February 25, 2002

U.S. Planting False Stories Common Cold War Tactic

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Recognizing that sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword, the CIA has a colorful history of planting false information in media outlets overseas, with results ranging from irritating the Soviet Union to paving the way for a coup in Latin America.

Disinformation measures were a common tool in most CIA covert operations, and the Soviet Union elevated the practice to an art form during the Cold War, intelligence experts say.

"You would try and recruit a journalist and he would become an agent of influence," a former U.S. intelligence officer said.

The foreign journalist was either paid or acted out of hatred for a regime that harmed his family, "and he would plant stories which were favorable to your side," he said.

"The Russians did it, the Brits do it, the French do it -- it's regular intelligence procedure to try and influence a country's policies through the press," he said.

While the battlefield for the war of false words was traditionally the CIA's domain, a public debate over the issue of government-planted lies erupted this month after reports surfaced about the Pentagon's new Office of Strategic Influence.

Some of the reports said the office would be used to plant lies in foreign news outlets to influence public opinion abroad to further U.S. goals in its war on terrorism.

The flap forced top defense officials to publicly state they would never knowingly lie to the media, and left the U.S. intelligence community privately shaking its head at the folly of the military for trying to tread on its turf.

One former intelligence official derided the Pentagon's name for its propaganda office, saying at the CIA such an operation would be called something like "Division F" or "the 407 Committee," which might be a room in a building to disguise its purpose.

The CIA's disinformation campaigns were a constant source of irritation for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA would annually plant false notices carrying the Soviet military seal in newspapers in Muslim countries announcing invasion day celebrations at Soviet embassies, another former U.S. intelligence officer recalled.


Those notices, "just drove them crazy," and made it appear that the Soviets were crowing over the invasion, he said.

The New York Times in 2000 revealed a classified history of CIA's covert 1953 operation in Iran to oust the prime minister and bolster Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It included planting articles and editorial cartoons in newspapers.

The CIA used disinformation tactics in Latin America, using radio broadcasts under the name Voice of Liberation to help topple the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.

It used similar tactics in Chile to discredit Socialist President Salvador Allende who died in a 1973 coup when forces loyal to Augusto Pinochet overthrew his government.

The Soviet Union was no slouch when it came to planting lies about the United States in the media, experts said.

The Soviets disseminated lies that the CIA conducted secret experiments on HIV that caused the AIDS epidemic in Africa and that the U.S. spy agency was connected to the West African body-parts market, a former U.S. intelligence official said.

When the United States became concerned that Indonesia's President Sukarno had pro-communist tendencies, a CIA team produced a pornographic film featuring an actor resembling Sukarno with the intent of embarrassing him, said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. It was unclear whether the film was ever released.


Sometimes the disinformation campaigns were one-on-one. A former intelligence officer recalls a set up in which a CIA officer acted like a broadcaster holding up a fabricated newspaper that declared in a banner headline a high-level official in a hostile country was dead. The subterfuge prompted a reluctant prisoner to break down and talk.

In the mid-1970s, CIA activities came under intense congressional scrutiny that developed into a greater oversight role for Congress on U.S. covert activities.

The CIA adopted a policy during that period of not recruiting reporters working for American news organizations to help conduct intelligence activities. The CIA also agreed to take care that the lies it promoted overseas were not picked up by U.S. media.

"If the CIA put something in an Urdu newspaper the chances of it coming back to the United States is zero and you could do it," Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, said. "But you certainly wouldn't want to put some horrendous leak in Le Monde because it would get picked up in the U.S. papers," he said.

"It is becoming much more difficult to do well today because everybody reads everything and if there is something of any significance that appears even in the most obscure foreign outlet it is going to echo in the global media sooner or later," Aftergood said.

Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited