Inside the disinformation forever war

Russian 'active measures', including election meddling, disinformation and influence operations, were as common throughout the Cold War as they are today.
Soviet-era anti-American poster of prison bars created out of the crown of the Statue of Liberty Credit: David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images
Soviet-era anti-American poster of prison bars created out of the crown of the Statue of Liberty Credit: David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images
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Spies, election meddling, disinformation, influence operations, data harvesting – at present, it seems barely a moment passes without another intelligence scandal breaking on our news feeds. Reporting about Russia’s ‘sweeping and systematic’ attack on the 2016 US presidential election, with the aim of supporting Moscow’s favoured candidate, Donald J. Trump, and undermining his opponent, Hilary Clinton, has been frequently labelled ‘unprecedented’. The social-media technologies that Russia deployed in its cyber-attack on America in 2016 were certainly historically new. Russia’s strategy, however, was far from new. In fact, the Kremlin has a long history of meddling in US and other Western elections and manufacturing disinformation to discredit and divide the West. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has reconstituted and updated the KGB old Cold War playbook for the new digital age.

If we understand the history of Soviet disinformation, and Western efforts to counter it during the Cold War, we can draw policy-relevant conclusions from history about countering disinformation produced by Russia and other authoritarian regimes today.

In all aspects of our lives, we learn from the past: what we got right, wrong, and what, if anything, we can learn from those previous experiences. We thus apply history every day. For anyone wanting to understand the intelligence scandals we see unfolding in contemporary news, it would thus be natural to look to history books to provide context to understand them. Inexplicably, however, we find a historical wilderness: even the most authoritative and recently published books on post-war international relations and the Cold War fail to mention major Western and Eastern intelligence agencies and their clandestine activities. In major respects, intelligence remains a ‘missing dimension’ in the history of post-war diplomacy and international affairs, as it was once described. In the vast number of books now devoted to the Cold War, for example, we look in vain to find a single reference to Soviet ‘active measures’ – the Kremlin’s term for covert action. Although it has featured prominently in US and European news media since Russia’s attack on the 2016 US election, looking at these books on the Cold War we are left with the inescapable impression that Russian active measures are something new today. This is entirely incorrect – and dangerously misleading.

During the Cold War, the KGB sought to influence the course of world events by a variety of ‘active measures’. They were the covert offensive instruments of Soviet foreign policy that systematically sought to disrupt relations between other nations, discredit Soviet opponents, and influence policies of foreign governments in favour of Soviet plans and policies.

Active measures (aktivnye meropriyatiya) included a range of underground activities: media manipulation, the use of front groups, forging documents, influence operations (through the use of bribery, blackmail, and discrediting opponents), and ‘special actions’ involving various degrees of violence. In short, they constituted what Moscow called the art of ‘political warfare’: dirty tricks to undermine and confuse the United States and its Western allies, split Western alliances, and sow seeds of distrust and discord within democracies. By doing so, Moscow believed that it would hasten victory in its Cold War ideological struggle. The weaker they were shown to be, the stronger Soviet Russia would become. Throughout the Cold War, the Kremlin referred to the United States as its ‘Main Adversary’: it was the principal target for KGB active measures.

Active measures lay at the KGB’s heart and soul. They were carried out by a special department in its foreign (formally ‘First Chief’) Directorate, known as Service A. Reflecting their importance, in the 1950s Service A become its own Directorate, or Department, inside the KGB. A measure of the importance that the ‘Centre’, the KGB’s headquarters in Moscow, attached to active measures was that KGB political officers stationed overseas were supposed to spend about a quarter of their time on them. Later, the KGB raised the importance of active measures even higher. In April 1982, the KGB chairman and later Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, decreed that it was the duty of all foreign intelligence officers, whatever their department or ‘Line’, to participate in active measures.

One way of subverting Western governments was to assist candidates favourable to Moscow and undermine those hostile to it. Although the idea of the Kremlin recruiting an agent inside the White House may seem like a far-fetched plot from a spy novel or film, such as The Manchurian Candidate, in fact the Kremlin sought to do exactly that during the Cold War. In 1968, for example, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, secretly approached the Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, with an offer to subsidize and support his campaign against the veteran anti-Communist, Richard Nixon. Humphrey politely declined the Kremlin’s offer – something that half a century later, nobody in Trump Tower apparently thought to do when again approached by Russians.

The KGB’s efforts to meddle in US presidential politics reached a new level under Ronald Reagan, who the Kremlin feared – correctly – more than any other Western leader. During his first presidential election campaign, the KGB unsuccessfully attempted to find compromising material (Kompromat) on Reagan and forged documents suggesting that he had been an FBI informant in Hollywood in the 1950s, which were quickly shown to be forged. Then, during Reagan’s bid for a second term in 1984, the Moscow Centre became so determined to prevent Reagan winning that it instructed its three KGB residencies (stations) in the United States to recruit agents in the headquarters of either party, Democratic or Republican, because any candidate, from either party, would be preferable to Reagan. The KGB tried to whip up anti-Reagan sentiment in the US by publicizing slogans, ‘Reagan Means War’, and on at least one occasion it orchestrated an anti-Reagan public rally in a major US city, San Francisco – a chilling precedent for Russia’s meddling in 2016. None of the KGB’s effort to undermine Reagan had any impact. He won the 1984 election in a landslide victory. Despite its best efforts, during the Cold War the KGB was never able to undermine a popular US president.

This use of disinformation (Dezinformatsia) to deceive enemies has a long history in Russia, from at least the eighteenth century onwards. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, they adopted and expanded their own disinformation operations conducted in their underground days and also those that the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, had previously used against them. In 1923, the deputy chairman of the GPU (as the KGB was then known), I.S. Unshlikht, established a ‘special disinformation office to conduct active intelligence operations…’. According to a former senior Soviet Bloc intelligence officer, who described himself as a ‘professional manipulator and peddler of lies’, disinformation can be most usefully understood as a carefully constructed false message linked to an opponent’s communication system to deceive its decision-making elite or public. A 1972 top secret KGB dictionary defined ‘disinformation data’ as ‘especially prepared data, used for the creation, in the mind of the enemy, of incorrect or imaginary pictures of reality, on the basis of which the enemy would make decisions beneficial’ to the Soviet Union. Although disinformation is often used synonymously with misinformation, in fact for professionals the two are distinct: misinformation is false information that a government officially and openly disseminates, whereas disinformation is false information that is covertly disseminated – with no fingerprints of the state attached to it.

During the Cold War, the Kremlin’s strategy for using disinformation was insidious: it exploited the inherent openness of Western democracies, with their freedoms of press and speech, to amplify existing problems within their societies. They used Western freedoms against themselves. The KGB’s policy was never to craft lies out of nothing: experience had taught them, and the Allies during the Second World War, that creating a big lie would not be effective because it needed to be anchored in some basis of fact, however small. Instead, to be successful, a disinformation operation had to be believable and had to draw on existing social, religious, or racial, grievances in societies.

The deputy head of disinformation in the Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakian intelligence service, the StB, explained that its strategy was to target the ‘agnostic’ middle sections of Western societies: those at either extreme, the disciples and atheists, were never going to be converted to alternative beliefs, so instead Soviet Bloc services targeted those without strong beliefs, who could possibly be swayed. To do so, the Soviet regime subsidized and used a series of front groups in the West to disseminate bogus information. In the later Cold War, the US government identified thirteen such Soviet front organizations, including the World Peace Council, the World Federation of Trade Unions, and the International Union of Students.

During the Cold War, the KGB was a disinformation mill – a forgery factory – targeting America. In the later Cold War, US intelligence estimated that the Soviet budget on foreign propaganda was a staggering $3–4 billion per year. In 1981 alone, the KGB, according to Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, funded or sponsored 70 books and brochures, 4,865 articles in foreign and Soviet press, 66 feature and documentary films, 1,500 radio and TV programmes, and 3,000 conferences and exhibitions. Soviet defectors revealed that an astounding seventy to eighty percent of Soviet TASS media personnel overseas were KGB and Soviet military (GRU) intelligence officers.

There were major vulnerabilities in US society for it to attack during the Cold War. The assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy provided an endless supply of conspiracy theories for it to promulgate and amplify. Among other operations, Service A forged documents, which were picked up and published in the US press, purporting to show that JFK was assassinated by a group of right-wing oil tycoons, and also, alternatively, by the CIA. The results were staggering: the KGB could fairly claim that more people in America believed one of its conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination than the US government’s own official enquiry into his killing, the Warren Commission. The KGB set to similar work forging documents to suggest that the US government was behind the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme that the CIA had provided ‘ideological inspiration’ to the killers of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and that the CIA played a role in the 1978 mass suicide of members of the People’s Temple in Jamestown Guyana (where victims were forced to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid), that the CIA tried to kill the Pope, and that the US government favoured the ‘Balkanization’ of Third World countries such as India. Another commonly resurrected theme of Soviet disinformation from the Korean War onwards was that the US government was prepared to use biological weapons in violation of international treaties. Another trope was that Washington was preparing an ‘ethnic weapon’ that would kill blacks and spare whites.

Exploiting racial tensions in the United States became stock in trade for the KGB – just as it is for Russia’s intelligence services today. The KGB’s residency in New York during the Cold War concocted revolting letter writing campaigns against African diplomats in the United Nations.

Among other active measures, the KGB New York residency hired agents to desecrate Jewish cemeteries, and then wrote letters and spread rumours blaming it on black African groups. In July 1971, the Moscow Centre instructed its New York residency to plant a delayed action explosive in the ‘Negro section of New York’, codenamed operation PANDORA. On present evidence, it is impossible to tell whether the bomb actually went off and also impossible to tell which, if any, of the attacks on black organizations blamed on the Jewish Defense League were really the KGB’s work.

A decade later, the KGB set to similar work exploiting American racial tensions. During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the KGB’s Service A sent racist letters, purportedly from the Ku Klux Klan, to athletes from Asian and African countries. The letters were full of racist bile, addressed to ‘African monkeys’, claiming that white supremacists were preparing for lynchings, and to shoot ‘black moving targets’, because the Olympics were meant ‘only for whites’: ‘Blacks, Welcome to the Olympic games in Los Angeles! We’ll give you a reception you’ll never forget’, the letter stated. The US government intervened and exposed the letters as forgeries, with the result that no athletes from those countries withdrew from the Olympics.

Probably the most successful anti-American active measure devised by Service A in the later Cold War, in the Gorbachev era, was the false claim the AIDS virus had been ‘manufactured’ by American biological warfare specialists at Fort Dietrich in Maryland. The origins of the story reveal how the KGB spread disinformation. In July 1983 it appeared in a small newspaper in India, the Patriot, under the front-page article ‘AIDS may invade India: mystery disease caused by US experiments’. In fact, the paper was itself a Soviet front. Eighteen months later, the mainstream Soviet press picked up the Patriot’s story, reporting it as fact – carefully omitting that it arose from a letter to a Soviet mouthpiece, and nothing more. The repackaging of disinformation in this way was known in the KGB as the ‘echo effect’. The KGB then organized pseudoscientific support for the story. An East German, Russian born, physicist, Professor Jacob Seagull, claimed – erroneously – that AIDS had been artificially synthesized at Fort Detrick from true natural viruses, VISNA and HTLV1. Supported by spurious scientific jargon, in mid-1986, the story took off – it went viral, to use modern terminology.

It swept across large parts of the ‘Third World’, particularly in African countries, where similar ‘proof’ was published in letters to newspapers and disseminated by Soviet front groups in those countries. In the first six months of 1987, the story received major news coverage in over forty Third World countries. It also found its way into some major Western media outlets. In October 1986, the conservative-leaning British Sunday Express made the story its main front-page story.

In today’s parlance, the Sunday Express headline was fake news. With tragic irony, at the time when the Russian government was peddling its conspiracy theory that denied a link between HIV and AIDS, Russian scientists were desperately looking to US scientists for help with combating the AIDS epidemic. In the summer of 1987, after the US government officially protested Soviet support of the fabricated AIDS conspiracy theory, the Soviet government officially and abruptly disowned the story.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the head of Russia’s new foreign intelligence service, the SVR, Yevgeny Primakov, officially admitted what long been known in the West: that the AIDS story was a fabrication, codenamed operation DENVER and INFEKTION by Eastern Bloc services working with the KGB to promulgate it. The KGB’s AIDS conspiracy theory left damaging legacies. A survey conducted in 2005 showed that 50% of African Americans surveyed believed that the AIDS was a man-made virus. HIV-AIDS denialism had horrendous consequences in African countries. In South Africa, president Thabo Mbeki denied a causal link between HIV and AIDS. By the time he left office in 2008, there were almost 330,000 preventable HIV deaths in the country. Meanwhile, HIV-AIDS denialism may have contributed to Russia’s own AIDS epidemic. Russia currently has one of the largest, and fastest growing, AIDS epidemics in the world.

One of the KGB’s disinformation operations that has failed to receive the attention it deserves is the ‘baby parts’ scandal, alleging that rich Americans were kidnapping and butchering Latin American children in order to use their bodies for organ transplants in the United States. Rumours of American trafficking in baby parts first appeared in Honduras in 1987 and were attributed to the secretary general of the Honduran committee for social welfare, who quickly repudiated them. However, later that year Soviet state media outlets, including Pravda, Izvestia, TASS, and Moscow Radio, repeated the rumours, omitting the fact that the Honduran official had repudiated them. In reality, the US National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 prohibited the buying and selling of organs in the United States.

Then, in the summer of 1988, the story was taken up by a Brussels-based Soviet front organisation, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), and was published in press outlets in over 50 countries. In September 1988, a French Communist member of the European Parliament proposed a motion condemning the alleged American trafficking in baby parts and cited the IADL report as evidence for her charges. The motion was passed by a show of hands in a (deliberately timed) poorly attended session of the Parliament. The Soviet press duly reported the European Parliament motion as ‘evidence’ that Americans were in fact dismembering kidnapped children. Today, Russian intelligence appears to have recalibrated the Soviet baby parts scandal: Russian trolls are using social media to exploit recent press stories about US abortion clinics selling foetal tissue and organs. Their aim is to amplify divisions in American society.

Another strain of Soviet disinformation was aimed at deflecting public narratives about incidents that discredited the Soviet Union. The Kremlin did so by providing alternative facts. In September 1983, the Soviet air force shot down a Korean Boeing 747 passenger plane, KAL 007, travelling from New York to Seoul, killing all 269 passengers on board. The Soviet leader, Andropov, former KGB Chairman, responded first with silence, then by denying fundamental facts about the shoot-down, and then by providing a host of circumstantial suggestions, giving just enough credence to an outrageous and false alternative narrative: that the civilian aircraft was actually on a reconnaissance spy mission inside Soviet airspace. In Moscow’s presentation of events, the United States shared moral culpability for tragedy.

The Soviet government did similar work following the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in April 1986. Moscow’s initial response to disaster was silence, then a denial of basic facts, and then, again in an apparent effort of openness, to swamp Western media with technological data about Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor. Planting stories in Soviet-friendly press in Europe, ‘Chernobyl’ soon became an anti-nuclear slogan about the dangers of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons – including American – on European soil. Washington was presented as sharing moral culpability for atomic industries that produced Chernobyl.

While Soviet foreign propaganda was an estimated multi-billion-dollar industry, the United States had a significantly smaller average annual budget of $480m for its Cold War information services, while Britain’s funding for counter-Soviet propaganda was significantly smaller (precise amounts for the ‘Secret Vote’, by which parliament paid for it, have not yet been disclosed). According to a KGB defector, Western countries were hitting the swarm of Soviet disinformation coming at them with a ‘flyswatter’.

The essence of US countermeasures for dealing with Soviet disinformation during the Cold War was exposure and attribution: publicly exposing KGB fake information and attributing it to the Kremlin. An early major effort to do so occurred in June 1961, when a senior CIA officer, Richard Helms, later Director of Central Intelligence, publicly testified before Congress about ‘Communist forgeries’.

In his Senate hearing, Helms revealed the mechanisms by which the KGB carried out ‘documentary fraud’: planned by the Centre, and distributed by Soviet friendly press in Europe, forged documents were prepared on official-looking US letterhead paper stolen or reproduced in Moscow and ‘authenticated’ by a forged signature of a senior US official. Soviet and Eastern Bloc intelligence services obtained signatures of senior US officials by a brilliantly simple ploy: Soviet Bloc officials sent Christmas cards to Western diplomats, which they felt obliged to reply in kind, with their signatures on. Helms exposed 32 Soviet forgeries which the CIA had identified in the previous four years. All of them followed a similar pattern: their aim was to discredit the US domestically among its international allies.

The US government continued to expose Soviet active measures during the Cold War, working on the assumption that light was the best disinfectant when dealing with Soviet disinformation, as a senior US diplomat, Lawrence Eagleburger, put it. A series of senior US intelligence officials testified in Congress about Soviet active measures in general and Moscow’s forgery offensive against the United States in particular. The US Congress also heard open testimony of KGB defectors about their disinformation attacks on America. In 1968, a senior Czech disinformation officer, Ladislav Bittman, testified openly before Congress, under a pseudonym, about the methods and strategy of Soviet disinformation. He essentially provided a manual for the US public about how the KGB manufactured lies. A decade later, another Soviet defector, Stanislav Levchenko, publicly exposed his former work in the KGB’s disinformation department, Service A. Levchenko revealed that the KGB active measures group in the Soviet embassy in Tokyo, where he was stationed, consisted of five officers, who had penetrated most of the major Japanese newspapers and had agents of influence in the Japanese government.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic established agencies to counter the onslaught of Soviet disinformation through exposure and attribution. In Britain, one of the most secretive agencies in the Cold War was the Information Research Department (IRD). Established in 1948, it was tasked with collecting information about communism and publicizing it through British missions and services overseas. IRD became one of the largest sections of the British foreign office in the Cold War, with staff posted to British embassies across the world. At its peak, the office had a staff of 300 producing publications countering Soviet disinformation. The IRD subsidized the publication of books by Background Books, including three by Bertrand Russell, who, it seems, knew the source of funding for his books. Recently declassified records also now reveal what many long suspected: the famous historian of the Stalinist period, Robert Conquest, worked for IRD, and it continued to supply him with material for his academic publications after he left government work. Conquest’s classic works, like The Great Terror, were written with material provided by IRD from MI6 espionage.

Perhaps most famously, IRD was also connected with the greatest anti-Soviet writer in the twentieth century, George Orwell. In 1949, Robert Conquest’s assistant, Celia Kirwan, met with Orwell, who was dying of tuberculosis while finishing the manuscript to Nineteen Eighty Four, and he provided her with a list of 38 prominent figures and intellectuals who he suspected were crypto-communists, and thus who IRD should be careful of using for Soviet counter propaganda. Orwell’s list contains people for whom no evidence has emerged that they were communist fellow-travelers, like the historian E.H. Carr, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, and the actor Charlie Chaplin. However, Orwell’s list included names of figures now known to have been Soviet agents: the British journalist Peter Smollett was indeed a Soviet agent (codenamed ABO), recruited by the KGB spy Kim Philby, as was the British Labour MP, journalist, and Labour Party chairman, Tom Driberg (codenamed LEPAGE), who was also on Orwell’s list. After Orwell’s death, IRD funded translations of his book Animal Farm and illicitly distributed it behind the Iron Curtain and in communist countries in Asia.

The United States undertook similar countermeasures against Soviet disinformation during the Cold War likewise based on the strategy of exposure and attribution. The United States Information Agency was similar to Britain’s IRD: it disseminated pro-Western counter-narratives to Soviet propaganda. Meanwhile, the CIA funded anti-Communist front groups, like the Congress of Cultural Freedom, and, together with the IRD, the CIA subsidized publications like Encounter, founded and edited by the English poet laureate, Stephen Spender.

However, America’s efforts intensified under President Reagan, with his administration’s establishment in 1981 of an interagency body, the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG). It was created to help stem the flood of Soviet disinformation, coordinating all previously disparate US efforts to do so. From 1981 to the end of the Cold War, it produced a series of papers each year reporting, analyzing and publicizing Soviet falsehoods, such as Foreign Affairs Notes. Its first report, Soviet Active Measures: Forgery, Disinformation, Political Operations had an initial print run of 14,000 copies, which were given to US news outlets, government agencies, and American international allies.

Like Britain’s IRD, the AMWG relied on intelligence collection – often meaning espionage – by US intelligence to reveal Soviet disinformation. It achieved some notable successes doing so. The AMWG was responsible for exposing the Soviet forgeries during the 1984 US Olympics. It also led a response to Soviet disinformation about the AIDS virus. At the height of the AIDS scandal, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, presented the US Secretary of State, George Shultz, with a copy of AMWG report about Soviet AIDS disinformation, claiming it went against the spirit of glasnost. Shultz replied that when Soviet Union stopped lying, then the US would stop exposing those lies. The AMWG’s report seems to have contributed to Gorbachev’s decision to stop Soviet falsehoods about the AIDS virus. Although available evidence does not reveal where the AMWG obtained information about Soviet Bloc and the AIDS virus, but it is reasonable to assume that it came from a human agent, or spy.

The Reagan administration’s counterattack on Soviet disinformation also relied on working closely with international allies. Given the special Anglo-American intelligence relationship during the Cold War, liaison with Britain’s intelligence services was particularly close. A British foreign office file, only declassified in 2018, entitled ‘Soviet Active Measures’, reveals the extent to which the AMWG coordinated closely with Britain and other Western partners to expose Soviet disinformation. This previously secret British file reveals that the AMWG gave regular presentations to the British foreign office, and also annually at NATO headquarters, about Soviet disinformation activities, pointing out the tell-tale signs of forgeries, and the types of falsehoods and common themes used by the KGB. The AMWG’s so-called ‘truth squads’ visited 20 countries, giving presentations on average in two countries per week, where they also learned about the latest detected developments with Soviet falsehoods in those countries. The Group’s strategy was always to provide fact-based, non-hyperbolic, presentations about Soviet false information. The American AMWG and British Foreign Office also contributed to public academic seminars about the Kremlin’s methods, nature, scope, and scale, of disinformation. Washington and London’s strategy was that, the more information made publicly available about Soviet disinformation, to academics, journalists and the general public, the more alert they would be to detecting it. The AMWG was disbanded at the end of the Cold War, and unfortunately for Western governments, much of its institutional learning was lost.

But it would be entirely wrong to suppose that election-meddling and disinformation were peculiar to Russia. In fact, all Great Powers, including Britain and United States, have systematically undertaken dirty tricks using techniques similar to Russia.

During the Second World War, British and US intelligence professionalized disinformation: through a cascade of double agents, they fed deliberately false information to deceive the strategic thinking of the German High Command, which culminated in the deception operations surrounding the invasion of Europe on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

After the war, Britain and the United States did reactivate their wartime deception techniques against their new enemy, Russia. One of the first acts undertaken by the newly established CIA in 1948 was to meddle in the free democratic elections in Italy. Although most history books fail to mention it, the Agency did so in response to Soviet active measures to rig elections in Italy, as Soviet intelligence did in Eastern Europe. The CIA responded in kind: it bribed moderate Italian politicians and discredited socialist candidates, forging documents and producing bogus pamphlets claiming they were linked to the Italian Communist Party. Britain’s IRD assisted the CIA’s covert action in Italy, though its activities there remain murky. Washington deemed the CIA’s covert action in Italy a success. President Truman sent his personal congratulations to his Director of Central Intelligence.

The United States is estimated to have meddled in the affairs of foreign countries on 62 different occasions during the Cold War, the large majority of which were done covertly. Some of its clandestine interventions are relatively well known, like the CIA and MI6’s coup in Iran in 1953, while other cases of Anglo-American meddling, like in British Guiana in the 1960s, are less well-known.

In their coup to overthrow Iran’s prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, and install the Shah, MI6 and the CIA are known to have planted newspaper articles and cartoons falsely suggesting that Mossadeq was a communist. In British Guiana, London and Washington conducted a covert action, including vote-rigging and clandestine propaganda, to help install a western-pliant leader against his Marxist rival. The CIA used disinformation in Latin America, using radio broadcasts under the name Voice of Liberation to help topple the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. It used similar tactics in Chile to discredit socialist President Salvador Allende who died in a 1973 coup when forces loyal to Augusto Pinochet overthrew his government. Later in the Cold War, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA is known to have planted fake stories in other Muslim countries about ‘Invasion Day celebrations’ at Soviet embassies.

Looking at the history of the Cold War, the unavoidable conclusion is that both sides of the conflict used their spies for dirty tricks. These are the ugly underbelly of statecraft. However, it would be wildly misleading – ahistorical – to treat Western and Soviet covert action as equivalent, as some have claimed since revelations of Russian meddling in 2016. ‘Whataboutism’, drawing moral equivalence between West and East, was an old KGB disinformation technique. While Britain, America and Soviet Russia used similar dirty tricks in the Cold War, they did so for fundamentally different strategic ends in their ideological struggle of the Cold War. All armies use guns, but this does not mean they do so for the same purposes. The KGB, which employed approximately 200,000 officials in the Cold War, was one of the greatest instruments of terror and repression in history, responsible for enslaving Soviet citizens and populations who came under Moscow’s control. To equate it to Western intelligence services, like MI6 or the CIA, is like comparing an arsonist to a fireman.

Still, the vast majority of Soviet disinformation achieved nothing. Contrary to the impression found in some Soviet records written to please the Centre, KGB officers were not ten-foot tall puppeteers, manipulating public opinion across the world stage. Only occasionally, as with the AIDS story or the ‘baby parts’ stories, was the Kremlin able to orchestrate a conspiracy theory.

Looking at these stories as Moscow’s yardsticks of successes, however, is fundamentally to misunderstand Soviet disinformation: its strategy was often simply to create chaos in the West. As long as Western governments and societies were confused, divided, and turning on themselves, the Soviet Union was winning. In his 1988 account of his time in the KGB’s active measures department, Service A, the Soviet defector Stanislav Levchenko provided a primer on how Western democracies could best defend against the Kremlin’s deception. He recommended that Western societies needed to be informed about Soviet disinformation, understand its nature, and be vigilant against it in the news they consume about current affairs. The most effective countermeasure, Levchenko suggested, was for western citizens to read international newspapers widely: ‘Train yourself to read the front pages of your newspapers, and read them every day. Read news magazines.’

By reading widely, Western citizens could establish facts for themselves, Levchenko suggested. Levchenko’s recommendations for dealing with disinformation can be usefully applied today. Exposure and attribution remain effective antidotes to dealing with the poison of disinformation spread by Russia and other authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and North Korea. The history of America’s Cold War Active Measures Working Group shows the value of rapidly exposing and attributing state-sponsored false information, having a single outfit to coordinate responses, and the value of close international cooperation in doing so.

President Putin, a former KGB officer well-versed in Soviet active measures, has recalibrated the harmonics of the KGB’s old tradecraft for the new digital age. However, the information landscape that Russia and other states are exploiting to spread disinformation today has fundamentally changed since the Cold War. The cyber digital revolution being currently unleashed represents the greatest change in the transmission of information since the development of the printing press in the fourteenth century. It is now quicker than ever before in history to spread falsehoods across the world. The Kremlin no longer needs to establish physical front groups to spread disinformation as it did in the Cold War: false Twitter and Facebook accounts are new fronts for peddling falsehoods. Even worse, new technologies seem to be combined with an apparent willingness by people in Western societies to believe objectively falsifiable information – nonsense – on-line. We need to look no further than recent anti-vaccine messages spread by Russian trolls, suggesting vaccines cause autism, accepted by some in the United States as objective science. At present, a staggering two thirds of polled adults in the US receive their news from social media, not from outlets with editorial processes like newspapers. Both of these trends – the development of social media and a willingness to believe messages on it – make Levchenko’s recommendations insufficient for dealing with state-sponsored nonsense. Unlike in the Cold War, any viable effort to deal with disinformation today in the West will have to involve technology and social media firms, which have provided platforms for spreading false information. The next chilling iteration of disinformation is likely to be deep fake videos: bogus videos of leading figures apparently speaking, indistinguishable to the naked eye from real footage.

In the brave new world of cyberspace, not only are Western citizens using social media platforms for their news, rather than newspapers, but even basic existential issues such as facts themselves are now under assault.

The challenge facing Western liberal democracies in the post-fact, post-truth, era is deeper than anything that a revamped secretive information agency, like Britain’s Cold War IRD, can be expected to cope with. Disinformation poses fundamental challenges to societies about issues like what constitutes a fact, which will need to be tackled through broad education and social efforts, rather than spies and their clandestine weapons.

This essay was originally published in Past and Present, 2020, Axess Publishing.

Calder Walton

Calder Walton is Assistant Director of the Applied History Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is general editor, with Christopher Andrew, of the multi-volume Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence to be published by Cambridge University Press.

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