concern is that these things are going to happen increasingly and are not going to be dealt with in a way that’s really serious. I’m very worried about this just being a thing that goes un-dealt with and what that means for Western democracy in the future.”
Unfortunately you can see that happening. Crimes being un-dealt with.
“Yeah, we’re not doing anything to defend our democracy. Nothing to bolster our voting systems. They have money that congress has given them, 100’s of millions of dollars to improve our voter systems, they haven’t used it.”
There does seem to be a consequence free-environment growing at the moment. Trump saying what he pleases on Twitter, no matter how controversial. He doesn’t seem to get any backlash from it. You could say the same for many other politicians.
“One of the things that is very similar between Nigel Farage and Trump is that as long as they speak elliptically, vaguely, they can say apparently anything they want. It’s really weird. Whether it’s Farage walking out of the Ecuadorian embassy or whether it was Trump saying ‘Russia if you want to hack Hillary Clinton’s account that would be really great’, on TV. So long as we’re too cute by half, there’s no consequences it seems.”
How do you think he’s currently getting away with it?
“There’s a lot of problems. But I think the big problem is, he’s someone who is attacking institutions and is accusing everybody of operating corruptly while he is operating corruptly. I think what that does to people who are institutionalist, people who have worked in the justice department for 30 years, what they say is ‘I’ll show him, we’re going to do this extra by-the-book’, and so I think he changes the goalposts for everybody. When you only have one guy who’s not playing by the rules and everybody else is, it changes the game and the traditional means of doing things. I think that in today’s world Nixon would’ve gotten away with it. With full republican support like Trump has. If they had a cable channel that was just pumping out pro-Nixon stuff every day. If he hadn’t resigned maybe they wouldn’t have charged him, that certainly seems more likely in the light of the barr summary.”
Do you think getting rid of him would solve the problem at all? It seems to be systemic in the American government.
“We’re not defending ourselves. It’s like we’re getting punched in the face continuously and we refuse to raise our arms. We have to at the very least get on the defence and have a country where we have a clear narrative for everybody. After 9/11 G.W blamed it on Iraq, that cost so much of our ability as a nation to act clearly and to speak with any sort of moral authority and my concern is that this is doing the same kind of thing. We can’t even have a country-like narrative that the Russians even attacked us.”
What’s next for yourself? Trump keeps pumping out enough material for a sequel, do you think you’d return to this subject?
“The next thing we’re working on is a documentary series about the rise of global authoritarianism. That, if anything, is scarier than this one. But it’s a real problem, authoritarianism and dictatorships are very hard to unwind.”
Any particular figures you’re going to be exploring?
“It’s going to go over a lot of territory. Russia’s going to be a big part. China, Hungary, Brazil. Also it’s about the narrative of it, the late 90’s how everyone was going democratic. The world was becoming more of a democracy, more, ‘lower-case L’, liberal. Mid 2000’s everything seemed to recess and so it’s examining why that happened and how that happened and where it’s going.”
Active Measures is out now across demand platforms. For more information go to www.activemeasures.com