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.
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.''
The flagship of these fronts is the World Peace Council. The longtime president of the WPC is Romesh Chandra, a senior member of the Indian Communist Party, one of the nonruling communist parties most loyal to Moscow. Other WPC executives, the authors write, come primarily from other communist parties, Soviet-backed guerrilla movements, and other Soviet-controlled international fronts.
``Moscow provides the bulk of the funds for WPC activities, although how these arrangements operate is not completely clear,'' according to ``Dezinformatsia.''
The World Peace Council has campaigned against NATO; against American ``germ warfare'' in the Korean war; American, British, and French bases abroad; American involvement in the Vietnam war; the American neutron warhead; and the NATO Euromissiles that began deployment a year ago.
The WPC and other front organizations eagerly join in popular Western peace campaigns. Various Western officials have asserted that such front organizations also generously fund these campaigns (though public proof has been skimpy). Front organizations try to steer these movements toward focusing criticism on the West while sparing the Soviet Union. And they seek to gain legitimacy for communists by their association with these movements. HOW successful they are is debatable. Bittman detects a ``tendency to glorify successes'' in disinformation services. Some signs suggest the Soviets think their overt and covert opposition to the neutron warhead in the late 1970s played a key role in killing NATO plans for it. Probably a more accurate generalization, though, would be that Soviet ``active measures'' find little resonance when they stray too far from public opinion (as in charges of germ warfare in Korea) -- but that, when they join already popular protests, especially in Europe, the communists' strong organizational skills amplify the appeal of these movements.
Agent-of-influence operations are best represented by the one Westerner who has been convicted on this count, Pierre-Charles Path'e. From 1961 to 1979 Path'e served as a paid Soviet agent in France, disseminating generally anti-American and pro-Soviet views in public articles and in a private newsletter.
A more ambitious and convoluted operation with agents of influence has been attributed to the KGB by Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn and ex-CIA head of counterintelligence, James Angleton. In this scenario, the whole Soviet-Chinese split of the past quarter century is a sham -- and the Soviets have succeeded in fooling all Western foreign ministries and most academic scholars with their pretense.
In this thesis -- presented in detail in Mr. Golitsyn's 1984 book ``New Lies for Old'' -- the Kremlin has fed a number of bogus defectors into the CIA to persuade the US that the split was real. So convinced of Golitsyn's theory were parts of the CIA in the 1970s that one Soviet defector whom Golitsyn deemed an agent of disinformation was kept in solitary confinement for 31/2 years in a cell in a building constructed solely to jail him until he confessed.
In the late 1970s, when CIA directors Wiliam Colby and Stansfield Turner discovered this treatment of a human being -- as well as the paralysis wrought in the CIA by the constant suspicion and search for a presumed Soviet ``mole'' -- they dropped Angleton and severed Golitsyn's links with the agency. As the conduct of the Golitsyn camp then became public knowledge, it added to America's post-Vietnam revulsion toward the CIA. Today the mainstream of academics (and CIA analysts) dismisses Golitsyn's thesis as wild fantasizing.
As for forgeries, these have been used by the Soviets since soon after the 1917 revolution. The most elaborate in recent years was ``US Army Field Manual 30-31B,'' an entire manual that urged American officers to spy on their host countries and in some cases subvert their governments. The fake manual first appeared in Turkey in 1975. It was later circulated in some 20 countries to try to implicate the CIA in the Red Brigades' murder of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in Italy in 1978.
This much is clear then: The Soviets take their disinformation seriously.