Washington — DISINFORMATION has been around ever since the serpent sold Eve on that fateful apple. It has led, say history and legend, to the conquering of a city (Troy, via the Trojan horse); the defaming of Richard III as a murderer (by Sir Thomas More, no less, and then by Shakespeare); the toppling of a government (Britain's Ramsay MacDonald in 1924); and, more positively, the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.
It has led as well to miscellaneous pogroms, wars, rejection of diplomats, and apathy in the face of danger.
Most recently it has inspired mutual accusations of ``disinformation'' by right and left in the United States on every conceivable issue. And it is currently being dramatized in the trial in Norway of Arne Treholt, charged as a Soviet spy and agent of influence.
Disinformation, then, is not just historical. It is present today as a systematized function of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, as well as Soviet-bloc secret services. It is present whenever governments exercise ``news management'' that suppresses unpleasant facts. It is present when public relations imagemaking goes beyond putting the best face on a political candidate to present a totally artificial picture of that candidate -- or to smear a rival.
Just what is disinformation?
Simply put, it is the deliberate planting of false or misleading political information to influence either public or elite opinion. It is not just misinformation, or mistaken information. It is deliberately false.
It is not overt propaganda, in which the true speaker is identified, however outrageous his viewpoint. It is planted information, with the source secret or disguised.
It could be especially distorting in our much-vaunted Information Age, dependent as it is on all those facts stored in the computers.
Disinformation is both more and less pervasive than the man in the street wants to acknowledge today. On the one hand, the democrat who trusts in the free market of ideas instinctively shrinks from thinking he can be manipulated by disinfor-mation he doesn't detect. On the other hand, the patriot who is vexed by intractable world problems instinctively would like to blame all his country's troubles on this easy single-cause theory of conspiracy.
The first point to be made about disinfor-mation, then, is that the phenomenon does exist, and that it can be used to devastating effect, especially in character assassination of targeted persons.
The second point is that disinformation is no magic key. It doesn't begin to explain the complexities of Soviet-American conflict, say, or prescribe what foreign policies one should follow.
The third point is that disinformation is ultimately vulnerable to truth, since exposure can only reveal its divergence from reality. This axiom might seem banal, were it not for the frequent reflex of governments to fight disinformation not with truth, but with counterdisinformation of their own.
At this point some examples might help clarify how disinformation works.
The classic case in terms of longevity and damage must be the fake ``Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.'' This turn-of-the-century Russian account of a purported Jewish conspiracy to enslave the Christian world was used by Russians to blackmail Jews in World War I. In 1921 the Times of London exposed the Protocols as having been plagiarized from a 19th-century anti-Semitic novel. But that didn't prevent Hitler from picking them up to help his persecution and attempted annihilation of Jews.
Today, 60 years after the Protocols were debunked, they are still sometimes cited as authentic in the Arab world.
Usually, disinformation is less brazen than the Protocols. The more common variety is a partial lie tucked into truthful surroundings to enhance credibility. Or it is a fact falsely attributed. Or it is extreme exaggeration designed to mislead by suppressing all contrary evidence. Or it is a red herring to lure the unwary away from what they should be paying attention to.
Highly effective use was made -- apparently -- of the partial lie in the 1924 election in Britain. To this day historians are not satisfied that they know the full story about the letter purportedly written by Grigory Zinoviev, Soviet president of the Communist International, to the tiny British Communist Party with instructions to set up cells in the British Army. Aino Kuusinen, widow of longtime Soviet Politburo member Otto Kuusinen, wrote many years later that there was such a letter originally but that the public version was a forgery.
What is known is that the letter was printed in the pro-Tory Daily Mail four days before the election -- and that it triggered a wave of fear and hysteria among voters that toppled Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. As a result Labour was out of office for the next five years.
The origins of modern disinformation are disputed. Lenin certainly extolled the virtue of the lie. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was no slouch at it in Nazi Germany. JAN Nowak of the Polish resistance during World War II believes his organization invented many of today's disinformation techniques as it harassed the German occupiers. Considerable testimony about disinformation from the American Central Intelligence Agency came out in the US in the 1970s. Israel was apparently willing to practice disinformation even on its main ally when it strafed and torpedoed the USS Liberty, an electronic monitoring ship, during the 1967 war, then tried to cover it up through all channels as a case of mistaken identity. By now the general assumption seems to be that any secret service worth its salt will engage in manipulation of public and elite opinion in other countries.
Certainly the Soviets put enough stock in disinformation to institutionalize it in 1959 in Department D of the KGB. And a decade later they upgraded the operation by assigning it to Service A of the First Directorate, responsible for all covert and overt ``active measures'' for influencing foreign opinion.
On a less grand scale the word ``disinfor-mation'' has been sufficiently popularized in America in the past five years to serve as an all-purpose epithet. Democrats accuse the Reagan administration of disinformation in waiting until just after election day to discover that the federal deficit is roughly $30 billion larger than previously thought. Outgoing US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick accuses political adversaries of disinformation in presenting her as ``some kind of right-wing extremist.''
Accuracy in Media, Inc., accuses CBS and NBC of spreading Soviet propaganda. Author Russell Braley, in a book excoriating the New York Times, begins his chapter on Vietnam war reporting with a barbed quote about treason. The Center for National Security Studies sees a potential ``serious affront to the democratic process'' in a Nicaraguan insurgent's allegation that CIA officials have coached insurgents to misrepresent their policy to the American press and to Congress.
CBS charges that Gen. William C. Westmoreland practiced deception in reporting enemy troop strengths in the Vietnam war. General Westmoreland countercharges that CBS deliberately distorted interviews in the program alleging deception.
So modish has the concept of disinformation become that it is perhaps time to pause for an assessment, at least of its international dimensions.
It may be too late to rehabilitate Richard III -- but it's not too late to help ourselves.