BEIRUT in the old days was a ``wide open city,'' according to one knowledgeable Western official who served there. ``There were some 30 papers, almost all influenced or financed by one or another international party. It was very easy to find a propaganda outlet and not terribly dangerous. Disinformation was heavy on both sides'' -- i.e., the Soviets and the West. ``All sides put a lot of throwaway propaganda into the papers that took their line, even though they were identified with [them].
``One could often spot an item which served Soviet interests in a small pro-communist paper which later turned up in a larger sheet in Europe, India, or Latin America. And they clearly intended that over a period of time there would be a crescendo of replays,'' especially in the more credible European news media. The hope, says the official, was that eventually reporters and readers would think `` `OK, this is the fact, the truth.' Then it's no longer traceable to this little paper it originally appeared in.''
The West undoubtedly did the same.
A more specific procedure might mean challenging favorable material that one's own side had already inserted into the media to ``keep it alive'' by controversy. Another might be supplying subtle forgeries, even to opposition papers, just to get a detail into print. The Soviets played such games with Islamic and pro-Western papers.
And how well did these tricks work?
``The down-to-earth answer is that they are not so successful in most cases. But there are times when something gets accepted as fact on the analytical side. . . .
``The more specific, the more fruitful. An effective ambassador or intelligence operative, for instance, might be hurt by a disinformation effort. ``The broader the objective, the more difficult it is to have a lasting success. . . .
``There are three situations when disinformation can be useful: 1. A very specifically targeted situation, when the mindset is such that it merely reinforces attitudes. 2. Constant and long-term repetition has an impact. 3. When decisions have to be made about ongoing situations, the balance can be tipped if there is not much information. These are the only times when it really works.''
As an illustration, the Soviets ``can mobilize peace groups and convince a given audience of the warlike intentions of the Pershing II, etc.'' (though that is not disinformation per se). Or, if they want to convince someone of ``a specific intention of the US to overthrow a government, they can do it if there is a small enough, unsophisticated enough audience.''
The late Indira Gandhi was a ``very interesting'' example. She was ``a lady brought up in an anticolo-nialist background, very well educated. As she grew more nonaligned, she became more paranoid about Western intelligence agencies. She had observed their activities at first hand for many years. The Soviets played that very well. They know the ingrown, psychological basis. They feed that preconception, even when they know it's not true.''
Is there any difference between the West and Moscow in practicing disinformation in the Mideast?
``The means are not all that different. Maybe the Soviets put a little more effort into it. But maybe that's essentially because the basic Western message is so effective in the overt sense.''