'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991
Until mid-1987, by which time the conciliatory themes of "new political thinking" had become ascendant in Soviet policy, Soviet disinformation under Gorbachev had proceeded in its usual confrontational mode, seemingly guided more by the policy of "uskorenie," or acceleration, than by that of glasnost. In fact, in late 1986 and early 1987, as the Soviets were making "glasnost" and "perestroika" key principles of their policy at home and abroad, they were simultaneously beginning or significantly accelerating a number of crude, anti-American disinformation campaigns. These included false claims that the United States had invented the AIDS virus in a military laboratory; that it had killed the 918 people who died in the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978; and that Americans were adopting Latin American children in order to butcher them and use their body parts in organ transplants, the so-called "baby parts" story. (For a detailed account of these campaigns, see the 1988 USIA report to Congress, Soviet Active Measures in the Era of Glasnost.) As a measure of the times, such outrageous claims were printed through mid-1987 in publications such as Moscow News, which was soon to gain a deserved reputation as one of the flagships of glasnost.
The U.S. government had, of course, made its displeasure about these disinformation charges made known to the Soviets both publicly and privately. In response, in August 1987, Soviet officials assured the U.S. government that Soviet media would stop spreading the AIDS disinformation claim. Despite some exceptions, AIDS disinformation charges diminished drastically not only in the Soviet press but also worldwide.
This marked the beginning of what was to become a prolonged, more-or-less steady decline in crude, anti-American disinformation that lasted from August 1987 to November 1990.
Numerous derogatory Soviet disinformation operations continued to occur, of course. For example, in late July 1989, a forged letter purportedly sent in 1987 from South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker surfaced in Namibia, several months before the elections to form a government in that country. The sophistication of the forgery indicated Soviet involvement. An actual South African Foreign Ministry letterhead and a sample of Mr. Botha's real signature were apparently used to compose the forged letter, which appeared in photocopy form - all trademarks of a KGB Service A operation. The theme of supposedly close U.S.-South African cooperation was a standard Soviet theme at the time, and one that had appeared in past forgeries of Soviet origin. Finally, according to Soviet defectors, the forged letter used typical Soviet bureaucratic phraseology, and was written as if it had been composed in Russian and then translated, somewhat clumsily and literally, into English.
[To view reproductions of the forgery, click here.]
A few days later, further developments strengthened the view that this was a well-coordinated effort with Soviet involvement. Disinformation from Top Secret, a magazine published in West Germany that serves as an outlet for Soviet and Cuban disinformation aimed at Africa, also appeared in the Namibian press. Top Secret's editor, Michael Opperskalski, was then in Namibia on a "fact-finding" mission for the International Organization of Journalists, long identified as a Soviet-controlled international front.
But significantly, even though this disinformation operation was sophisticated and well coordinated, Soviet news agencies did not replay the allegations, as they have typically done in years past. This dramatically reduced the impact that the planted stories had beyond their local environment.
Following the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, crude, anti-American disinformation receded even further. Forgeries designed for media replay, in particular, became much less frequent, as Soviet active measures practitioners were careful not to take actions that would antagonize the United States. From late 1989 to late 1990, there was still a regular flow of individual stories in the Soviet press and abroad that falsely accused the United States of various misdeeds - assassinations, coups, and so on - but no massive concerted campaigns. During this time, the Soviets engaged in anti-American disinformation cautiously and half-heartedly. The flamboyant disinformation stories, surrounding AIDS, "baby parts," Jonestown and similar themes, rarely appeared. The next chapter's selected chronology of crude, defamatory Soviet disinformation from January 1989 to August 1991 gives specific details on the appearance of such stories.
Then, in November 1990, as the hard-liners moved towards ascendancy in the USSR, crude, defamatory Soviet disinformation began a comeback, but with a somewhat different thrust and focus. This time, the main target was not the United States, but democratic and nationalist groups within the USSR. On November 4, 1990, Sovetskaya Rossiya, a favored outlet for disinformation placements-in the Soviet media, falsely implied that members of the liberal Interregional Group in the Soviet parliament were being supported by the CIA. The Sovetskaya Rossiya article was, for the most part, a reprint of a lengthy article that had appeared on September 26, 1990 in the Guardian, a small, radical left-wing newspaper in New York City. Sovetskaya Rossiya also printed an extensive chart, however, which it claimed had been published "in the American press," without specifying in which publication. This chart made it appear, falsely, that the CIA was controlling the activities of various nongovernmental organizations in the United States, one of which had supplied $40,000 to the Interregional Group, in a perfectly legitimate, public way, to purchase computers, printers, video equipment, and facsimile machines. Thus, a vast CIA-controlled conspiracy was falsely lleged.
On November 17, 1990, one of the leaders of the hard-line Soyuz faction in the Congress of People's Deputies, Col. Viktor Alksnis, falsely charged that the CIA was manipulating both the Interregional Group and nationalist groups in the USSR, as part of a diabolical scheme to dismember the Soviet Union. Alksnis strongly implied that he had received his information from Soviet military intelligence. Speaking in the Supreme Soviet, he stated:
On December 11, 1990, "on the instructions of the USSR president," KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov made a speech on Soviet television, in itself an unprecedented act for a KGB chief. In his speech, Kryuchkov echoed the charges made by Alksnis and Sovetskaya Rossiya, suggesting that "foreign special services" were seeking to dismember the USSR. He stated:
On December 22, 1990, Kryuchkov made another extremely hard-line speech, this time to the Congress of People's Deputies. In it, he accused the West of shipping "impure, and sometimes, infected grain, as well as products with an above-average level of radioactivity or containing harmful chemical admixtures" to the USSR. He warned again that "Western ... secret services and foreign anti-Soviet centers" were allegedly continuing to try to subvert the USSR. He charged:
Kryuchkov's "facts," in the case of Radio Liberty, were sadly out of date. It is true that the CIA did covertly fund Radio Liberty during the 1950s and 1960s, but since the early 1970s Radio Liberty has been openly funded by the U.S. Congress through the independent Board of International Broadcasting, as Kryuchkov surely knew.
A few days later, Soviet Defense Minister Yazov joined in the anti-U.S. and anti-democratic chorus, accusing the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which aids democratic groups worldwide, of trying to influence events in the USSR.
In early January 1991, the anti-democratic campaign reached a crescendo when a 40-minute documentary film, "The Faces of Extremism," was broadcast on Soviet central television. Shots of terrorism in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Spain were mixed with film clips of U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama, and Libya, followed by scenes of a rally held by Rukh (the democratic party in Ukraine], riots in Central Asia, fighting in Azerbaijan, and demonstrations in Lithuania. The narrator suggested that the U.S. government would soon try to organize underground political movements in Central Asia in order to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. He solemnly warned: "The country is at a turning point. Time demands that we stop the extremist frenzy. Tomorrow could already be too late."
Nine days later, Soviet troops stormed the Vilnius television tower in Lithuania, killing 14 unarmed people. Leningrad newscaster Alexander Nevzorov claimed three days later that the deaths had occurred as a result of "traffic accidents" and "heart attacks." His broadcast showed a man with crazed eyes drinking from a flaming bowl as Nevzorov stated, "It seems the Lithuanians are prepared to drain the bitter cup of nationalism to its dregs." Latvia's Radio Riga labeled the report "totally staged terrorist propaganda."
Similar absurd claims continued in the following months. In February 1991, Prime Minister Pavlov, later a participant in the abortive August coup attempt, accused Western banks of trying to sabotage the Soviet economy and overthrow the government.
During the coalition war against Iraq, anti-coalition disinformation stories frequently appeared in Soviet media and in foreign media used for KGB placements, despite the anti-Iraq stance adopted by Soviet diplomacy. Pravda repeated false Iraqi claims that coalition forces were attacking Iraqi mosques, schools, and hospitals. The Indian newspaper Patriot, which, according to defector testimony, had been set up with KGB funds in order to spread Soviet propaganda and disinformation, falsely claimed that the U.S. was encouraging Turkey to seize northern Iraq. In late February 1991, a forgery that may have been of Soviet origin appeared in Stuttgart, Germany. Purporting to be printed an the letterhead of the U.S. Information Service, it recounted decades of alleged U.S. military slaughters of civilians in various countries in order to explain why "our armed forces had to target a civilian air shelter in Baghdad." The forgery was referring to a recent incident in which an Iraqi military command center, not a civilian air shelter, had been bombed.
Then, at the beginning of March 1991, the international Soviet disinformation apparatus suddenly began to churn out anti-American stories in a way it had not done for several years. On February 28, an Indian Marxist newspaper repeated the false claim that the CIA was trying to set up a "Black Sea-Baltic Sea" confederation in order to dismember the USSR. On March 1, a four-part series of anti-CIA articles began to appear in the Malaysian press, repeating old Soviet disinformation charges. On March 4, a newspaper in Zimbabwe repeated many familiar AIDS disinformation claims and added a new one: the false charge that the U.S. had spread AIDS to the USSR and the Third World by exporting "AIDS-oiled condoms."
Then, just as suddenly as these defamatory disinformation stories had reappeared, they stopped. This coincided with a move toward a more conciliatory Soviet policy toward the West in April 1991.
Soon, however, crude disinformation began to reappear again. In June 1991, in a closed speech to the Supreme Soviet that was soon leaked to the press, KGB chief Kryuchkov falsely claimed that the CIA had riddled the USSR with a network of "agents of influence" and was using them to undermine Soviet society. In late July, just weeks before the attempted hard-line coup, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, long identified as a Soviet-controlled front group, circulated "baby parts" disinformation charges in Geneva, the first apparent Soviet sponsorship of this story since October 1988.
Following the failed coup attempt, this last resurgence of defamatory Soviet disinformation faded away, as the "new thinkers" returned to power for a few brief months before the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991.