LONDON— Last week, as Washington obsessed over the latest revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, I couldn’t help but think of a British diplomat I befriended on an ocean liner from Paris to New York almost seventy years ago. By the end of the trip, he had convinced me to move to Washington, DC, where he was about to become the second secretary in the British Embassy. He was the epitome of an English gentlemen, equal parts gossip and wit, and we talked for hours over long dinners. He lived in a basement apartment below one of his colleagues, an intelligence officer, who joined us one evening to drink bourbon and trade stories. Earlier, my friend had told me that the man upstairs was a spy.
It turns out, they were both spies: Soviet spies. My friend, Guy Burgess, and his colleague, Kim Philby, were two of the infamous Cambridge Five, the highest-profile spy ring of the Cold War. Recruited by Soviet intelligence while they were students at Cambridge in the 1930s, Burgess and Philby had passed Western secrets to Moscow during World War II. As the BBC recently explained, it was actually Philby who instructed the KGB how to make disinformation believable, what the Soviets referred to as “active measures.” He taught the Soviets that the most plausible fake stories were those that started with a kernel of truth, and then added false paragraphs or twists that could discredit the West.
Last year wasn’t the first time that the Russians had tried to meddle in US elections. In 1982, following the playbook that Philby had developed, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov instructed his agents to plant fake news stories to derail Reagan’s reelection campaign. Their efforts didn’t work, largely due to actions that President Reagan had taken to expose Soviet disinformation. As President Donald Trump pays lip service to combating digital disinformation today – announcing by Tweet last week the laughable and instantly-dismissed idea that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin were going to create an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to prevent election hacking – maybe he should take a page from the Reagan playbook instead.
In 1981, President Reagan set up an interagency task force, called the “Active Measures Working Group” to expose Soviet disinformation. The KGB had engaged in decades of disinformation campaigns to discredit the US with little push-back, from false stories that the CIA was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to a fake historical propaganda book, circulated widely in the Muslim world, claiming that Jews, with the help of the U.S., were plotting to take over Europe. The Kremlin was spending $3 billion a year on these stories, which, as Philby recommended, contained just enough truthful details to sound credible.
An experienced collection of U.S. diplomats, military officers, and intelligence officials, the Active Measures Working Group worked out of the State Department. It wasn’t long before their work had impact – most famously, working to stop a KGB plant that the US government had created and released the AIDS virus.
The story first appeared in a KGB-sponsored Indian newspaper in 1983. Four years later, the story had spread to over 80 countries and circulated it in over 30 languages. When the group published a report on these activities, a copy found its way into the hands of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who aggressively and angrily confronted US Secretary of State George Shultz with it. The outburst proved that the Soviet Union worried about the credibility costs of disinformation campaigns once they became public. The rumors about the AIDS virus faded shortly thereafter.
When the Soviet Union broke up in early 1990s, the group was dissolved. But with Putin, a long-time KGB agent who is an expert on the Philby playbook, the Cold War has gone cyber. Like any good content creator, Putin realized that the smart thing to do was to get out of print and get online. With a stable of global news websites and an army of internet trolls, the Russian government has updated its tactics for the Internet Age, dramatically increasing its cybersecurity army. Through social media, it has become easier than ever for small, Russian-backed media start-ups to instantly share fake stories with willing audiences around the world.
Along with the high-profile effort to discredit Hillary Clinton and throw the 2016 U.S. election to Donald Trump, which the FBI is now investigating, the Russian government has used similar tactics from Estonia to Georgia to Ukraine. More recently, it has supported far-right, anti-EU parties in countries like Hungary. And officials expect it to interfere with upcoming elections in NATO-members France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
If the United States is to stop these active measures, it needs to do much more than just take symbolic half measures against the Russian regime. The Trump administration should follow the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recommendation and create a new version of the Active Measures Working Group.
So what would this agency look like, and what would it do?
The reconvened Active Measures Working Group would include officials from the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council, as well as members of the intelligence community. It would be led by a bipartisan group of elder statesmen (like Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and John Kerry) who could minimize accusations of political partisanship.
These officials would have a precisely defined mandate to investigate and expose Russian disinformation campaigns in the U.S. and around the world. If the Active Measures Working Group identifies Russian disinformation campaigns designed to influence American politics, it should have the authority to take effective preventive measures.
One model for those capabilities comes from France, where Emmanuel Macron’s technology team stopped Russian meddling in their most recent Presidential election. At the beginning of the campaign, Macron’s team took robust defensive measures to detect and prevent hacking attempts through phishing emails. The team combined these efforts with offensive countermeasures, like creating false email accounts and documents, that created traps for Russian hackers and made it difficult for them to verify and authenticate documents. By acting early and going on the offensive, Macron’s team was able to prevent Russian hackers from influencing French politics.
The US should do the same. As I learned nearly seven decades ago, even the most innocent-appearing, pro-Western-seeming people and stories can be agents of influence. President Trump tweeted praise this week for a bill introduced in the House Appropriations Committee to provide funds to begin constructing his long-promised Border Wall. What America really needs to build is a firewall, and make sure that it keeps Putin firmly on the other side.
Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security. His memoir, “Being Dead is Bad for Business,” is available online and a collection of his selected writings, titled “Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?” will be published by Disruption Books on July 31. �