During the Cold War, the Soviet KGB coined the term “desinformatsiya,” or disinformation, which the CIA defined as «false, incomplete or misleading information» fed to various targets. Both the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in the same game, though the Russians played it far more vigorously.
In the digital age, the players might not have to go to the trouble of altering information, or mixing true information with false. Simply hacking into sensitive emails or other data, even when the information is true, can have the same impact as disinformation.
Witness WikiLeaks’ release of a steady flow of emails the group asserts are from John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and former counselor to President Barack Obama. Though the Clinton campaign has not verified that the hacked material is authentic, much of it rings true as inside baseball, the kind of back and forth that political campaign staffers engage in as they plan strategy.
So far at least, none of the Podesta leaks have produced a smoking gun or looks to have had much impact on the campaign. None of it would be too exciting in a normal presidential election cycle.
But White House officials say the leaks have come from Russia, which makes it serious business. If true, at a minimum it means that Moscow may be trying to undermine the integrity of the U.S. electoral process by creating controversy and confusion. More sinister, the Russians may be attempting to embarrass Clinton or help her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Among the latest WikiLeaks dump is a list of almost 40 elected officials, corporate and military leaders, whom Clinton supposedly considered as a possible vice-presidential running mate, among them Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and both Bill and Melinda Gates. A Clinton campaign spokesman would not comment directly on the content of the leaked emails, but said they were an attempt by Russia «to steal private campaign documents in order to influence an election.»
The KGB has a long history of what it called «active measures» designed to rattle the West — and the United States in particular. Disinformation was one of those weapons. Apparently, the KGB’s successor spy agencies could still be in the same business.
In years past, Soviet disinformation campaigns often planted false articles in target countries, or leaked bogus information to friendly reporters or columnists in various countries, in the hope that what they wrote would be picked up by mainstream publications unaware that Moscow was the source.
At the height of the Cold War, a clandestine tunnel in Berlin led to a classic case of Soviet disinformation. The CIA and the British had dug a secret tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin in 1955. Code-named Operation Gold, they planned to use it to wiretap all Soviet and East German communications. After the British traitor George Blake betrayed the scheme, however, the Russians decided to let it go on for a year as a source of disinformation. Dozens of CIA translators were kept busy in Washington sifting through the intercepts, some of which were misleading and others real.
KGB’s Service A was devoted full time to cooking up misinformation often mixed in with the truth. A favorite KGB technique was using forged documents to spread confusion and political trouble in the West. The Kremlin’s forgers were said to have the real letterhead stationery of many U.S. and European officials and agencies.
One example of Moscow’s handiwork came in 1976, when the KGB pretended to celebrate America’s bicentennial by publishing a slick booklet titled America’s 200 Years. The booklet was designed, British intelligence expert Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB London chief, wrote in their book Instructions From the Centre, «using broadly based factual material» to emphasize America’s «acute social problems,» including its treatment of minorities. It was supposedly printed and distributed by something called the European Bicentennial Committee, which had been invented by the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, its foreign intelligence arm.
By 1983, the KGB was focused on sabotaging President Ronald Reagan’s re-election chances. They sought to block the fierce anticommunist through a series of forgeries.
Another objective was to stir up trouble for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. One scheme, according to Andrew and Gordievsky, involved a fabricated letter from Reagan to the king of Spain, intended to increase opposition within that nation against joining NATO. The KGB plot was exposed and failed.
Three years later, the KGB sent out a forged letter from an official in the United States Information Agency to Senator David Durenberger, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In the letter, the official described a plan to take advantage of the recent Chernobyl nuclear power-plant disaster to embarrass the Soviet Union.
In the 2016 presidential contest, there may be more crosscurrents at work than just Moscow’s desire to muddle the U.S. election in support of Trump.
Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, has made it clear that he intensely dislikes Clinton. He has declared that she would likely «push the United States into endless, stupid wars … she certainly should not become president of the United States.»
It also is clear that Assange believes a President Clinton would pressure the British to extradite him to the United States to face espionage charges for revealing U.S. secrets. Assange is already in a precarious position because he is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. He took refuge there in 2012, rather than face questioning about allegations of sexual molestation and rape in Sweden.
Before the Democratic convention, WikiLeaks released documents and emails from the Democratic National Committee that discussed ways to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primaries. That led to the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schulz just as the Democratic convention was starting.
Early in October, Assange promised more information about Clinton, which he called an «October surprise» that would destroy her candidacy. But, so far at least, the Podesta emails have certainly not done that. Nor have the WikiLeaks transcripts of excerpts of Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank.
On October 18, Ecuador announced it cut off Assange’s Internet access. The Latin American nation made clear it acted to avoid entanglement in the U.S. election. Ecuador said it «does not interfere in the electoral processes in support of any candidate in particular.»
During the second debate, on October 9, Clinton charged that Russian hackers were trying to influence the election through WikiLeaks. “Our intelligence community just came out and said in the last few days that the Kremlin, meaning [President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government, are directing the attacks,” she said. “… And WikiLeaks is part of that … we don’t even know if it’s accurate information, and then they put it out.”
Clinton continued: «We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary, a foreign power, is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election. And believe me, they’re not doing it to get me elected. They’re doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump.»
In the final presidential debate, Clinton argued that Trump, if elected, would be a «puppet» of Putin. It appeared to rattle the Republican nominee. «No puppet,» Trump insisted. «No puppet. You’re the puppet.» He declined to criticize Putin, who he said had «no respect» for Clinton.
Given the history of Russian disinformation campaigns, and its hacking in the digital age, it would appear that Moscow is an equal-opportunity meddler in the U.S. election process. It did its best to undermine Reagan, a Republican icon, by painting him as a war-monger. Now, with an assist from WikiLeaks, it is trying to embarrass Clinton, the Democratic nominee who is ahead in many polls.
Small wonder that weary voters from both major parties appear to agree on one thing: A universal relief that the bizarre 2016 election — with the obscene language on a leaked Trump tape, women coming forward to accuse Trump of groping them, the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email server and so much more — is almost over.
David Wise writes frequently about intelligence. His most recent book is Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China. His other books include Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.