If you believed Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, this movie is for you. If you’re an ideologue on an anti-Russian bender, you’ll find this movie intoxicatingly pleasant. But if you want a real dose of reality about the troubling Trump-Russia scandal “Active Measures” has nothing for you except an object lesson in how mass deception is done.
“The President is a puppet of Vladimir Putin!” That sums up the revelations of the blockbuster movie “Active Measures.” It recently debuted at theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
This couldn’t be more timely as we approach the November midterm elections. We’ve seen Republican candidates get a real boost from a Trump endorsement in recent special elections. Will Republican candidates be propelled to victory in November on the strength of Trump’s support?
If Trump really is a puppet of Putin’s do we want to let that happen? Are we headed for another “attack on America’s democracy” in the wake of what happened in 2016? This could have very serious consequences.
As I watched Active Measures from start to finish I had a couple of pointed reactions. The first was to observe the apparent strength of conviction the cast of characters seems to have regarding the movie’s avowed theme. The second was to realize that the strength of evidence they produced pales by comparison.
Active Measures has a star-studded cast. It includes former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and the late John McCain, former US envoy to Moscow Michael McFaul, the former presidents of Georgia and Estonia, and a host of others. Each appears in the role of an interview subject. There’s no host asking questions — just the commentaries and quips from the interviewees alone.
Now, some of you may wonder just what the movie title Active Measures means. It is a term I first heard from a former State Department intelligence official. It was coined during the Cold War era to describe a variety of Soviet political warfare activities that included propaganda, disinformation, and others.
Active measures is definitely a pejorative term, much in keeping with the movie’s theme. Indeed what is that theme? According to the International Movie Database (IMDb): “Russian president Vladimir Putin attacks the 2016 American Presidential Election in collaboration with The Trump Campaign.”
That theme is in effect a premise for the film’s implied and explicit conclusions. The theme has been all over the news throughout the past two years. You can’t miss it. As a media business analyst and senior fellow at American University in Moscow I’ve devoted a lot of attention to examining that premise and searching for factual confirmations. As a result I was quite interested to learn what Active Measures had to offer. Is there indeed convincing proof that Trump is Putin’s puppet?
One fact stood out clearly. This is a movie that seems intent on convincing audiences of its premise. But it doesn’t offer much proof of anything.
For instance, Clinton says of Putin, “He wants to be the richest man in the world.” How in the world does she know that? I’ve never seen any assertion of that goal by Putin. What’s the point of Hillary’s comment? It’s simply a hyperbolic disparagement I think.
Then there is McCain’s comparison of Putin with the rise of Hitler. McCain was a widely lionized senator, respected by many. But he had a long history of making vacuous, diminishing statements about Putin. He could have been more constructive if he had focused on reality-based problems with the Russian president in the US-Russia relationship. Instead McCain just joined Clinton with more hyperbolic disparagement.
That approach to things is more worthy of mindless bar room banter than of honest and serious discourse. McCain had acknowledged that he made some mistakes during his career. His negative fixation over Russia seems to have been one of them.
Other characters in the movie touched on issues that are very well known to me. For starters there’s a comment by Jonathan Winer. He brought up the 2006 polonium poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko. Winer said it was a “murder that was very directly linked to Russia.” That alludes to the long-running mainstream narrative that Putin was behind it all.
But that is a false narrative. I meticulously studied the Litvinenko case at the behest of the International Federation of Journalists. Subsequently I wrote two books about it. They document that the popularly believed narrative is actually a magnificently perpetuated hoax orchestrated by a political enemy of Putin’s. I don’t know whether Putin had anything to do with Litvinenko’s death. But my books prove that the people who made the case against Putin were lying.
What did Winer know about the Litvinenko case? According to the State Department he’s a former official from its Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He was State’s special envoy for Libya.
Perhaps more interesting is information from a February 2018 Weekly Standard article. It reports that Winer had been “old pals” with Christopher Steele, the guy of Trump Dossier fame. That’s the document that plays a key role in the ongoing Robert Mueller Russiagate probe.
The Weekly Standard article claims Winer and Steele were at one time “both in the business of selling ‘business intelligence,’ much of it involving Russia.” More recently, according to CNN, Winer was “the man who gave the [State Department] the Steele dossier.” The document has since been largely discredited and tied to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Next up is the matter of Russia’s media problems. This dates back to the early days of Putin’s presidency. He was widely accused of clamping down on the press freedom that had been nurtured under Yeltsin.
In Active Measures former State Department official Daniel Fried claimed that “Putin started forcing the independent media to knuckle under, putting in state control, turning them into propaganda outfits.”
The only problem with Fried’s claims is that there had been no real press freedom for Putin to have clamped down on. Right from the start Yeltsin had instituted laws that made it practically impossible for media companies to operate profitably and be self supporting. That thrust the outlets into the clutches of government officials and oligarchs. They put money into the loss-making media companies in return for the opportunity to color the news to their own favor.
The media were “propaganda outfits” right from the start. How could Fried have missed all that? At one time he was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Why, he had even been on the staff of the National Security Council and a special assistant to president Bill Clinton!
If Fried got the press freedom issue so wrong, one wonders what other issues he bollixed. Well actually he tells of another in Active Measures. After misrepresenting the press freedom quagmire so badly he goes on to claim that Putin started “going after independent journalists.” Fried said, “They ended up dead.”
That’s an allusion to another mainstream myth about Putin. It is that when Putin became president, journalists who wrote unfavorably about Russia’s president suddenly were becoming victims of murder. The facts speak differently, however. The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains statistics on journalists murdered in the line of duty. Those stats show there was actually a precipitous drop in the number of journalist murders when Putin took over. The reality is the opposite of what Fried contended in Active Measures. And there’s no evidence that all these murders were tied to silencing oppositional voices.
What’s going on here? This Active Measures cast of characters is beginning to look more like a rogues’ gallery.
Some of their assertions seem to belie a level of confusion. That’s what I saw in the comments of former ambassador Michael McFaul. Speaking about the alleged 2016 election hacking he said “They stole the data. Let’s be clear about it… This is theft. If the Russians walked into my house and took something out, this is exactly the same thing.”
But if Russians had walked into McFaul’s house and walked out with, say, his TV there would be no more TV in the house. It would be gone. With a data breach, the data owner still has the data. What’s lost is the secrecy of the data, not the data itself. I don’t want to minimize the significant problems that can emanate from a data breach. But it surely is not “exactly the same thing” as McFaul contended.
A more consequential matter is that of Putin’s KGB background. Past reports had often repeated McCain’s line, “I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.” Now Active Measures says this about Putin’s KGB past: “His role in the KGB was to support Russian intelligence officers living under assumed identities under deep cover inside the United States and developing active measures to impact the policies of the United States.”
That is a quote from Jeremy Bash, identified as CIA chief of staff 2009-2011. I could find no evidence that Bash has any particular Russia expertise. So I sought to examine his comment from a security service point of view. To do that I called upon a colleague in whom I have considerable trust. He has extensive expertise both in security matters and Russian issues. I showed him Bash’s statement and requested his analysis. Here is my distillation of what I was told:
- As a non-Russia expert in the CIA it is unlikely that Bash would be privy to who was doing what in the KGB during the 80s.
- Putin’s actual role in the KGB was extremely insignificant, virtually that of a clerk assigned to a backwater posting in Dresden, East Germany.
- As to running an American operation, Putin couldn’t even speak English at the time; his specialty was Germany. Putin didn’t learn English until late into his presidency.
- Upon returning from his Dresden assignment Putin was fired by the KGB. It is well known that agents involved with foreign deep cover operations can neither be allowed nor forced to leave the service irrespective of their personal qualities or performance.
- Russia’s undercover operations are known to be run directly out of Moscow, and not from a remote outpost such as Dresden. For twenty years General Yuri Drozdov was understood to be the boss of the foreign deep cover work, certainly not Putin.
Active Measures presents still more specious, factually unsupported stories to advance the movie’s primary premise. For example, there is the matter of the 2016 Republican platform with regard to Ukraine. There’s also the mysterious death in Washington DC of the head of Russia’s English language broadcasting arm. These and other vignettes follow the same pattern of deception as the stories above that I examined in depth.
I’m not saying that every word spoken by cast members is untrue. But the ultimate impact of all the words is to mislead the audience to a conclusion that is at odds with the truth.
I was a high school student during the Soviet era. And I recall in a course titled “comparative government” the teacher defining propaganda this way: It is the presentation of half truths and fabrications with the goal of misleading an audience toward a false conclusion.
That’s exactly what I found in Active Measures. Cast members state unfounded premises as if they are facts. Then they draw conclusions based on those premises. Audience members unable to tag the premises as false will likely be drawn into accepting the conclusions without realizing they’ve been hoodwinked. That’s the danger presented by Active Measures.
Aside from the Russia-specific content, Active Measures also deals with Donald Trump’s business activities and finances. That’s an area in which I have no expertise. As a result, I don’t know whether or not the information presented by cast members is honest.
I’m not suggesting that all cast members are liars. There may be some outright liars within their midst. But there are others who simply have blindly adopted beliefs about Russia based on misinformation that they’ve heard from others. And there are also cast members who have publically become so personally tied to the mainstream false narratives they espouse that they lack the courage to back away from the fraud. Perhaps even some were innocently drawn into participating in the film without realizing what they were getting into.
But whatever brought these individuals to this course of deceit, I think they certainly should not be given a presumption of honesty or reliability. Their words deserve extreme scrutiny. Here are the cast names and affiliations as presented in Active Measures:
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State (2008-2013): Toomás Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia (2006-2016); Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia (2004-2013): Senator John McCain, Senate Armed Services Committee; Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senate Judiciary Committee; Congressman Eric Swalwell, House Intelligence Committee; Steven Hall, CIA Chief of Russia Operations (1985-2013); Michael McFaul, US Ambassador to Russia (2012-2014); Nina Burleigh, Journalist and NewsweekCorrespondent; Craig Unger, Journalist and Vanity Fair Contributing Editor; James Woosley, Director of Central Intelligence (1993-1995); John Mattes, Bernie Sanders Organizer, Investigative Journalist; Richard Fontaine, President, Center for New American Security; Michael Isikoff, Author, Russian Roulette; John Dean, White House Counsel to President Nixon (1970-1973); Dr. Herb Lin, Director Cyber Policy and Security, Stanford University; Clint Watts, Former FBI Special Agent on Joint Terrorism Task Force; Evan McMullin, US 2016 Presidential Candidate, CIA Operative (1999-2010): Dr. Alina Polyakova, Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe; John Podesta, Chair, Hillary for America, Founder, Center for American Progress; Jonathan Winer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement (1994-1999); Jeremy Bash, CIA Chief of Staff (2009-2011), Pentagon Chief of Staff (2011-2013); Ambassador Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2005-2009); Scott Horton, International Law and Human Rights Attorney, Columbia Law School; Heather Conley, Kremlin Playbook Author, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Steven Pifer, US Ambassador to Ukraine (1997-2000), US Department of State (1978-2004); Asha Rangappa, FBI Special Agent on Counterintelligence (2002-2005), Associate Dean of Yale Law; Molly McKew, Information Warfare Expert; Alexandra Chalupa, DNC Consultant
So what does this all add up to?
Active Measures sets out to warn of how active measures are being used to deceive Americans about a “conspiracy hiding in plain sight.”
The irony of it all is that Active Measures itself is an actual exemplar of active measures. It presents specious commentary as if it were factual. In a sense it is sucker bait. Its producers call it a documentary. That’s true. It documents its own deception.
But don’t skip watching the movie over that. It offers a perfect opportunity to witness highly polished political misinformation in action.