A “World Peace Council” which was really a Soviet front group that “swarmed with KGB officers.” Fake documents planted at the bottom of a Bohemian Forest lake for discovery by a TV crew. Rumors that the AIDS virus was created by the US government. These are just a few of the “active measures” explored in a new book by Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare traces the “modern era of disinformation” to the early 1920s, starting with the story of an early Soviet “faux-monarchist” front organization known as “The Trust.” From there, Rid outlines the history of disinformation – that is, purposely deceptive information – through the 2016 election and beyond, with a focus particularly on Russian operations.
Based on the book’s title, and its inclusion of the term “political warfare” – which, as Rid notes, the Central Intelligence Agency has used to describe America’s own “active measures” comparable to those long perpetrated by Soviet intelligence agencies and their successors – a reader might be forgiven for expecting the book to give its attention more equally to the two sides of the East-West conflict.
That is not to say Rid reports nothing of the CIA’s activities during the time period he covers. His book includes new information, for example, on CIA-sponsored deceptive publishing operations in post-World War II Germany.
These operations from the late 1940s through the end of the 1950s involved subtly promoting CIA propaganda themes both through forgeries of existing Soviet publications with minor alterations, as well original ones, including magazines ostensibly focusing on everything from astrology to jazz, Rid reveals.
Rid makes the argument that what the Soviets termed “active measures” – disinformation operations – “have become more active and less measured” over time. While the CIA “was probably even more prolific and brazen” when it came to forging documents up until the early 1960s, he writes, “disinformation came of age” in that decade and from that point onwards, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union became imminent, the Russians gained the upper hand.
There is little doubt Rid is correct that the effectiveness of disinformation is difficult to measure, though some aspects of his interpretation of Cold War chronology may be more debatable.
"The CIA's skill at what the agency then termed political warfare was significant in the 1950s, especially in Berlin, and was, in practice, on par with, or even more effective than, Soviet dezinformatsiya,” Rid writes. “Western intelligence agencies shunned few risks, using cutouts, front organizations, leaks, and forgeries, as well as a shrewd balance of denials and semi-denials. But just when the CIA had honed its political warfare skills in Berlin, U.S. intelligence retreated from the disinformation battlefield almost completely."
While it may be true that the Soviet Union overtook the West in the disinformation field in the latter years of the Cold War, another perspective on the reason for this is that the U.S. did not abandon its disinformation activities, but rather – to its detriment, when considering challenges it still faced abroad – turned them inward in an effort to combat perceived domestic threats.
Rid recounts the deceptive testimony of future CIA Director Richard Helms, who in 1961 told a Senate committee in detail about Soviet forgeries but omitted any mention of CIA efforts along similar lines. He does not discuss Helms’s 1977 conviction, however, for lying to Congress about CIA operations in Chile – which involved support for Chilean collaborators who engaged in propaganda activities the CIA knew at the time were “probably disinformation.”
While he mentions the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra “mind control” experiments in passing, Rid does not discuss Helms’s decision in the early 1970s to destroy documents related to the controversial program, which involved a wide array of deceptive tactics. Nor does he mention Helms’s approval in the late 1960s of Operation CHAOS, which continued into the 1970s and involved what amounted to “political warfare” against domestic political dissidents.
Other aspects of Active Measures may prove controversial. Rid describes the idea “that the CIA secretly used the Red Brigades,” an Italian far-left terrorist group, as “one of the most pernicious and persistent conspiracy theories of the twentieth century” – and one based on KGB disinformation. This is in contrast with other reporting from more recently than the end of the twentieth century.
“The fact that the Red Brigades had been infiltrated by the CIA and the Italian secret services remains no longer contested,” the award-winning journalist Paul L. Williams wrote in his 2015 book Operation Gladio. That apparently no longer remains the case.
The later chapters of Active Measures deal with disinformation in the digital age, through the 2016 presidential election and beyond. These, too, could prove controversial for obvious reasons. Though Rid details Russian online operations aimed at sowing confusion in the runup to the election, it is unlikely that Russian internet trolls “convinced many, if any, American voters to change their minds,” he writes.
The release of an extensive collection of National Security Agency hacking tools beginning in 2016 by an individual or group calling itself the “Shadow Brokers” and the later reuse of those tools was, as an active measure, “unprecedented, devastating, and historic,” Rid writes. He notes, however, that while Russian intelligence as well as former NSA operators were among those suspected in the Shadow Brokers operation, its perpetrator has never been irrefutably proven.
Overall, Active Measures is a well-written and engaging account, and despite some elements of the narrative retaining the potential for debate – as is almost always the case with books on anything as controversial as the history of intelligence agencies and propaganda – this may be the result of inherent ambiguities of interpreting events as much as anything. Rid has clearly done extensive research and an admirable job presenting it. His book should be required reading for anyone interested in how propaganda methods have developed over time.