DISINFORMATION. Truth is the best defense. CASE STUDY: WEST GERMANY. A Czech ploy that worked -- but only briefly

EVIDENCE for Soviet-bloc disinformation against West Germany comes from Ladislav Bittman, deputy chief of Czechoslovakia's Department Eight until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 drove him to defect to the West. Bittman describes the Czechoslovak secret service's most ambitious ploy, Operation Neptune, in his 1972 book, ``The Deception Game.'' In brief, the idea was to plant real Nazi documents -- identifying various West Germans as ex-Nazis -- in a chest in a lake in 1964 and have the documents ``discovered'' there. The Prague government had not previously made the documents public since the KGB preferred to exploit such incriminating evidence to blackmail West Germans into working as its agents. By the mid-'60s it was decided to get some political mileage out of leftover documents.

The purpose was threefold: to fuel anti-German feelings in Western Europe; to scare the West German intelligence network in Czechoslovakia (which the Czechs assumed was based on the old Nazi network); and to campaign for extension of the period of time in which Hitler-era murderers could be prosecuted in West Germany (since the statute of limitations would otherwise render them free from prosecution in 1965.)

The obvious question here is why the Czechs rather than the East Germans would run disinformation operations against West Germany. It's a question that puzzles West German officials to this day, since they detect very little activity in West Germany by the disinfor-mation section of the East German intelligence service.

(Several skillfully done forgeries of West German documents -- presumably of East German origin -- have circulated in Africa in attempts to discredit West German and American policies there; but nothing comparable has surfaced in West Germany. The one recent East German plan for a disinformation operation in West Germany -- burying radioactive material near West German nuclear-power sites to alarm antinuclear protesters -- was never carried out, according to the West German Interior Ministry.)

The best West German surmise about East German quiescence seems to be that the East German disinfor-mation department is intended primarily for action in any future crisis or war situation, presumably in conjunction with active sabotage.

Whatever the reason, the Czechs had center stage with Operation Neptune.

The discovery of the lake cache by television divers did make world headlines just as planned. It probably did heighten somewhat European suspicion of West Germany. It certainly added to pressure to postpone the effective date of the statute of limitations (much as the American TV film ``Holocaust'' would inadvertently do a dozen years later). It may even have elicited a precautionary pause in West German intelligence-gathering in Czechoslovakia. But in the long run European approval of Bonn's eventual total waiving of the statute of limitations for concentration-camp guards probably more than offset the short-term suspicions.

The upshot, Bittman mused in retrospect, was that although the Czech and Soviet disinformation departments deemed Operation Neptune one of their most successful ploys in the early 1960s, in the end they ``were not successful in convincing the West European public that the present-day West German regime was the practical and ideological outgrowth of Nazi Germany.''

Conclusion: In this case the course of West Germany's domestic politics reversed the temporary gains of Soviet-bloc disinformation.

Other articles in this series ran Feb. 26, 27, and 28.

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