Book Reviews - Spring 2020

War by Other Means

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Subverting governments with lies is nothing new

By James Gibney | March 2, 2020
Colonel Oleg Penkovsky stands trial fro espionage in Moscow in 1963. (Alamy)
Colonel Oleg Penkovsky stands trial fro espionage in Moscow in 1963. (Alamy)

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pp., $30

As November’s presidential contest looms, reminders of Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election pepper every news cycle, with warnings of more to come. The number of countries running disinformation campaigns has more than doubled to 70 over the past two years, abetted by “black PR” firms that slander and deceive for hire. Yet as high anxiety over digital disinformation swells, the United States—and open societies everywhere—risk deeper damage by seeing what’s happening today as something entirely new under the sun. As Thomas Rid, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, writes in his engrossing new book, Active Measures, “This sense of novelty is a fallacy, a trap. The election interference of 2016 and the renewed crisis of the factual has a century-long prelude.”

Democracies have survived previous onslaughts. Although the Internet has opened myriad avenues for mischief and skullduggery, Rid contends that it has also created a dynamic that has prompted many observers “to highlight the potentials of disinformation over its limitations.” A comparison of old and new methods not only reveals the latent deficiencies of digital disinformation but also can remind us of how best to preserve “our ability to assess facts on their merits and to self-correct accordingly,” the central building block for any open society.

What should we learn from the evolution of “active measures”—the term coined by the Soviet Union and Warsaw bloc for what the Central Intelligence Agency called “political warfare”—from the 1920s to the present? Start by recognizing that “active measures are not spontaneous lies by politicians, but the methodical output of large bureaucracies.” Rid shows that we have the Cold War to thank for this professionalization, “with American intelligence agencies leading the way in aggressive and unscrupulous operations.”

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