In his book Spymaster: My Thirty-two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West, former KGB head of foreign counterintelligence Oleg Kalugin disclosed some of the fake news that the Russians put into America’s national discourse during the directorship of Yuri Andropov:
Under Andropov the disinformation branch of the KGB flourished. For both domestic and external consumption, it concocted stories to deceive, confuse, and influence targeted audiences. It conducted operations to weaken Soviet adversaries and to undermine the internal stability and foreign policies of the Western world in order to facilitate favorable conditions for the eventual triumph of Communism.
The CIA ousted President Nixon; the CIA arranged the 1978 mass suicide and murder of more than nine hundred people of the Jonestown cult; the U.S. was developing an ethnic weapon that would kill blacks and spare whites; the CIA was behind the assassinations of Olof Palme in Sweden, Indira Gandhi in India, and Aldo Moro in Italy, and an attempt on the pope’s life; the U.S. military planned to use tactical nuclear weapons in Italy in case the left parties came to power; U.S. Army scientists developed the AIDS virus; Americans steal foreign babies to use their organs for transplant — these and hundreds of other faked stories hit the front pages of the world media at one time or another. And though Andropov died in 1984, his legacy and that of his KGB predecessors in the area of psychological warfare eventually developed into practical guidelines for the KGB and its friends and allies across the world.
He also wrote about more sinister “active measures.”
One of our dirty tricks involved a nasty letter-writing campaign against African diplomats at the United Nations — an idea cooked up by KGB headquarters in Moscow and approved by the Communist Party Central Committee. Our KGB staff, using new typewriters and wearing gloves so as not to leave fingerprints, typed up hundreds of anonymous hate letters and sent them to dozens of African missions. The letters, purportedly from white supremacists as well as average Americans, were filled with virulent racist diatribes. The African diplomats publicized some of the letters as examples of the racism still rampant in America, and members of the American and foreign press corps quoted from them. I and other KGB officers working as correspondents in the United States reported extensively on this rabidly antiblack letter-writing campaign. I lost no sleep over such dirty tricks, figuring they were just another weapon in the cold war.
Our active measures campaign did not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or color: we went after everybody. Attempting to show that America was inhospitable to Jews, we wrote anti-Semitic letters to American Jewish leaders. My fellow officers paid American agents to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. Our New York station even hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries. I, of course, beamed back reports of these misdeeds to my listeners in Moscow, who — tuning in to my broadcasts — no doubt thanked the Lord or Comrade Lenin that they had been born in a socialist paradise, and not in a hotbed of racial tension like the United States of America.
I immediately thought about this history when I saw Greg Sargent’s tweet this afternoon:
It’s striking how many bots are out there responding to condemnation of Trump’s “shithole” comments with tweets designed to sow more general racial division.
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) January 12, 2018
Obviously, America suffered from plenty of racism and anti-Semitism in the pre-internet era of the 1970s and 1980s, but the Soviets sought to exaggerate our problems in order to weaken our society and make it look less attractive abroad. During this time, Vladimir Putin was serving in East Berlin as a KGB officer. It shouldn’t be shocking that the same playbook is still being used.
Hopefully, seeing this old history in print will help you bring a healthy skepticism to a lot of what we see happening in this country. I wouldn’t put it past FSB officers to paint a swastika on a synagogue or desecrate a Jewish cemetery. It would be no more surprising than learning that they have a symbiotic relationship with Alex Jones and his InfoWars radio program. This isn’t to say that you should see a hidden Kremlin hand behind everything, but the hand is there and it is busy at work. Today, it has bots working overtime to amplify divisions over the president’s obvious racism. Last year, they had BernieBots working overtime to insult women and supporters of Hillary Clinton and HillaryBots busily insulting supporters of Bernie Sanders.
It may seem like a new thing, but it’s really just a revival of something that we lived with during the Cold War, stripped of even the hint of socialist idealism and put on steroids by the digital age.