From Russia, With Lies: Soviet-Style Disinformation And The Culture War That Helped Spread It
Larry Martin-Bittner will never forget the moment in March, 1939 when the Germans marched into Prague. He was standing with his mother on a balcony, watching the mass of German soldiers as they converged on the city and filled the cobblestone streets.
Young Larry took his eyes off the Germans to witness hundreds of thousands of his fellow Czechs standing at the windows, crying.
“And all of this was the result of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by Western powers. Countries that had treaties with Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia was an island of democracy surrounded by dictatorial regimes and we had a pact with the West that if we came to any danger, the Western powers would come to the rescue. Because Czechoslovakia was built largely on the American model.” — (Bittner, Interview)
The Western betrayal that eventually led to the German occupation of Prague left deep traces upon young Larry and many other Czechs. Before the war, his mother ran a boarding house and rented rooms to “two Germans and two Jews.” It was a testimony to the peaceful co-existence that characterized life in Prague.
After the German occupation in 1939, Larry watched as the people who filled his life with comfort and stability were sent to their deaths. First, the Germans were conscripted into the Army. Both were killed in combat.
Then his two Jewish friends were forbidden from traveling beyond the borders of the city. One was betrayed to the Germans when attempting to take a train to visit his wife. The other was sent to a concentration camp.
By 1946, at the age of 15, Larry joined the Communist party in the hopes that the Russians would be reliable friends, unlike the duplicitous West.
These are the memories he revealed in a 2016 interview for “Silver Mines,” a homespun YouTube video series by Bill Grover of the One World Community project in an effort to “reveal the treasure in our elder community.”
From looking at Larry Martin-Bittner, an 80-something year old retired professor seated comfortably in his wood-paneled home office in Rockport, MA, you’d never know that he was once known as Ladislav Bittner: one of the masterminds behind a Communist plot to undermine Western democracy.
The seeds that Ladislav Bittner planted more than fifty years ago grew like an invasive species of vine that insinuated its way into all aspects of the American media. It was known as dezinformatsiya: a strategic campaign to spread false information in order to influence public opinion and choke out the sunlight of truth.
And it was enormously successful — both in the scandal-ridden era of Watergate and the post-truth era of Trump.
More than ever before, thanks to the speed of technology, Wikileaks data dumps, bots, and the innovation of Russian hackers funded by the Kremlin, our culture and political process blooms with conspiracy theories, “alternative facts” and paranoia spewed by our own President on social media.
Last week, FBI director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee the long-suspected Russian interference with the 2016 election was under investigation, as was the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with Russian operatives.
Comey also rejected two seeds of paranoia publicly planted by the President and his surrogates: there was no evidence that President Obama illegally ordered surveillance on Trump Tower and Comey never asked British intelligence to spy on Trump. Despite the sworn testimony, Donald Trump continues to insist that his allegations were based in truth.
Just how did we get to a point where millions of American voters were willing to overlook the truth in favor of ideas planted by a man whose political influence began with the spread of a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s citizenship?
If we trace the history of Soviet spy-craft and the American culture wars, what may appear at first to be a winding journey reveals itself to be a direct route.
The Cold War’s Biggest Weapon
Ladislav Bittner graduated with a degree in International Law in 1954, along with forty-two other young Czech Communists. Out of the forty-two graduates, thirty-eight became spies.
After three years of lower-level intelligence gathering, Bittner was promoted and assigned as an operative in Berlin. He witnessed the building of the Berlin wall, and with it a conflict between official communications and reality.
“The East German propaganda said that (the building of the Berlin Wall) was to keep Western spies from infiltrating East Germany, but that was nonsense. The real reason was that East Germans were using Berlin as an escape tunnel. Between 1957 and 1961, almost 5 million East Germans escaped. If that were to continue there would be no East Germany left.”
In the mid-1960’s he was named Deputy Commander of the Disinformation Department. He described his job as being “in charge of designing disinformation games. That is, how to deceive the opponent, bringing the West to the wrong conclusions about certain issues.”
It played upon existing anti-American biases in the developing world and within Western Europe.
A Mass Deception
Between 1945–46 about three million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia as “unreliable citizens.” Only those who could prove they were anti-fascist were allowed to stay. They became second-class citizens and weren’t allowed to leave the country.
In 1964, the Czech government decided to release 200,000 Germans still living in Czechoslovakia. Before they were released to the West, the Germans were given pieces of disinformation deliberately concocted by Czech intelligence so the Germans, upon entry to Western Europe, would report it to the authorities as proof of loyalty to Western ideals and a rejection of Communism.
As Bittner described in his 2016 interview,
“That was the moment when the Disinformation Department stepped in and recruited several hundred Germans as spies — but they were recruited for disinformation purposes. They received instructions on what to do, how to handle themselves, what were the major objectives, etc. These people were of course anti-Communist, so there was an assumption that immediately after crossing the borders they would immediately say ‘oh I’m so happy to be here in the West, and this is what those Czech bastards want me to do.’”
After hundreds of expatriates approached the West German government with the same information, the West Germans concluded that they were witnessing a major espionage offensive by the Communists.
But it was all a distraction.
According to Bittner, the real spy work was happening while the ex-Czech German decoys unwittingly played the disinformation game.
Which makes you wonder: what if evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump collusion allegations are all planted, much like the false testimony of the Czech-German ex-pats?
What if it’s all a front for a shadow campaign to distract the American government from a deeper campaign by the Kremlin to collect and exploit American intelligence?
After a while, looking at disinformation can feel like a hall of mirrors.
Media Hoaxes & Kompromat Collection Techniques
Meddling with government intelligence wasn’t the only prank pulled by Bittner’s Disinformation Department. They also used the media as a way to transmit misleading information.
In the mid-60’s, Czech intelligence duped a Czech TV documentary team for a special called “The Secret of Devil’s Lake.” They sunk chests of captured Nazi papers in a lake, making them look as though they were artifacts left over from the second world war.
“When the documentary divers brought the chests up, Bittman’s spies claimed they found a list of names: Nazis, currently working as spies for the West German government. When the so-called list was reported, it threw a major wrench in the West German spy network.” (From a 2009 TV interview with Larry Bittman)
Additionally, the Disinformation Department was responsible for collecting compromising material — or kompromat — about Western political officials.
Czech intelligence set up a bordello with hidden cameras in Bonn, West Germany to catch politicians in the act. They used the material to either discredit the politician through the media or as blackmail to compel them to be operatives.
Shreds of Truth
The most deceptive aspect of disinformation tactics is that the larger false narratives are often woven around small kernels of truth — making the false narrative easier to swallow and harder to disprove.
One example of kompromat fused with disinformation is the “Golden Showers memo.”
The disputed document, which was released to the public before the Inauguration as breaking news by Buzzfeed, was purportedly created by a British spy. It listed surveillance data collected by Russian intelligence from a hotel in Moscow that Trump and members of his administration frequented. In a pre-Inauguration news conference, Trump admitted to having warned his officials to stay vigilant in such hotels:
“I always tell them, anywhere, but I always tell them, if I’m leaving this country, ‘Be very careful. Because in your hotel rooms — and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras. I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category — and number one I hope you’re going to be good anyway. But in those rooms you have cameras in the strangest places. Cameras that are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television.’ I tell this to people all the time.” (Trump news conference, January 17, 2017)
One such visit as reported by the memo released by Buzzfeed supposedly involved Trump, two prostitutes and urination upon a bed Barack Obama had slept in.
Buzzfeed’s release of this document without checking and confirming sources may have played right into Russian disinformation specialists’ hands. In fact, NBC reported that US intelligence officials were going to present the then-President elect with the document as an example of disinformation.
It sparked a maelstrom of debate over the reporting of “fake news,” gave Trump and his surrogates ammunition to further discredit the mainstream media (especially CNN, which was the first to report on Buzzfeed’s data dump), and distracted the public from other issues surrounding the Trump administration, like the major conflicts of interest between foreign governments and the Trump Organization.
The Erosion of Confidence
The Golden Showers memo, while a classic example of disinformation and how the ratings-driven media can irresponsibly spread it, didn’t catch much fire despite about 48-hours of preoccupation in the cable news cycle.
But the point of a disinformation campaign isn’t to fabricate one story that will turn the world upside down. Disinformation isn’t a flash flood that devastates a town — towns can be rebuilt.
Disinformation is a gradual process — like the Colorado River carving out the Grand Canyon. The point is to imperceptibly undermine confidence in democracy and faith in the journalistic integrity of a free press until there’s a divide so deep and wide that no bridge could span it.
“There was a basic assumption behind this massive production of disinformation that eventually this will have serious, visible impact on public opinion in the West.” (Bittman interview, 2009)
Thanks to the cultural divides in our country and a propensity to paranoia, the Russians already had an advantage.
The Civil Rights Movement and Dezinformat
Even after over 50 years, 60 to 80 percent of Americans don’t think Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person involved in the assassination of JFK. Many people insist that the CIA was behind JFK’s death. This speaks not only to the suspicions many American citizens hold about the government, but also the enduring mark Russian disinformation campaigns can have upon our culture.
According to a paper published by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, in 1967, an Italian newspaper and popular disinformation funnel for the KGB is the source of one of the biggest conspiracy theories in American history. The Paesa Sera published a “scoop” based on a nugget of truth: that Clay Shaw, who was charged by prosecutor Jim Garrison for masterminding the plot to kill JFK, had a connection to the CIA.
Shaw had, in fact, been in touch with the CIA — but his relationship was hardly that of an operative: as a businessman from 1948 to 1956, as part of the Domestic Contact Service, Clay volunteered information to the CIA about the trade expansion of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia to New Orleans. He was never handed off to be trained as a covert CIA agent.
Shaw’s business relations with the Soviet bloc may have put him on the KGB’s radar, thus the CIA plot story was fed to the Italian press and eventually picked up by the American press.
The civil rights movement and the growing ideological divide between the American left and right provided the perfect opportunity for Russian disinformation efforts. The KGB made Martin Luther King, Jr. a target of disinformation by publishing fake documents calling him an “Uncle Tom” whose movement was secretly subsidized by the government.
These “active measures” by the KGB were in part because King refused to embrace a Communist agenda for the civil rights movement, and in part because the Soviets were counting on U.S. foreign policy lacking credibility as long as Jim Crow laws were in place.
Communism benefited from the U.S. being seen as hypocritical evangelists of democracy: if civil rights laws were adopted, it would prove the power of Western democracy to overcome inequality.
As the civil rights movement gained victories and threatened the Russian efforts to undermine it, the KGB began to see a trend emerging in American politics: White, southern men were abandoning the Democratic Party as it began to adopt more socially progressive policies throughout the late 1960’s and 1970's.
These white southern men were joining with the Republican party, which claimed to be the party free of “special interests” so they could speak for “real Americans.”
White families were fleeing the cities and creating their own enclaves in the suburbs, fearful that the crime wave of the inner cities would find them in their cul de sacs.
As master manipulators, the KGB knew resentment, fear, and paranoia when they saw it. And they knew how to exploit it.
“Alternative Facts” & The Right-Wingers Who Love Them
During the 1970’s Yuri Andropov, then the director of the KGB, led a campaign to seed the Muslim world with anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda.
“Andropov commissioned the first Arabic translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian-forged 1905 propaganda book that alleged Jews were plotting to take over Europe — and were being aided by the United States.”
He sent hundreds of agents to distribute the books in the Middle East. By 1972, the Muslim world was swirling with anti-American sentiment, making it easy to recruit and train militants. The stage was set for sparking what would become the so-called “War on Terror” and anti-Islamism perpetuated by the conservative right.
As the Reagan years progressed and neo-conservatism spread among whites and evangelicals, so did a love for conservative radio. Colorful personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck became the figureheads for a movement that shifted more and more to the right. Eventually, the Tea Party was born.
It’s been noted by social scientists that people who have socially conservative beliefs have a predilection for conspiracy theories.
This isn’t because they are conservative, it’s because they’re human and liberalism threatens their world views.
Conservatism is by nature protectionist, which implies that as long as progressive ideas exist, there is always an existential threat to traditional values. And if you believe you live in a world under threat by The Other, you’re more open to believing it when people say someone is out to get you.
When you are confronted with information that contradicts your attitudes, beliefs, impugns your identity, or groups that you identify with, you — we — all of us are motivated to reason through that information in a way that keeps our original attitudes intact. So, we’ll counter argue, we’ll criticize the data source, not pay attention to information that contradicts our pre-existing attitudes. At the very extreme we won’t allow ourselves to be exposed, in the first place, to information that contradicts. (Salon interview with John Jost, 2015)
Confronted with liberal movements for gay rights, feminism, environmentalism, and expanding government entitlement programs, conservative talk show hosts began to serve their audiences by confirming their worst fears about the world.
Taking the lead of Beck, Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and other conservative news outlets, Russian operatives began to deliver disinformation campaigns that helped to sow the seeds of distrust in the American government while also confirming conservative biases.
Which brings us to today.
The FBI is now investigating the role far-right news sources like Breitbart and Infowars played in the Russian operation to undermine the 2016 election. Like many unsuspecting media outlets throughout the Cold War, these news sites may have been duped by the Russians. Like many other media outlets, however, they could have been infiltrated by Russian operatives, acting as an organ for the Kremlin.
Either way, the Russians won.
The ultimate irony is Donald Trump and his supporters still cling to and spread conspiracies that don’t exist.
And when there’s an outright conspiracy like the Russian disinformation campaign staring them in the face, because the mainstream media is reporting it, they are skeptical.
Communist disinformation tactics would never have taken root if it weren’t for the fertile soil of division within American culture. And as we can see from the birth of the culture wars throughout the mid-twentieth century up to present day, the more intolerant we are of each other’s ideas, the more open we are to suspicion about the motivations and actions of the bearers of those ideas.
What will it take to remove the stain of dezinformatsiya from our democracy? History shows that the strongest defense against a campaign of mistruths is an aggressive press who are willing to dive deep into the sources of information before they report on it.
Let the work begin.