THE STREET CORNER — There are two interesting looking people standing across the street. Both are wearing cowboy outfits right out of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, complete with huge hats, fringe vests, boots and even spurs. They approach me.
“Howdy, pard,” says one. “Yippy-yi-yo and get along doggy little.”
I don’t know how to reply. The other one speaks up. “I am Billy Ralph Pecos and this is Tex Spindletop. We from Amarillo, here to learn more of your local elections. Like how to vote, who votes and how to, uh, fix ballot boxes to make it easier. We want to work with grassroots organizations.”
“You came to the right place,” I say. “Texas consistently finishes last among the states in voter participation. We don’t vote because most of our politicians are either third-rate hacks or such demagogues that they only care about their own agendas.”
One of them takes out a pad and starts writing. “You mean like Fred Cruz or Hilarious Clinton, and Little Mario Ruby? We hear the only decent politician is Donald Trump. Tell us, is Trump a great president or the greatest president? And do you think he is too hard on other countries, like Iceland, Ireland and, uh, Russia?”
“I would rank Trump right up there with James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore among our presidents. Say, if you’re from Amarillo you may know about the Cadillac Ranch.” They look at each other and suddenly say they have to leave. That night I see on TV that Russian agents worked to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. They visited Texas in 2014 to spread derogatory information against Cruz during the Republican primary, and posed as Americans while communicating with a person “affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” Huh? Those two strangers I met today may be the same agents who now have come back to influence the upcoming elections. The next day I see them asking questions of passersby and taking notes. I approach them. “Are you two sure you are from Amarillo? Something about you tells me you’ve never even been to the Panhandle.”
They grin. “You too smart for us. We are really exchange students from Station College. Hook ‘em, Aggies. We taking poll for Internet Research Agency, an organization in Saint Petersburg, the one in Florida, that is. Do you know the way to the local mosque? We need to visit there, preferably at night.”
Later I looked into these people a bit more and discovered that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had charged that the Internet Research Agency was “engaged in political and electoral interference operations” across the United States, especially in swing states like Florida. But a Texas organization was mentioned several times. I couldn’t find the name of that Texas group nor any person affiliated with it, but the Mueller report said the alleged conspirators created a fake American named “Matt Skiber” as their front man. So we have a Texas group that knowingly or unknowingly worked with Russian agents to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, and apparently the Russians are still busily at work.
The indictment said the person affiliated with the Texas grassroots group also promised the Russian nationals he or she would pass along Facebook events to Tea Party voters in Florida. That doesn’t make any sense, but a lot of this story doesn’t. One right-wing fringe group, the Texas Nationalist Movement, which advocates for secession, put out a statement saying it “had no knowledge of nor any involvement with the Russian-led efforts to influence” the election. Of course that’s what they would say. Does anyone really expect their press release to read, “Yeah, we worked with the Ruskies to elect Trump and defeat Hillary.
So, what’s your point?”
For advice, I needed to talk to my neighborhood spy, Clark N. Dagger. I found him listed in Google, and he agreed to meet me at midnight at his favorite bar, the Ode-kay Oom-ray. Dagger looked around as he approached me. “Thomas wears pink socks,” he whispered. I replied, “The ostrich awakens at dawn.” We exchanged our secret handshake and then I explained the situation. “Were you followed?” he asked. “Did anyone ask if Oscar drinks orange sodas?” I replied no. Dagger looked around, then whispered, “You are dealing with two of Putin’s most dangerous agents. They go by Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik. That’s their cover names. They’re actually Billy Ralph Pecos and Tex Spindletop, or maybe it’s the other way around.”
He paused for a moment: “Anyway, we think they traveled to Texas and eight other states in June of 2014 to gather intelligence. They bought political ads under fake names and staged political rallies. They got email servers like Yahoo, Gmail and Outlook to pass along their messages. They even set up fraudulent bank names to open PayPal accounts to pay for their work. Some of the addresses included usernames like allforusa, unitedvetsofamerica, patriotsus, staceyredneck and ihatecrime1.” It was all to elect Trump.”
He continued: “Big time operators. You don’t send them out for borscht. Krylova is described as the Internet Research Agency’s third-highest-ranking agent. Burchik is described as the executive director or second-highest-ranking agent. Your life is probably in danger.”
A few days later I spotted the two Russian spies again. They were using Facebook to push “Trump in 2020.” I approached them. “You two are the most incompetent secret agents I’ve ever seen. First, you don’t blend into Texas in those ridiculous cowboy outfits. Your back stories are unbelievable, and finally, you are wasting your time trying to swing Texas voters to Trump. Last election he beat Hillary by nine points here in Texas. Spend your efforts on purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida where you might make a difference.”
“Maybe right,” sighed Pecos. “We shouldn’t spend rubles any place where Trump is beloved and welcomed.”
“Like the White House?” I asked.
“No, the Kremlin.”
Ashby is watchful at email@example.com