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New US Movie ‘Active Measures’ Is Actively Deceptive About Russia
 – OpEd


“The President is a puppet of Vladimir Putin!” That sums up the revelations of the just-released blockbuster movie “Active Measures.” It debuted in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

This couldn’t be more timely as we approach the US 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 any of the 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 even 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.

The false stories form a specious mosaic that can then be used to validate additional false stories. It’s the perpetuation of misinformation.

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. 

Taken by itself I might even have had an inclination to believe some of it. But having seen the deception employed by the cast regarding Russian issues, I’m inclined to seriously question anything that they say. 

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 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 Newsweek Correspondent; 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? 

Is Active Measures truly actively deceptive about Russia? 

Of course it is. 

And the irony of it all is that Active Measures is itself an actual exemplar of active measures.

What do you think about that!

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William Dunkerley

William Dunkerley

William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut, USA. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.

14 thoughts on “New US Movie ‘Active Measures’ Is Actively Deceptive About Russia
 – OpEd

  • September 11, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    So, can one assume that you work for Russia?

    • September 12, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      What led you to that unsupported presumption?

  • September 12, 2018 at 1:55 am

    Author is clearly a Russian shill eager to protect his job at Moscow University. If you see the proofs reported in the media, Active Measures makes so much sense.

    • September 12, 2018 at 8:53 pm

      What led you to that unsupported presumption?

  • September 12, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    William Dunkerley who “works extensively with media organizations in Russia” is bashing the movie that criticizes how Russia uses media organizations to undermine American democracy. #ISmellKompromat

  • September 12, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    You sure missed the point. Why are you so unsettled by commentary that debunks lies and fabrications?

  • September 13, 2018 at 2:14 am

    Why did the Republicians want to remove a part of their platform that supported Ukraine in opposingthe Russian invasion?

    • September 13, 2018 at 3:29 pm

      Thanks for asking that question. Writing in the Washington Post journalist Josh Rogin reported, “Diana Denman, a platform committee member from Texas who was a Ted Cruz supporter, proposed a platform amendment that would call for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia, increasing aid for Ukraine and ‘providing lethal defensive weapons’ to the Ukrainian military.” If that report is true it means the Ukraine issue never was a part of the platform, and an amendment to put it there failed. That would make all the media reports we’ve seen claiming it was removed from the platform to be biased and unreliable.

      • September 13, 2018 at 6:21 pm

        You”re deliberately confusing the facts to reach a wholly untenable conclusion. Funny, because that’s something you’ve accused myriad others of in your review. A quick google search reveals the article you’re referencing is itself an editorial, and not subject to the same journalistic standards as a news report. In addition, no party platform is set in stone – they’re drafted by committee members prior to the convention and go through multiple revisions before a final version is publicly released. Yet you fail to mention that in the editorial you have cited the reason the amendment failed was the concerted efforts of Trump’s campaign team and are in line with his stated foreign policy goals of deference to Russia. Even though this language is non-binding, this proposed policy, if enacted, would ultimately be detrimental to the ongoing Russian incursions into Ukraine. Say Zdravstvuj to our Republican congressmen next time they’re in Moscow.

        • September 14, 2018 at 4:04 am

          When you say I’m “deliberately confusing the facts” you are speaking to my intent. I can assure you absolutely that is not my intent. I quoted journalist Josh Rogin claiming the Ukraine issue was just a proposed amendment that failed. You pointed out that his claim was in an editorial and “not subject to the same journalistic standards as a news report.” I confirm that is true. But you overlooked that I followed the quote by saying, “If that report is true it means the Ukraine issue never was a part of the platform.” I realize that the development of a platform is a work in progress until it is formally presented. But are you aware whether at anytime along the way the Ukraine issue was actually part of the platform? Peter had asked me the question, “Why did the Republicans want to remove a part of their platform that supported Ukraine…” That’s the question that I answered, and I don’t understand why you are taking issue with my answer. His question had an apparent false premise, i.e. that the Ukraine issue had actually been part of the platform. It’s like a “why did you stop beating your wife” type question. (I don’t mean that to demean Peter’s question, but just to give an example of the false premise problem.) You criticized that I failed to mention that the Trump team made efforts to influence the platform. That’s true, I did not mention that. But why should I have? It is natural and expected that the candidate will try to influence his or her own party platform. Can you think of any examples of when that was not the case? I sense that you dislike Trump’s platform. But I’m not here to attack or defend his platform. I didn’t vote for him. He and his platform must speak for themselves.

  • September 16, 2018 at 3:04 pm

    Thank you for your response. The reason I’m “taking issue” with your answer is your apparent hypocrisy that is neatly contained therein, casting a shadow on your true motivation for this review. In your review, you accuse the various participants in this documentary of distorting facts to create a false narrative. However, that’s essentially what you did in answering this ostensibly simple question. Granted the question itself could’ve been better composed, but you exploited the questioner’s lack of knowledge to create a misleading impression. Many leading Republicans at that time, including Sen. John McCain and current NSA adviser John Bolton, supported arming Ukraine with more advanced lethal weaponary to halt Russian incursions into the region. It was the Trump campaign team, dutifully led by chairman Paul Manafort and deputy Rick Gates (who have both plead guilty to Federal felony charges related to working as unregistered agents of foreign governments, including both Russia and Ukraine) who took out this key provision. Support for Ukraine was ultimately included in the official GOP platform – it wasn’t taken out, it was deliberately altered by the Trump campaign to be demonstrably weaker in force. In fact, the final version called instead for “providing appropriate assistance” to Ukraine (page 48). There’s some speculation this could be a down payment on a quid for Russian interference quo, but lets table that until Mueller’s report is released. I recognize that you used a conditional clause, i.e. “if/then,” to reach a conditional conclusion, but you’ve shown you either don’t have an understanding of the issue or you’re not answering honestly. This lends credence to the impression that you have your own bias, which, by your own logic, would make your expert opinion on the matter “unreliable” and not at all reassuring as to your “intent” to write a good-faith review. I don’t like Trump’s platform of tax cuts for multi-millionaires and the wholesale destruction of the environment for corporate profits, but what I really don’t like is a traitorous crook whose political fortunes are forever beholden to a hostile foreign power.

    • September 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      I appreciate your detailed response. Before answering to the substantive points you raise it would be helpful for me if you could express what you mean by “casting a shadow on your true motivation for this review.” What are your suspicions about my motivation? You said you think I may have my own bias. What bias do you suspect? Thanks.

  • September 17, 2018 at 12:56 am

    I mean I could easily write my own 1500 word review of your highly conjectural review, countering many of your patently misleading assertions and specious conclusions as proximal half-truths at best and blatantly deceitful lies at worst.

    To start, let’s “scrutinize” what you wrote about Putin’s ruthlessly antagonistic relationship with Russian state media, which you vaguely claim to have professional working knowledge of, and are therefore exceedingly well-qualified to opine upon. You wrote, “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.” Fair enough, as a formerly communist-turned-ostensibly-free-market Russia has never allowed real media independence to proliferate within it’s boarders.

    However, in Putin’s first year of office, government officials raided the offices of Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of Media Most and NTV. Agents from the FSB as well as local officers arrested him for fraud and later seized by physical force his considerable assets in television broadcasting and print publication. Gusinsky and NTV had both been critical of Putin prior to his arrest, yet coincidentally all charges were dropped when he was subsequently coerced into selling his stake to government-controlled natural gas company Gazprom.

    Freedom House, a non-government Washington think tank and advocate for political freedom and human rights, has continually downgraded Russia’s ranking in the world from 112 in 2002 to 180 in 2015. The taking of independently owned and operated NTV is the most egregious instance of Putin’s abuse of power; but his government has also banned ALL advertisements on ALL cable and satellite channels effectively eliminating their only revenue, dumped channels from being carried by major cable providers, curtailed foreign investment and fired journalists for interviewing a Ukrainian nationalist.

    Based on data gathered from the organization you previously cited Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 journalists were murdered in Russia in the intervening years Yeltsin was President. For comparison, at least 25 journalists have been murdered after Putin ascended to the same position in 2000. If you need to refresh your memory, you wrote, “…stats show there was actually a precipitous drop in the number of journalist murders when Putin took over.” Rather guilefully you don’t bother showing your work on how you summarized your wholesale avowal of Putin’s record of hostility to members of the media, which should call into question the other myriad claims you make. It should also be noted these numbers only includes deaths confirmed by authorities that are likely to be work-related due to circumstances surrounding their death. It doesn’t include murders where the motives are unclear due to lack of corroborating evidence or intentionally unfinished investigation. Also note-worthy is only one case out of 25 was ever fully prosecuted in 2011. I agree that the evidence shows that Putin isn’t necessarily or even probably personally ordering these assassinations, however he’s unquestionably complicit in making it all too easy to get away with murder.

    I could continue, like how billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Browder, formerly the largest investor in Russian industry outside Russia, advocate of the Magnitsky Act and subject of the Trump Tower meetings, believes Putin IS the richest man in the world with a net worth of $200 billion dollars. As that figure starkly contrasts with Putin’s officially drawn government salary of $133 thousand a year, Bill Browder must certainly be confused. Putin has never said he wanted to be the richest man in the world, although why would he need to make a formal declaration when he can do what he did with NTV and just steal it with impunity? Putin critic and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov produced a dossier later circuitously corroborated by the infamous Panama Papers showing Putin owned multiple yachts, helicopters and private planes. Purportedly leaked photos show where he spends most of his time – in a newly constructed $1 billion palatial estate. While this is the largest and most opulent of his residences, it’s just one of 20 discrete homes he has access to and of which nearly half were built under his unlawfully prolonged regime. Nemtsov was murdered in 2015.

    You didn’t honestly answer Peter’s question about the controversy surrounding the GOP platform and now that I believe I’ve refuted at least two of your more dubious pronouncements from your review, that’s three strikes by my count. I feel fairly confident in presuming you have a clear and present pro-Russian bias, and the truths presented in this documentary being seen by a wider global audience could pose a threat to the Kremlin as people grow increasingly agitated that a Russian asset is occupying the highest office in the land. From the comments, I’m not the only one with suspicions. I only sincerely hope more people see this documentary and, by extension you, for what you are. “But whatever brought these individuals (you) to this course of deceit, I think they certainly should not be given a presumption of honesty or reliability. Their words deserve extreme scrutiny.”

  • September 18, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    You appear to believe that you’ve caught me distorting several issues. Let’s take them one at a time. First is Russia’s press freedom. You quoted what I said, that “there had been no real press freedom for Putin to have clamped down on.” To put that into context, those words were preceded with, “He (Putin) was widely accused of clamping down on the press freedom that had been nurtured under Yeltsin.” So clearly I was not talking about “Putin’s first year of office” as you’ve tried to reframe my comments. I was talking about what he inherited from Yeltsin. So I stick with the statements that I made. You go on to point out that in Putin’s first year he took over Gusinsky’s media outlets. I can confirm that. You missed that he also went on to take over the assets of the other major media mogul, Boris Berezovsky. The wisdom of how he handled all that is certainly questionable. It’s worth noting, however, that there was great public displeasure with media outlets at the time. The outlets were not acting honestly in the interests of their consumers. They were serving up distortions aimed at favoring their wide-ranging business interests. The public recognized and rejected that. Reputable public opinion polls conducted by at least two separate organizations showed that at times over 75 percent of the population favored a return to state censorship over the nonsense they were being served by the privately held outlets. So one could argue that Putin was acting in response to a public demand. But you could also argue that he was simply incensed by the misinformation that was being propagated about him and moved to stop it. I don’t pretend to know what was in his mind. At first Putin said that taking custody of the oligarchic media outlets was just an interim measure. But it turned out to be permanent. That was a serious error, I believe. On the positive side, in the early 2000s I requested and received an invitation from the Putin administration to study the legal framework governing the media, and to make recommendations for change. All of my key recommendations were adopted except for one. It was to repeal a provision that was giving room for private and governmental money to take control of media content. It was I think in August of one year when I pointed out that that issue was still outstanding. I was told, okay, if you want that one removed, it will be gone by the end of the year. But that action never happened. The administration could not get sufficient Duma votes. The reason was that it dawned on regional officials that its repeal would interfere with their ability to control their local media. The other changes, however, stood, and provided for the first time for truly independent media companies to exist in Russia. It’s quizzical that in the year of the sweeping liberalization of media regulation that Freedom House greatly degraded its press freedom rating for Russia. Oh, and NTV. Please google “Weekly Experts’ Panel: Russia’s image in the world” see my comments on that and for more information on Russia’s media quagmire google “Russian Media Fund”


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