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Traditions of lies and disinformation

Vladimir Putin doesn’t tweet and he claims he doesn’t have a smartphone. At first sight, the Russian president’s reluctance to adopt the hyperconnected world’s technology might seem at odds with the widespread belief that he signed off on a campaign to undermine the United States via social media. But he has something likely more important than gadgets — long experience in the KGB and its post-Soviet successor.

From the czarist secret police to the present, Russian operatives have adroitly exploited humans’ biases and their capacity to believe the unlikely. The elaborate campaign of bogus identities and inflammatory statements alleged in last week’s U.S. indictment of 13 Russians used new technology and platforms, but drew on a century-old spirit.

An early and especially notorious example was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet that purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish leaders to plot world domination. First appearing in 1903, its origins are open to debate, but many scholars suggest it was commissioned by Okhranka, the czarist secret police, and spread by them to argue against growing calls for modernizing Russia.

The hoax was spread abroad by Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war, and penetrated the United States — the newspaper of industrialist Henry Ford printed them. Although long recognized as fictional, the text remains foundational in anti-Semitism.

“Active measures” of Soviet disinformation could range from the elaborately clandestine to the almost childishly obvious. One of the latter was in 1984, when the national Olympic committees of many African and Asian countries received letters purportedly from the Ku Klux Klan saying their athletes would be attacked if they came to the Los Angeles Games.

The CIA noted that the letters contained errors that native English speakers were unlikely to make and misspelled the group as “Ku-Klux Klan.” In addition, the CIA said, no African or Asian countries allied with the Soviet Union were targeted. Nonetheless, Soviet media wrote about the letters, a common multiplier strategy.

In an elaborate initiative that stretched tendrils through several countries, the KGB went after a dead man, Pope Pius XII. The Kremlin, disturbed by the Vatican’s firm anti-communist stance, aimed to discredit the church’s moral authority by portraying Pius XII as a Nazi sympathizer.

According to Ion Pacepa, who headed the Romanian secret service before defecting, a top KGB general wrote the outline of a play attacking the pope and had compiled Vatican documents that had been spirited away by Romanian agents.

Eight decades after the Elders of Zion seeped into the public mind, one of the KGB’s most effective disinformation campaigns began. The first move was modest: a letter by an allegedly knowledgeable U.S. scientist in 1983 to a little-read newspaper in India claiming AIDS was the result of Pentagon biological-weapon experiments.

The article attracted little attention — the paper was generally regarded as a Soviet mouthpiece — but resurfaced two years later when Russia’s widely read Literaturnaya Gazeta used it as a “source” for a story contending AIDS was U.S.-created. Then a Russia-born East German doctor was brought into the process; he and colleagues produced a pamphlet detailing a theory about U.S. experiments on homosexual prisoners. Because the doctor had a good reputation and included verifiable facts in his writings, they gained considerable acceptance.

In 1992, Yevgeny Primakov, the head of the Russian foreign intelligence reportedly admitted that the disinformation, codenamed “Operation Infektion,” was initiated by the KGB. Primakov himself became a victim in 1999, when he was seen as a credible electoral challenger to Putin, who was then prime minister and preparing to run for president for the first time. A Sunday night commentary program by Sergei Dorenko, one of Russia’s most aggressive and roguish broadcasters, featured grisly footage of someone undergoing a hip operation purportedly similar to one that Primakov was facing. His poll ratings soon plunged and he abandoned his bid.

The genesis of the segment is unclear, but perhaps significantly, it aired on a TV channel that was majority-owned by the state and effectively controlled by notorious oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who at the time was a Putin supporter. Although the connections between Russian TV and intelligence agencies is speculative, state broadcasters in the Putin era are noted for exaggerated or outright false reports that apparently serve Russian interests.

Notable recent cases include the 2014 claim that Ukrainian armed forces had crucified a child in the city of Slavyansk after soldiers regained control of it from pro-Russia rebels. No evidence supporting the claim was found. As tensions over a stream of asylum-seekers roiled Germany, Russia’s state Channel One broadcast extensively about the supposed sexual assault of a teenage ethnic Russian girl by immigrants, suggesting that police were covering up the crime.

Perhaps more humorously, state channels have obediently gone along with Putin’s “action man” appearances, in which he engages in manly feats that sometimes are later shown to have been staged — including his alleged discovery of ancient Greek pottery while scuba diving and shooting a tiger that purportedly was about to spring upon a group of cameramen.

Putin may not know how to use the tools, but he understands how their messages are received. Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Jim Heintz