The marriage of journalism and intelligence

“One profession that is particularly close to my heart, a profession that can get away with nearly anything,” Wagenbreth told his colleagues, “and this group are our dear journalists.” Journalists with a good reputation, he said, had excellent access to officials with security clearances and business executives, and could even travel through the Iron Curtain without a cover. Intelligence and journalism, in Wagenbreth’s view, had “entered a kind of marriage,” he said. “They complement each other and can’t let go of each other.” The Stasi knew that the press was addicted to leaks, and that scoop-hungry reporters would even publish anonymous leaks; they also knew that it was extremely difficult for journalists to tell whether a source was genuine or fake, and ever harder to tell if the content of a leak was accurate or forged. And it was another notch harder still to tell whether an anonymous leak contained some shrewd mix of both, handcrafted for maximum impact. The symbiotic relationship found its fullest expression in the active measures field. “What would active measures be without the journalist?” Wagenbreth asked the Stasi leaders. “Revelations are their métier.” The X, of course, had the same métier.

For Wagenbreth, more competitive and polarized media outlets presented a major opportunity. “For the man on the street it is getting harder to assess and judge the written word,” Wagenbreth explained. “He is ever more helpless in the face of the monsters that are opinion factories. This is where we come in as an intelligence agency.”

Rid, Thomas. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “The marriage of journalism and intelligence”

  1. These hidden actors are part of why we can never fully understand politics while it is happening. What will we learn about what’s happening today if Russia and China’s secret records ever get declassified decades from now? It would not be at all surprising if Russia is force behind climate change denial, to protect their hydrocarbon interests and to encourage infighting in the West.

  2. The British government ran a secret “black propaganda” campaign for decades, targeting Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia with leaflets and reports from fake sources aimed at destabilising cold war enemies by encouraging racial tensions, sowing chaos, inciting violence and reinforcing anti-communist ideas, newly declassified documents have revealed.

    The effort, run from the mid-1950s through to the late 70s by a unit in London that was part of the Foreign Office, was focused on cold war enemies such as the Soviet Union and China, leftwing liberation groups and leaders that the UK saw as threats to its interests

  3. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. By Thomas Rid. Picador; 528 pages; $20. Profile Books; £12.99

    Mr Joske’s book on the MSS shows why intelligence is not just about stealing secrets. It can also be about changing the way people think. The most significant intelligence operation of the past decade was probably Russia’s intervention in America’s election in 2016, which hacked and leaked the emails of a Democratic Party leader and used a network of trolls to influence American social media. Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, shows how active measures—as the KGB called them—have been used for over a century. His book tells the story of how the CIA sent personalised horoscopes to unnerve officials of the Stasi, communist East Germany’s intelligence service, and floated thousands of propaganda-packed balloons into the country. All of that was dwarfed by the KGB’s creative efforts. By the middle of the 1960s it was co-ordinating 300-400 active measures annually—from encouraging the European peace movement to spreading allegations that America had created AIDS as a weapon. In 1985 the annual budget for active measures was conservatively put at $3bn-4bn (more than $8bn today). Perhaps the most important lesson is that democracies are uniquely vulnerable to this sort of information warfare. “If they did not have press freedom,” quipped the KGB’s disinformation chief in 1964, “we would have to invent it for them.”

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