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A KGB term of tradecraft is now part of U.S. Department of Homeland Security governance.
The new Biden administration “Disinformation Governance Board,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN, is a “small working group” to “address threats, the connectivity between threats and acts of violence” without “infringing on free speech” and while “protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the right to privacy.” The board has no “operational authority” of its own, Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas denied that the board will cause American citizens to be monitored, saying, “we, the Department of Homeland Security, don’t monitor American citizens.”
That might be true. But Mayorkas went on to say the Disinformation Governance Board is mandated to provide “best practices and communicate those best practices to the operators” in agencies that do have “operational authority.”
Never before has “disinformation governance” been part of the official U.S. government terminology for defending the internal security of the country.
“Disinformation” is not a word from the English language. It is a direct translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya. It is a KGB form of tradecraft from the Red Banner Institute of the KGB First Chief Directorate, otherwise known as the KGB foreign spy academy.
Disinformation is definition 159 in the KGB’s “Lexicon of KGB Terms,” published internally by the Soviet foreign intelligence service before 1984. Here it is: “Misleading by means of false information; A form of intelligence work in the Active Measures field, which consists of the secret channeling towards an adversary of false information, especially prepared materials and fabricated documents designed to mislead him and prompt him to take decisions and measures which fit with the plans and intentions of the Intelligence Service.”
“Active measures” is another KGB term of tradecraft. The KGB lexicon defines active measures as “Agent operational measures aimed at exerting useful influence on aspects of the political life of a target country which are of interest, its foreign policy, the solution of international problems, misleading the adversary, undermining and weakening its positions, the disruption of his hostile plans, and the achievement of other aims.”
Disinformation is a component of active measures. Foreign “agent operational measures” make the defense against disinformation and active measures a counterintelligence function, not a homeland security one. DHS has no statutory counterintelligence authority. That authority, as well as the authority to combat foreign disinformation and propaganda, rests by law with the FBI.
Whether the FBI remains fit for this role is another matter. The point is that combating foreign disinformation domestically is counterintelligence, which by law is not a DHS responsibility.
Even if the Disinformation Governance Board did have such a legitimate purpose, it would rest in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Instead, this disinformation board is housed in the very political DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and therefore is a potential domestic political instrument.
Thus the board, as Mayorkas explained it, will not spy on American citizens’ free speech per se, but will provide the “best practices” and policy guidance to those who do.
“Disinformation” did not enter into widespread use in English until the 1980s, when the Reagan administration, with bipartisan support in Congress, launched a State Department-led Office to Counter Soviet Active Measures and Disinformation to combat Soviet political warfare worldwide, without impinging on the free speech of American citizens. (References to that office have been practically wiped from online search engines.) The State Department retains a small office to monitor foreign disinformation.
KGB Major Anatoliy Golitsyn, Czechoslovakian intelligence officer Ladislav Bittman, KGB Major Ladislav Levchenko, and others shed more light on disinformation after they fled to the United States between 1961 and 1979 during the Cold War. All agreed that disinformation was a purely KGB term of tradecraft. All wrote books on the subject.
The origin of disinformation as an operational word is rooted in Joseph Stalin’s NKVD secret police, with some references to the earliest days of World War II. The Oxford English Dictionary has no definition of the word prior to 1947, when the Cold War began. Merriam-Webster traces “disinformation” to hearings on Communist subversion in 1953, and to Nazi and Soviet techniques as early as 1940. Occasional usage of the word appeared in the 19th century as an infrequent, contrived, “non-standard synonym of misinformation.”
“Misinformation,” of course, isn’t the same as disinformation. It is a mis-statement, or the inadvertent or careless spreading of inaccuracies or untruths, without malign intent. Yet Mayorkas and others have used the two terms interchangeably. So have many public “experts.”
Under the Trump administration, DHS created a Countering Foreign Influence Task Force within the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The Biden administration morphed it into the “Mis- Dis- and Malinformation” (MDM) team whose stated job is to build “national resilience to MDM and foreign influence activities.”
Note the modification: keeping the old countering foreign influence function and adding what MDM calls “false or misleading information” in general. MDM thus became a federal government influence operational entity of its own. The Disinformation Governance Board is an interagency add-on within the DHS policy shop.
While it does explain the distinctions between misinformation and disinformation, the DHS MDM Team has sanitized the origins of “disinformation” as a KGB term of tradecraft. Indeed, it erased the distinction between disinformation as a foreign active measures technique and the simple use or abuse of words in domestic American political discourse.
Last year, DHS re-defined disinformation as follows: “Disinformation is deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country.”
So DHS re-defined disinformation, sanitized the term of its KGB roots, and expanded the definition by removing the foreign element and applying the label to First Amendment-protected political discourse. DHS then officially adopted the KGB word as its own to create a political board for “governance” of disinformation — whatever that is — to guide agencies to monitor American citizens’ free speech.
J. Michael Waller is senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy. His areas of concentration are propaganda, political warfare, psychological warfare, and subversion. He is a former professor at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school in Washington, DC. A former instructor with the Naval Postgraduate School, he is an instructor/lecturer at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.