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Russia's Election Meddling Part Of A Long History Of 'Active Measures'

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017.
Yuri Kochetkov
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017.

Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET

In 1983, an explosive story appeared in an Indian newspaper, The Patriot: the AIDS virus was the result of American biological weapons research.

Two years later a Soviet newspaper picked up the thread: The U.S. Army had developed AIDS as a bioweapon at Fort Detrick, Md. Other publications followed suit and by 1986, an East German biology professor was publishing "research" in which he explained that the virus had been tested on service members used as human guinea pigs — who then began spreading it among vulnerable populations.

None of it was true. All of it was fiction created by Russian intelligence officers or their allies.

But the storyline — that the U.S. government created AIDS — has proven one of the most durable examples of "dezinformatsiya," as it was known to its practitioners in the Soviet intelligence world.

Both that story (Kanye West believed it) and those practices endure today in the world's information bloodstream, and former CIA Director John Brennan appeared Tuesday on Capitol Hill to talk about "active measures" with the House Intelligence Committee.

Members of Congress want to focus on the ones the Russians used last year during the presidential campaign, but the deliberate crafting of falsehoods for political aims is just one of the tools in this kit, and leaders in Washington say the challenge they pose is just as urgent now as it has ever been.

"In essence, these active measures are an ongoing threat — not simply something that happened in the past," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said at a May 11 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

The heads of America's spy agencies agreed.

"The use of cyber and social media has significantly increased the impact and the capabilities that — obviously this has been done for years and years, even decades," said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. "But the ability they have to use the interconnectedness [of the Internet] and all that provides ... they literally upped their game to the point where it's having a significant impact."

And the interest by Russian intelligence in influencing public opinion in the United States goes beyond the political sphere, members of Congress warned. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Moscow intervened in last year's presidential race to hurt Hillary Clinton and help President Trump, but Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the Russians have — and have had — other targets.

Cotton cited past Russian efforts to undermine U.S. nuclear modernization, missile defense deployments and enforcement of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty — which American defense officials say Russian forces have violated with the deployment of a new missile in Eastern Europe.

"These [are] activities that will go far beyond elections, I think," Cotton said.

The cold-hearted king

Forgery, lies and skulduggery are as old as statecraft, wrote Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton and Henry Robert Schlesinger in their CIA history, Spycraft. The authors cite a fake letter created in 1777 by Ben Franklin that appeared to be from a German king to England's King George III.

In the letter, King Frederick of Hesse — who was paid a bonus each time one of his mercenaries died in fighting the British war against the American colonies — "suggested" to King George that they be used more aggressively and denied medical treatment. In short, the German king appeared to want more of his men killed so the British king would pay him more.

That "letter" was "leaked" and the callous impression it created, along with other enticements by the American side, induced thousands of Hessians to quit the war, wrote Wallace, Melton and Schlesinger.

Such tricks continued down the years, with varying degrees of sophistication. In some examples they go beyond the simple release of information. In 1969, Sudanese goatherds found a cache of "American" spy equipment: a magnetic Limpet mine, a .22 caliber gun shaped like a pen and "State Department" documents revealing a plot against the government.

The materials appeared after the government in Khartoum broke off relations with the U.S. over its support for Israel and just as leaders there began to lean toward closer ties with the Soviet Union. As Wallace, Melton and Schlesinger describe, they were placed by the KGB to give the Sudanese a nudge — though CIA officer David Crown ultimately defeated that scheme.

Today, "active measures" take a range of forms, according to Mark Galeotti, author of a brief called "Putin's Hydra: Inside Russia's Intelligence Services." They scale from Internet mischief — manipulating which stories Google or Facebook is likeliest to show users — to hacking and leaks to political assassination.

Cases like the 2006 murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radioactive tea, are more than the simple use of violence to eliminate troublemakers, Galeotti argues. Targets such as Vladimir Kara-Murza — an opposition figure who has twice been sickened by mysterious poison that he blames on people connected to Russia's "special services" — often suffer in public, sending the world a chilling message about the costs of opposing the regime.

That kind of violence might not become commonplace within the United States, but national security leaders warn that they expect Russia to resume meddling in the American political process. The current and former spy bosses who've been speaking to Congress about the mischief in the 2016 race say that Moscow considers it a success.

"The transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy," said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at a May 8 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

He called for "educating" Americans about the use of disinformation and for a major push at "counter-messaging" by Washington. Others are more hawkish: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wants the United States to impose a "cost" on Russian leaders so they don't feel they can interfere without penalty.

One problem, as CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a later Senate hearing, is that what technology ultimately does is drive the price the other way.

"The cost," he said, "has been lessened."

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.