The Interagency Working Group on Active Measures

March 27, 2013

If you know what the Interagency working Group on Active Measures was you either read The Cold War and the United States Information Agency very carefully or you’re old enough to have been paying attention during the 1980s.  This was a group based in the State Department that worked to unmask Soviet use of forged documents and front organizations  One of topics that they spent a lot of time on was origins and circulation of a rumour that the AIDS virus was an American biological warfare programme.  The high point of their fame came in October 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev waved a copy of one of their reports at George Shultz and complained that publishing such information undermined relations between their countries.

Last summer the National Defense University put out a monograph by Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb on the working group which I would highly recommend.  It’s an extremely detailed study  that asks how did they manage to do so much with such limited resources when most similar groups achieve nothing?  Part of the answer is high level political support but they also point to the motivations of the group members and skilful leadership that managed the personalities and interests at work.  Setting limited and manageable objectives was also important; the group limited itself to a particular subset of Soviet activities – those involving deception – not their communication effort as a whole.  The study is based on interviews with members of the group and demonstrates an impressive sensitivity to the organizational dynamics at work.

A second strand of the discussion is about what the value of the group’s work.  Many people in the State Department were unhappy with the whole enterprise.  Their unmasking of what the Soviets termed ‘active measures’ had the potential to further strain relations with the USSR and to embarrass allies  who appeared to be the target of these actions. Although Shultz conceded nothing to Gorbachev after their meeting there were stories that he returned to Washington and ordered that future reports from the group should be published by the USIA and not State.  Schoen and Lamb point out that this reflected a deeper debate about the significance of the Soviet covert techniques.  The view held by the supporters of the working group was that at the margin the constant repetition of Soviet falsehoods damaged the reputation of the US and had to be countered.  The other side saw these activities as fundamentally unimportant so that unmasking them did nothing but increase international tensions.   Interestingly a few days after his meeting with Shultz Gorbachev told Charles Wick of the USIA that disinformation activities had to stop.

If you’re interested in how organizational imperatives shape public diplomacy  or the interaction between public diplomacy and diplomacy this study is well worth a read.

Schoen, F., Lamb, C.J., (2012) Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference,  National Defense University Press, Washington DC.



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  2. Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

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