WMD Disinformation Campaigns: Major Events in the 20th and 21st Century

Kaylana Mueller-Hsia, Technology for Global Security

Event: Claims of U.S. Biological Weapons Use during the Korean War

Date: 1951–1952

Objective: China and Soviet Union conducted disinformation campaign claiming US was using biological weapons to turn public opinion against the U.S. during the Korean War

Outcome: Allegations were believed in China and North Korea at the time and continue to be debated by scholars today, allegations submitted to the UNSC in 1952

Summary: Throughout the Korean War, allegations emerged from Chinese and Soviet sources that the U.S. had used biological weapons (BW) in China and North Korea. Today these claims are generally believed to be the result of a strategic disinformation campaign against the United States supported by the Soviet Union, China and North Korea, but the truth is still heavily debated.

Although the main allegations were not made until 1952, disinformation regarding BW in the post-WWII era began in 1949 and 1950. Soviet propaganda alleged that the U.S. was testing BW against the native population of Alaska, and was preparing for new “crimes against humanity”, a claim supported by the Chinese. Just prior to the start of the Korean War, Poland and Czechoslovakia also alleged that the U.S. was using BW to destroy their potato crops. The first claims made during the Korean War emerged in 1951, when the North Korean minister accused the U.S. of using BW to spread smallpox in North Korea in 1950 and 1951. China also accused the U.S. of deploying chemical weapons on ten occasions in 1951. Although widely spread, these claims were un-substantiated propaganda that primarily served to bolster anti-American sentiment within Communist countries.

The more intentional campaign began in 1952, after outbreaks of smallpox and meningitis were documented in North Korea both the North Korean and Chinese Foreign Ministers made statements that the U.S. had dropped insects carrying infectious diseases from hundreds over aircraft over North Korean and Northeast Chinese territory. In the coming months, the claims proliferated from Chinese agencies, and Soviet media covered the allegations heavily throughout 1952. Mass public demonstrations were held in protest in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.

On-site investigations by the WTO and Red Cross were rejected for various reasons, and only Soviet and Chinese-linked organizations conducted investigations. Prominent British biochemist and sinologist, Joseph Needham, defended the findings of the Soviet-affiliated International Scientific Commission (ISC) supporting the claims of U.S. BW use in 1952. In the U.S., allegations were immediately rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other US allies, but the truth is still debated among scholars today. Recently, writings in journals by prominent Chinese actors during the Korean War have emerged to lend more credence to the false nature of the claims against the United States, including those published posthumously from the former Surgeon General of the Chinese People’s Voluntary Army, Wu Zhili.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: There are several speculations as to why the false claims regarding U.S. BW use may have been propagated, including to discredit the U.S., to blame the U.S. for naturally occurring diseases in North Korea and China, to foster public support within China for the war, or as a proxy campaign to deter the U.S. from using nuclear weapons in North Korea. In addition, there are several things that U.S. could have done at the time to identify the facts of the situation. Although President Roosevelt declared in 1943 that the U.S. would follow the Geneva Protocol and not use chemical or biological weapons, at no point following that statement or during the Korean War did the U.S. publicly reiterate their BW policy. Furthermore the Geneva Protocol was publicly dismissed later by U.S. ambassadors. On an international level, an independent group of scientists should have convened at the time to investigate the claims. Their findings would have provided a more impartial context for evaluating the ISC/Needham claims.


Event: Operation Infektion during the Cold War

Date: Early 1980s

Objective: The Soviet Union plants a story of HIV being a U.S. biological weapon to highlight local concerns and spread fear of HIV/AIDS virus during Cold War

Outcome: Published widely internationally

Summary: Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet intelligence strategy differed from that of the U.S. in its intention to influence opinions rather than simply collect information. This strategy was enacted through campaigns called “active measures”, which were carried out by the KGB Service A unit. The phrase “disinformation”, or “dezinformatsiya”, comes from this Soviet strategy to push false narratives that serviced their Cold War goals.

The Soviet Union began an aggressive round of active measures as relations with the U.S. deteriorated in the 1980s. One of these measures was a campaign to spread the narrative that the U.S. engineered the AIDS virus at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the center of the U.S. biological weapons program at the time. The allegations first appeared in 1983 in a Soviet-supplied publication in India called The Patriot. Moscow used pseudo-science from East German biophysicist Jacob Segal to provide grounds for the claims. Segal wrote that the virus was synthesized at Fort Detrick from two existing viruses, HTLV-1 and VISNA, however there was no scientific backing to these claims and they were proven impossible by several Western and Soviet AIDS experts. In part due to this disinformation campaign, the origins of the AIDS virus became a contested and controversial topic.

After the initial publishing, the AIDS story remained dormant for over two years before being picked up again in October 1985 by the Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta. With the help of Segal’s allegations, the disinformation spread quickly and globally. In response to the campaign, the U.S. government sought out publishers of the story and sent letters of protest to their editors. The USSR was ultimately approached diplomatically as well through a delegation to the eighth session of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Join Health Committee in 1987. U.S. representatives urged Soviet scientists to convince their government to endorse the international scientific consensus that the AIDS virus was of natural origin.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: Ideas for active measures were selected by committee review rounds based on their feasibility and their fit with Soviet long term goals. They were most successful when they fit into existing political environments and expectations. Because chemical and biological warfare was already concerning many Western audiences, allegations during the Korean War about germ warfare took hold in the public. The recent identification and publicity around HIV/AIDS similarly provided a platform for Operation Infektion to spread more quickly and effectively.

The primary motivations for this active measure were likely to discredit the U.S. and give rise to anti-U.S. sentiment abroad, as well as to weaken U.S. alliances and strengthen other Soviet charges surrounding U.S. BW use. Some also speculate that the campaign was in retaliation to U.S. claims in in 1981 that the Soviets had used chemical weapons against Southeast Asia in the “yellow rain” incident, claims which are widely disbelieved in the literature today.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used the lack of Western news services in the developing world to their advantage in disinformation campaigns. Many African, Asian and Latin American newspapers were unable to afford Western satellite feeds, and bought instead from Soviet-bloc services. Thus it was easy for the Soviets to disseminate disinformation to these regions through control over the media feeds. In other cases, Soviets paid in cash for local agencies to publish their material, as was the case with The Patriot in India. This provided a direct line for national newspapers to then pick up the story from the local source, with the connection to the USSR effectively concealed.


Event: The General Skantze Letter

Date: 1985

Objective: Soviet-attributed forgery claiming US bases in Cyprus would hold US citizens in event of nuclear war was meant to exploit fears of nuclear war in Europe

Outcome: Exposed as false within a couple months

Summary: A letter forged by the KGB was published by the Greek Cypriot newspaper Simerini on November 28, 1985. It appeared to be sent from the U.S. Air Force Genreal Lawrence Skantze to the Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and requested U.S. bases in Cyprus for U.S. citizens and their families in the case of nuclear war. The letter was intended to stoke fears of American plans in Europe that could incite nuclear war. However the cover letter, which was attributed to British M. P. Sir Frederick Bennett, was exposed as a forgery by Sir Frederick and the scheme was outed by mainstream media a couple months after it was released.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: This case emphasizes the strategic benefits of forgeries in disinformation campaigns: They are inexpensive to produce, require time and resources to disprove, and can sustain seeds of doubt even after being debunked.


Event: Yellowcake Forgery

Date: 2002

Objective: US and British intel agencies believed forged documents that claimed Saddam Hussein purchased yellowcake uranium from Niger, forger’s intentions unknown

Outcome: Influenced policymakers and became part of decision for Iraq War, evidence was also presented to the UN and thus impacted the international community

Summary: The yellowcake forgery incident was a series of reports and forgeries that led the U.S. government to conclude that Iraq was pursuing uranium to develop nuclear capabilities. In September of 2002, senior intelligence officials briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iraq nuclear capabilities. Reports came from the CIA Rome office describing that Iraq had attempted purchase of 500 tons of “yellowcake” uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. On the same day as the briefing, the British government went public with much of the same information, reporting that Iraq sought large quantities of uranium from an African country. Two weeks later, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, gave testimonies which cited evidence from the briefing. These testimonies helped convince Democrats to approve a resolution providing the president with congressional mandate for military action against Iraq in October 2002. On January 28, 2003, President Bush gave his famed sixteen-word statement on the uranium deal between Iraq and Niger in his State of the Union address, citing the British government as the source of the information.

Two months later, however, the information turned controversial when the I.A.E.A. told the UN Security Council that the documents detailing the Iraq-Niger uranium deal were forged. The I.A.E.A. director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, added that they were poor fakes at that, and he was shocked the documents were not previously determined inauthentic. In the months that followed, more information surfaced to stoke the confusion and perpetrate false conclusions about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities and goals. A British review called the Butler Report deemed President Bush’s State of the Union statements “well-founded”. However, an investigation by former U.S. ambassador Joe Wilson, found the uranium sale to be fabricated, and unlikely to occur in the future either. He described a 1999 conversation between the Niger and Iraqi government on “expanding commercial relations” that possibly intended to include discussion of nuclear material sales, but that the topic ultimately never came up during the meeting. The CIA did not publicly announce that the documents were forged until five months after the State of the Union address.

As an aside, John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control at the time, is believed to have drafted the fact sheet distributed to the UN by the U.S. government that falsely claimed that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. Bolton tasked the Bureau of Nonproliferation with the job, and emails document original drafts of the fact sheet being sent to Bolton’s office for review the next day. The State Department later “overclassified” the information to conceal Bolton’s role in the issue by marking it as sensitive.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: While the forgers of the uranium deal documents have never been identified, some have speculated that the documents were a part of the British M16 anti-Iraq propaganda efforts. Regardless, it is agreed upon that the documents were initially circulated most heavily by the British. Two factors made this forgery particularly effective. First, because the forgers were never identified, the U.S. and British government could not use the source of the forgeries as a way of understanding the intent of spreading the disinformation. Secondly, and more importantly, the documents were believable, and provided the U.S. government with information they already thought may be true. Following 9/11 and the wave of fear surrounding terrorism, many Republicans already advocated military action in Iraq. The forgeries played into the narrative they were already perpetrating. The expectation of truth made it possible for forgeries of poor quality to become the tipping point for authorizing military assault.


Event: International news sources claim Ebola is a biological weapon engineered by the US

Date: 2014–2016

Objective: Sow public distrust in the U.S. government through obscuring the natural origins of the Ebola virus

Outcome: Spread distrust, particularly in conservative circles, of the U.S.’s role in mitigating the spread of Ebola

Summary: In 2014, during the peak of the Ebola outbreak in the U.S., conspiracy theories erupted from a variety of sources claiming that Ebola was a biological weapon engineered by the U.S. The theory emerged originally in August, 2014 in an article published in a Spanish version or RT (formerly Russia Today). However, it soon spread internationally, adopted in the Liberian publication The Daily Observer in September, 2014, and by the UK publication Daily Star as recently as December, 2016. The reports argued various reasons for why Ebola was engineered by the U.S., from depopulating Africa to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention seeking to patent the virus and then profit off of the vaccine. While the allegations were adopted primarily in fringe circles, a few public figures perpetrated them as well, including University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle, and popular hip-hop artist Chris Brown.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics:

The Ebola theories were in part so successful because they relied on public distrust of the government and the public health system. As seen with the HIV/AIDS claims in the 1980s, outbreaks are popular topics for disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories, given that they appear suddenly, spread invisibly and often have high fatality rates. The adoption of the Ebola theories by prominent public figures, like Professor Boyle and Chris Brown give the theories legitimacy and a large public platform.


Event: Russian government spreads a rumor that President Obama planned to round up political dissidents during the Jade Helm 15 exercise

Date: 2015

Objective: Spread a rumor that Obama was going to round up political dissidents during the Jade Helm 15 exercise

Outcome: Rumor not denied by political influencers like Ted Cruz and Republican congressman Louie Gohmert, Texas governor sends state guard to watch over Jade Helm 15 exercises, rumors of martial law circulate

Summary: The 2015 Jade Helm controversy was a set of conspiracy theories claiming that the U.S. government was performing military exercises in Texas to round up political dissidents, establish federal government control and possibly even martial law. In reality, Jade Helm 15 was a large but routine military training that occurred for two months during the summer of 2015. The rumors took hold beginning in March, after a map began circulating in conservative circles that labeled Texas, Utah and parts of Southern California “hostile territory” for the purpose of the exercise. Similarly to past conspiracy theories, the Jade Helm rumors became more influential through their adoption or lack of denial by public figures such as presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Republican U.S. representative Louie Gohmert and actor Chuck Norris.

Finally, Texas governor Greg Abbott further legitimized the rumors by sending the state guard to watch over the Jade Helm exercises. The state guard allegedly received higher recruiting in the wake of the theories.

In 2018 former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden came forth with additional information — Russian bots played a key role in stoking the fear of Texan citizens against the Obama administration. Hayden argues that the success of the Russian bots during the Jade Helm exercises prompted Russia to employ similar strategies in the 2016 presidential election.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: The Jade Helm conspiracies played into conservative and alt-right fears of the Obama administration and government targeting of Republican-dominated regions. The spoken and written support of prominent public figures, as well as the tangible action taken by the governor to involve the Texas state guard, lent legitimacy to claims that otherwise may have remained fringe. Another important factor to note in this example is that the Russian’s success in this more minor online disinformation campaign likely prompted their involvement in an event with much higher stakes — the U.S. presidential election. This shows that smaller disinformation campaigns are important for the information and experience they give the perpetrators of the rumors for future use.


Event: European and Russian news outlets reported the U.S. moved tactical nuclear weapons from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey to Romania

Date: August 18, 2016

Objective: Increase perceived divide between US and Turkey

Outcome: Picked up by Russian media sources but quickly debunked by both the U.S. and Romania

Summary: In August 2016, an article in Euractiv, and EU media platform, claimed that the U.S. had moved B61 nuclear weapons from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to Romania following a deterioration between U.S.-Turkey relations after the failed Turkey coup. Russian news platforms, including Sputnik and Pravda, quickly published versions of the story as well. The claims were immediately denied by the Romanian government. The U.S. made no public statement on the matter, but in private dismissed the plausibility of the report. U.S. nuclear weapons expert, Jeffery Lewis, pointed out that Romania does not even have the infrastructure to store B61 weapons safely, while one of the authors of the Euractiv article acknowledged that he did not know what a B61 was at the time of publication (U.S.-made tactical nuclear bombs carried by fighter jets).

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: The authors of the Euractiv story do not appear to have held specific motives in publishing the false information, but the Russian news sources were quick to pick up the claims and fuel fears of destabilizing U.S. foreign relations. This story was particularly easy to debunk by nuclear experts and Romanian and U.S. government officials because neither side had an interest in concealing the truth.


Event: President Trump wrongly tweets that Iran recently did a test launch of a ballistic missile after Iran released video footage from a launch several months prior

Date: September 23, 2017

Objective: Trump seeks to weaken support for the Iran nuclear deal

Outcome: Distrust in the Iran nuclear deal is furthered by the misleading language of the tweet, although it is debunked quickly

Summary: On September 22, 2017, Iran released video footage of a ballistic missile test launch, which, it was later confirmed, actually took place in January of the same year. The footage was released by a state-run Iranian media outlet, PressTV. The following day, President Trump tweeted, “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!” U.S. intelligence officials stated afterwards there was no indication of a recent test, confirming that the footage was from the prior test in January. The tweet was misleading, not only because the launch actually occurred several months prior, but also because Iran is not forbidden from test-launching ballistic missiles in the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal. While there exists a UN Security Resolution that “calls upon” Iran to not test launch ballistic missiles, the vague language does not make it clear that the tests are explicitly prohibited. In any case, the Iran nuclear deal only concerns its nuclear program, not its ballistic missile activities.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: While President Trump may not have intended to spread false information, his inclination to believe and spread the news that Iran was testing its nuclear capabilities serviced his larger political goals and distrust of the Iran nuclear deal.


Event: Emergency notice sent out to Hawaii residents that North Korea launched ballistic missile on track to hit the island state

Date: January 13, 2018

Objective: Human misunderstanding

Outcome: Public panic as alert was not declared false for 38 minutes, exposed weaknesses and variation in emergency alert systems

Summary: On January 13, 2018, a false alarm emergency notice in Hawaii communicated that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile that was on path to hit Hawaii within minutes. The alert ignited panic across the state, which went unchecked for 38 minutes, due to a lack of preparation for mistake handling. It was first believed that the false alarm was the product of human error, a wrong button pushed. However it soon came to light that the false alarm was in fact poorly interpreted information by a worker in Hawaii emergency management services. Early on the 13th, a shift leader began a practice drill pretending to be from the U.S. Pacific Command. Although he notified the workers that it was a practice exercise, he also said “This is not a drill.” One of the workers, who has confused false and real events in the past as well, interpreted the practice exercise to be a real scenario. He sent out the alert and took no steps to mitigate the harm done by the false alarm even after he could have recognized the mistake. The silver lining of the whole ordeal is that it prompted an overhaul and review of the Wireless Emergency Alert System before another event has the chance to cause real damage or further panic.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: This example stands out because, despite no intention of deception, it exposes the vulnerabilities of the U.S. alert system. The Hawaii alert system was not prepared to handle cases of error, so mass public panic was left unchecked for far longer than necessary. The false launch notice begs the question, how prepared is the U.S. to handle emergency situations that may be false? Currently the U.S. and Russia maintain launch on warning capabilities for nuclear retaliation, a defensive strategy for reaction before an enemy nuclear attack hits its target. Could intentional disinformation take advantage of these preemptive attack strategies, leveraging the U.S. reliance on unverified information?

The mistake also highlighted differences between state emergency alert systems. In some states, a second person is required for verification before an alert is sent out. Implementing standardized, verified alert systems is a necessary update in the age of disinformation.


Event: Japanese public broadcaster issued an incorrect alert that North Korea launched ballistic missile

Date: January 16, 2018

Objective: Human error

Outcome: Public alert, public panic, corrected within minutes

Summary: Only days after the Hawaii false missile alert, a Japanese broadcaster called NHK issued an alert to Japanese citizens inaccurately saying the North Korea appeared to have launched a ballistic missile and that the government urged citizens to take shelter. The alarm went out on NHK’s mobile app and website, but was corrected within 10 minutes of the dispatch. The broadcaster blamed a “switching error” without going into further detail.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: While this example bears striking similarity to the Hawaii false alarm, it emphasizes the massive public platforms that many influencers have, from the government to news platforms. While emergency alert systems are receiving attention in the U.S., private institutions must also examine their preparation and safeguards, and consider carefully their responsibility to their large public audiences.


Event: Fake video claiming nuclear war between Russia and NATO

Date: April 2018

Objective: Dramatized, fictional video for private purposes, published and later edited to appear real and stoke fears of nuclear war

Outcome: Spread widely on WhatsApp, inciting temporary panic of nuclear war

Summary: In April 2018, a fake news clip purporting to be official BBC footage appeared to show escalating nuclear warfare between Russia and NATO, sparked by the a Russian aircraft being shot down over Latvia. The video also seemingly displayed nuclear mushroom clouds and the Queen being evacuated from Buckingham Palace. The footage circulated widely on WhatsApp after being published on YouTube, and BBC was compelled to deny and discredit the validity of the video after viewers began contacting BBC in fear of true nuclear war. While the original video contained a disclaimer that it did not contain real footage, a version with the disclaimer edited out was widely shared . The clip was apparently originally commissioned in 2016 by an Irish company called Benchmarking Assessment Group, for the purpose of a scientific study.

Motivations and Disinformation Tactics: This example shows only the beginning of the possible influence of manipulated video content. While most fake videos can be easily debunked by expert eyes today, editing capabilities are steadily improving. As forged video content becomes more difficult to identify, their persuasive power grows stronger. Video’s unique ability to convince an audience that they are seeing unedited reality gives manipulated video content an edge over fake documents or misleading tweets. This makes distorted footage potentially more dangerous in their ability to convince a public, or even a government, of the threat of the false threat of WMD use or development.


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