Vladimir Putin’s Political Meddling Revives Old KGB Tactics

Russia is returning to the playbook of the Cold War in its covert efforts to interfere with elections in the West

It has become accepted wisdom that Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign represents a fundamentally new sort of intrusion into a modern democracy’s inner workings.

But the Kremlin’s efforts—designed to help elect Donald Trump, according to the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community—aren’t so new. In fact, they are a revival of Soviet covert behavior that dates back to the Cold War.

.. The Soviets and their partners, including East Germany’s Stasi secret police, understood that such operations could effectively exploit the openness of Western democracies.

.. The Soviets did everything they could to encourage and manipulate the grass-roots European peace movement that had risen up in opposition to the new weapons.

According to declassified CIA reports, Moscow used a web of front groups, secret payments to activists and articles placed in the press. The Russians also carefully conveyed propaganda themes to sympathetic media outlets, peddled disinformation and produced damaging forgeries of official U.S. and NATO documents.

.. In the mid-1980s, the Soviets circulated a fake National Security Council directive purporting to show the Reagan administration’s hope to develop a nuclear first-strike capability. In the pre-internet age, such disinformation could circulate in many places for years.

.. Soviet fake-news specialists also concocted reports that Pentagon bioweapons scientists had created HIV, that wealthy Americans were secretly importing children from Latin America for use in organ transplants and that the CIA was responsible for the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

.. In France, Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to defeat Kremlin favorite Marine Le Pen in May’s presidential election, has endured a whispering campaign claiming that he is secretly gay, fanned in part by online trolls and outlets close to Ms. Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. The “story” went viral this month after it ran on Sputnik, a Kremlin-controlled news agency, which asserted that Mr. Macron has a “very wealthy gay lobby behind him.”

.. In the 1960s and ’70s, the KGB spread similar rumors about two of the Soviet Union’s legendary nemeses, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. As Mitrokhin, the KGB defector, later wrote, the KGB tried to spread rumors in the U.S. media that Hoover had promoted “homosexuals from whom he expected sexual favors.”

.. In a 1976 operation against Jackson, the KGB forged a memo in which Hoover “reported” in 1940 that the senator was gay and sent it to newspapers and Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.

.. In Germany, for instance, a high-profile January 2016 fake-news story about an attempted sexual assault on a Russian-German teenager by Middle Eastern refugees, which was also spread by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stoked popular anger toward Chancellor Angela Merkel—probably Mr. Putin’s most prominent foreign foe.

The Kremlin is conspicuously unembarrassed about its handiwork, as seen in Mr. Putin’s smirking, I-know-that-you-know-that-I’m-lying handling of questions about the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign emails. “Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?” he said last September. “The important thing is the content that was given to the public.”