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Home > Reviews > Active Measures

Active Measures

Author Thomas Rid

ISBN No 9781788160742

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 528

Publisher Profile Books

Publisher URL

Year of publication 28/08/2020


Our Review


£ 25, hardback

A rash of books are taking as their subject 'info-war', a variant on cyber warfare. It's a topic whose time has, finally, come; as set out inside the parliamentary report last month on Russia, namely its disinformation seeking to undermine western institutions, besides acts of cyber and other espionage, and money laundering and 'influence' on the democratic west.

While Thomas Rid was a professor of war studies at King's College London (KCL) he brought out a learned and excellent book in 2013; its only shortcoming was the rather clunky title, Cyber War Will Not take Place. He argued convincingly that for all the excited talk of 'cyber war', it had not yet happened, and was unlikely to; rather, 'politically motivated cyber attacks are merely sophisticated versions of three activities that are as old as warfare itself: sabotage, espionage, and subversion'.

Rid has in his latest outstanding book, Active Measures, come up with equally original arguments; that there is nothing new under the sun; that disinformation and 'political warfare' date from at least the 1920s. In other words, long before the internet or indeed the CIA. That alone has profound meaning; that we have been here before, when Russia sought to affect the 2016 US presidential election (and, more uncomfortably for UK readers, the Scottish independence and Brexit referenda).

That said, at the very beginning, Rid recalls his evidence in 2017 to the US Senate select committee on intelligence, at a hearing on that Russian interference in the election, that was 'hotly disputed' among the American public (which was as the originators of the 'disinformation' would have wanted) and denied (naturally) by Russia.

As the senators await snappy and definite answers, in his head Rid recalls a recent conversation with a former Soviet bloc 'disinformation engineer', a defector to the United States. While the old Cold War man spoke of entire bureaucracies set up and devoted to lies, rumours and hate campaigns, 'bending the facts', 'industrial scale'. As that implies, the projects had to be based on some reality, to work. In fact a mix of fact and fiction that made readers and listeners feel disorientated did the trick better than outright lies that could be proven wrong.

After the 1939-45 war, in a second 'wave' of such operations, they became professionalised, 'with American intelligence agencies leading the way'. 'Active Measures' is what the intelligence professionals call disinformation; the computer-era hacking, the 'blend of covert truthful revelations, forgeries and outright subversion'. Rid charts a third wave from the 1970s, that ended when the Soviet bloc collapsed; and then a fourth that crested in the mid-2010s, that thanks to the digital world became high-tempo, low-skilled, remote and disjointed'.

At the end, reviewing 'a century of disinformation', that he dates from 1921, when anti-Communist emigres had reached the west and the Bolsheviks were already at work, Rid holds up the Soviet-era East Germany Ministry for State Security as the peak of deceiving spy agencies. They even captured odour from their opponents' chairs and sofas. Rid sets out perhaps the most profound human divide of all: between reason and faith, between those people who go by the quantifiable and measurable - numbers of votes, boots on the ground - and those who trust instead in what they believe - such as, coronavirus is caused by 5G networks, and other such 'fake news'. As that suggests, disinformation to Rid is a 'modern story', tied up with the technical and social progress of the last 100 years.

Rid shows that disinformation campaigns are a threat to liberal, 'open societies' that are based on 'factual authority', everything from science and journalism to criminal justice to trust in the results of an election (all requiring agreed facts and methods of debating contested facts). Rid notes that in the 1950s the disinformation led by the CIA in the west and the Russians in the east had a 'moral equivalence' that ended when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and 'US intelligence retreated from the disinformation battlefield almost completely'.

Last but not least, Rid argues that the internet has 'fundamentally altered the disinformation game' as active measures are less risky and more 'active'; even harder to control and assess. That matters because disinformation spies like anyone else crave (ironically) exact data, because they have to justify their budget by having some success to point to.

What's the good of the internet for free expression if there's 'white noise' of just so much anonymous stuff?! It's one thing for the spies to seek to alter minds; it's a dream come true, Rid argues, that the agencies (through automated, deniable bots) can hack machines, to deface, or alter data. Unnervingly, Rid describes the internet as a 'vast new human-machine interface that appeared to be optimised for mass information'.