But those agencies have brushed off VVA since they were presented with evidence that eventually became a detailed report and congressional testimony, said Kristofer Goldsmith, the veteran service organization’s chief investigator.
And their plea to President Trump for help has similarly been ignored, Goldsmith said — suggesting the problem may be perceived as too complex or politically fraught for U.S. officials concerned to cross Trump, who has downplayed Russia’s role in election interference.
“It’s easy to say ‘let’s send Javelins to Ukraine.’ People get that,” Goldsmith told The Washington Post. “It’s much more difficult for the secretary of VA to say ‘this is our plan to educate 9 million veterans who use our health care on how to spot a deep fake or falsified news.’ ”
The group asked Trump to intervene in a Dec. 18 letter because no federal agency responded to their evidence of foreign “fraudulent activities ranging from identity theft to election interference,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post. It was emailed to Jennifer Korn, Trump’s liaison to veterans groups, according to an obtained email message.
VVA has not received a response. It is not clear whether any of those agencies have taken the lead or are focused on the exploitation of veterans in foreign disinformation campaigns, Goldsmith said, and none of them has asked for more information on the subject after he has become the veteran community’s most prominent cybersleuth.
White House officials received the letter but declined to describe what, if anything, they did with it and would not comment on the report.
But the administration “works every day to counter malign foreign influence, from identifying and exposing foreign actors to disrupting and imposing costs for these actions,” a senior official said, adding that “any attempt to undermine our democracy is a matter of national security.”
The FBI said it does not comment on tips but takes the issue of foreign influence “very seriously” and provides information to the public on how to protect itself from online foreign influence.
VA declined to discuss a perception of inaction. Susan Carter, an agency spokeswoman, issued a generic statement saying “veterans are the targets of many of the same types of fraud as the rest of society.”
The Defense Department “has broad guidance and training about service member activity on social media,” including cyber-awareness training, said spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Carla M. Gleason. She did not mention any training specific to identifying foreign misinformation aimed at service members.
The Pentagon provided the letter to U.S. Cyber Command “upon receipt,” Gleason said, and referred further questions to it. Cyber Command then referred back to the Pentagon’s statement.
Memes, over-the-top political comments and false news articles created by adversarial governments and foreign troll farms intentionally sowed social chaos by championing veterans and denigrating liberals and minorities, VVA’s report found, and many carry pro-Trump messages aided by common perceptions that the military leans conservative.
“Veterans as a cohort are more likely than others to participate in democracy. That includes not only voting but running for office and getting others to vote,” Goldsmith told The Post in September.
The pages are often wildly popular, with some followings numbering in the hundreds of thousands. One fake VVA page generated about a quarter-million fans, which quickly dwarfed the real group’s Facebook following, Goldsmith said.
In response to Goldsmith’s findings, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in March asked the FBI to investigate the “shadowy figures” behind the pages.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing on foreign disinformation in November, but “none of these agencies have done enough to stop it,” committee spokesperson Jenni Geurink said. The committee will privately meet with the FBI this month on the issue, Geurink added.
But a tepid response from officials has frustrated VVA, which called for a whole of government response on the heels of its congressional testimony and its report, which found persistent, aggressive targeting of veterans originating from at least 32 countries.
For instance, the Russian Internet Research Agency — a troll factory with Kremlin ties and the target of U.S. indictments and cyberattacks — bought at least 113 online ads aimed at U.S. veterans and followers of veterans advocacy groups during and after the 2016 election, according to VVA’s report.
Many pages are operated from Asia and Eastern Europe, and some even have Iranian ties, Goldsmith said. One popular page created in the United States — “Vets for Trump” — was hijacked by an administrator in North Macedonia.
The murky world of these pages unveils the direct and indirect relationship with Russian operations and their effective saturation on social media.
One page, “Being Patriotic,” was cited in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation as a product of the Internet Research Agency. It amassed 200,000 fans at one point, the Mueller report found. But other pages, like one focused on veterans but run from Vietnam, shared identical memes created by the IRA but with the page title cropped out.
One common theme is referencing Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest of police brutality as an attack on troops and veterans. Others suggest using resources for veterans at the cost of immigrants and refugees.
Both mimic the language of conservative Americans attacking liberals. One image of a military widow used to attack Kaepernick was shared by Trump on social media in 2018. Similar photos have been used by foreign administrators masquerading as veterans.
Some pages deceive veterans into believing they are American-run but have a clear financial goal, like accumulating fans as a customer base for challenge coins and T-shirts, Goldsmith said.
But Goldsmith said some pages generate similar disinformation with no clear financial incentive, while other sophisticated campaigns may sell items to appear innocuous as a smokescreen for more nefarious operations, such as Russian election interference.
Facebook and Twitter were pressed by lawmakers in the November hearing about their response. “We know that we are fighting against motivated adversaries in this space, and that we have to iterate and improve our approach to stay ahead,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s chief of security policy, said in his prepared remarks.
Goldsmith is concerned that Russia’s constant barrage is designed to elicit sympathy and downplay their activities around the world, and neutralizing criticism from troops and veterans could be a strategy to undercut the Pentagon’s message that Russia and China top the list of global adversaries.
“When you have service members believing Russia is not a threat to the elections, and didn’t interfere, they have friends and family convinced, it helps Russia get away with a serious attack on our democracy,” he said.
Those concerns are echoed by the Pentagon. Russia peddles “false narratives about its ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the war in Syria and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” among other issues, Gleason said.
But Goldsmith sees a reluctance in the administration to aggressively pursue this issue, speculating that getting out front would draw fire from Trump — who has rejected the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s role in election interference and helped advance a conspiracy theory that Ukraine was responsible.
Some lawmakers have taken interest, but Goldsmith said he stared at empty chairs at the House VA Committee hearing in November as he testified about the his findings.
“There are not a lot of issues that people pretend to be bipartisan on,” he said. “But this is one everyone can agree is worth addressing. ”
Craig Timberg contributed to this report.