"No Angels": The Politics of U.S. Information Interventions in Cold War Elections

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Debs, Alexandre


Russia’s cyber-enabled intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election raised important questions about what advanced information intervention techniques might mean for future state behavior – including America’s own. The 2016 interference illuminated not only the speed and pervasiveness with which information interventions could be employed, but also their agility in targeting different platforms and spreading diverse – and even conflicting – messages. Acknowledging that relevant political context for today’s operating environment predates 2016, my dissertation integrates three related questions using the Cold War as a temporal boundary. First, why do states intervene in the domestic affairs of other states? Second, why does the United States use information interventions in lieu of (or in addition to) other forms of intervention? And third, why do we observe variation in the type of information intervention employed, such as whether it targets a specific candidate or party, or is instead a democratization proclamation? I emphasize, in particular, the understudied secondary and tertiary inquiries. I determine that key benefits of the U.S. using information interferences in lieu of, or in conjunction with, other Cold War interventions included the ability to employ this tactic within a short time frame prior to an election; a low escalatory risk; and in later years, the ability to communicate American values, principles or policy positions (such as those addressing human rights) through carefully phrased information interventions. Additionally, while democracy promotion literature often links democratization concepts to American efforts during and after the Reagan administration and/or Cold War, I argue that the American Congress’ “Season of Inquiry” from 1975-1976 presented a “critical juncture” in U.S. foreign policy and intelligence, planting the roots for democracy promotion. To study this effect, I analyze two case pairings, utilizing both cross-case and over-time case comparisons: Italy’s 1953/1976 and Chile’s 1970/1988 elections. I discuss how intelligence oversight reform efforts effectively diminished the autonomy of individual agencies and field operatives to interfere in foreign elections, manifesting in a “political development.” This also set a public expectation for conducting foreign affairs in a manner that prioritized democratic ideals over support for specific individuals or parties. This transformation set a path for oversight and democratization trends that were reinforced by subsequent administrations, resulting in “positive feedback processes.” By focusing my study on the type of election intervention used, I contribute conclusions not previously discussed in existing projects on both foreign interventions and information warfare. I address a gap in existing intervention literature by assessing how international partnerships and processes, to include election interventions and democratization initiatives, might both impact – and be impacted by – concurrent evolutions in the American bureaucratic process. This provides a unique perspective on how the United States evaluates variation in intervention options along the election manipulation spectrum. It also offers a timely and important launching pad for future studies on information warfare, including those on cyber/digitally-enabled election interventions, which are of pressing concern to today’s security environment.

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