JUST how serious a danger to the West is Soviet-bloc disinformation? And how do democratic societies defend themselves against it? The answer to the first question is controversial. It pits crusaders against pragmatists.
The answer to the second question is both obvious and awkward. It can be summed up in one word: truth.
The crusaders who have made disinformation a household word over the past five years see the danger as stark. It is bound up with what they view as the whole scandalous downgrading of counterintelligence within the CIA under directors William Colby and Stansfield Turner -- and with what they deem liberal naiv'et'e in seeing Moscow as anything more nuanced than an ``evil empire.''
In this school of thought the CIA went soft and lost its nerve in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 1970s. British intelligence had been neutralized by Soviet moles. The French and Israeli intelligence services were the only ones left with enough backbone not to be incapacitated by exaggerated civil-rights restraints.
Part of the syndrome, in this view, was American refusal to acknowledge the inroads made in US news media and the East Coast governing elite by Soviet overt and covert propaganda and perhaps even subversion. Proof of Soviet influence was found in the spread of the 1980s nuclear freeze movement and in the American media's opposition to the Vietnam war in the 1960s, harassment of the CIA in the 1970s, and suspicion of American intervention in Central America in the 1980s.
Summing up the situation, John Reese, one of the original popularizers of the concept of Soviet disinformation, sees the root of the problem in America's revulsion against ``Senator McCarthy's charges [that various public figures were Communists] which could not be substantiated. It [Joseph McCarthy's lack of substantiation] does not mean the charges were not true. It means they were badly documented and badly put together,'' he says. He decries Soviet manipulation of US media today.
Asked if he has proof that any major American reporters have been Soviet agents in the past 30 years, Reese responds, ``I don't think there is any evidence of that. I do think there were or there are journalists who are supportive of the Soviet Union and would report it in a more favorable light than it deserves. . . . If a person is a member of the Communist Party of the USA and employed by [he names an East Coast newspaper], it does not make him a paid conscious agent. . . .
``The journalist on [he names another East Coast newspaper] who improves his position and gets a bonus because he gets handed a scoop by the KGB, does that make him a paid agent for future stories? I think it does.''
Taking a contrary view, Soviet 'emigr'e Dimitri Simes, a foreign-policy analyst, contends that the impact of Soviet disinformation should not be overblown. ``Since Soviet efforts exist, journalists should be particularly careful. But to present disinformation as a serious threat to the West is ridiculous.''
Ex-CIA director Turner argues along the same lines. Asked how serious the threat of Soviet disinformation really is in the US, Turner replies, ``I don't think anybody knows. And those who [say they] do know are right-wing fanatics.''
THERE is very little hard data on disinformation, he observes. ``Supporting those causes which are supported by the Soviet Union'' is no proof of Soviet influence on an individual -- and it is doubtful that it is Soviet backing that makes an anti-nuclear movement flourish. Turner cautions against becoming ``paranoid,'' or going in for guilt by association and innuendo.
Georgetown University Prof. Roy Godson, by contrast, sees a more disturbing threat in Soviet disinformation. ``We won't know the really successful cases,'' he notes, because their very success will mean they remain secret. ``What passes into the public domain is only what is traceable.'' Besides, the Soviets view ``active measures'' of overt and covert influence as a long-term investment that cannot be measured in the short term.
Several sources interviewed for this series observed that there is rather more printing of political disinformation for pay in Europe than in the US. From his experience as a US official in Ankara, Paul Henze -- author of a study of the 1981 shooting of the Pope -- singles out Turkey as a particularly egregious case.
And in Greece part-time New York Times correspondent Paul Anastasiades has presented a detailed case arguing that the best-selling newspaper, Ethnos, follows Soviet direction, not only in editorial content promoting the Soviet position on the Mideast, Afghanistan, and Poland but also in selection of the present owner of the profitable newspaper. (Ethnos sued for criminal libel and initially won the suit with a two-year jail term for Mr. Anastasiades; but in 1984 the Greek Supreme Court overruled the guilty verdict.)
Then how can the West effectively counter the Soviet disinformation effort? Answers vary among the 10 American, British, and West German current and former intelligence officials and 15 governmental, academic, and press sources consulted for this series.
``By answering with the truth,'' bluntly asserts a US Information Agency official who deals with Soviet active measures.
For him and others, ``truth'' in this case breaks down into awareness, specific refutation of lies, and a vigorous pluralist press to search for truth.
THE first task, says the USIA official, is ``sensitizing journalists and government officials to Soviet active measures. In that I think we are fairly successful in Europe. We now have journalists coming to us when there is a document they have suspicions about. In a great many cases we have been able to show that it's a forgery or utterly false.''
To ensure that the act of forgery and not the content of the false document remains the news story, the USIA monitors identified Soviet active measures.
On the basis of this monitoring, an interagency working group from the USIA, State Department, FBI, CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency discusses how to expose and react to these Soviet efforts. Such reaction might involve demonstrating to a reputable American journalist that he or she has been fooled by a forgery, or warning European governments that forgeries are in circulation.
Professor Godson agrees that coordination by the interagency working group is a good first step in combatting disinformation. As a second step he would like to see enforcement of American laws requiring registration of lobbyists for foreign governments. As a third step he recommends that journalists learn about the intensive Soviet program of active measures -- and that the media then police themselves.
In the end vigorously pluralist media must be the defense against, as well as a prime target of, disinformation. Henze believes that the ``effective, natural working of a free society tends to cough it up out of the system. There is a level everywhere where people like to believe in plot theories. . . . At that level, a steady flow of disinformation, once started, tends to bounce around.'' But for the most part it eventually gets rejected, he argues.
Stansfield Turner puts a great deal of confidence in the ``inherently probing and skeptical American press.'' Since the American citizen has so many varied sources of news, he argues, the US has ``built-in defenses'' and a ``reasonable chance'' that disinformation will ultimately be revealed for what it is.
Dimitri Simes makes the same point: ``You cannot maintain your reputation [as an American journalist] if you become a Soviet agent. You just can't do it. . . . We essentially all have to be centrists. I do not see a major [Soviet] effort to cultivate American journalists. [Here the targets are] more CIA or FBI officials than journalists. . . . Being pro-Soviet is much less socially acceptable now than in the 1930s, when not just journalists, but everybody was taken for a ride. . . . ''
``I disagreed with the more optimistic assessments of d'etente [in the mid-'70s], but none could be defined as a Soviet apologist except [in the] old generation. . . . I would blame some American reporters for not being sufficiently careful, but I would not put it into a disinformation category. I would think more [it's a question of] being unduly influenced by sources when the sources are incredibly narrow. It's more a fault of judgment than of professional integrity.''
For governments fighting Soviet disinformation, ``truth'' and an unfettered press can be uncomfortable antidotes, however. A vigorous press and parliament can turn their skepticism on their own government's disinformation as well as on the opponent's. And the whole concept of disinformation can easily be debased to little more than a whip with which to lash political opponents.
Furthermore, a democratic press and society are likely to demand much higher standards of honesty from their own government than they do from foreign authoritarian ones. And their willingness to test many points of view can at times make them especially vulnerable to outside disinformation in the short run.
In the long run, however, a feisty, critical press and society are far more resistant to disinformation than are docile ones. If rigorous, the competition of ideas should eventually force disinformation to prove itself and be discredited by its divergence from reality.
The best-documented case studies we have -- described on this page -- are in the end far more encouraging to Western democracies than to Soviet disinformers.
Richard III, take heart. -- 30 --