Close observers of Russian disinformation tactics in electoral interference have two big questions as the 2020 election approaches: How large is the appetite for escalation among Russian intelligence agencies this time around? And where was, and is, S.V.R., Russia’s counterpart to the C.I.A.? The internal competition between Russian spy agencies is fierce, and S.V.R., a potent and storied foreign intelligence agency, is widely recognized as more competent, and stealthier, than Russia’s bumbling military spy agency, G.R.U. It was G.R.U. that was caught red-handed in 2016 meddling in the presidential election.
At stake is what kind of election interference we should expect as November is coming: a lackluster rerun of leaking and trolling and fake social media activity, which would most likely be harder to do and less effective than in 2016 — or more pernicious operational innovation and escalation, perhaps even tactics that take advantage of the coronavirus outbreak.
American intelligence officials reportedly reached a preliminary conclusion last week, and that answer points to escalation — as well as to S.V.R. Russian intelligence operatives, according to reports on the United States intelligence assessment, are working to support and amplify white supremacist groups in order to try to incite violence.
The goal of an aggressive foreign active measures campaign is not, as a recently departed senior intelligence official implied, to strengthen President Trump. It is to weaken the United States.
So what can we expect? The history of Russian foreign intelligence provides some clues. The S.V.R., situated like its American counterpart in a forest outside the capital, inherited from the K.G.B. a large and skilled unit in charge of disinformation, Service A. The “A” stood for active measures, as disinformation was renamed in the early 1960s. Only now is it becoming possible to reconstruct some of Service A’s most brazen operations, with the help of K.G.B. memos and briefings discovered in recent years in security archives in former satellite states.
Racial engineering is an old but sharp tool in the active measures arsenal, deployed equally against — and among — African-Americans, Jews and white nationalists, to pitch these groups against one other and to amplify social conflict. On Christmas night 1959, for example, swastikas and “Jews Out” was daubed, in red and white paint, on the walls of the newly reopened synagogue in Cologne, Germany. Over the next seven weeks a vast anti-Semitic hate campaign swept through West Germany, other countries in Western Europe and the United States. By mid-February, the government in Bonn had counted 833 anti-Semitic incidents across all West Germany.
K.G.B. officers understood that anti-Semitism was a real problem and that they could restart a real fire with fake sparks. At one Jewish cemetery in Staten Island, N.Y., 100 headstones were defaced with swastikas, smeared in yellow paint. On Jan. 4, 1960, three synagogues in New York City were desecrated within 24 hours. Red swastikas, six feet high, were painted on the Free Synagogue of Flushing, Queens. The Corona Jewish Center, also in Queens, and Temple Emanu-El, at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street in Manhattan, were similarly defaced. In the following days more acts of vandalism were reported, including at a yeshiva in Brooklyn. At least 13 cities across the United States were affected, including Washington, Detroit, Cincinnati and Chicago.
Less than a year later, another insidious example of racial engineering appeared, this time in Africa. The 15-page pamphlet started with a one-line, all-caps cover page, inscribed “TO OUR DEAR FRIENDS.” The document purported to come from the “African Friends Association,” allegedly based in the United States. “We, Negroes living in the United States of America, are going to reveal the truth to you about the way the Americans really treat people with dark skin,” the pamphlet said. The forgers reported, for example — truthfully — that Edward Aaron, 34, had been abducted, beaten and castrated by Klansmen in Birmingham, Ala. The K.G.B. circulated and published its paper in English and French in at least 16 African countries.
“This poisonous little racist tract is a headache for our diplomatic missions in Africa,” Richard Helms of the C.I.A. told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 1961 — a particular headache because the K.G.B. largely stuck to the facts.
Active measures are not necessarily limited to pamphleteering and subversive media work. In 1957, Czechoslovak intelligence agents executed a brazen terrorist attack against the prefect in Strasbourg, France, under the false cover of a German neo-Nazi group that did not exist. Operatives from Prague infiltrated into Paris, and mailed a bomb camouflaged as a box of cigars to the prefect, in an attempt to kill him and his guests at a high-profile dinner party, to drive a wedge between the governments in Paris and Bonn. But the parcel missed its target and killed the prefect’s wife, Henriette Trémeaud.
So how is this forgotten history of disinformation linked to today, and to the coronavirus outbreak?
Disinformation is about activating emotional reactions, in order to divide and corrode the targeted entity — a focus on true or false is misleading; a measure becomes active if it resonates with emotions. Corrosion works best if it exploits existing fissures and cracks, or “contradictions,” that can be “deepened” or “sharpened,” in the jargon of active measures planners. Anti-Semitism and brittle race-relations are examples of such unresolved contradictions — just last week Facebook and Twitter took down a new Russian influence campaign that targeted African-American voters in the lead-up to November, via a front group in Africa. Another example is the fear and the rumors that surround a pandemic, especially when it is badly managed and highly politicized.
Service A systematically embraced infectious diseases in the last decade of the Cold War. In the early and mid-1980s the K.G.B.’s disinformation shop repeatedly blamed the C.I.A. for spreading dengue fever in Cuba, as well as malaria in Pakistan (the operation was code-named Tarakany, “cockroaches” in Russian). The officer in charge of Tarakany later received an award from the K.G.B. chairman. The best-known and most successful infectious disease measure is the K.G.B.’s persistent campaign to portray AIDS as a biological weapon designed by the United States Army at Fort Detrick, Md., a campaign code-named Denver.
The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States has three features beyond fear that make it highly attractive raw material for disinformation: The coronavirus is sweeping right into campaign season, it is already flanked by polarizing conspiracy theories and the president’s response to the emergency is hotly contested. The virus is exposing a range of contradictions ready for sharpening — for example, a simmering generational conflict spurred by skewed fatality rates.
To reach their disruptive goal, Russian planners may well calculate, as they did in 2016, that helping Mr. Trump weakens America.
Read the original text at The New York Times.