“New Yorker” on the New Cold War

By I.Soft Targets

On April 12, 1982, Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the K.G.B., ordered foreign-intelligence operatives to carry out “active measures”—aktivniye meropriyatiya—against the reëlection campaign of President Ronald Reagan. Unlike classic espionage, which involves the collection of foreign secrets, active measures aim at influencing events—at undermining a rival power with forgeries, front groups, and countless other techniques honed during the Cold War. The Soviet leadership considered Reagan an implacable militarist. According to extensive notes made by Vasili Mitrokhin, a high-ranking K.G.B. officer and archivist who later defected to Great Britain, Soviet intelligence tried to infiltrate the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, popularize the slogan “Reagan Means War!,” and discredit the President as a corrupt servant of the military-industrial complex. The effort had no evident effect. Reagan won forty-nine of fifty states.

Active measures were used by both sides throughout the Cold War. In the nineteen-sixties, Soviet intelligence officers spread a rumor that the U.S. government was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the eighties, they spread the rumor that American intelligence had “created” the aids virus, at Fort Detrick, Maryland. They regularly lent support to leftist parties and insurgencies. The C.I.A., for its part, worked to overthrow regimes in Iran, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Chile, and Panama. It used cash payments, propaganda, and sometimes violent measures to sway elections away from leftist parties in Italy, Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, and Nicaragua. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early nineties, the C.I.A. asked Russia to abandon active measures to spread disinformation that could harm the U.S. Russia promised to do so. But when Sergey Tretyakov, the station chief for Russian intelligence in New York, defected, in 2000, he revealed that Moscow’s active measures had never subsided. “Nothing has changed,” he wrote, in 2008. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.”

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