“Active measures”: a history of Russian interference in US elections

Interconnectivity has made it easier than ever—but recent meddling has precedent

December 23, 2016
President-Elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. ©Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images
President-Elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. ©Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images

When, during his election campaign, Donald Trump publicly called for Russia to hack into Hilary Clinton’s emails, he became the first presidential candidate in American history to invite a foreign intelligence operation on a rival candidate.

There are now growing reports that Russia’s intelligence services, it seems with approval of Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin himself, interfered with last month’s US Presidential election. Russian hackers reportedly launched a cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), obtained damaging information on Clinton, and then leaked it to outlets like Wikileaks with the aim of assisting Trump’s candidacy.

Even before the election, in October, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, stated that US intelligence was “very confident” that Russia was attempting to influence the US election—which for anyone who knows the field’s usually conservative language, was a forceful comment. Now, the CIA and FBI have concluded that it did. At his final end of year press briefing, Barack Obama stated that, based on uniform US intelligence assessments, the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC, and added that he had personally told Putin to “cut it out.” The US president has ordered a review before he leaves office next month.

The news has understandably been greeted with public alarm. There is, however, a long history of Moscow directing its intelligence services to interfere in US presidential elections, which makes recent news less surprising—though no less alarming. In order to understand Russia’s apparent cyber-warfare campaigns today, it is important to understand their background.

This is revealed by the extraordinary archive of Soviet foreign intelligence records secretly obtained by a senior KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin, at enormous personal risk, and smuggled to the west in the early 1990s. Mitrokhin collaborated with the world’s leading intelligence historian, Christopher Andrew, to publish the Mitrokhin Archive, some of which has, since 2014, been made publicly available.

The archive shows that during the Cold War, the KGB did not just gather intelligence—invariably in line with what Moscow wanted to hear—but it also undertook a wide variety of what it called “active measures” (aktivinyye meropriatia). The aim here was to influence the course of world events in favour of the Soviet Union, while discrediting and undermining the influence of the United States, termed the “Main Adversary.”

A high-ranking former KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, described active measures as being the “heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.” They were run by a special branch of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate, Service A, and involved a wide spectrum of political warfare activities. These included disinformation, for example using forged documents to inculcate conspiracy theories, which were spread by KGB officers stationed abroad, known as Line PR officers; to gathering compromising material on western politicians and officials and blackmailing them; media manipulation; and outright “special action,” which involved various degrees of violence, including assassinations.

In 1968, Moscow was so anxious to prevent the election of the veteran anti-Communist Richard Nixon that it secretly offered to subsidise the campaign of his unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey. Presumably much to Moscow’s relief, once in office, Nixon proved to favour détente with the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s, however, there was one US politician who, more than any other in the Cold War, caused fear and loathing in Moscow: Ronald Reagan.

During his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, the KGB undertook a wide-ranging quest for compromising material on Reagan. It does not appear that the KGB’s investigations, for example into the alcoholism of Reagan’s father, had any effect on his failure to obtain the nomination that year. It did, however, plant some anti-Reagan articles in the foreign press outside the US. The KGB was less involved in trying to influence next presidential election, in 1980, than it had been four years earlier. This was because Moscow saw little to differentiate Jimmy Carter’s administration— dominated by the hard-line policies of his National Security Adviser, the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski—from Reagan’s long-standing anti-Sovietism.

Moscow’s view dramatically changed with the prospect of Reagan serving a second term. The KGB’s Moscow headquarters (called the “Centre”) regarded it as an extreme priority to discredit the policies of his administration. It was probably this priority that led the Chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, in one of the last acts of his 14 year leadership of the KGB, to decree in April 1982 that it was the duty of all KGB foreign intelligence officers, whatever their department, to participate in active measures.

In February 1983, the KGB instructed its main residencies (stations) in America to begin planning active measures to ensure Reagan’s defeat in November 1984. They were ordered to acquire contacts on the staffs of all possible presidential candidates, in both Democratic and Republican headquarters, making clear that any candidate, of either party, would be preferable to Reagan. KGB stations around the world were ordered to popularise the slogan “Reagan Means War.” The Centre announced five active measures “theses” to be used to discredit Reagan’s foreign policy: his militant adventurism; his personal responsibility for accelerating the arms race; his support for repressive regimes around the world; his attempts to crush national liberation movements; and his responsibility for tension with his NATO allies. Despite its best efforts, the KGB’s efforts to interfere with the election had minimal effect. Reagan won in a landslide.

Rather than outright interference, the KGB discovered that it was far more successful in undermining its Main Adversary by spreading conspiracy theories to create distrust among parts of the American public about their government.

One event, more than any other in the Cold War, was ripe for active measures: the assassination of John F Kennedy. The KGB variously planted stories that Kennedy was assassinated by a CIA plan or by a group of right-wing Texan financiers and industrialists, who wanted to make it look like a communist plot. More was to follow. One of the KGB’s most successful anti-American measures of the entire Cold War was its later fabrication, and dissemination, of the story that the AIDS virus had been “manufactured” by the US Army at a biological warfare facility in Maryland.

Active measures against the US, then, covered a variety of sins. However, it would be entirely misleading to suppose that it was only Soviet intelligence that undertook covert operations to interfere with elections during the Cold War. The United States did so too.

After its establishment in 1947, one of the CIA’s first acts of covert action was, on its own later admission, to interfere in elections in Italy in 1948 to fund moderate candidates and undermine Communists— reportedly forging documents to discredit the Communist Party of Italy. In Chile, in the 1960s, the CIA undertook protracted covert action operations to interfere with elections to derail the Marxist leader, Salvador Allende. Earlier, in 1953, US intelligence had worked with its closest Cold War intelligence ally, Britain, to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq, in a coup.

In the 1950s and 1960s in British Guiana, in South America, the US and British governments manipulated the electoral system to try to remove from power another democratically elected leader, Cheddi Jagan, a suspected Communist. When this did not work, fearing another Fidel Castro-type leader—this was after Castro took power in Cuba—the US secretly funded Jagan’s opponents to get what Kennedy called “a good result.” It succeeded, at least in the short term: Jagan was replaced by a pro-western opponent, Forbes Burnham. However, Burnham proved to be far more corrupt than Jagan.

Both the Soviet Union and its western opponents, the United States and Britain, pursued covert action to interfere in elections during the Cold War. All of this, however, is not just about history: there are policy lessons for today from Britain and America’s Cold War experiences.

Policy-makers in Washington and London could do well to study the successful “information agencies” their governments ran during this period, which successfully countered Soviet active measures. Britain’s Information Research Department (IRD), set up by the Foreign Office early in the war, was highly effective at countering Soviet propaganda and disinformation, termed “psychological warfare.”

Until recently, the IRD’s activities have been some of the most closely guarded British government secrets of the Cold War. IRD sponsored the commission of an enormous range of anti-communist publications, and helped to disseminate those written independently. This occurred, for example, with the collection of essays edited by the anti-communist British politician, Richard Crossman, The God that Failed (1949). Though details remain murky, it appears that arguably the greatest anti-Communist writer of the Cold War, George Orwell, had connections with the IRD.

During Britain’s violent counter-insurgency campaigns in the early Cold War, during its last days of empire, from Malaya to Kenya, the IRD effectively disseminated covert pro-western messages to local populations. A similar agency to the IRD seems to be needed today. One of the most senior officials in the US intelligence community recently said that America needs a new United States Information Agency, which provided positive messages about the United States during the Cold War.

The eminent late Harvard historian, Ernest May, suggested that when looking for analogous lessons from past events, one should draw up a list of similarities and differences between now and then. There are similarities between KGB active measures to influence past US presidential elections and what appears to be happening today. Cyber-warfare provides new, faster, and probably cheaper, means for Moscow to achieve long-standing practices of active measures derived from the Cold War. In many ways, it is not surprising that Russia’s intelligence services today, which proudly see themselves as the heirs of the KGB, should be attempting to interfere.

This is particularly so, given Putin’s former KGB career. He served in the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate. He was posted to East Germany in the late 1980s, after the time when Andropov ordered that all KGB foreign intelligence officers should pursue active measures. There is some evidence to suggest that he attended the KGB’s foreign intelligence training school, the Andropov Institute, where recruits were trained in carrying out active measures. One of those teaching this at the Andropov Institute in the 1980s was Yuri Modin, the last KGB handler of the most successful of all Soviet foreign agents, the five so-called “Cambridge Spies.”

There are, however, important differences between KGB active measures and those that Moscow appears to be undertaking now. The world’s interconnectivity means it is easier than ever before for a state like Russia to interfere. When combined with the growth of “post-fact” politics in America, and false news on social media, state-sponsored disinformation operations are pushing on an open door, as never before.

In Britain, the current Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Alex Younger, emerged from the shadows earlier this month to gave the first press conference of its kind, from within SIS’s London headquarters. Younger, or “C” as the head of Britain’s SIS is known, placed the problem facing democratic countries in the bluntest possible terms. Without naming Russia expressly, he stated that hybrid-warfare, in which conventional military action is combined with cyber attacks, propaganda and disinformation, posed a “fundamental threat” to the sovereignty of democratic countries. The US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, has similarly commented that Russian hackers pose a threat to all democracies. Meanwhile, Germany’s intelligence chief has stated that Russia appears to be targeting elections in Germany next year.

The problem facing western democracies, however, goes deeper than just vulnerability. During the Cold War, western governments, and their information agencies that countered Soviet active measures, like Britain’s IRD, had a ready-made (and relatively easy to grasp) grand ideological narrative to exploit: western democracy as opposed to Soviet Communism. Even if there were an equivalent to Britain’s IRD today, it is not clear what its grand ideological narrative would be.