The West wakes up to the dangers of disinformation
FIVE years ago the best seller ``The Spike'' created a sensation. Its thesis -- ``so explosive it can only be told as fiction,'' as the blurb had it -- was that major American news media were manipulated by Moscow. ``Disinformation'' was not yet a buzzword. The authors of ``The Spike,'' Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, along with a few other crusaders, were out to make it one.Skip to next paragraph
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Congress opened hearings on disinfor-mation. The State Department set up a section to deal with Soviet disinformation abroad.
Publicity and the State Department's meticulous documentation of forgeries even steeled the Netherlands, Portugal, and Denmark to expel some of the most blatant Soviet operatives. A storybook example of the phenomenon is on stage now in a Norwegian court as Arne Treholt -- ex-Foreign Ministry spokesman, left-wing Social Democrat, and onetime political star -- is being tried as a Soviet spy.
All this fact and fiction about Soviet disinformation in the West has been much more alarming to Westerners than shadowy intrigue in volatile third-world politics.
In the 1980s, then, disinfor-mation in the politically stable industrialized world has become an issue in its own right -- but one hard to pin down.
``I'm afraid you won't have much to write about,'' sympathized a Western intelligence official when asked about it.
He noted there have been only two ranking Soviet-bloc defectors who dealt directly with disinformation in their former secret-service jobs: Stanislav Levchenko of the KGB's Tokyo ``residency'' before he fled to the United States in 1979, and Ladislav Bittman, deputy chief of the Czechoslovak Disinformation Department before his defection in the fall of 1968. Bittman's information is old; Levchenko was involved in disinformation only ``on the periphery,'' the official observed.
Nonetheless, enough is known by now to venture at least an initial assessment of disinformation in the industrialized world.
First off, there is probably minimal Western disinformation inside the Soviet Union. Western intelligence services see little point in targeting Soviet public opinion (apart from overt radio propaganda), since public opinion has so little impact on Soviet policy. Nor would they normally have any hope of influencing the Soviet political elite. A high-ranking asset like Col. Oleg Penkovsky in the early 1960s is much more valuable as a spy than as a persuader.
Presumably there is more room for Western disinformation in a relatively open Eastern European country like Poland, with its vigorous underground press and large emigration. Even there, however -- given the anti-Russian disposition of Poles and the stubborn independence of indigenous social-political movements like the now-outlawed Solidarity trade union -- the West is better served by reinforcing the Poles' penchant for truth than in circulating lies that could easily be exposed and backfire.
West-West disinformation is practiced, especially in buying placement of articles in the press. Among Western allies any differences over such matters are generally settled amicably, however, and do not raise the same kind of alarms as Soviet-bloc disinformation does.
The major question in probing disinfor-mation in stable industrialized societies, then, is how effective covert Soviet-bloc efforts are in influencing opinion in open Western societies.
According to rough Central Intelligence Agency estimates presented in US congressional hearings in 1980 and 1982, Moscow spends some $4 billion a year on overt and covert propaganda, with some $3 billion of this going to Pravda, Tass, and other overt activities and the residual $1 billion presumably going into covert disinformation. Georgetown University Prof. Roy Godson, coauthor with Richard H. Shultz of the book ``Dezinformatsia'' says the Soviets employ 15,000 in ``active measures.''
``Active measures'' -- the term came into use in the Soviet Union in the 1950s -- include international front organizations, agent-of-influence operations, and forgeries. Front organizations straddle overt and covert measures, Godson and Shultz explain. The International Department of the Soviet Communist Party ``coordinates the activities of these organizations,'' but ``the fronts actively attempt to maintain an image of independence.''