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

Kevin McCaighy reviews Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

In an age of disinformation, how does anyone uphold the truth against the threat of the fake? Active Measures, an alarming book by political strategist Thomas Rid, is a history of disinformation and its use over the last century.

Rid defines what is and is not disinformation in these term. “Active measures are not spontaneous lies by politicians, but the methodical output of large bureaucracies,” he says. “All active measures contain an element of disinformation; content may be forged, sourcing doctored…and an active measure is always directed towards and end, usually to weaken the targeted adversary.”

But most importantly, these measures are “the domain of intelligence agencies”. And so the definition is narrowed to fit an overall narrative, pitting East versus West in a clandestine battle for supremacy. 

Examples include US law enforcement officials forging Communist Party documents during the 1930s, and the KGB Stalinist secret police ordered desecration of Jewish cemeteries in order to stoke antisemitism in West Germany in the late 1950s. These revolting activities are considered essential to the task of undermining the other’s political systems. 

The leaking of forged invasion plans, the faked memoir by a recently deceased bureaucrat, and the hubris of a local politician is manipulated to bring him down. There are brutal ironies to both sides’ attempts to sabotage the other.

The principal agent of the CIA front LCCASSOCK—which exposed former Nazis who were prominent political figures in East Germany—was a former Nazi army officer.

This is the inversion of mass struggle, where small groups of intelligence units stoke tensions and prey upon what they consider the worst in each other. Structural racism was a wound crudely exploited by the East, totalitarian censorship relentlessly undermined by the West.

Any social turmoil was and is viciously weaponised. The assault on mass movements, such as the campaign for civil rights, anti-Vietnam solidarity and, increasingly, the anti-nuclear and peace initiatives that emerged in the 1970s and 80s is nothing less than parasitic.

Rid’s account of the now infamous hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 is the most riveting precisely because the group responsible, the so-called Shadow Brokers, has never been properly identified. However, the descriptions of young Russian workers employed at a “troll farm” in Saint Petersburg for above-average wages is the most revealing.

Active Measures is in effect a horror anthology, warning us of the shadowy forces around us prepared to take credit for everything from election results to military leaks. 

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, Thomas Rid, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, £18.70

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