NEWSDAY (AP) March 10, 2003, 2:52 PM EST
WASHINGTON # A Cold War-era office with a shadowy name and a colorful history of exposing Soviet deceptions is back in business, this time watching Iraq.
The Counter-Disinformation/Misinformation Team’s moniker is more impressive than its budget. It’s a crew of two toiling in anonymity at the State Department, writing reports they are prohibited by law from disseminating to the U.S. public.
The operation has challenged some fantastic claims over the years # a U.S. military lab invented AIDS, rich Americans kidnapped foreign babies for their organs, the CIA plotted to kill Pope John Paul II.
Since the office reopened in October, it’s been responding to Iraqi claims about America, which tend to be more plausible and sometimes remain in dispute.
In coordination with the CIA, FBI and others, the team helps U.S. embassies identify and rebut other nations’ disinformation, most often fabrications about the United States planted in foreign newspapers or television shows and, these days, on the Internet.
It’s part of a broader Bush administration project to shore up America’s reputation when sentiment against a possible war with Iraq is running high overseas.
It’s not the stuff of James Bond movies, but disinformation has long been a tool of the world’s secret operatives, including America’s.
Reports that a new Office of Strategic Influence might dabble in disinformation caused such an uproar this year that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered it closed, insisting the Pentagon doesn’t spread lies.
Even so, in Afghanistan last year, the U.S. military dropped leaflets with a doctored photograph showing Osama bin Laden beardless in a Western-style suit. And some of the administration’s claims about links between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida have been stretched.
In these days of war preparation, the pressure to peddle the U.S. version of events is enormous, and civil libertarians question how far the government should go.
“When you’re fighting an enemy not constrained by social norms or morals, do you get down in the gutter or do you stick to certain rules of behavior?” asked Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “It’s important to question where do we draw the line.”
Tucker Eskew, White House global communications chief, says the administration can’t concern itself with shooting down every lie about America.
“Yet we do have to more aggressively promote the truth about our foreign policy and about our society in the face of distortion,” he said.
Eskew said the team helped write a report issued by the White House in January, “Apparatus of Lies: Saddam’s Disinformation and Propaganda.”
“The regime uses a combination of on-the-record lies, covert placements of false news accounts, self-inflicted damage and fake interviews,” the report says.
The report recalls that, during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqis showed reporters a bombed-out factory with a hand-lettered sign that read “Baby Milk Plant” in English and Arabic. The White House says the factory had been converted to a biological weapons laboratory. Disagreement lingers to this day.
Dennis Kux, who coordinated counterdisinformation for the Reagan administration, said ignoring false stories is risky.
“It’s like drops of water falling over a stone,” Kux said. “In one year, five years, 10 years, you’ve worn a hole in the stone # in this case, the U.S. reputation.”
A decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the KGB is remembered as a disinformation virtuoso, especially creative in faking documents.
“We saw forgeries signed Ronald Reagan, Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter,” said Herbert Romerstein, who ran the original counterdisinformation office during most of the 1980s. Once, a phony memo appeared under Romerstein’s own letterhead.
The KGB even faked letters from the Ku Klux Klan, threatening to kill African and Asian athletes at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Romerstein said. The Soviets were boycotting, in retaliation for America’s boycott of the Moscow games, and hoped to scare other nations away.
In 1992, former Russian spymaster Yevgeny Primakov admitted the KGB made up the AIDS story. The “baby parts” tale was an urban legend exploited and spread by the Soviets, Romerstein said.
“One of the more bizarre stories the Soviets developed was called the `ethnic weapon,'” he recalled. “Supposedly the Americans were developing a bomb that would kill blacks and keep whites alive.”
In 1996, State laid off the last man in the counterdisinformation office, Todd Leventhal. He was rehired in October; now he has a researcher and a part-time writer, too.