Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: The Deception Game

The Deception Game is the first book Ladislav Bittman wrote after his defection. He was the deputy chief of Czechoslovakia's Department D, or Disinformation department, but defected shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1968.

Before that time, the Czechoslovakian intelligence service was built largely on the same model as Soviet intelligence, as were the other Soviet-bloc intelligence services. The Soviet-bloc intelligence services were subordinated to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the KGB. The disinformation departments, too, were built on the Soviet model (becoming more and more important in the late 50s and getting stronger in the 60s). The Czech department’s objectives were subordinated to Moscow to such an extent that it often carried on operations in countries where Czechoslovakia had no strategic interest. They would do this either because the developing country that was the theater of disinformation operations was not friendly toward the Soviet Union (but naively friendly toward Soviet-bloc countries), or to keep the Soviet Union's hands off of particularly weighty efforts of disinformation, forgery, or black propaganda.

Thus Bittman's account of his country's disinformation operations applies to the Soviet Union and its satellites as well. However, Czechoslovakia did have a particularly large and effective department, if Bittman's estimates are to be taken seriously.

The book consists of a brief account of the author's origins, education, career and defection; the course of Czech politics and Soviet control over his career; the nature and extent of the objectives of Czechoslovakian disinformation; the relationship of the disinformation department to the rest of the Czech intelligence service and to the Soviet Union's intelligence agencies; and very many specific example of disinformation operations consisting of a wide range of methods and approaches.

Books like this one are a necessary complement to accounts such as The Mitrokhin Archive (The Sword and the Shield and The World Was Going Our Way) and general impressions of espionage: information-stealing and illegal agents of influence embedded in foreign circles. That's because much of what Soviet-bloc disinformation departments did (and probably still do to some extent) is mundane and simple, relying upon pre-existing sentiment in the target countries as well as a cumulative effect, while maintaining plausible deniability and effective distance. Scientists stealing nuclear secrets, Kim Philby passing on top secret documents, and James Bond-style operations get all the glory, but in the long run it's the weight of clever imitations and subtle manipulations that wins Communism and socialism its power and influence.

On the other hand, The Deception Game is even-handed. Unlike Yuri Bezmenov (aka Tomas Schuman), who was involved in very much the same type of work as this author, albeit at a lower level, Bittman does not overstate the influence of Soviet-bloc disinformation operations in the world and the United States. For instance, he demonstrates that there is considerable distance between the New Left in the U.S. and Soviet control and indoctrination. Often he speaks of the Soviet Union trying to harness and control movements in the U.S. but being unable to do so. And ultimately he concludes that there is nearly as much danger in blaming all of America's problems and unrest on the Soviet Union as there is in blaming all of the world's problems on the U.S. It is folly to counter the latter with the former.

As with all books on this subject, even though the Soviet Union as such has fallen, it is still relevant. First, more practically because the power structure of the KGB is still intact and in power in Russia and still exerts itself in this way. Second, because the disinformation and active measures described by Bittman are not particular to a time and place, but are rather phenomena essential to the manifestation of socialist and Communist ideology, which is far from dead.