Forgetting The Past: The U.S. Response to Russian Disinformation

Russia’s interference during the 2016 elections was not a fluke. Rather it reflects ongoing efforts which date back more than a century. The U.S. government’s response – or lack thereof – to Russian disinformation campaigns reflects a remarkable lack of historical insight and more than a little naivety among policymakers. Long-running reluctance among U.S. policymakers to confront the Kremlin’s active measures campaigns emboldened Russia further.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted the danger posed by underestimation of your adversary. In it, President Obama’s deputy secretary of state said the administration thought Russian disinformation would not succeed in the U.S. “I thought our ground was not as fertile,” said Antony J. Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “We believed that the truth shall set you free, that the truth would prevail. That proved a bit naive.” That is an understatement. To believe that is to believe that a former KGB colonel would abandon long-held Russian intelligence tradecraft.

What Is Russian Disinformation and When Did It Begin?

Thomas Rid, Senate Intelligence Committee, March 30, 2017

Thomas Rid, a professor at Kings College and expert in cybersecurity, noted in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the most concise description of disinformation comes from the former head of East Germany’s disinformation arm, who said a powerful adversary such as the United States “can only be defeated through . . . a sophisticated, methodical, careful, and shrewd effort to exploit even the smallest ‘cracks’ . . . within their elites.” Thus, the Russians and their allies use pre-existing schisms among groups to further drive the sides apart.

The use of disinformation by the Russians has its origins in the Tsarist era when the secret police sowed dissent among emigre groups through the clandestine placement of pro-Imperial Russia articles in selected journals. Herbert Romerstein, an expert in Soviet espionage, wrote that disinformation as a Soviet weapon began in 1923 with the proposed establishment of a KGB “special disinformation office to conduct active intelligence operations.”

By the mid-1950s, the KGB had established Department D, a directorate dedicated to disinformation. Rid testified that during the Cold War, the KGB ran more than 10,000 individual disinformation operations aimed at Western democracies. A declassified CIA study of Soviet disinformation cites two examples of Russian active measures in the 1960s. The KGB in 1963 disseminated rumors about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which may have influenced the conspiracy theories popularized by Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone, and others. A second example dates from the Vietnam War when the KGB circulated a forged letter, purportedly authored by a US military research agency staffer, that contended the U.S. had used biological weapons in Vietnam and Thailand.

Russian Disinformation in the 1980s

Rid testified that Russian disinformation operations hit a high-water mark in the 1980s. To counter the KGB’s active measures, the U.S. government in 1981 established an Active Measures Working Group. Declassified CIA memorandums available on the agency’s website show that the intelligence community was so concerned about the level of Soviet disinformation campaigns in the 1980s that it held a top-secret two-day conference on the topic in the summer of 1985.

An impetus to the conference may have been one of the most successful KGB disinformation operations ever launched. In 1982, the KGB began disinformation campaign, which claimed that AIDS was created in U.S. biological warfare laboratories with an aim to decimate developing countries. The campaign was so effective that within a decade, one out of four African-Americans believed HIV was created by the U.S. government to infect blacks, and 15 percent of Americans agreed that AIDS was created in a government laboratory.

During the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the Soviets tried to sow dissent among athletes. The KGB published a fake leaflet supposedly written by the KKK threatening black athletes. The KGB sought to fan fears of racism through the depiction of Africans hanging from trees.

A CIA study on Russian disinformation campaigns noted that in 1987 Moscow launched active measures that blamed the CIA for the mass-suicide of over 900 members of the People’s Temple in Guyana in 1978. Its centerpiece was a book by three Soviet journalists who contended that the CIA had killed the cult members “for their intent to gain asylum in the USSR.” That same year, a KGB disinformation campaign contended that wealthy Americans were importing Latin American to butcher them and use their body parts for organ transplants.

1990s Lull Followed by a Dramatic Increase

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a sharp drop off in the KGB’s disinformation campaigns.  Or, as Professor Rid put it, there was “a long intermission” of such operations throughout the 1990s.

As a result, President Clinton shut down the U.S. government’s counter-disinformation arms. The last director of the U.S. Information Agency told the Washington Post the Clinton Administration “thought it was all over and that we’d won the propaganda war.” That view was mistaken. In fact, the Russians merely switched tactics from print media to the Internet with dramatic results.

Russia, in 2005, launched RT, the television network that disseminates pro-Russian perspectives on news events along with a good bit of disinformation. RT’s launch preceded a measurable uptick in Russian active measures operations. Two years later, the Russians launched cyberattacks that disabled Estonian banks, government agencies and news media. The Russians launched similar attacks against Georgia in 2008.

The Gerasimov Doctrine

Disinformation and cyberwarfare became incorporated into the Russian military strategy in 2013 as part of what has come to be known the Gerasimov Doctrine, named after the Russian chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov who laid out its core principles in an article entitled “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” published in Military-Industrial Kurier.

The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.

The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.

All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict . . . .

– Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” Military-Industrial Kurier, Feb. 2013. As translated from Russian in Military Review, Jan-Feb 2016.

Gerasimov explained his new doctrine in a 2013 speech in which he said political goals are to be obtained through the “widespread use of disinformation . . . deployed in connection with the protest potential of the population.”

The Chinese had earlier adopted cyberwarfare and disinformation into their military strategy. A senior CIA official gave a speech in early 2000 in which he noted that four years earlier a Chinese general wrote that in future wars computers would be a target: “We can make the enemy’s command centers not work by changing their data system. We can cause the enemy’s headquarters to make incorrect judgments by sending disinformation. We can dominate the enemy’s banking system and even its entire social order.”

Gerasimov Doctrine in Action

Rid testified that in 2014 Russia’s shift in tactics became apparent especially in military intelligence, the GRU. An intercepted GRU report documented how Russia created trolls to spread disinformation on social media during the annexation of Crimea. The GRU increased its cyberwarfare during the occupation of Ukraine. As the Washington Post article noted, less than a week into that campaign, GRU-created fictitious Facebook accounts had garnered 200,000 hits a day.

Yet, the U.S. still did not react. NATO officials had personally warned President Obama of the new Russian threats. White House aides wanted the U.S. to counteract the Russian disinformation campaigns, but President Obama “brushed aside the idea as politically impracticable,” according to the Washington Post.

By early 2015, the GRU’s disinformation and cyberwarfare operations had targeted military and diplomatic entities worldwide. Among the targets were the private accounts of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford, the current and former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, NATO officials, and Russian dissidents and opposition leaders.

According to Rid, Russian intelligence began employing Wikileaks as an outlet for files obtained through its cyberwarfare operations and, over the next year, created at least six new front organizations, including DCLeaks and Gucifer 2.0, for the same purpose. The GRU also began to shift from worldwide military and diplomatic targets to U.S. political targets, which included Hillary Clinton’s personal email account. Clinton campaign staffers, and the DNC. Professor Rid likened the DNC hacks to “a carefully executed physical break-in in which the intruders used uniquely identical listening devices; uniquely identical envelopes to carry the stolen files past security; and uniquely identical getaway vehicles.”

Gentlemen Don’t Read Each Other’s Mail

A State Department official in 2015 proposed to target Russian trolls who were prominent online – so-called “influencers” – with pro-American propaganda. Then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. vetoed that proposal. In his view, the U.S. “should emulate the Russians.”

That rationale immediately brings to mind Henry Stimpson when he closed the so-called Black Chamber – the forerunner of the National Security Agency. Despite its remarkable success during World War I, Simpson famously declared that “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

A 1950 document in the NSA’s online archives states that Stimpson had acted on the orders of President Hoover, who wanted the Black Chamber terminated. Perhaps, we might speculate, Mr. Clapper was similarly simply echoing the views of President Obama.

The poet George Santayana famously remarked that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A corollary may be that those who ignore past military operations will forever be targets of them.









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