How Russia adapted KGB ‘active measures’ to cyber operations, Part I

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Felix Dzerzhinsky in Sukhum, Abkhazia, Black Sea Coast in 1922. (Photo Credit: Stephen Kotkin's Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928)

This article is Part I of a two-part series previewing the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Monday hearing on Russia. Part I looks at how active measures were created by and evolved with the Soviet security state, examples of historical active measures and key differences between U.S. and Russian worldviews that influence Russia’s tactics. Part II will look at the Post-Soviet evolution of Russian security services, the rise of the World Wide Web and how Russia has adapted historical active measures to cyber and information operations.

When referring to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the media often refers to Russian hacking, information warfare or influence operations. But the title of Monday’s hearing references “active measures.”

The term, “active measures,” and what it refers to may be unfamiliar to many. Even those who are familiar with Russia’s Cold War use of the term and methods may not know the relation between historical active measures and today’s Russian cyber and information operations.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing – which could provide more details on the who, what, when, where and how of Russia’s activities in the 2016 election – revisiting the historical concept of active measures and examining how the Russians adapted active measures to cyber will provide a deeper, underlying why of Russia’s tactics.

From the Cheka to the KGB: A Brief History of Russian Paranoia and the Security State

The Cheka was the first installment of the Bolshevik security services in December 1917, following the October Revolution that toppled Imperial Russia’s tsarist regime. While reasonable to assume the Cheka was formed to protect Russia from outside forces during a vulnerable period of transitional government, Vladimir Lenin ordered the Cheka to focus efforts internally.

The Cheka’s first head, Felix Dzerzhinsky, nicknamed “Iron Felix,” was tasked with suppressing any actual or alleged activities by those Lenin called “enemies of the state.” The Cheka still figures in Russian culture, with Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to as a “former chekist” because of the time he spent in the KGB and the KGB’s successor organization, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

By 1922, the Cheka was replaced by the State Political Administration (GPU) and then, a year later, the Unified State Political Administration (OGPU). The moves were intended to rein in the terror the Cheka had inflicted on the population, but the essential activities of the Cheka continued, grounded in paranoia of internal “enemies” and enacted with indiscriminate brutality against the guilty and innocent alike.

In 1934, the OGPU was absorbed into the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) in a move by Joseph Stalin to consolidate power. During the so-called “Great Purge” that followed, hundreds of thousands of Russians – including high-level political and military leaders – were executed or imprisoned in gulags for treason or similar indictments, often backed only by circumstantial evidence. Between 1937-1938 alone, an estimated 750,000 Russians were executed.

Under Stalin – who was notoriously paranoid of actual and perceived internal and external enemies of the state, ranging from an exiled Leon Trotsky living in Mexico to Winston Churchill, who he feared was plotting with Adolf Hitler to invade Russia – the NKVD extensively expanded its intelligence operations against foreign targets, notably Great Britain and the U.S.

According to Russian Historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB Archivist Vasili Mitrokhin – who defected to the U.K. in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union – NKVD foreign intelligence agents and spies provided hundreds of thousands of pages of classified political, scientific and technical intelligence to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign.

However, according to Andrew and Mitrokhin, Stalin was so paranoid that he would not allow Russian analysts to read the intelligence reports pouring in and brief him on their contents. Stalin read for himself a limited amount of the intelligence, which was often “sanitized” to conform to his conspiracy theories. This led to the Soviet Union wasting a vast trove of valuable foreign intelligence during Stalin’s rule.

From 1938 to 1953, NKVD was headed by Lavrenty Beria, who Stalin introduced to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference as “our Himmler.” Beria is characterized by historians as ruthless and effective – a useful combination of traits to a paranoid Stalin. Beria played a key role in the 1936-1938 “Great Terror,” as well as expanding the Russian gulag system and pioneering early forms of active measures behind German enemy lines in World War II. He later oversaw the development of Russia’s first atomic bomb – based on technical intelligence NKVD spies sourced from America’s Manhattan Project.

Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, Beria became First Premier of the Soviet Union and remained in power until December 1953, when Nikita Khrushchev staged a coup d’état. On Dec. 23, Beria was arrested and “tried” for treason, found guilty the same day, immediately taken to the basement of Moscow Military District Headquarters and then shot in the head by a Russian general.

In 1954, the KGB was founded to be “the sword and the shield of the Communist Party.” Two years later, during the Hungarian Revolution, a 40-year-old KGB officer named Yuri Andropov watched through a second-floor window as communist politicians and secret police were hanged from lampposts in the streets of Budapest. According to Andrew and Mitrokhin, this scene deeply impacted Andropov, who persuaded Khrushchev of the need for forceful military suppression. The response would lead to Andropov being dubbed “The Butcher of Budapest.”

Andropov would become head of the KGB in 1967 – similarly quashing the Prague Spring of 1968 – and act as its longest-serving leader until, in 1982, he became General Secretary of the Soviet Union. He died 15 months later.

Sharing many of his predecessors’ paranoia about internal “enemies of the state,” Andropov wasted little time after his 1967 appointment in creating the KGB’s notorious Fifth Directorate, which was charged with “political investigations” to root out internal sedition, subversion and dissidents.

Soviet security services had always used “active measures” – a translation of the Russian aktivniye meropriyatiya – both at home and abroad. But it was Andropov who increased the use of active measures and arguably improved their effectiveness over his 15-year tenure as chairman of the KGB. Indeed, it was in the Andropov Institute of the KGB that active measures were taught in a series of special courses.

It was Andropov who “created the myth of KGB greatness,” according to Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogin, authors of The New Nobility.

And so it was Andropov who Putin would later invoke – in addition to Dzerzhinsky – to rally FSB officials during Putin’s 17-month term as director at a time of historical low organizational morale. On New Year’s Eve 1999, he would become Russia’s acting president.

Russian Political Warfare and Historical ‘Active Measures’

The duplicated documents from the KGB archive that Mitrokhin gave to Andrew – which have been the source of several books, including The Sword and the Shield – were invaluable sources of public information on Soviet secret police and foreign services operations. Other valuable sources have been KGB defectors and investigative journalists. From these varied sources, the Western public slowly learned of KGB strategies and tactics, notably active measures.

A commonly cited characterization of active measures is that given by retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin in a 1998 interview with CNN:

On the other hand – and this is the other side of the Soviet intelligence, very important: perhaps I would describe it as the heart and soul of the Soviet intelligence – was subversion. Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs. To make America more vulnerable to the anger and distrust of other peoples.

Viewed this way, active measures are tactics of political warfare. Commonly cited active measures include creating and funding front groups, covert broadcasting, media manipulation, disinformation, forgeries and buying agents of influence.

However, as scholars Fletcher R. Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb note, “this understanding of active measures is too narrow. Soviet active measures went beyond overt and covert operations to manipulate perceptions and into the realms of incitement, assassination and even terrorism.”

The goals of active measures are variably described as “influence,” “perception management” and “preparing the battlefield.” According to numerous KGB defectors, secondary goals range from destroying the image and credibility of an enemy to shaping public opinion or sowing widespread confusion.

Notable examples of KGB-sourced Cold War disinformation include the myths that the U.S. used chemical weapons in the Korean War, that the U.S. government had a hand in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and that the U.S. government created and weaponized the AIDS virus.

The Bezmenov Model of Systematic Subversive

As Kalugin observed, subverting adversaries was a key objective of the Russian government, especially vulnerable or hostile foreign countries during the Cold War. During Andropov’s leadership, the KGB used a methodical “system” of subversion, as explained by KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov.

According to Bezmenov, KGB systematic subversion includes the following four steps:

  1. Demoralization – A step that takes approximately 15 to 20 years and which entails “denying all facts and any truth.”
  2. Destabilization – A step that takes approximately two to five years and which entails undermining all “essentials” – economy, foreign relations and defense systems.
  3. Crisis – A step that takes six weeks and involves “violent change of power, structure and economy.”
  4. Normalization – A cynical term for perpetuating ongoing Communist rule.

A 2015 thesis entitled, “Russian Political Warfare: Origin, Evolution and Application,” written by students of the Naval Postgraduate School, details the Bezmenov model of subversion. (Beginning on page 72, the authors provide a detailed case study illustrating how Andropov systematically subverted – at an accelerated pace – the Prague Spring in 1968.)

Disinformation and Propaganda: Questions of ‘Truth’ and ‘Reality’

Disinformation and propaganda are major categories of Russian active measures. These same tools have been used and are still used today by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in support of their missions. Deception and psychology are well-known warfare tactics, dating as far back as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written in the 5th Century B.C.

However, U.S. methods (at least those known to the public and inscribed as official U.S. military doctrine) differ in key ways from Russian methods, mainly due to deep-seated differences in worldview about concepts such as objective reality and absolute truth – as well as ethical and legal systems. (See, for instance, Section 1-26 of the U.S. PSYOPS Field Manual linked above, in which U.S. operations are limited by U.S. law, as well as guided by the Geneva and Hague Conventions.)

Daniel Lerner, an officer in the CIA predecessor organization OSS during World War II and author of Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany, divided propaganda into three broad categories: White, which has a known source and is truthful, albeit with omissions and emphases; gray, which has an unknown source and includes through omissions and emphases nothing that can be proven wrong; and black, which is often attributed incorrectly and is inherently deceitful via commissions and falsifications.

Lerner wrote that, during WWII, U.S. campaigns – both overt and covert – carried out against Nazi Germany “were obliged to observe the rule of accurate reporting.” Today, U.S. methods lean heavily toward “white” propaganda, while Russian methods lean heavily to “black” propaganda.

(Questions have been raised recently about the role then-candidate Donald Trump’s primary financial benefactor played in funding a “propaganda machine” aimed at the U.S. electorate. The allegations, if true, were unrelated to U.S. government operations, but the alleged activities would represent a significant propaganda campaign by Americans against Americans.)

In a Mar. 15 U.S. House hearing on information warfare and counter-propaganda, Timothy Thomas, a senior analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth and an expert on Russia, explained that Russian information operations entail two broad categories. The first is disinformation – “designed to focus more on the logic of decision-making,” Thomas said – and the second is propaganda, which contains more emotive content. In this way, Thomas said, Russia uses disinformation to target decision makers, while using propaganda to target the broader populace.

To understand the Russian mindset on its historical and current use of disinformation and propaganda – the heart of the why underlying active measures more broadly – Thomas quoted American diplomat and historian George Kennan, who in 1946 wrote that, “Russians do not believe in objective truth.”

As an example, Thomas quoted Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian journalist who Putin handpicked in 2013 to lead Rossiya Segodnya, a then-new official Russian government-owned international news agency, as saying, “Objectivity is a myth being imposed upon us.”

Thomas noted, “So what you have in the Russian information domain is no real truth. You have the ability to create an alternate reality, which doesn’t coincide at all with the Western understanding of information and a free press.”

Referring to China and its similar Marxist viewpoints, Thomas said, “Any time you look at what is being taught in schools, especially in the propaganda schools, they are looking first of all at how do I visualize objective reality and then, subjectively, how do I manipulate those factors to my benefit. That basically is their definition of strategy.”

In the same hearing, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Special Envoy/Coordinator at the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center Michael Lumpkin noted that U.S. adversaries are not constrained by “ethics, the law or even truth.”

Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, co-directors of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center on the Future of War, have written extensively on Russia’s varied uses of disinformation and propaganda, which they term “weaponized narrative.”

In a January interview with FifthDomain, Allenby explained that Russia’s culture and intellectual environment leans toward the postmodern, by which he meant a philosophical and cultural worldview at odds with Western countries’ Enlightenment Era intellectual orientation. An Enlightenment worldview acknowledges and values reason, objective reality and the search for absolute truth. In contrast, Allenby explained:

To a postmodernist, not only is there no objective reality, absolute truth or real rationality, but any idea of human progress is an illusion. All knowledge is relative and constructed, usually for reasons of power or dominance. Especially in places like Russia, it tends to be accompanied by a deep cynicism and strong sense of irony. Russia rocks postmodernism.