Active Measures and Disinformation

Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Illustrated edition April 21, 2020, 528 pages)

Understanding the past and present of disinformation operations is essential for determining truth in the contested modern information environment.

“For the man on the street it is getting harder to assess and to judge the written word. He is ever more helpless in the face of the monsters that are opinion factories. This is where we come in as an intelligence agency,” remarked Rolf Wagenbreth, the Stasi’s master of disinformation, in a 1986 lecture to Stasi leadership. Since Wagenbreth’s time the risks and opportunities for information operations has greatly expanded with the modern global Internet.

In Active Measures, Rid provides detailed examples of strategic disinformation operations over the past one hundred years. The book primarily provides examples from the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, these examples often involve global audiences and remain pertinent today. 

Rid presents three arguments on the nature of disinformation operations:

  • Disinformation campaigns are an insidious attack on the foundations of an open and democratic political order—undermining the ability for collective political decisions based on a shared understanding of reality. 
  • The United States largely ceded the disinformation contest to the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1960s, and the modern Russian state has developed substantial disinformation capabilities. 
  • The Internet has made active measures more active and less measured—cheaper, quicker, and more scalable while also harder to control and assess.

Those involved in national security decisions must understand how active measures distort the information environment. Joint Publication (JP) 3-13, Information Operations, asserts, “The information environment is the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.” Therefore, individuals have a role in guarding against disinformation—and the book offers series of expertly detailed examples. 

The book is an essential read for those engaged in information operations. Active Measures delivers a series of thirty-one outstanding case studies, from 1921 to 2017. They include how a plan of dubious origin and authenticity to invade China came to be cited in Congressional testimony by a US Navy rear admiral in 1940. And how the rise, spread, and continued persistence of Soviet disinformation led to claims the United States engineered AIDS. Each case study warrants consideration about how such an operation could be detected and countered—compelling the reader to confront their own vulnerability to such active measures. All the case studies have clear implications for the military professional and detailed sourcing, providing an excellent starting point for further study. 

            The sense of humility the book sparks in readers may be its greatest value. In the modern contested information environment, uncertainty must be accepted as a constant and sources closely scrutinized. As Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist, wrote, “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.” National security professionals must apply similar skepticism to determining truth in a contested information environment. Readers of Active Measures will hone their ability to assess information and guard against disinformation.


This review is provided by Matthew Noyes. Matthew Noyes is the director of cyber policy and strategy at the US Secret Service and a major in the US Army Reserve. The views expressed here should not be interpreted as US government policy.

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