Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

  • Published

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2020, 513 pp. 

Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election inspired a shelf of books about foreign influence.[1] Many of those works approached the concept of disinformation as the modern intersection of Russian foreign policy and social media networks. Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins University professor of information security, adds to this growing genre with a perspective that is both broader in scope and history.

His latest book considers the larger concept of active measures, a category that includes foreign disinformation but also involves front companies, forged documents, and bureaucratic support. His book also spans a longer timeline than others by showing that active measures are not a recent phenomenon, rather an artifice over a century old. Rid is well-suited to explain Russian influence. He served as an expert witness for the Senate Select Committee that investigated Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.[2]

In his book, Rid advances three arguments. First, disinformation is an attack against the foundations of an open society. In his view, a democratic nation requires leaders and organizations that reliably disseminate facts. Citizens should have some degree of confidence in official information. Writing in April 2020, Rid presciently observes that, “ peaceful transition of power after a contested vote, for example, requires trusting an election’s setup, infrastructure, counting procedures, and press coverage."

Later that same year, unscrupulous actors spewed baseless allegations about the 2020 US elections that incited the January 6 assault on the US Capitol Building. Those attacks—both epistemic and kinetic—reinforce Rid’s claim that an electorate needs to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Otherwise, people will resort to emotions to make their decisions. 

Second, Rid argues that the Soviet Union continued its active measures campaigns while the United States abandoned its efforts. The book documents the history of active measures, and it begins its tale in the late 1920s with the Soviet Cheka creating an anti-Bolshevik front organization to deceive White Russian refugees and European intelligence agencies. It then cuts to the height of the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union jostled for public support in a divided Europe.

On the American side, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) led the effort by funding front organizations to publish hundreds of thousands of forged East German magazines. The Soviet bloc responded in kind. The East German government tried to kidnap the man running the CIA active measures program in Berlin, and the KGB anonymously distributed flyers to stoke racial tension in the United States.

For this operation, the KGB’s Department D distributed anonymous flyers supposedly from the Ku Klux Klan hatefully attacking minorities. The KGB then shifted and played the other side by distributed fliers purportedly from African-Americans protesting the sorry state of civil rights in the country. This would not be the last time that Russian active measures sought to amplify existing fissures in American society. The superpowers evenly contested the disinformation wars until the 1960s when the United States unilaterally deescalated. As one CIA official reasoned, it did not make sense to focus on the enemy’s strengths while ignoring one’s own.

Third, Rid argues that technological advances facilitate active measures. This is not a novel conclusion; other books on disinformation make a similar point. Yet unlike those books, Rid’s history illuminates how information technology changes the game but not the tactics. Before the internet, the Cheka and CIA masked their involvement using intermediaries; now that cloaking can be achieved with social media personas such as Guccifer 2.0. The internet did not eliminate obfuscation, merely made it easier to do through websites and social media bots. Today’s active measures are new wine in old bottles. 

Active Measures is an outstanding book. It brings a much-needed historical perspective to understanding influence campaigns and it pairs well with the Senate report on Russian interference.[3] Unique among the disinformation genre, Rid acknowledges American involvement in active measures and warns against overreacting to disinformation. While other experts stress the dangers, Rid advises against exaggerating or overestimating the effects of active measures. Besides, he notes, disinformation ultimately deceives the society that peddles it as much as its intended audience.

Rid could improve the book by expanding its scope. Born in Germany, he focuses on the history of active measures along the East-West divide of the Cold War. It would be interesting to learn of active measures waged by a nation other than the United States or the Soviet Union. Though, in fairness to the author, documenting active measures is laborious; it requires accessible records of clandestine activity. Understandably, most nations are reluctant to divulge their involvement in active measures, even decades later. Until then, Rid’s history of active measures will more than suffice.

Major Neill W. Perry, USAF

[1] Yochai Benkler and Robert Faris, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalizatoin in American Politics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018); Nina Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2020); and Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).

[2] US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, Russia’s Use of Social Media with Additional Views, vol. 2, https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/.

[3] Select Committee on Intelligence, Russian Active Measures Campaigns, vol. 2.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."