The Dragon of Disinformation

On July 28, 1978, when I landed at Andrews Air Force Base, I brought with me a head crammed full of information gleaned from a lifetime spent in Soviet bloc intelligence and foreign affairs. Two items were, to my mind, of utmost importance. One was that the West’s glorious image of Romanian dictator Ceausescu was a fiction, invented by his intelligence machinery. The other was that Moscow was engaged in a dezinformatsiya operation, code-named DRAGON, aimed at diverting attention from its intelligence relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald and persuading the world that the CIA had assassinated President Kennedy.

Today few remember that Ceausescu was once Washington’s fair-haired boy. But just a few weeks before I defected, President Carter had hailed Ceausescu as a “great national and international leader” — I had been standing next to him at the White House — and a new investigation being conducted by the House of Representatives was in the final stages of once again clearing Moscow of any involvement in the assassination.

Contemporary memory is increasingly affected by a political Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, two questions remain. How did Ceausescu, a two-bit Dracula who was executed for genocide, succeed in hoodwinking Western heads of government, intelligence analysts, university experts and the general public into believing that he was a great international figure?  And how did the KGB’s colossal dezinformatsiya hoax known as Operation DRAGON — in which I was involved for 15 years — con so many Americans into believing that their own government had killed President Kennedy?

The answer lies in the Kremlin’s historical tendency to build Potemkin villages to embellish its own image, and in the West’s generous tendency to take those villages at face value.

As a communist intelligence general, I had a banner posted in my office proclaiming, “CAPITALIST ESPIONAGE REPORTS HISTORY. WE MAKE IT.” Unlike Western intelligence services, Soviet bloc espionage was not designed to obtain factual information and predict enemy intentions. Our omniscient rulers knew better, and they frequently took offense when we tried to tell them something new. The communist tsars used their foreign intelligence services to hide their crimes and to embellish their own stature — in other words, to lie to their country and to the rest of the world. Within our Soviet bloc intelligence community, a lie was called dezinformatsiya, and it was presented as a historically Russian science.

All weak powers use the tools, however humble, that are available to them.

Today the term “disinformation” is on everybody’s lips, but its concept is still little understood. During most of the Cold War, neither the Russian dezinformatsiya nor the Western word disinformation was listed in any Western dictionaries (or even in the 29 volumes of the 1985 Great British Encyclopedia), for it was believed that it meant misinformation. In reality, dezinformatsiya is as different from misinformation as day is from night.

In the Russian world, misinformation is an official government tool, whereas dezinformatsiya is a secret intelligence tool. Let’s assume the PGU (Soviet foreign intelligence service) wrote a book to persuade international public opinion that President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA. If that book were brought out by an official Soviet publisher, that would be misinformation and the message would been taken with a grain of salt. If that same book were brought out by a Western publisher, with no mention of its having been prepared by the PGU, that would be dezinformatsiya, and the story’s credibility would be substantially greater.

In the West, I published dozens of allegedly non-Romanian books lionizing Ceausescu, and I was not surprised to learn that the first book on the Kennedy assassination to be published in the U.S., "Oswald, Assassin or Fall Guy?" was written by a German communist, Joachim Joesten. After the assassination, Joesten spent five days in Dallas, then went to Europe and disappeared from sight. His book alleges that Lee Harvey Oswald was “an FBI agent provocateur with a CIA background.”

The first review of Joesten’s book was signed by Victor Perlo, an American communist who left the U.S. after he was identified (by ex-spy Elizabeth Bentley) as a principal agent of Soviet intelligence. Perlo praised the Joesten book to the skies in the PGU cover publication New Times.

I realized that Joesten’s book had to be part of Operation DRAGON, but I could not prove it until the mid 1990s, when retired PGU officer Vasili Mitrokhin, helped by the British MI6, smuggled about 25,000 pages of secret PGU documents out of Moscow — described by the FBI as “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.” The Mitrokhin Archive documents that the New York publisher of Joesten’s book, "Carlo Aldo Marzani," was a PGU agent (codenamed NORD), who for years had been subsidized by the PGU to produce pro-Soviet books.

Joesten’s book was dedicated to the American leftist Mark Lane, who in 1966 published the bestseller Rush to Judgment, alleging that Kennedy was killed by right-wing Americans. The Mitrokhin Archive documents that the PGU indirectly subsidized Lane at the time he was working on his book, and that he was in regular contact with Genrikh Borovik — chairman of the Soviet Peace Committee (a PGU front) and the brother-in-law of KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov. 

The Kennedy assassination conspiracy was born — and it never stopped.

These early books cast the blame rather indiscriminately on various elements in the United States, but eventually the PGU focused on the CIA. In 1975 a note dated November 8, 1963, addressed to “Dear Mr. Hunt” and signed “Lee Harvey Oswald,” turned up in the U.S. The note is nicely ambiguous in its use of “Mr. Hunt.” The rightwing Dallas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt had earlier been implicated in the Kennedy assassination in the Joesten and Lane books. We, at the top of the Soviet bloc intelligence community, knew the “Dear Mr. Hunt” note was a fake, but American graphological experts certified that it was genuine. Conspiracy theorists immediately connected the note to the Watergate scandal’s E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer, and used it to “prove” that the CIA had been behind Kennedy’s assassination.

Documents found in the Mitrokhin Archive attest that the “Dear Mr. Hunt” letter was forged by the PGU. The counterfeited note was twice checked for “authenticity” by the KGB’s Technical Operations Directorate (OTU) and approved for use. In 1975 the PGU mailed three photocopies of the note from Mexico to conspiracy buffs in the United States. I note that PGU rules allowed only photocopies of counterfeited documents to be used, to avoid close examination of the original.

According to another Mitrokhin document, in April 1977 KGB Chairman Yury Andropov informed the Politburo that the PGU was launching a new desinformatsiya campaign to further implicate “American special services” in the Kennedy assassination. Unfortunately, the Mitrokhin Archive is silent on the subject after that.

Mao Zedong used to say that a lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth. For once he was right. Several thousand books have been written on the assassination, and all blame various elements of the U.S. government for this terrible crime. They created a credibility gap between Americans and their government, and fashioned the myth that the CIA could not be trusted.

November 22, when we mournfully observe the 44th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, is a good moment for us to take a new look at that crime of the century, and to understand how the mythology that surrounds it was born.