OT: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

“Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare,” by Thomas Rid, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2020. This 513-page hardback tells of disinformation for the last century from its earliest days to the computer hacks of 2017. It’s most informative on work of the Soviet Union in Germany and Bulgaria, where state files have become available. We also learn from defectors, from testimony before Congress and major leaks by sources like Wikileaks. We learn little of what the CIA did in return and nothing of activity from China, North Korea, et al.

Disinformation is a well honed technique used by the Soviet Union and now Russia. Leaking information the source finds embarrassing is the central idea. Forged documents may be used or inflammatory language inserted to increase impact. The source may deny the report, but the reader discounts the denial–resulting in confusion and destabilized authority. When picked up by the media, the item can become major news. Internet and especially social media makes distribution of disinformation faster, easier and less dependent on media.

Active measures is the term intelligence professionals use to describe disinformation. Pamphlets produced by the Soviet Union describing lynchings in the US is typical. In the 1960s they were widely distributed in Africa. Active measures are also used to undermine confidence in elections.

An early example was Estonia in 1923. To discourage intervention by Western powers, false Politboro reports exaggerated the military strength of the Soviet Union. Reilly Ace of Spies was a PBS series telling of Sidney Reilly, the real James Bond. He was lured to Russia by the Soviets and executed in 1925. In 1927, a Russian defected to Finland and revealed much about “The Trust.”

In 1931, the Tanaka Memo, often described as Japan’s Pearl Harbor, made the news. It described Japan’s plans to invade China after Mongolia and Manchuria. The original was never found–leading to suspicions it was a Soviet forgery. It was published in the US in November 1941, just before Pearl Harbor and encouraged US support for the Soviets in World War II.

In April, 1948, Truman began the Marshal Plan to rebuild Europe. In June, roads to Berlin were closed beginning the Berlin Airlift. Tensions vs communism increased. CIA guided a German organization known at UfJ to promote anti-communist activity in East Germany. It’s leader Walter Linse was kidnapped in July, 1952, and executed in 1953. CIA dug a tunnel under the Soviet zone to tap their phone lines. It was exposed in April, 1956. In 1951, CIA produced fake editions of East Germany’s youth newspaper to divert socialist spirit. They also forged East German magazines.

CIA also sponsored Kampfgruppe or KgU in West Berlin. It registered those arrested in the East. It flew weather balloons over East Germany that dropped leaflets. They forged government documents ordering manufacturers to cease exports. They ordered stores to reduce prices on subsidized goods. The stores quickly sold out. Fake letters to customers in Europe informed them that E Germany could not accept orders due to financial difficulties. They sabotaged industrial equipment with acids and spread “tire killers” on roads. In 1952, KgU was funded by the Ford Foundation. CIA shut down KgU in 1960 after E Germany closed its political prisoner camps.

The Soviets responded with their own forgeries. In 1957 an E Germany’s newspaper published a letter from Nelson Rockefeller, head of Standard Oil, to President Eisenhower urging him go use economic aid to make countries dependent on the US and force participation in political and military alliances. Radio Moscow broadcast the story throughout Asia and Latin America. Another, the Dulles Memorandum, claimed US foreign policy wanted to suppress Arab independence to access their oil and install nuclear missile bases. In October, 1957 (after Sputnik) the Strategic Air Command decided to keep bombers in the air ready to respond. Khrushchev called this “very dangerous.” A US Air Force pilot claimed he planned to drop an atomic bomb in a few days.

In 1957 a package wrapped as cigars contained a bomb. It killed the prefecture’s wife in Strasbourg. In 1972, a defector revealed the source was the Czech state security agency. The attack was approved in the USSR and intended to counter German fascist propaganda.

East Germany used anti-Semitism to discredit the West German government. In 1959, Nato offices in Paris were defaced with swastikas. Anti-Jewish slogans were posted in Israel. In West Germany N@zi incidents were organized in several cities and Jewish places of worship were defaced. In the US, KGB stirred up trouble in the black and Jewish communities. K-KK leaflets were mailed in 1960.

In the ‘60s, Eastern intelligence agencies increased disinformation activity. In 1961, they published a book listing the names of CIA agents around the globe. In 1962, a Nato nuclear war exercise in Europe was reported in German magazines making it clear Germany would be ground zero in a nuclear war. Fake documents was retrieved from Lake Toplitz to remind the public of N@zi activity during the war. Authentic documents were included…

The Soviets assisted the peace movement in Europe to delay installation of better Nato missiles. In 1970, a USAID advisor was assassinated in Uruguay after he was misidentified as a CIA operative. The KGB published “Who’s Who in the CIA.” CIA denied participation in the response “KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents,” a best seller and said to be their last act in the Cold War.

In 1968, Philip Agee, a CIA veteran appeared at KGB in Mexico City offering info on CIA. He was thought to be a “dangle” and rejected. In 1975 he published “Inside the Company,” revealing names of 170 CIA personnel resulting in more assassinations. In 1977 Agee with assistance from KGB published fake documents suggesting the US sought to undermine the economy of its allies.

During the Viet Nam war, KGB forged US Army Field Manual 30-31B. It reported the army saw friendly nations as targets for US intelligence. Surprisingly, the book says little about Soviet participation in the anti-war demonstrations during the Viet Nam era. The focus seems to be mostly Europe.

In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by insurgents. Soviets said the US was behind the seizure. In Pakistan, the embassy was set on fire and two Americans and a marine were killed. KGB then claimed the Pakistan Army was behind the fire.

Western Union began Mailgram service in 1981. Almost immediately it was used to spread rumors that Sweden did signals intelligence against Russia and its allies for Nato.

In 1977, news circulated that the US had developed a neutron bomb to counter Soviet armor with less radioactive contamination. Protestors marched at the Pentagon. Soviets ramped up press stories to prevent deployment in Nato. After requiring Nato allies to agree on deployment, the US shelved the program. The neutron bomb is considered one of KGB’s most successful disinformation programs.

From the 1970s until the end of the Cold War, the Soviets ran a program called MARS to support peace advocates in Europe. They installed new long range missiles that could reach most of Europe. The US planned to install Pershing missiles in West Germany. KGB did 125-pages of US plans for war in Europe, summarized as better dead than red. US field commanders could decide to use nuclear weapons on their own. In 1981, Generals for Peace, including a dozen generals from Europe and Canada, issued interviews opposing installation of cruise missiles in UK or Pershing missiles in Germany. In 1983, Reagan began the Star Wars defense against missile attacks.

Next KGB undertook support for antiwar efforts in the US through religious organizations. Nuclear winter, headed by Carl Sagan, soon followed. In 2008, “Comrade J,” by Sergei Tretyakpv reported nuclear winter was one of KGB’s most successful disinformation operations. Studies concluded the winter effect of nuclear war was exaggerated. Promotion of the idea by Carl Sagan added to its credibility.

In 1980, the US accused Soviets of using chemical weapons in Laos and Afghanistan. The UN began investigation of chemical agent reports. Soviets accused the US of funding weaponized mosquitos at Pakistan’s Malaria Research Center. The US was reported to infect cattle with encephalitis in Afghanistan. A story emerged that AIDs was developed as a biological weapon at Ft Detrick, MD. In 1983, the AIDs story was spread throughout India. The Patriot newspaper there was funded by the Soviets. In 1985, the CIA countered that AIDs was a weapon of the Red Army. In 1986, the AIDs story was published in Britain.

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, KGB impersonated K-KK and sent racist leaflets to African and Asian participants. French and Israeli teams were threatened with physical attacks.

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, KGB sent fake letters suggesting that details of the disaster be reported exaggerating victims to 2000 to 3000 and mass evacuation to 100 miles. US media shied away from the suggestion limiting coverage.

In 1999, the arrival of the internet made distribution of disinformation easier especially in the US. Internet availability in Russia was limited. Russians used the New York Public Library to post disinformation on websites and send email to US press outlets. Activists and intellectuals who criticized the government were targets. That included environmentalists, anti-globalization activists and human rights organizations. They received a mix of fact and forgeries to strengthen contradictions. Utopianism in Silicon Valley made it easy to run operations undetected; dystopianism in the Beltway made it easy to exaggerate results. Estonia was pummeled by denial of service attacks. Sex tapes of individuals in compromising situations were commonly used and easier to distribute by internet.

In 2006, Julian Assange set up Wikileaks to distribute documents stolen from US agencies. In 2010 Chelsea Manning leaked State Department and Defense Department documents to Wikileaks. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked thousands of documents from NSA. Snowden is thought to be a whistle blower with libertarian goals. Journalists found the secrets difficult to verify. Some suspect multiple sources, some perhaps from the Soviets. Leaks became a convenient means to publish info, sometimes fake or partially fake. In 2013, reports circulated that Angela Merkel’s phone had been hacked. The Merkel story was confirmed when journalists received a note card with NSA’s surveillance order and her mobile phone numbers.

Cyber contributed to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. East/west protests in Kyiv caused President Yanukovych to flee to Moscow. Russia called the western group Neo-Fascists. Leaks blamed the western protests on the CIA. Three days before the election cyber attacks disabled Ukraine’s election system. Fake election data was installed in the system.

Russian cyber activity dates back to at least 2004, but became obvious in 2014. FireEye was an early detector of APT28 invasions attributed to the Russian government. Initially it invaded countries in Eastern Europe to collect defense related spy info. CyberCaliphate attacks to deface media sites in the US soon followed. French TV and Malaysia Airline attacks followed. In April French TV routers were trashed. Next they attacked the German Parliament.

In March, 2016, Russian units invaded Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters. Phishing email went to seventy campaign targets. They gained access to 50k emails. Next they attacked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Then the DNC looking for opposition research on candidates. They gained access to phone calls and voice mail. Results were posted on DCLeaks. DNC soon discovered the leak and had all employees turn in their phones to remedy the breech. GRU then sent its data to Wikileaks. The Russian hacks were soon revealed in the Washington Post and Crowdstrike published data making their tools easier to detect.

In April, the Panama Papers were published from the files of a Panamian law firm revealing Russians–probably including Putin–hiding their wealth in a web of shell companies.

Russians attempted to invade voting machines in all 50 states but were unsuccessful. However, emails in the DNR files revealed staff badmouthing both Hillary and Bernie Sanders. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair, was forced to resign.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency was a troll farm with a staff of 800 bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its employees were required to create 100 comments on Russian domestic issues per day. When efforts in Ukraine were ineffective, they turned attention to social media in the US and especially the 2016 Presidential election. To test effectiveness they announced free hot dogs at a square in NYC and watched results on a webcam.

IRA used encryption and VPN to conceal their tracks from social media. By fall 2016 they had attracted hundreds of thousands of direct followers. Black voters were encouraged not to vote. They created fake personas to attract followers. Typical were Bleep the Police. AmeriK-KKa. Feed homeless veterans rather than Syrian rebels. Texas USA pro-Second Amendment, pro-veterans, anti-Islam, and anti-Hillary. Their most successful social media account was Tennessee GOP with 36K followers. Satan: If I win, Clinton wins.

NSA’s hacking tools were stolen along the way. The finders as Shadow Brokers encrypted them and planned to auction them in 2016. The word spread rapidly. Downloaders found they needed a cryptographic key to open the files. Two keys were required. One was provided as a sample to reveal some of the software. The other key was up for auction.

In 2016, the Obama administration responded to election interference by expelling 35 Russian intelligence officers and seizing two Russian estates. Two days later Shadow Brokers listed the code names of 6400 programs used by NSA for hacking. Included were programs that allowed access to Windows etc by previously unknown flaws. It was the single largest tactical loss to NSA in a generation. Ransomware attacks using the NSA software soon appeared. WannaCry and NotPetya were some of the first. Numerous companies and hospitals were attacked.

This is detailed report of disinformation techniques known to the public. One wonders how much of our international news is influenced by disinformation. But also how many other players participate. Software is inexpensive to develop compared to other weapons. Many small players have potential. The dark internet probably has programs available for sale. Anyone can play. References, photos, index.