I’ve just finished reading a 2017 policy memo by Mark Kramer, the Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard. In his memo, The Soviet Roots of Meddling in US Politics. he argues that
efforts by Russian security services to influence last year’s U.S. presidential campaign in favor of Donald Trump evoked a sense of deja vu. Despite the advent of cyberwarfare, the Russian government’s attempts to sway the U.S. election in 2016 were strikingly reminiscent of Soviet ‘active measures’ during the Cold War.
Kramer goes on to say
the two main Soviet intelligence and security agencies — the KGB and GRU (military intelligence) — kept up a vigorous campaign for several decades to meddle in U.S. politics and discredit the United States. The ‘active measures’ used by the KGB and GRU during the Cold War, including disinformation, forgeries of documents and letters, and the spread of propaganda through sympathetic individuals and front organizations, were remarkably similar to the tactics and goals of Russian intelligence agencies in 2016.
The KGB’s Service A was formed in the 1950s. Its work included spreading disinformation, producing forgeries, transmitting propaganda, and disrupting US and Western public diplomacy, all aimed at destabilizing the United States and undermining American influence in the world. Here are some of the things it did.
- One of its earliest operations involved linking the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The KGB funded the publication of conspiracy inspired books by Western authors and forged materials that tied the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the CIA and FBI. For example, the American lawyer Mark Lane wrote a book called Rush to Judgment (1966). Lane was probably unaware that financial support for his “research” was coming from the KGB.
- The KGB, working with the East German State Security Ministry, widely spread rumours that the AIDs epidemic was started by US government experiments at the Fort Detrick biological warfare defense lab in Maryland.
- Service A forged homophobic letters to the editors of major US newspapers, claiming that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a gay transvestite seeking to establish “a network of like-minded homosexuals” within the FBI. According to Kramer, “the baseless allegations continue to enjoy credence in some circles in the United States even now.”
Disparaging Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King came under attack from the KGB when he declined to embrace a Communist agenda for the civil rights movement. His achievements
threatened one of Service A’s main selling points. The entrenchment of racial segregation and racial discrimination in the United States during the first two decades of the Cold War had been a service burden on U.S. policy, belying the U.S. government’s claims to be promoting democracy and human rights….
Soviet propaganda, on the other hand, “highlighted the iniquities of racial discrimination in the United States.” The Soviets feared that if Congress was able to pass civil rights legislation, one of the major attacks would be undermined.
Service A used forgeries to depict King and other civil rights activists as “Uncle Toms” who were secretly colluding with the government. Later, they spread disinformation that President Johnson had taken secret steps (with King’s approval) to ensure the continued subordination of blacks.
Service A continued these provocations throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, viewing race relations “as the issue most likely to destabilize the U.S. political system and divide American society.
Soviet Efforts to Influence U.S. Presidential Elections
Prior to 2016, the Soviet Union secretly tried to influence at least three other American presidential elections.
- In 1968, the Politburo strongly favored Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, fearing that Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, would take a harsh stance against the Soviet Union. Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, was ordered to approach Humphrey with an offer of clandestine funding for his campaign. Humphrey immediately declined. Nixon ended up winning, but surprised many by embarking on a broad detente with the USSR. The Soviets were dismayed when he was forced to resign in 1974.
- In 1976, the Soviets opposed Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s attempt to gain the Denocratic nomination. Known as a fierce anti-communist, the Soviet Union feared Scoop’s nomination. “The KGB sent forged FBI letters to leading U.S. newspapers and journalists claimed that Jackson was a closeted gay. . . .”
- In 1983, the KGB tried to undermine Ronald Reagan’s position in the 1984 election. They stopped trying when they became convinced that Reagan was going to win in a landslide no matter what they did.
Russian Meddling Today: New Technology, Same Activity
Service A’s active measures to influence US politics and undermine the US role in the world lasted until the end of the Soviet Regime. However, the collapse initiated no real change. The KGB and the GRU were never dissolved, merely renamed. The KGB’s main components became the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The GRU continued to function under its old name.
In 1999, when Vladimir Putin became Russian president, the FSB, SVR, and GRU gradually revived their active measures against the United States and its allies. Technology has changed, but not much else. It ‘s become clear that to deter the KGB’s active efforts, Cold War type vigilance and determination is needed. Time will tell whether the US has the political will necessary to persevere.
Photo by Sydney Steel Road, IV (Flickr).