The current Iran-contra controversy was presaged by a document that surfaced months before the scandal broke. Termed a ``summary paper'' on US foreign policy approved by the National Security Council, the document stressed that one of the top priorities of the Reagan administration was ``elimination of an increasingly totalitarian'' Nicaraguan government. It also stressed that the Iran-Iraq war offered the US ``favorable opportunities for making our weight felt'' in the region.
Even more startling: The document held out the possibility of direct US military involvement in Nicaragua, a blockade of Cuba, and the assassination of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
There is one overriding reason that the document did not surface earlier: It is a forgery, most probably the product of the Soviet Committee for State Security, the KGB.
It is an example of Soviet disinformation activities - activities that seem to have increased since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
Experts say that disinformation campaigns have a greater chance of success when the United States is seen to be acting at variance with its own policies, or when US covert operations are exposed. Consequently, the current scandal over arms shipments to Iran and aid to the Nicaraguan resistance movement - involving possible violations of US law - is fertile ground for Soviet disinformation specialists.
Even now, the US is battling a particularly vicious, and particularly effective, campaign charging that AIDS is the result of US Army biological warfare experiments gone awry. ``This is a fairly successful campaign,'' says Herbert Romerstein, a senior policy officer with the United States Information Agency (USIA) and coordinator of the US government's response to Soviet disinformation efforts.
``There's good reason to be concerned'' about Soviet disinformation efforts, Mr. Romerstein says. When they are successful, ``it discredits the US and makes it harder for us to deal with other countries,'' he says.
Between 12 and 24 forgeries, designed to embarrass the United States and complicate its diplomacy, surface each year, according to Romerstein.
US experts believe that most of them are generated by what is known as ``service A'' of the KGB's first chief directorate in Moscow, and then passed to KGB station chiefs - known as rezidents in Soviet embassies.
From there, KGB agents - acting under diplomatic cover, or ostensibly working as journalists or trade specialists - distribute them, sometimes to their own agents, sometimes to unsuspecting dupes.
Once reports surface in the press, they are quickly replayed by Tass, the official Soviet news agency, then translated into a number of languages and given even wider distribution. Attributing the disclosures to a foreign publication, no matter how obscure, gives them more credibility, according to Romerstein. The more a story is replayed, the more its origins become obscured.
The campaign tying the US military to AIDS is instructive. An article charging that AIDS was the product of US germ-warfare experiments first surfaced in the Soviet newspaper Literary Gazette in 1985. It claimed that the AIDS virus was created at a supersecret Army research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. The only source cited was the Patriot, a leftist Indian newspaper that, US experts charge, is a favored conduit of the KGB for its disinformation campaigns.
The story was widely ridiculed in the West. But at the so-called nonaligned summit in Zimbabwe this year what purported to be a scholarly paper linking the US military with AIDS surfaced and was widely circulated. The authors were identified as Prof. Jakob Segal, his wife, Dr. Lilli Segal, and Dr. Ronald Dehmlow. What wasn't stated is that the Segals are retired faculty members at Humboldt State University in East Germany, and that none of the authors are known to have any expertise in AIDS research.
The paper, complete with pages of footnotes and figures, was clearly aimed at an African audience. It discounted medical theories that AIDS had originated in Africa and charged that the disease had actually been introduced into Africa from Europe, not by homosexual practices or intravenous drug use, but by tainted blood supplies, which may have originated in the US.
The paper's conclusion was unambiguous: AIDS was let loose on the world by biological warfare experimenters at Fort Detrick. The authors' scientific credentials, however, seem about as questionable as their familiarity with American geography. They allege that prisoners infected with the disease at Fort Detrick then went to a city in the ``neighborhood'' and unleashed the disease to the general populace.
The city? New York.
Nevertheless, the story continues to circulate.
USIA has been holding a number of seminars overseas. The goal, says Romerstein, is to ``sensitize'' journalists to possible disinformation campaigns.
Another US official, who asked not to named, says, ``The Soviets have been made aware of our contempt for this campaign.''