Lack of feisty opposition parties and free press offers fertile ground for lies

DISINFORMATION is at its most rampant in the third world. Disinformation anywhere depends on credulity. And credulity tends to be high in developing countries. Politics is often volatile; civic traditions frequently include authoritarian rule, colonialism, hierarchical relationships, and fierce familial or tribal rivalries in once-static societies that have now been wrenched out of their old certainties. In such an atmosphere truth is not at a premium.

Moreover, the institutions that industrial democracies depend on to protect themselves against disinfor-mation -- including strong opposition parties, a vigorous pluralist press, and an educated, literate population -- are generally weak in the third world. When this situation is aggravated by nationalist hostilities with neighbors and by intervention in regional politics by more distant powers, there is an open invitation to rumor and disinformation.

Allegations of disinformation abound.

A Communist-owned Indian newspaper implicitly links the CIA to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

``American officials'' concede to the New York Times that the US is behind the clandestine anti-Khomeini Free Voice of Iran broadcasts out of Egypt.

A forged document purportedly issued by the US State Department surfaces in Peru, saying that Washington has authorized the sale of nuclear missiles to Chile.

Latin American journalists, at a conference organized by the Nicaraguan Journalists' Union, discuss creating a ``front against imperialist disinformation in Central America.''

The Bahamian prime minister, caught in a mounting political storm, charges that a US diplomat triggered ``a disinformation campaign'' to smear his government with allegations that drug traffickers bribed Bahamian officials.

American opponents of US military intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador accuse the Reagan administration of disinformation in alleging that MIGs were being brought into Nicaragua. American fans of Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson say he is the victim of disinfor-mation in being linked to the Salvadorean death squads.

Angola alleges that the United States is involved in Israeli and South African nuclear bomb projects.

US Attorney-General William French Smith accuses the KGB, the Soviet secret police, of fabricating ``classic examples of Soviet forgery'' in sending threatening, racist letters purporting to have been written by the Ku Klux Klan to athletes in 20 Asian and African countries on the eve of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Egypt stages a sham murder of the target of a Libyan hit squad, then when Libya boasts of the assassination, produces the ``victim'' alive to make a laughingstock of Cairo's adversary.

``I think disinformation is on the upswing, on many levels,'' says Paul Henze, a former National Security Council staffer who is now a consultant with the Rand Corporation. ``True, some of the more obvious cases have been very unimpressive, but it's cumulative. . . . In Turkey there have been some spectacular examples. I think there has been a considerable effect on the educational process in many countries. You find [Soviet forgeries about US scheming and plotting] turning up in books for universities and schools.''

In Latin America there are persistent accusations in the Brazilian press that the US is ``somehow poisoning Brazilian Indians,'' says a United States Information Agency official dealing with Soviet-bloc ``active measures'' and disinformation. He believes that ``a lot of activity in Latin America is handled by the [Soviet Union's] Cuban surrogate.''

Lucian Heichler, State Department chairman of Washington's interagency working group on ``active measures,'' adds, ``It seems to us that the volume of active measures has been on the increase in recent years.''

He characterizes the repetition of Soviet claims of a CIA connection to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and of an alleged spy mission of the Korean airliner the Soviets shot down in 1983 as ``psychology based on the old adage that where there's smoke, there's fire.

``People tend to think that the more the Soviets are able to recycle and replay [these accusations in the third-world press], the more a sticky residue of credibility attaches in people's minds to the point where they begin to wonder if it's really so.''

In particular, disinformation can be devastating in blackballing targeted individuals.

``A friend of mine was hurt by this,'' states one American diplomat. ``George Griffin was assigned as political counselor to New Delhi [but rejected by the Indian government]. He wanted to go. He is a real India hand. He was in Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

``Patriot and Blitz, the pro-Soviet papers [in India], kept saying he had been doing secret work during the Bangladesh war. Actually they were mad because, on trips to Delhi, he was doing briefing on Afghanistan. This active-measures activity changed the opinion of the government to which we wanted to send him, to the detriment of his career and I think US-Indian relations.''

Heichler sums up, ``The effectiveness [of disinformation] is, I think, on the way down in some cases. At least I think we have had some telling effect in our last two years, in causing specific active measures to backfire. . . . Even [in the third world] the credibility is beginning to go down.''

Third-world newspapers are less likely now than a couple of years ago to rush a sensational anti-American story into print without checking with the US first, he explains.

``One active measure . . . which backfired totally was the Ku Klux Klan [forged letter threatening third-world athletes who were coming to the Los Angeles Olympics]. These were received by any number of Olympic committees in Africa and Asia. Just about every one of them brought them around to our embassies for discussion. No one took them really seriously; no one proceeded to boycott the Olympics.''

Dimitri Simes, a Soviet 'emigr'e and foreign-policy analyst, is skeptical about how much impact Soviet disinformation actually has in the third world.

``It's usually successful in areas where there is very strong emotional anti-Americanism,'' he points out, ``so I would be interested to know to what extent so-called Soviet successes are Soviet successes and to what extent it's just normal anti-American stuff that appears anywhere.'' -- 30 -- {et

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