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Rigged by David Shimer
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Rigged by David Shimer
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Oct 05, 2021 | ISBN 9780593081969

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    Oct 05, 2021 | ISBN 9780593081969

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A New York Times Editors’ Choice Book • A Washington Post Notable Work of Nonfiction • Named one of the five best books in Politics & Current Events by the 2020 Outstanding Work of Literature Awards

“This is a brilliant, eye-opening, and riveting book. Shimer’s analysis of foreign interference in elections, historical and contemporary, is unmatched. It should be the baseline for any future discussions about this urgent threat to our democracy.”
—Jake Sullivan, Former Director of Policy Planning, State Department

“In his absorbing new book, Rigged, David Shimer argues that the Russia story is far older, and the risks to U.S. electoral security far greater, than we imagined, particularly as a new election approaches.”
—Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post

“This pioneering and judicious history of foreign intervention in elections should be read by everyone who wants to defend democracy now.”
—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny

“This new and astonishing book by David Shimer will help rescue our democracy. I read every word of it. You should too.”
—Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67th U.S. Secretary of State

“With clear prose and rigorous argument, David Shimer helps us understand the historical backdrop of Russia’s ongoing electoral interference.  It is a sobering story – and a timely reminder of the importance of addressing the vulnerabilities and dysfunctions on which resourceful adversaries like Putin will continue to prey.”
– Ambassador William J. Burns, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State

“Covert efforts to influence U.S. elections is not newit is part of a hundred year strategy by the Russians to undermine our democracy.  This age old competition between the superpowers was won by the Russians in 2016. But as David Shimer makes clear in this bookit is up to us to decide whether we will lose again in this new chapter of the Cold War or whether we will successfully defend our democratic experiment.”
—Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA

Rigged offers a convincing analysis of what changed in the three decades since the cold war and with the arrival in the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin… a judicious overview of our unhappy times.”
—Luke Harding, The Guardian

The National Book Review

“Eye-opening… thoroughly engaging… Rigged is a top-notch, if not the definitive, account of Russian assaults against America’s electoral processand a mighty timely call for caution.”
Booklist, starred

Rigged is a riveting read.  David Shimer provides a clear-eyed, highly readable, meticulous history of foreign electoral interference, in which revelations abound.  It is an indispensable book that is very timely and very relevant, especially as we approach the elections of 2020. Readers won’t be able to put it down.”  
—General (Ret.) David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA and Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan

“[An] authoritative book… His section about the torturous deliberations within President Obama’s administration about how to respond to Russia’s active measures is comprehensive to the point of encyclopedic… fascinating reading.”
—Philip Ewing, NPR

“Provocative and well-sourced… This incisive treatise lays bare the monumental task of countering foreign interference in the 2020 election.”
Publishers Weekly

“As a CIA operations officer, I served through the most complicated periods of the Cold War. David Shimer’s book Rigged gives a riveting account of that traumatic period. Shimer knows why and how we engaged in covert action, and what we were up against. He also knows the policies we must modify, if we are to succeed in the 2020s. This is a truly significant book; by all means, read it.”
—Ambassador Donald Gregg, Former CIA Station Chief and National Security Advisor to VP George H.W. Bush

Rigged provides a fascinating window into the shadowy world of covert election interference — and Shimer illuminates how it produces lasting, if sometimes unintended, consequences.”
—Brian Klaas, Washington Post columnist and author of How to Rig an Election

“The first book to put the story of Russian interference into a broader context. . . Extraordinary and gripping. . . With the pacing of a thriller and the insight of a superb work of history. . . this book is nothing less than essential reading.
Tim Naftali, The New York Times Book Review

“‘Election interference’ by one country into another is a subject that inspires speculation and conspiracy theory. David Shimer’s Rigged establishes the facts: when and why Russians and Americans have meddled in the politics of other countries – and of one another. Based on a wide range of sources, this book is an excellent resource for people who want to know what actually happened, and not just what was rumored.
—Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History

Author Q&A


The former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told you his greatest fear in 2016 was Russian-backed hackers altering vote tallies and registration rolls in various swing states. You reveal that Russia had this capability. Fortunately, they didn’t go that far. In 2020, it seems Trump will actively encourage interference, and possibly all-out election stealing. Is the looming danger as big as it seems?

Let’s go back to Election Day 2016. In the White House and at DHS, as I reveal in my book, secret crisis teams were bracing for a Russian cyberattack against our voting systems. Russian hackers could have altered voter data. They could have altered tallies. And so Barack Obama’s foremost concern was to prevent such an attack.

As vulnerable as America was then, things are even worse today. The sitting president has invited foreign interference in our elections, and has claimed that the vote will be rigged against him. The coronavirus has spawned widespread concern—on the left and the right—that voting will be disorderly at best and corrupt at worst. In this already chaotic environment, Russia could carry out the attack Obama feared in 2016—to sabotage our voting systems—and throw America into turmoil on Election Day. 

If, in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Trump was leading in the polls, how would Obama have acted differently?

In the summer and fall of 2016, the operating assumption inside the White House was that Donald Trump would lose the election, and that he would then claim the election was rigged and incite mass unrest. Obama anticipated that to add to that unrest, Russia would sabotage America’s voting systems. So in the months leading up to Election Day, Obama focused entirely on preventing Russia from manipulating our voting systems, and focused not at all on preventing Russia from manipulating voters on social media and with hacked emails.

Had Trump been ahead in the polls, Obama’s calculus presumably would have been flipped. He would have focused less on how Trump would behave in defeat and more on whether Russia was powering Trump to victory. And his objective, then, would have been to stop Russia from manipulating American voters, and perhaps he would have then responded in a more forceful way to Russia’s email dumps and social media manipulation.

Harry Reid told you he thinks vote tallies were altered in 2016. Is there any validity to that?

I asked Jim Clapper and Susan Rice that exact question, and what they told me is that they saw no evidence that Russia altered vote tallies, but that they could not rule it out.

Because back in 2016, what the Obama administration kept from the American public—but what is vital to understand now—is that on Election Day itself, Russian hackers had the capability to manipulate the votes and voter data of American citizens. The U.S. intelligence community knew this, which is why as voting unfolded, the White House and DHS were running secret crisis teams, awaiting a Russian cyberattack against our voting systems.

No evidence has emerged that Russia actually manipulated our electoral systems. But Harry Reid is convinced that as decades pass, and as Putin’s advisers retire and start talking, we’ll learn that Russia did far more to affect the 2016 election than is publicly known at this moment.

How has Russian interference differed from American interference historically?

I’ll start with what’s the same, which is that across history, both the CIA and Russian intelligence have interfered covertly in elections all over the world in order to help the candidates they like and undermine those they don’t.
What’s different is that in doing so, the Soviet and now Russian objective has long been to promote candidates poised to tear apart their democracies from within. U.S. presidents, by contrast, have long believed they could use covert electoral interference to strengthen foreign democracies. In Italy in 1948, the CIA concluded that defeating the Communist Party would save Italian democracy. And in Serbia in 2000, as I reveal in my book, Bill Clinton believed he could solidify Serbian democracy by working against the tyrant Slobodan Milosevic.

The other key difference here has to do with twenty-first century behavior. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been covertly interfering in elections all over the world, whereas the CIA has moved away from this practice—and, I believe, should now ban it altogether.

What are some ways election interference can backfire? What are some ways it can succeed even when the preferred candidate doesn’t win?

The answer differs for America and Russia. For America, engaging in covert electoral interference is a risky proposition precisely because American politicians have lambasted Russia for doing so. If the CIA were caught interfering in an election abroad, American hypocrisy would be broadcast before the world, and our soft power, so to speak, would suffer.

Putin doesn’t have to worry about that, because he doesn’t advocate for free and fair elections. For him, the risk of interfering in foreign elections is that doing so will isolate him on the world stage, and that countries like America will impose substantial costs on Russia for its bad behavior.

The thing is, for Russia, it is possible for a covert electoral operation to succeed regardless of who wins. Putin’s objective is to corrupt democracies and discredit the democratic model, so if his hackers succeed in plunging an election into turmoil, he will succeed in showing the world that the democratic model is unenviable and undesirable.  

It’s interesting how little the techniques of interference have changed over the last 100 years. It is still false information, funneling cash, cut-outs, and backing 3rd party candidates with no chance to split the vote. What’s next?

That’s absolutely right. Almost nothing about Russia’s 2016 operation was original.

In 2016, Russia targeted our voting systems; Joseph Stalin manipulated the voting systems of countries across Eastern Europe in the postwar period, and Putin’s Russia has more recently manipulated the election systems of countries like Ukraine.

In 2016, Russia outed the private correspondence of public figures in John Podesta and DNC officials. Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, told me about how he and his colleagues would do the same, when they searched for and released private information about American politicians. In 1976, for instance, the KGB leaked private—and fictitious—information about Henry Jackson, a presidential candidate, to try to undermine his presidential campaign. So the idea behind the DNC and Podesta leaks was nothing new. 

And in 2016, Russian trolls used fake social media accounts to spread disinformation, scare voters, target specific constituencies, turn out some voters, and suppress others. The KGB—and, by the way, the CIA—have done all of those things, in many countries around the world.

So what’s next is that Russia will continue to refine and enhance these techniques: to sow discord and help its preferred candidate, to manipulate American voters across the internet, and to target our voting systems. 

Do you see a clear moral difference between covert electoral interference like the US did in Chile and Italy, and backing coups like they did in Iran and Guatemala?

I do. That’s not to say I think the CIA should be interfering in elections—in fact, I think the agency should ban the practice—but the histories of American coup plotting and of American electoral interference are entirely distinct.
What the CIA did in Iran and Guatemala, which was to topple democratically elected governments, tore down democracies. That was fundamentally misguided and profoundly unAmerican. 

What the CIA did in countries like Italy and Serbia was support candidates they believed would strengthen their democracies. That was the idea in Serbia, when, as I reveal in my book, Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to support the opposition to Slobodan Milosevic, not to undermine Serbian democracy, but to enhance it by toppling a tyrannical regime.

You talked to old hands from both the CIA and KGB in writing this book. How do they look back at their actions in the Cold War? With nostalgia, regretfully, warmly?

I did have the privilege of spending many, many hours with eight former CIA directors and with Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, discussing Cold War-era operations to interfere covertly in elections.

And what I found is that while the rest of the world was shocked by Russian interference in America’s 2016 election, these former spy chiefs just saw more of the same.

Oleg Kalugin told me, with great pride, about operations he participated in to undermine American elections throughout the Cold War, in order to destroy Republican candidates like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

And among these former CIA directors, there was also a sense of pride, but of a different sort: that the CIA had covertly aided pro-democracy candidates around the world, and that they should receive credit for doing so.

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