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Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference

By Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb | Strategic Perspectives 11 | June 01, 2012


Executive Summary

This study explains how one part-time interagency committee established in the 1980s to counter Soviet disinformation effectively accomplished its mission. Interagency committees are commonly criticized as ineffective, but the Active Measures Working Group is a notable exception. The group successfully established and executed U.S. policy on responding to Soviet disinformation. It exposed some Soviet covert operations and raised the political cost of others by sensitizing foreign and domestic audiences to how they were being duped. The group’s work encouraged allies and made the Soviet Union pay a price for disinformation that reverberated all the way to the top of the Soviet political apparatus. It became the U.S. Government’s body of expertise on disinformation and was highly regarded in both Congress and the executive branch.

The working group also changed the way the United States and Soviet Union viewed disinformation. With constant prodding from the group, the majority position in the U.S. national security bureaucracy moved from believing that Soviet disinformation was inconsequential to believing it was deleterious to U.S. interests—and on occasion could mean the difference in which side prevailed in closely contested foreign policy issues. The working group pursued a sustained campaign to expose Soviet disinformation and helped convince Mikhail Gorbachev that such operations against the United States were counterproductive.

The working group was also efficient. It had a disproportionate impact that far exceeded the costs of manning the group, producing its reports, and disseminating its information overseas. The group exposed Soviet disinformation at little cost to the United States, but negated much of the effort mounted by the large Soviet bureaucracy that produced the multibilliondollar Soviet disinformation effort. Over time, the working group’s activities drove Soviet costs for disinformation production up even further and helped bankrupt the country.

The working group had its limitations, however, especially compared to the performance associated with the highest performing teams identified in organizational literature. Some members had trouble thinking of the group as a decisionmaking body instead of just an informationsharing enterprise. Concerning information-sharing, most parent organizations decided in advance what their representatives on the group could bring to the table. Most group products were drafted primarily by one organization’s personnel. Most members did not support the team’s mission at the expense of their parent organization’s equities when the two could not be reconciled. Finally, group productivity fluctuated, and the existence of the group was tenuous. At one point, the Secretary of State unilaterally moved to quash the group’s output, which led Congress to intervene and reassign the mission to another organization. For these and other reasons, the group does not meet the standards that organizational experts typically associate with high performing “teams.”

Nevertheless, the Active Measures Working Group stands out compared to typical small interagency group performance. The group was subject matter–centered and incorporated a range of experts from all levels of government. The members shared information well, including classified information. Cooperative decisionmaking and activities were the norm during the group’s highest periods of productivity. The group resolved interpersonal conflicts productively. Overall, its level of cohesion and trust was remarkable considering the group met only periodically and its members were not collocated. The group also demonstrated unusual resiliency, persisting through numerous leadership and environmental changes, including the departure of many of its most ardent supports following the IranContra scandal. In short, the working group not only worked, which is noteworthy, but also worked well, which is extraordinary.

This case study—based on a careful review of government records, secondary literature, and original interviews with group participants and observers—makes several notable contributions. It reveals the Active Measures Working Group’s interesting and previously little-known role in the Cold War struggle. It explains, for example, why U.S. attempts to counter Soviet disinformation had virtually disappeared by the late 1970s even though the Soviet Union was redoubling its efforts to blackguard the United States, and what it took to reverse this situation. The study also contributes to a more complete understanding of small interagency group performance in two ways: It highlights why it is difficult and unusual for interagency groups to succeed in the current system, and it identifies the factors that best explain the working group’s success.

Senior leader support was a necessary prerequisite for the working group’s existence and thus its performance. Congressional leaders generated a requirement for working group reports, promoted them, and lobbied for institutionalized capability to produce the reports. Within the executive branch, the group had supporters at all levels. Without them, the group would have been greatly handicapped, ignored, or disbanded. Political support was limited, however, and did not guarantee success. Senior leaders did not define the group’s purpose explicitly, delegate special authorities, or provide dedicated resources. Other factors allowed the group to operate effectively.

The group wisely limited its mission to countering Soviet influence operations that could be exposed in a compelling way with unclassified or declassified information. Given the vague definition of Soviet active measures, the mission easily could have been construed so broadly that completing it would have exceeded the group’s political and substantive capacity. With the mission delineated in a practical way, the group could hold itself accountable for identifying disinformation problems, finding ways to resolve them, and producing actual results. It developed procedures and expertise necessary to complete the mission successfully. The group’s modest definition of purpose and holistic approach to the mission allowed it to concentrate on cases that were likely “winners” and to do so with few resources, which made cooperation from parent organizations more likely.

Unfortunately, the group’s success cannot be easily replicated for several reasons. Some interagency missions are so broad or nebulous that they cannot be construed in an end-to-end mission methodology that is results-oriented. In addition, the exceptional personnel that made the group a success are, by definition, hard to find. Moreover, the organizational milieu that the group operated in was atypical. The group was embedded in a lead agency—the Department of State—that was not supportive of the group’s mission but nonetheless provided working group chairs and some supportive senior officials who were. When these leaders protected and led the group well, they earned the trust and cooperation of other agencies that saw them acting in the national interest rather than the Department of State’s. This unusual condition helped the group coalesce and function at a high level.

The case study is valuable for several reasons. It demonstrates that even a typical small interagency group can be successful under the right conditions, suggests what those conditions might be, and explains why they are rare. The case yields hypotheses on successful small interagency group performance that can be used to guide further research and by practitioners. The case also reveals how little the current national security system does to ensure the success of small interagency groups. By demonstrating the exceptional value of one interagency group, the study foreshadows the enticing prospect of a better system that could routinely generate such high performance.

Finally, the case study yields insights on broader national security subjects. It summarizes the complex debate over American intelligence reform and explains its relation to strategic deception and strategic communications, particularly disinformation. It explains why national security leaders differ over the relative value of strategic communications, why the U.S. national security bureaucracy is often hostile to this discipline, and why America’s current security circumstances demand robust strategic communication capabilities and a dedicated counter-disinformation effort. It argues that such capabilities need to be explained to the U.S. public, managed by dedicated interagency organizations, and integrated into a larger national strategy.