Leaking damaging documents during election season, feeding the media false stories about candidates, and concocting conspiracy theories to smear politicians: this will sound familiar to anyone who followed the U.S. presidential election, and to an extent, recent campaigns in France and Germany. But these methods are not new. In fact, the Soviet Union used them all in West Germany throughout the Cold War.
The United States, as the Soviet Union’s “main enemy,” and West Germany, seen as the KGB’s “door to the West,” were the primary targets of Soviet “active measures,” or subversive operations. The two countries share a history that is all the more vital to understand amid claims that Russian active measures are back in business.
In Germany, warnings of the resurrection of active measures followed a series of high-profile incidents last year that evoked Cold War methods. Particularly notorious was the Lisa case, in which even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov joined Kremlin-backed media in stoking German public outrage over the alleged rape of a Russian-German by refugees — after the story had been debunked. Compounding that, after the highly publicized 2015 hack of the German parliament, some feared that stepped-up attempts to hack politicians and journalists would lead to the leaking of documents during the elections. Berlin suspected the recent attempts, along with the 2015 hack, were committed by APT 28, the Russian military-linked group accused of the 2016 Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack.
On the day of the U.S. presidential election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that confronting “internet attacks that are of Russian origin” and the “false information” propagated by Russian media had already become “a daily task.” Though the election campaign was relatively quiet — briefly interrupted by a Russian-language botnet bolstering misleading messages from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — the entrance of the Russia-friendly, Euroskeptic AfD in parliament with a significant number of seats has opened the door for the kind of polarizing politics that such influence operations feed on.
As Germany hastens efforts to shield itself from outside interference and the United States presses on in its investigations into Russian meddling, it’s worth re-examining the two countries’ experience with active measures. West Germany, after all, endured the whole gamut of active measures, including at least three instances of Moscow interfering in its elections. For its part, the United States made a vocal effort to determine how to confront the problem that the Soviets posed to it and its European allies. As policymakers today confront a familiar toolkit, this history shines light on the kind of impact active measures can have, how attempted defenses have fared, and what lessons have endured despite active measures’ digital upgrade.
“Fake News” and Leaks 1.0
Decades before “fake news” became a catchphrase, the Soviet Union was spending millions annually on falsified and misleading stories. Its official news agency, TASS, as well as the nominally independent Novosti, the predecessor to Sputnik, cooperated with the KGB active measures department to disseminate covert propaganda — that is, propaganda that masks its origin — abroad. The Soviets commonly used forgeries — fabricated documents, often made to look like government memos — and improved on this tool over the course of the Cold War.
Although the Western press was fairly resilient to these efforts, Moscow did find ways to manipulate it. Soviet intelligence cultivated assets in mainstream media outlets including Reuters and CBS. In some cases, financial concerns provided an in. One West European country’s cash-strapped national news service reprinted low-cost TASS stories without scrutiny. In Paris, the KGB residency was particularly active in covertly funding pro-Soviet journalists and media outlets.
Even the most respected journalists played into Kremlin hands when interests aligned, often in the admirable task of holding their own governments to account. This was the crux of the “Spiegel Affair,” which erupted after Der Spiegelprinted details of a leaked West German Defense Ministry report implying that Bonn should be able to order a preemptive nuclear strike — an inflammatory suggestion. This resulted in the resignation of Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauss. On one hand, the paper was heralded as a champion of free press for covering the report. On the other, it was scorned as a KGB pawn. Some suspected the source was a Julian Assange-like character who had a bone to pick with Strauss and may have been in cahoots with Moscow. The incident was part of the KGB’s ongoing operation to manipulate journalists “to do everything to compromise [Strauss].”
This practice of leaking information to influence a country’s political trajectory was old hat by the time last year’s DNC hacks hit headlines. Consider Operation Neptune: in 1964, Czechoslovakia collaborated with the KGB to use leaks to impel the West German government to prolong the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes. Czechoslovakian intelligence and the KGB had obtained German Nazi government documents. To make a splash in the media, agents sunk them in a lake in Czechoslovakia, allowing them to be dramatically discovered by an unwitting film crew prior to the statute’s expiration. It worked. None of the documents alone were damning, but the sheer volume — chests of them — was convincing. Amid public pressure, West Germany extended the statute. With the memory of World War II still fresh, the documents gave the Soviets an opportunity to discredit West Germany by disclosing the Nazi past of individuals in positions of power.
“Is there a solution to the complicated and sensitive problem of leaking?” asked Ladislav Bittman, the former Czechoslovakian intelligence officer who defected to the United States a few years after overseeing Operation Neptune, in his 1980 congressional testimony on Soviet active measures. The U.S. intelligence community wasn’t sure. Identifying forgeries and leaks was relatively straightforward: The real problem was attribution and how to respond without escalating the situation. Decades before President Barack Obama wrestled with how to attribute and prudently counter the DNC hacks, the CIA was struggling to attribute forgeries in much the same way cyber analysts work today: noting indications of Kremlin links, Russian-speaking authors, technical sophistication requiring state resources, and alignment with Russian geopolitical goals. But certainty was elusive, and contesting every forgery or launching accusations had risks. What to do?
U.S. policymakers decided information was the answer. Active measures “are infections that thrive only in darkness, and sunlight is the best antiseptic,” concluded then-Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. The United States began a concerted effort under the Reagan administration to raise awareness among the public, media, and friendly governments. It decided to compel with facts, focusing on the most clear-cut examples of forgeries as evidence.
This was effective. Journalists abroad began contacting U.S. embassies to ascertain the authenticity of documents, often forged government memos. Partner countries came to identify forgeries before making hasty diplomatic decisions. U.S. “briefings … have [made it] very hard for the Soviets,” assessed the U.S. Information Agency. Within the West, analysts boasted that a thriving democracy and journalistic integrity kept their citizens from falling prey to Soviet narratives to the extent they did elsewhere. George Kennan’s assertion that the “health and vigor” of society is the strongest defense against political warfare seemed to hold.
However, celebration may have been somewhat shortsighted. The Soviets believed active measures functioned like “drops on a stone,” wearing down the target over decades. The other snag, of course, was that forgeries and leaks were only a fraction of the active measures being employed by Moscow.
Dirty Tricks, Useful Idiots, and Other Avenues of Soviet Influence
Throughout Europe, agents of influence furthered Soviet interests for ideology, money, fear from kompromat, or as unwitting “useful idiots.” In West Germany specifically, East German intelligence (HVA) played a central role. Though officially independent from Moscow, the HVA cooperated closely with the KGB, and its director saw the HVA’s unique ability to penetrate West Germany on behalf of Moscow as the agency’s raison d’être. Notorious cases include Member of Parliament William Borm of the Free Democratic Party, whose speeches were sometimes written by the HVA, and Günter Guillaume, Chancellor Willy Brandt’s aide, whose arrest in 1974 as an HVA spy sent a shiver through Washington that Soviet agents may have the ear of leaders at the highest echelons of Western governments. The 1984 arrest of Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arne Treholt reinforced such fears. Before being convicted as a KGB asset in 1984, Treholt was instrumental in persuading Norway to pursue diplomatic agreements asymmetrically favorable to the Soviet Union.
Another source of subversion was the set of Kremlin-backed front organizations, which feigned altruism but answered to Soviet leadership. Moscow used these organizations to fan fires and redirect movements to serve its goals.
For instance, the Soviets used front organizations to influence the anti-nuclear movement, the initiative that most visibly put Western leadership on the defensive. West German Interior Ministry and FBI reports concluded that Soviet-linked organizations were successfully swaying local peace movement initiatives to conform to Moscow’s positions. In 1982, the U.S. affiliate of the World Peace Council, a Soviet front, showed Moscow’s ability to secretly influence a United Nations special session on disarmament by persuading the committee coordinating the massive protests to focus the movement on U.S. and NATO rather than all (read: Soviet) missiles as the real threat.
Earlier Soviet efforts against the U.S. “neutron bomb” — a sensitive issue in both the United States and West Germany, where the bomb would be based — had already seen results. Soviet propaganda on the bomb augmented the already high political costs of supporting it publicly for West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who backed it privately. In Washington, White House staff admitted that President Jimmy Carter was “vulnerable to Soviet propaganda” on the issue, which Robert Gates, at the time serving on the National Security Council, said contributed to Carter’s decision to freeze the bomb’s production.
The KGB hardly invented the anti-nuclear movement or Carter’s sensitivity to it. Alone, active measures could mean little more than a PR headache for the target government. But when these efforts were able to latch on to a polarizing issue and leadership sensitive to it, the PR headache could translate into sapped political will or a changed security calculus benefitting Moscow.
Still, active measures did bear risks for Moscow. For one, they could backfire. Take, for instance, 1967, when Soviet disinformation to Egypt hastened the opposite of the KGB’s aims: the outbreak of the Six-Day War, the United States doubling down on its relationship with Israel, and the weakening of Soviet regional partners. Furthermore, manipulation inherently risks credibility. Certain dents leave their mark, such as when the mismatch between sugarcoated Soviet propaganda and Moscow’s military suppression of the Prague Spring diminished the trust European communist parties had placed in Moscow. Where they once looked to Moscow as their lodestar, the distrust led the parties to drift from Russia’s orbit.
Election and Political Party Interference
West Germany experienced Soviet interference in at least three of its elections. KGB archives detail a propaganda operation in the 1980 elections targeting Strauss. Such information campaigns ranged from far-fetched conspiracy theories to more effective operations anchored by a kernel of truth. In 1969, the KGB leaked documents related to Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger’s Nazi past to damage his reelection bid. Sometimes, meddling was more direct. In 1972, the HVA got KGB approval to pay Christian Democratic Union Deputy Julius Steiner 50,000 deutsche marks to support Brandt amid a no-confidence vote against him. To Moscow’s relief, Brandt’s ouster was narrowly avoided by two votes.
It is a common misconception that Moscow’s interactions today with far-right groups are new, the result of Russia’s recent rebranding as an international conservative bulwark. The KGB penetrated and leveraged the Nazi post-war network in West Germany early on and benefitted from HVA connections to center-right politicians — even as it collaborated with Communist parties.
Then, as now, analysts often struggled to distinguish between legitimate Soviet outreach and veiled subversion. How to identify foreign agents without unleashing a witch-hunt on democratic institutions? But in other respects, it was easier then. Communist parties, at least initially, pledged allegiance to Moscow outright. Today, parties like Alternative for Germany speak vaguely of cooperation with Russian parties in meetings with pro-Kremlin politicians. And while Cold War intelligence analysts, like their modern counterparts, often painstakingly pieced together obscure chains of financial transactions funneling funds to politicians, their jobs were sometimes much simpler — like when they caught KGB agents delivering supporters suitcases of cash.
Politics by Other Means
Still, nostalgia is not merited across the board. Soviet leadership condoned using or promoting violence to deepen a target society’s latent fissures. In 1959, KGB agents had a West German synagogue vandalized on Christmas night. As the Soviets expected (they had even experimented with a pilot run at home), the affront inspired copycat anti-Semitic incidents around West Germany — 833 nationwide by mid-February. Bonn became isolated internationally as a result. European partners pulled contracts, German diplomacy stalled, and newspapers reignited doubts about Bonn’s trustworthiness as a NATO partner that lingered after the incident.
By the 1970s, Moscow was providing the funds needed to sustain several West German terrorist groups: the Red Army Faction, 2nd June Movement, and the Revolutionary Cells. Through East German intelligence, Moscow supplied vital connections, equipment, and training at KGB-run camps in the Middle East. In 1957, Czechoslovakian intelligence — which at the time sought approval and input from Moscow — committed a false-flag terrorist operation designed to further Moscow’s geopolitical aims in the region. Posing as a German nationalist group, agents mailed a bomb disguised as a gift to the Strasbourg prefect in France in conjunction with a reception for the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Union’s predecessor. The explosion went off elsewhere, killing the prefect’s wife. The incident failed to stall the European project or the budding French-German relationship undergirding it.
“Thank God,” then-Sen. Joe Biden proclaimed in a 1985 intelligence hearing, reflecting on the incriminatingly poor English in a Soviet forgery of a U.S. memo. He continued, “But just think of how dangerous they would be if they knew what they were doing … if they could solve the simple problem of having someone literate write the letter.”
Since then, Moscow has sharpened its hacking capabilities, used the internet and social media to cut out the middleman, and adopted its technology industry’s strength as an early leader in search optimization to push state messages to potential supporters. The internet era has transformed those “drops on a stone” into a “firehose.” Active measures tradecraft has not improved much, but the job has gotten easier.
Fake social media accounts provide an opportunity to distribute Kremlin narratives to the public without making painstaking investments into cultivating agents of influence. The “Secured Borders” Facebook page is a telling example: Posing as a conservative American group, but in fact the product of a prominent Kremlin-linked troll factory, Secured Borders spread divisive racist messages to its 133,000 followers during the 2016 presidential campaign, including calling supporters to an anti-refugee rally. The impact such groups had is not yet known, but compared to KGB reports that boasted of circulating 14,000 posters in a year, it seems to be a step up. Other tools, like hacking, offer new ways to obtain documents ripe for leaking or to spread disinformation via compromised accounts.
But despite active measures’ technological upgrade, many of the challenges that accompany them are strikingly familiar, and, as such, so are a number of the prescriptions for dealing with them.
For one, information remains the best antiseptic. However, Eagleburger did not address one caveat that may be even more important today: timing is crucial. Policymakers charged with addressing the forgery problem saw positive results when sensitization efforts abroad taught journalists and politicians to spot fakes and common Soviet narratives in advance. But once a forgery was out there, it was more difficult to refute it.
Today, it is even more important to raise awareness of unscrupulous practices and common narratives rather than relying on post-facto refutations. Social media shortens the response window and allows disinformation to evolve as events unfold on the ground. Rapidly spreading disinformation took its toll on targets in the Cold War, like when a Soviet rumor spread by radio, which claimed that the CIA was behind the 1979 Grand Mosque attack in Mecca, led to the burning of the Islamabad U.S. Embassy. In the internet era, disinformation can spread even faster.
Additionally, a capable diplomatic corps is needed to protect against active measures that are aimed at isolating countries internationally. Given Moscow’s persisting efforts to weaken solidarity among NATO allies and European Union member states, it would be shortsighted to undercut those diplomats whose regional and public diplomacy expertise are best equipped to raise awareness and catch disinformation before it spreads, and, when it already has, to reassure allies or quell public outrage abroad.
Finally, Kennan’s observation that the “health and vigor of our own society” is a vital antidote remains relevant today. Propaganda and active measures feed on social and political divisions in a target country. Today, divisions seem to be in no short supply, with growing ideological polarizations in the United States and trust between citizens and institutions “in crisis” around the world. While a healthy democracy free of internal divisions can hardly be ordered up, media literacy programs may have a role to play by addressing the problem of trust in the media.
According to one study, the United States has the largest gap between the “informed population” and the rest when it comes to trust in the media and other institutions. In Germany, 42 percent of citizens feel there is “something to” the “Lügenpresse” accusation, a Nazi-era term for “the lying press,” even while Germans who trust the press has reached an all-time high, showing increased polarization. It’s clear that Russian disinformation campaigns thrive in such environments. One solution may be literacy training programs that equip citizens to distinguish reliable sources from disinformation. Learn to Discern, a media literacy initiative in Ukraine, shows promise: The program increased the percentage of participants who “almost always” cross-check the news they consume from 21 to 50 percent. Similar programs should be explored, with an emphasis on tracking impact to understand what works.
Technological advances have amplified the effectiveness of instruments that were in play during and well before the Cold War. This means neither Russia nor other actors are about to give these measures up. The U.S. and German experiences with active measures demonstrate that while subversive influencing may sometimes merely amount to a nuisance, if not addressed it can bear consequences within — and beyond — elections. Heeding the lessons from the Cold War can help countries keep from crying wolf or from being caught off guard by ill-intentioned bears.
Laura Daniels is a German Chancellor Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, and was a guest fellow at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, where she wrote on Russian influence in the French elections. You can follow her at @laurafdaniels.