Re-engaging in the War of Ideas: Lessons from the Active Measures Working Group

For all who are concerned about the Islamist threat, these are not happy days.  Our government is not only supporting Islamist groups abroad, but here at home seems to be allowing Islamists to dictate national security policy.  Most infamously, they have silenced all training of counter-terrorism and law enforcement professionals on Islamic terrorism and replaced that with milquetoast powerpoints such as “Cultural Tactics for Intelligence Professionals.” The prevailing belief is that the Islamists are an historic reality who must be accommodated rather than challenged with the result that not only is the war against the Islamist threat not being won, it is not even being fought.

 How reminiscent of the 1970s. Policymakers at that time believed the Soviet Union was an historic reality that was here to stay, and they therefore did not believe we could or should even aspire to defeat the Soviet Union. It was widely held that we could at best hope to get along with them. Indeed, Kissinger’s détente policy was premised on the notion that not only were the Soviets here to stay, but we had to accommodate them to get the best terms that they would give us – a fundamentally defeatist policy because it assumed the Soviets were winning.  So rather than stand up to them, we engaged them, hoping that through a series of treaties and negotiations we could somehow control this behemoth foe—in spite of the fact that their foundational principles placed them in direct conflict with the United States.  This was partly an ideological inevitability:  if you do not believe unreservedly in what America stands for—that all men are created equal, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that free-market democracy is the best way to ensure those rights—then accommodation of other forms of political organization, even communist and totalitarian ones, does not seem altogether unreasonable.

To be fair, the military will that was required to stand up to the Soviet Union had been critically wounded by the Vietnam War. The American people and Congress had lost their enthusiasm for military endeavors as a result, and support from Western allies was notably weak as well. But even those constraints might have been overcome had there been the political will to do so.  Today, while U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan carry little of the ignominy associated with Vietnam, something of the mood in the 1970s has been evoked by the lack of a clear victory, the lives of Americans lost, and the growing pressure from the administration and its cheering section, the media, to cut defense spending and disengage militarily. But most importantly, today’s policymakers appear to not believe the Islamists can be defeated or even should be defeated, and that we must therefore engage them, in spite of the fact that their animating beliefs are in direct conflict with American principles.  Indeed we have gone so far as to expend the tax dollars of our future generations as well as sacrifice the lives of thousands of soldiers (estimated at 6630 as of January 2013) in order to put in place in Iraq and Afghanistan constitutions based on Islam which codify the distinctly un-American principles of inequality and oppression.

Today, as in the 1970s, the nature of the adversary is such that the greatest hits we are taking is not on the battlefield but in the war of ideas.  It has long been an esteemed principle of strategy that if you cannot defeat your enemy by strength, you defeat him by guile. The Soviet Union could not defeat the United States militarily, and so they fought largely on other fronts—the most important of which was the war of ideas.  From their earliest days, leaders of the Soviet Union acknowledged that they would never win the United States to the communist fold, but they believed it was critically important to destroy the idea of the United States, captured in Emily Lazarus’ famous lines engraved inside the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

The Soviet Union desperately wanted to win those huddled masses to the cause of communism.  They could not allow world’s abject to long for freedom and opportunity in America.  So the Soviet Union set out systematically to destroy the image of the United States by painting it as anti-immigrant and hostile to workers and the world’s poor.  And because the Soviet Union was not grounded in principles that upheld the sanctity of truth, there was nothing to keep them from using every means of deception and falsehood.

Disinformation, propaganda, and deception became favored tactics of the Soviet Union against the United States throughout the 20th century.  It took quite some time for the U.S. to catch on, so alien were these tactics to the American spirit.  Yet eventually we did, and yet even once knowing the lengths to which the Soviets would go to deceive, for a time, in the 1970s, we chose not to fight back.  As Fletcher Schoen and Christopher Lamb argue in their excellent new study, Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications:  How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference, there were several distinct reasons for this.  One was that policy- makers did not want to poison the atmosphere for détente with unnecessary confrontation; issues such as Soviet disinformation “could not be allowed to sidetrack progress on more important issues such as strategic arms control.” [1]  A second major factor was the disgrace of the CIA.  During the Vietnam War, Johnson had ordered the CIA to monitor certain American citizens, notably the Black power and antiwar movements, which he feared were supported and infiltrated by foreign communists (and which indeed, as it was later proven, they were).  Eventually this and similar monitoring programs were revealed to the public, which caused a major outcry and helped provide the impetus for major reforms of the CIA.

Under the directorship of William Colby, traditional tools of the CIA such as covert action, counterintelligence, and human intelligence were sidelined in favor of a more social-science approach and employing technical means to collect information.  The end result is that by the mid- 1970s, the massive Soviet campaign of deception and disinformation (also known under the Soviet rubric of “active measures”) directed against the United States was going largely unchecked:  “KGB deception activities were only tracked by a handful of CIA analysts who were isolated from broader attempts to characterize Soviet strategic intentions…Similarly, the FBI, Department of State, and Department of Defense (DOD) had only a few low-level disinformation experts on staff by the late 1970s, and their views were not influential.”[2]

Today, the Obama administration has similarly adopted a policy of engagement rather than confrontation, and for reasons that again echo those driving decisions in the 1970s. First, the currency of the intelligence community has been downgraded, as it was during the 1970s.  Under the auspices of the Global War on Terror, the intelligence community engaged in a number of activities that provided fuel for criticism, notably the practice of waterboarding, detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and use of black sites for holding prisoners. Moreover, the Obama administration has adopted the problematic policy which asserts that the best way to prevent further attacks by violent Islamists (the “jihadists”) is to work with the peaceful Islamists (the “purists”):

Although the purists are strongly anti-Western (and anti-American), they are also the least likely to support the use of violence.  To the extent that the United States can amplify the purist contextual reading at the expense of the jihadis, the movement of Salafis toward the radical extremists will likely slow.[3]

Inherent in the justification for the policy is its very weakness:  the so-called purists are strongly anti-Western and anti-American.  So even if they have foresworn violence (in itself an uncertain assumption) must it not logically follow that they will find other means to weaken and destroy their enemy?  Yet because the U.S. has chosen to work with the Islamists as one of the core pillars of its counter-terrorism strategy, it cannot risk alienating them by criticizing Islam or even Islamism, in spite of the fundamental conflict between Islamism and the values codified in the U.S. constitution.  The end result is that Islamist disinformation and political warfare are being largely ignored, as Soviet political warfare was ignored in the 1970s, and the United States is being badly beaten on the public relations battlefield.

But if we look again to the 1970s as a foreshadowing of today’s events, might we see there lessons for today or cause for hope?  The answer is decidedly yes.  What began as the modest efforts of a few individuals, according to the account provided by Schoen and Lamb, grew into an initiative that made its way into discussions between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the highest level and helped to turn the course of history toward the ultimate defeat of the communist regime in the Soviet Union and the freeing of tens of millions of people from hardship and oppression.  Herbert Romerstein, a staff member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Kenneth deGraffenried and Angelo Codevilla, staffers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, all believed that Soviet disinformation and deception should not be ignored.  In spite of the unpopularity of their position, they worked with significant success to document and expose it, and their work was further supported and encouraged by a handful of academics and members of Congress.  Additionally, strong insider efforts led to the creation of some important backchannel initiatives.  According to one inside source from that period,  “Back in the 1970s, we who were fighting the Soviets and their apologists inside the U.S. government were a fairly lonely lot who were under constant criticism and pressure to conform to the détente spirit.  When we learned of others on the Hill and elsewhere who had a realistic view of Soviet active measures, we started networking.  That provided vital institutional and moral support.”  As important as the sense of support gained from such networking, these initiatives were able to provide subtle but significant pushback in various parts of the intelligence community, DoD, and even in the State Department; and even a few nascent structures emerged dedicated to identifying and begin countering Soviet active measures.  Moreover, these then served as models for the more formal efforts initiated by the Reagan White House. Prominent among those efforts was the creation of the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG), which is the central subject of Schoen and Lamb’s study.

To be fair, the major shift in U.S. efforts to counter Soviet active measures ultimately came about because of several historic factors which knocked détente off the rails: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s election as president in November 1980.  Without these two events, it is likely that the efforts of a handful of staffers, Congressmen and academics concerned about Soviet active measures would have remained closeted and inconsequential.  But what is important to recognize for today is that it was enough that a small handful of people saw the nature of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, believed it could be countered, and worked to do so.  In that way, the ground was well prepared for Reagan to introduce a major shift in policy toward the Soviet Union, which is what he did almost immediately upon entering office:

…the [Reagan] administration promised to rebuild public diplomacy organizations and ‘spare no efforts to publicize to the world the fundamental differences in the two systems,’ ‘articulate U.S. values and policies,’ and ‘highlight the weaknesses of totalitarianism.’ Above all, Reagan insisted that the government put an end to ‘self-censorship’ to preserve good relations. On the contrary, it would aggressively ‘counter lies with truth’ and consider fighting the ‘idea war’ as important as military and economic competition.[4]

So while the truly significant factor in this change was the man at the helm, the fact that men like Romerstein, deGraffenried, Codevilla, Jack Dziak, and Benjamin Fischer had not dropped the ball, but had maintained their efforts and thereby helped the United States to reengage in the war of ideas quickly and effectively once the ground was ready for it.

So where are we today?  Going into the recent election many had hoped we would be at 1980, with a new president who would reverse America’s position of capitulation towards the enemy.  Instead, we are probably months away from December 1979.  Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s human rights abuses revealed the true nature of the regime and elicited the occasional hand-slapping or stern word, but were not sufficient to warrant a wholesale reversal of policy by the United States. But with the invasion of Afghanistan, a flagrant violation of the rights of the Afghan people, and the assassination of the Afghan president and his family, Jimmy Carter was obliged to close the door on détente and to acknowledge that the Soviet Union presented an existential threat to the United States.

For the moment, our policymakers still believe we can do business with the Islamists, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Libya. But the moment is coming, surely, when the Islamists who have gained power in Egypt or Libya, or who are on the verge of it in Syria, will act in accordance with their principles and violate human rights or the principles of democracy in a way that is so egregious that even President Obama—as Jimmy Carter was eventually forced to do with the Soviets—will have to reverse his stance.  Until that time happens, we can at least hope that the Romersteins, the Dziaks, the deCodevillas, the deGraffenrieds of our day do not become so utterly discouraged that they give up.  Indeed, the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG), the interagency initiative that was founded in 1981 under Ronald Reagan and which brought these men together in a particularly effective collaboration, provides a roadmap for today. One of the key lessons of the AMWG, as highlighted in the new report by Schoen and Lamb, is that simply exposing acts of disinformation, such as the story that the U.S. had deliberately created the AIDS virus, or forgeries, such as the letters forged by the KGB from the Ku Klax Klan threatening athletes from African countries in the run-up to the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, was an extremely powerful tool in undermining their efficacy.[5]

But while the lesson of the Active Measures Working Group is that the war of ideas is a critical battlefield which must not be neglected and yet which can be effectively engaged in with very limited resources, it must also be acknowledged that there are constraints which make this a uniquely difficult task today. The notion of Islamist political warfare is virtually non-existent in U.S. policy circles, and indeed those who dare venture to suggest that Islamists are at war with America, have a coherent ideology driving them and an identifiable set of tactics that includes, prominently, political warfare and disinformation, are censured by the government. Moreover, in September 2011 the White House initiated a far-reaching purge of all training materials used for the military and law enforcement, excising all reference to Islam and blacklisting many of the nation’s top experts on the Islamist threat.  Current training on Islam is now primarily carried out by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which puts the emphasis on Islam as a religion of peace. This has driven many of today’s experts underground.  They have had to learn to speak cautiously and in coded language.  But their efforts are critical—never more so than today, when Al Jazeera, the television station which is closely associated with the most prominent Islamist leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, now has an entrée into as many as 40 million American homes through the purchase of Current TV.  It would have been unthinkable even under Jimmy Carter that an openly communist television station would be allowed to broadcast throughout the United States, and yet we will today allow an openly Islamist one to do so.

All the more reason to create an Active Measures Working Group, even if it must be done outside of government.  Fox News, in reporting on Al Jazeera’s entry into the U.S. market, said now Americans will be able to discern the truth for themselves. But the problem with propaganda is that truth has little value when in the hands of ideologues for whom ultimate victory is the only consideration.  Are 40 million Americans sufficiently versed in the ways of political warfare, deception and disinformation to be able to discern the truth or lack thereof in Al Jazeera’s message?  And during both World War II and the Cold War, would any sentient policy-maker have argued for sponsoring Nazi and Soviet broadcasts into the United States?

In spite of the stunning tactical success of the 9/11 attack, the Islamists do not look set to defeat the United States militarily, but they are doing a very good job in the information battlespace, indeed Al Jazeera has just scored a major victory.  Without the analysis and exposure of initiatives such as this and the broader strategic goals that drive them, the United States will not need to be defeated militarily in order to lose.

by Katharine Cornell Gorka

[1] Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb, Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made A Major Difference (Washington DC: Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2012).

[2] Ibid, p. 19.

[3] Quintan Wiktorowiz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29 (2006): 234.

[4] Schoen and Lamb, p. 26.

[5] Schoen and Lamb, pp. 52-53.