Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: The KGB & Soviet Disinformation

Parts of this book by Ladislav Bittman are repeats of sections of the author's first book, The Deception Game. (My review is here.) However, these are mostly anecdotes that aptly demonstrate the author's thesis.

This book is written better than The Deception Game, but it also lacks that desperate energy and need to tell it all that characterizes the earlier work and many books by Communist defectors and dissidents. This is more scholarly.

Whereas The Deception Game leaves off in 1968, the year of the author's defection, and concerns itself almost entirely with Czechoslovakia, The KGB and Soviet Disinformation, as the title suggests, is an extension of the earlier thesis to the larger and more interesting subject. This means that Bittman speculates about events and episodes he does not know about from direct personal involvement, but rather from the experience of being a senior officer in a Soviet-bloc disinformation department.

With his experience and natural even-handedness, the author does a good job speculating about the Soviet Union's methods, the origin of items he finds in the newspaper and magazines, and the current objectives of Soviet intelligence. (The book was written in 1985.)

The KGB and Soviet Disinformation is also organized better than The Deception Game, and includes topics (especially in the later chapters) not broached by the earlier book. Both are excellent, but this one is certainly more comprehensive.

There is nothing in this work of Anatoliy Golitsyn’s thesis of “long-term strategic deception.” The author does not question the authenticity of the Prague Spring, the rapid termination of which was the cause for his defection.

Rather, Bittman concerns himself with the nuts-and-bolts tactics and methods of Soviet-bloc disinformation, such as planting stories in newspapers and obtaining the cooperation of foreign dignitaries, diplomats, and correspondents.

However, the author does examine the ideological basis of Soviet disinformation, in Lenin’s What is to be Done?, for example. And he does often discuss disinformation efforts in terms of long-term objectives, though his list of those objectives would be incomplete to a follower of Golitsyn:
+ Turning world public opinion against U.S. foreign policy
+ Creating favorable conditions for Soviet foreign policy by confusing the world public about the real nature of certain Soviet policies
+ Isolating the United States from its allies and friends in Western Europe by creating new rifts or exploiting current differences
+ Paralyzing NATO from within by convincing NATO countries that U.S. military strategy is against their national interests
+ Expanding traditional mistrust of Third World countries toward Western Europe and the United States, preventing closer economic, political, and military cooperation between the two groups, and demonstrating that U.S. goals and policies are incompatible with Third World ambitions.
Bittman expresses reservations about Soviet d├ętente, but not to any significant extent. As such, he makes no attempt to interpret overt Soviet diplomatic and military efforts within the context of disinformation. Never does he suggest that apparent Soviet failures, rifts between Communist countries, and significant changes in policy are part of disinformation efforts.

In this light, one may read Bittman as being more even-handed than Golitsyn in New Lies for Old. I think it would be more plausible, however, to say that Bittman only gives us part of the picture. One should read The KGB and Soviet Disinformation as a treatise on active measures, and little else. It is a very good book on that topic.

Other reviews:
R. Cort Kirkwood, National Review:
Bittman gradually makes clear that disinformation is a "game" only in the same sense that "war games" are: It is a highly specialized field of study requiring the "operator" to understand the politics, history, psychology, foreign relations, culture, and weaknesses of both the "unwitting agent" and the "adversary." Additionally, Soviet active measures are part of a long-term strategy. "Moscow's disinformation specialists know that a single covert action . . . cannot tip the balance of power between the Western Alliance and the Communist bloc. But they believe that mass production of active measures will have a significant cumulative effect over a period of decades."

Bittman confirms two beliefs long held by knowledgeable critics of the media: a) Soviet disinformation is successful; and b) it is successful in large part because journalists think they are too sophisticated to be duped by Soviet agents.