Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare- Book Review

Thomas Rid, relies on a colorful array of primary sources in addressing the trajectory of information warfare - also referred to as “active measures” - throughout the book.

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare is a compelling history of the information warfare campaigns that have taken place between Russia and the United States from the pre-Cold War era to the 2010s. The author, Thomas Rid, relies on a colorful array of primary sources in addressing the trajectory of information warfare – also referred to as “active measures” – throughout the book. Principal to Rid’s thesis is the manner in which disinformation campaigns exploit the weaknesses of democracy. While free speech and a free press allow for dissent among private citizens who can speak truth to power, this freedom also creates an opening for bad actors. It is this opening that Rid seeks to address throughout this work.

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid. 2020, Picador, New York City, New York, USA, 513 pp.

Early into the book, Rid discusses such disinformation campaigns as the Tanaka Memorial – a Russian-forged book known as Japan’s Mein Kampf, which allegedly predicted Japanese military aggression in the 1930s. Rid also addresses Russian efforts to inflate the threat of Neo-Nazi influence in post-World War II Germany. These disinformation campaigns are viewed by Rid as a precedent for more recent disinformation campaigns, such as a series of hacks associated with an organization called CyberCaliphate – a Russian front group posing as online Jihadists. In this, Rid gets at one of the most fundamental challenges in the study of information warfare – the problem of attribution.

One of the most important takeaways from Rid’s book has to do with how often well-meaning activist movements are co-opted by hostile foreign powers; this includes privacy activists, peace activists, and anti-nuclear activists. All of these, it should be noted, are historically popular causes in large part due to the fact that activists for these causes can rely on simple slogans and do not need to go to any great lengths to defend their moral and ethical positions.

Many of these movements, along with the press, have proven themselves exploitable by Russia and other foreign powers precisely because the popularity of these causes and their celebration by the news media. This popularity, in turn, has meant that – in the eyes of the public – any criticism of these causes ought to be treated with suspicion. Such criticism may even be viewed (usually but not always incorrectly) as a manifestation of establishmentarian, pro-state propaganda. That such movements are vulnerable to exploitation by external parties, however, should appear obvious. In addressing this problem, Rid draws attention to foreign disinformation campaigns that exploited such movements in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Most alarming is the large cast of famous names Rid discusses as targets or unwitting allies of disinformation campaigns. This is a list that includes such public intellectuals and luminaries as Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer.

The most provocative aspects of the book, of course, are those that deal with more recent events. Rid delivers a comprehensive summary of Russian interference in the 2016 United States Democratic primary, which involved the leak of e-mails expressing strong opinions about the outcome by DNC officials. These e-mail leaks simply expressed a political preference, but were misinterpreted by critics of the DNC as representing a conspiracy in Hillary Clinton’s favor. As such, this campaign of disinformation helped contribute to the pernicious myth – still believed by far too many American citizens – that Hillary Clinton and/or the DNC intentionally sabotaged the campaign of Clinton’s primary rival Bernie Sanders.

There are, of course, limitations to Thomas Rid’s insights. The scope of Rid’s research focuses narrowly on information warfare as a tool of geostrategic competition between the United States and Russia, with the current rivalry between the two states treated effectively as a continuation of the Cold War. Outside of this, Rid’s secondary discussions include divided Germany in the Cold War as a theatre of operations for the conflict between East and West, as well as pre-World War II Japan as a test ground for Russian operations. These latter areas, however, take up relatively little space compared to the former.

Rid also promises to delve into both American and Russian malign influence campaigns, but focuses principally on hostile activity by Russia. Aside from a passing mention of the WannaCry computer virus attributed to North Korea, Rid also does not thoroughly address disinformation campaigns leveled specifically against the United States within the past two decades by hostile actors other than Russia. Nor, for that matter, does Rid address disinformation operations that one state might use to influence policy within an allied country. These topics provide fertile ground for another project that builds on Rid’s work.

In general, Rid’s book is an insightful overview of disinformation campaigns from the early 20th century through the present. However, in focusing principally on Soviet “active measures” against the United States – with little focus on how the United States employed similar measures against the Soviet Union – the historical overview Rid presents remains somewhat one-sided.

Additionally, Rid has trouble deciding on his audience. Is he attempting to warn governments, journalists, activists, or the general public? It is certainly the case that die-hard believers in any political cause du jour may want to keep an eye out for involvement by malicious foreign powers – although many ideologically-driven activists do not, instead choosing to pooh-pooh any suggestion of malign foreign influence as state propaganda devised with the intent of diminishing their cause. Journalists can also benefit from Rid’s analysis in lending a critical eye to shocking – but potentially compromised – information concerning foreign events. Government entities, perhaps, do not need Rid’s analysis as much, already being equipped as they are both with offensive “active measures” programs and with numerous agencies and initiatives designed to counter them.

Rid should be commended for taking on a challenging, often politicized topic. However, Active Measures displays apparent weaknesses in terms of knowing who its audience is, or what message it is trying to convey. In spite of these weaknesses, however, Active Measures remains a worthy read for anyone interested in understanding the dangers of information warfare as a tool of propaganda and division.

Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur holds a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University, along with a Graduate Certificate in Intelligence Studies. He is an alumnus of internships with Horizon Intelligence and the U.S. Department of State's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. He is a regular contributor to short-term projects for Wikistrat and for United Nations Volunteers online assignments.
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