Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: World Thought Police

World Thought Police, a small booklet by Tomas Schuman (aka Yuri Bezmenov), a Soviet defector, can be read on my website here. The PDF is here.

Before I start, I should warn the prospective reader that the book contains many typos, is somewhat strangely organized, and may strike a reader who is totally innocent of this topic as insane conspiracy theory. Even for the seasoned reader of intelligence nonfiction, the book is eye-raisingly eccentric. But that is what makes it so interesting.

Tomas Schuman (whose real name is Yuri Bezmenov) worked as a "journalist" for Novosti Press Agency, which was a disinformation and propaganda agency controlled by the Soviet non-military intelligence agency (commonly known as the KGB). The Soviets called their disinformation work through Novosti "active measures," though Schuman uses the phrase "ideological subversion" to describe the activity of Novosti. Actually, "ideological subversion" was more of a term used by Soviet and Soviet-bloc propaganda to characterize the supposed actions of the West to undermine socialist and Communist ideology within the Soviet Union.

In the fifties and sixties, the Soviets and their allies began to use more creative means to mislead and misinform the West and the Third World, creating a cumulative effect that would in the long term be favorable to the Soviet Union. Novosti Press Agency was an overt and legitimate organization that published articles and books mainly for the West. It was ostensibly independent of the government, but we now know that this is a ridiculous claim. Most people assumed (and observed) that Novosti's work was somewhat propagandist, but until Bezmenov many did not realize the extent to which Novosti worked closely with the KGB to produce disinformation and mislead foreign governments and organizations, to the extent that Novosti's goals were quite simply the KGB's goals.

Looking back, many people might think that no one really took Novosti seriously. This is not the case. Western journalists and newspapers treated Novosti as a legitimate source of news and opinion. Papers like The New York Times used Novosti press releases just as they would the press releases of the AP, Reuters, AFP, or Groupe Presse. Novosti publications like the magazine Soviet Life and various books and travelogues were widely available in the United States and throughout the world and treated for the most part as honest, legitimate publications. Many of these publications can be found simply by searching Amazon for "Novosti Press Agency."

All of this is by way of saying that Yuri Bezmenov, who became Tomas Schuman upon his defection to the West, worked for Novosti (not as a KGB agent as is sometimes reported, but merely as a co-opted "journalist") to spread disinformation and actively subvert the Western world.

In World Thought Police, Schuman extensively details the various methods that Novosti would use. These are divided into legal and overt actions that are still nonetheless dishonest and harmful to the West, such as publishing a Novosti article, disseminating Novosti's material in bookstores, establishing a pro-socialist newspaper or tabloid, etc.; and illegal and covert actions, such as defamation and slander, infiltration into anti-Soviet or conservative publications in order to destroy them, financially aiding terrorists, etc.

Schuman also details the extent to which Novosti used foreign collaborators, what those collaborators would do for Novosti and the KGB, their motivations for collaborating, and their rewards for collaborating.

The book, which is basically a short pamphlet, ends with a very stirring account of the author meeting four American deserters of the Vietnam War who basically parrot Novosti/KGB's propaganda back to them, taking it as original thinking. Schuman, disturbed by this, tells the story to an apparatchik friend of his, who then relates to him an interesting dream about the Vietnam War. The book ends:
The only way I could interpret this dream of the Central Committee's apparatchik is: guilt, the feeling most of my generation of the Soviet "new class" desperately wanted to suppress. Because, unlike the American "peaceniks," we know perfectly well who is the aggressor, and our conscience bothers us.
This book, it seems, was the author's attempt to clear his conscience.

I strongly advise the prospective reader to take Schuman’s assessments with a grain of salt. Ultimately I think he is both overly optimistic about the success of Soviet active measures and overly cynical about the ability of the West to form a strong opposition to Soviet aggression. In no way do I suggest any intelligence buff, anti-Communist, or other amateur to begin or end his study with Schuman/Bezmenov. That would leave him with a ridiculously simplistic and very limited understanding of the topic.

On the other hand, I think World Thought Police in particular is a necessary supplement to other works on the far-reaching intelligence arm of the Evil Empire. The Sword and the Shield, for instance, is extremely comprehensive but spends little time on active measures. Furthermore the authors seem to be unaware of the extent of KGB control over “journalism” both within the Soviet Union and over Soviet press agency offices around the world. Schuman’s work, however eccentric, fills in the blanks left by other accounts.