Review by John Handley
Doctrine, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How an Interagency Group Made a Major Difference by Fletcher R. Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb, Strategic
Perspective #11, Institute for National Strategic Studies (NISS), Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, June 2012.*
Free of charge and available at:
This excellent, albeit short, publication explains how a part-time interagency working group known as the Active Measures Working Group, established during the Reagan administration, effectively accomplished its mission. The administration tasked the group to respond to Soviet disinformation, which the group did by both exposing several Soviet covert operations and by successfully increasing the cost of disinformation to the USSR. Over time, the working group managed to change the perception of Soviet disinformation within the U.S. national security bureaucracy from that of basically inconsequential Soviet activity to one of a direct Soviet challenge to U.S. national interests. A two-fold working group goal involved both confronting Soviet disinformation and convincing the Kremlin “that such operations against the United States were counterproductive.”
The efficiency of the working group can be demonstrated by the disproportionate impact of this relatively low-cost organization in successfully countering the massive efforts of a multibillion-dollar Soviet disinformation machine. The minimal costs of providing personnel as well as producing and disseminating the information significantly drove up the cost of Soviet countermeasures and helped, with a multitude of other Reagan administration measures, to drive the USSR towards bankruptcy.
Although successful, the working group fell far short of the standards normally expected of a “high performing” team. The members met only periodically and were not collocated. Initially under the control of a non-supportive Secretary of State, the administration, various departments, and other agencies contributed personnel to represent their specific vested interests and protect each contributor’s home turf. The group members generally did not view themselves as decision makers but as information sharers and each individual’s parent agency often pre-decided what information could be shared. When the Secretary of State unilaterally decided to stop the group’s reports, Congress intervened and reassigned the mission to another organization. With these problems and numerous other concerns from leadership changes to environmental issues, the group actually produced quality reports that significantly hampered Soviet disinformation operations.
This well written and well-researched case study serves students of international relations and political science in several ways. First, it describes in detail the activities of a little known and small group of subject-matter experts who confronted the USSR during the Cold War. Second, it explains why US attempts to counter Soviet disinformation generally ceased to exist in the 1970s while the Soviet Union was redoubling it efforts against the U.S.. Third, the study describes the efforts required by the working group to reverse this situation. Forth, the case study not only highlights the difficulties of achieving success by any interagency working group but also it identifies specific factors, such as senior leadership support in the executive branch and in Congress, that help explain the group’s overall success.
The group’s relatively narrow mission involved the exposure of Soviet influence operations. It identified disinformation problems, searched for ways to resolve them, and produced results. Such a narrow mission coupled with its few interagency assets and with Congressional and executive branch support helps explain the group’s success. The case study points out the difficulty of replicating anything similar in the U.S.’s current bureaucratic security organizations. Even so, the study ends with an explanation of why America’s current security circumstances “demand robust strategic communication capabilities and a dedicated counter-disinformation effort… managed by dedicated interagency organizations, and integrated into a larger national strategy.”
This case study provides both an interesting portrait of 20th century US-USSR Cold War confrontation and the relevance of interagency cooperation in the 21st century. Hopefully someone in Washington in a position of “trust and responsibility” will take note of the study’s recommendations and act on them. I highly recommend this rather short E-book to anyone interested in diplomacy and security.