The Sky’s No Limit to Disinformation, By James E. Oberg
AIR FORCE magazine // MARCH 1986, pp. 52-56 // VOLUME 69, NUMBER 3
READERS are invited to participate in an experiment in space-age disinformation. Take the line of text below, which is from the title page of a magazine, and ask several people what the proper citation of the document should be. That is, just which issue of the monthly journal are we looking at? What is the magazine’s issue date?
The line is as follows:
Volume 20 No. 7 July 1978 Published 25 June 1978.
Collect the results and keep them on hand. I’ll discuss them later.
There is a good reason for this exercise, and it has to do with the quality of Soviet disinformation products — false documents and leads released to confuse and mislead Western public opinion and to support Soviet policies at home. Often, such disinformation — particularly some recent cases, such as the “KKK letter” to Third
World Olympic athletes that was dripping with Jack London-style curses at least three generations out of use — is relatively easy to unmask. That leads to a question with an embarrassing answer: If the Soviets are so smart, why are they so clumsy about their propaganda?
The answer is that they don’t have to be very adept to deceive large segments of the Western news media and public. The deceived parties often take a remarkably cavalier attitude toward verification of stories they are inclined to believe in the first place. Unveiling of disinformation seldom gets the publicity that the original disinformation got, so the net effect is productive from the Soviet point of view.
This willingness to disseminate less-than-perfect disinformation products applies particularly to technical subjects, about which the average Westerner (even the average Western newsman) is abysmally ignorant. An excellent case in point is the recent flap over the alleged connection of the Space Shuttle with the South Korean airliner, KAL 007, in 1983.
In mid-June 1984, the story broke in London that a new study had disclosed a connection between the KAL 007 “spy mission” the previous September 1 and the mission of STS-8, the Space Shuttle Challenger. According to an article in the respected bimonthly magazine Defence Attaché, the spaceship was in proper position to monitor Soviet air defense radars and communications during the unfolding of the tragedy. The deliberate penetration by 007 was said to be a repetition of several 1964 incidents in which military aircraft flew into East Germany while an American electronics eavesdropping satellite (a “ferret”) orbited overhead.
The article, which was by-lined “P. Q. Mann,” was written, according to London newspapers, by Tony Devereux, a public-relations executive in London with no
The story spread around the world like wildfire. NBC-TV News in New York discussed it with a background graphic showing the Space Shuttle hovering over Alaska. The Washington Post gave it a prominent position. When the Baltimore Sun reprinted the article several weeks later (along with a refutation by its Pentagon correspondent), the two textual arguments were below the fold of a page that showed the Space Shuttle soaring directly over Sakhalin Island while the airliner fell in flames below it. And as might be expected, the Soviet media embellished the story and trumpeted it enthusiastically.
Apologies and Recantations
The affair later took a marked turn for the better after Korean Airlines filed a libel lawsuit against Defence Attaché in the British courts. Lawyers for the magazine quickly realized they did not have a fact to stand on. So they settled out of court, paying a “substantial” damage fee, repudiating the P. Q. Mann story, and apologizing to the airline for baselessly suggesting it would knowingly place its passengers in danger. Even before the case had come up in court, Defence Attaché had agreed to publish my detailed factual correction. My article appeared in the January-February issue of the magazine, which was published in late March 1985.
The magazine’s recantation received nowhere near the publicity accorded the Mann article. In fact, not a single Western newspaper, wire service, or television or radio station mentioned the rebuttal article, the left-wing media explained it away as being merely the practical way out of a long, expensive court fight that the small magazine, right or wrong, could not afford.
The Mann story had been factually absurd from the start, but nobody seemed to notice or care. The incidents over East Germany in 1964 did not involve a “ferret.” The satellite identified as such by Mann was a weather observation platform, which was obvious from its orbital path. And the Shuttle’s orbit never took it within radio or radar range of the Korean airliner or any Soviet transmitting facility. These facts were readily available to anyone who wanted to verify Mann’s claims.
Even the magazine’s editor, Rupert Pengelley, had quickly backed off after the Mann article came under question and after he had accepted my offer to write a rebuttal piece. “I am indebted to you for taking up the cudgels,” he wrote me the following month. “You will be doing us all an immense service if you could produce sober, factual, and succinct refutations of the assertions made by P. Q. Mann.”
The central question before us is this: Was the 1984 P. Q. Mann piece (and similar “spy scenario” claims in other Western journals) a deliberate Soviet plant? Or was it merely a “windfall” benefit to Moscow, engendered by the scientific illiteracy of the writers and editors? Before tackling those questions, let us review some additional journalistic history.
Some disinformation products have clearer fingerprints left on them than others. Probably the best example of clear fingerprints was the story that suckered in leading American journalists and editors in 1977 — a story in which I was directly involved during its later stages. It was claimed that the small West German rocket development corporation, OTRAG, was secretly building nuclear-armed cruise missiles for the West German military (and for South Africa, too) and was testing them in Africa. Further, the test range in Shaba Province of Zaire was being forcibly depopulated by Zairian troops, and hundreds of thousands of refugees were reportedly fleeing into neighboring nations.
Tad Szulc, a former New York Times reporter who more recently has written regularly for Parade, was the most famous journalist to take the bait. The story was apparently based in part on material that appeared in such known Soviet-front publications as Afrique-Asie, published in Paris, but Szulc may have received it from an intermediate source and detected no warning signs.
He sold his embellished version of the story to Penthouse magazine, which subsequently broadcast hyped-up allegations of NATO-backed West German militarists on the rampage. The national wire services highlighted the story, and Radio Moscow gratefully echoed all these “independent corroborations” of its own original claims.
The story, as it turned out, was baseless. The OTRAG rocketeers were really only a group of tinkerers trying to make a breakthrough (technological and financial) in space transportation systems. The engineers were building multistage ballistic missiles, not winged cruise missiles. They needed a near-equatorial site with lots of empty space around it for dropping expended stages during satellite launchings.
The reason for the launching of this fake “military missile” story soon became clear when Shaba Province (formerly known as Katanga) was invaded by an Angola-based and East German-armed band of former Katangan soldiers who took to plunder and slaughter before being driven out eventually by the hastily imported French Foreign Legion. About 2,000 people are believed to have lost their lives, and the provincial economy was crippled.
Meanwhile, the OTRAG allegations conveniently allowed most African nations to look the other way during the Communist-led invasion and to profess that it was an “internal matter” understandably provoked by NATO militaristic intervention in Africa. Some elements of the Western news media, presumably merely careless and sensational, obligingly helped lay the diplomatic groundwork for the invasion.
But how about those disinformation fingerprints? They were all over Szulc’s story. Most prominent was the misspelling of the full name of the German firm MBB, which was indicted by Szulc in the cruise-missile plot. In Penthouse, the second and third names were spelled “Belkov” and “Blaum.” In German, the names are “Bölkow” and “Blohm.” Why the errors? Merely sloppy notetaking or typographical errors?
Maybe, but the misspellings also happened to parallel the way the names are sometimes transliterated into Cyrillic, the alphabet used in the USSR. Anyone whose source material was derived from a document originally in Russian might misspell them in about the same way they appeared in Szulc’s article. Yet Szulc continues to insist he got the story from “top Washington sources.” have repeatedly made inquiries to him, requesting his explanation for the misspellings. His reply, even after many years, is a curt “I stand by my story.”
Another Soviet attempt to float spaceflight disinformation in the Western news media occurred early in 1984 in Japan. There, a writer named “Akio Takahashi” (which appears to be a pseudonym) published a booklet entitled The Crime of the President. The Provocation of the South Korean Airliner on Direct Order of Reagan. The Soviet press touted the book triumphantly, and Novosti quickly brought out a Russian-language edition. Observers suspected it was a plant, but there was no obvious proof.
Then I found some proof. It was part of the book’s phony claim that the earlier Korean airliner intrusion over Murmansk in 1978 was also coordinated with “Ferret-D” type satellites. (At random, any such satellites cover two-thirds of the northern latitudes on every orbit, so the alleged coordination was merely a coincidence.) Identification numbers of the alleged American spies-in-the-sky were given: 1974-085-3 and 1978-029-3.
But the international designators of satellites use the launch year plus sequence number for that year plus a Latin letter code in alphabetical order for various objects associated with each launch. The sixty-kilogram ferret satellites (“Ferret-D” is a purely Soviet designation anyway) on these launchings were hitchhikers atop thirteen-ton “Big Bird” reconnaissance vehicles, and their code numbers were actually 1974-085B and 1978-
029B. There were no objects in orbit at the time of the airliner penetration with either a “3” or a ‘C” in the designation.
“B,” of course, is not the third letter of the Latin alphabet. So why did Takahashi translate “B” as “3”? Well, Japanese has no character for “B,” so a straight transliteration from characters to numerals should have been written as 1974-085-2 and 1978-029-2. The symbol “B” does, however, happen to be the third letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. What these two terminology mistakes point toward is that whoever it was who made them —
whoever saw B” and wrote “3” — was likely working in the Russian alphabet. Examples such as these haven’t hurt the utility of disinformation activities.
The Role of Fronts
A leading role in this campaign is played by groups generally considered to be Soviet fronts, such as the US Peace Council, founded in 1979 by two leading officials of the American Communist Party, according to congressional testimony by the FBI. Late in 1984, the organization put out a pamphlet called “The Curious Flight of KAL 007” and written by Dr. Conn Hallinan, associate editor of People’s World, published in Berkeley, Calif. Pravda reviewed it in glowing terms, hut no other publication in the world (except perhaps the Daily World and Peoples World) touched it.
In the pamphlet, Hallinan repeats the 1978 spy satellite (for some odd reason. misspelled as “Ferrits” instead of “Ferrets”) identification numbers. “74085-3” and “72029-3,” and explicitly assigns the claim to the Soviets. But my further inquiries to track down the precise origin of the assertion went unanswered by Hallinan, who could only suggest in a private communication that perhaps some associate had gone through his files and removed that source article.
The biggest “KAL 007 spy scenario” article in the US was published in The Nation (whose credibility was still recovering from a 1977 report asserting that the tales of
“Cambodian genocide” under the Khmer Rouge regime were fictitious slander concocted by the CIA) in its August 18-25, 1984, issue. The article. “KAL 007 — What the US Knew and When We Knew It,” was written by David Pearson, a sociology graduate student at Yale. He displayed some ignorance of basic principles of radar, air traffic control procedures. spaceflight, and other key topics. but his conclusion — that the US was deeply involved — was welcomed by the magazine.
Pearson’s article mentioned the P. Q. Mann charges without judgment, but in later television interviews Pearson explicitly claimed that the Shuttle had carried a spy antenna (the object of his reference was, in fact, the “PFTA” dummy payload used to exercise the robot arm) to eavesdrop on Soviet radar and communications during the airliner’s final hours.
One of Pearson’s private sources was a long-retired aerospace engineer in California. But that mans own sources are of greater interest here. In a telephone interview with me, he referred to the author of the Defense Attaché article as “P. K. Mann” rather than P. Q. Mann.
Another honest mistake? Maybe. But, by coincidence, who uses the “K” for “Q”’? Readers should not be surprised to learn that since there is no ”Q” in the Cyrillic alphabet, all Soviet-media references to the name use ‘P. K. Mann” — even references subsequently translated hack into English for Radio Moscow broadcasts and elsewhere. Pearson’s source carried a clear fingerprint. At least some of his information came directly from Soviet sources.
Shortly before the airliner incident, a book appeared called “Inside the Soviet Army”. The author, a defecting Red Army officer, used a pseudonym, Viktor Suvorov. Most interesting is the author’s assertion that representatives of the Chief Directorate of Strategic Deception, helped by Soviet military intelligence, “have recruited a collection of mercenary hack journalists abroad through which it spreads false information, disguised as serious studies.” The Directorate of Strategic Deception was formerly headed by Marshal of the Soviet Union N. V. Ogarkov, who gave the official Soviet version of the
airliner’s “spy mission” in a carefully staged press conference in Moscow.
It must he stated clearly that there is no evidence that any of the journalists discussed here were in any way “agents of influence” or in the direct hire of the KGB. It does seem, however, that they were vulnerable to stories fed them through intermediaries.
What is disappointing is the uncritical acceptance given such questionable stories by a few supposedly professional, unbiased, news media representatives.
Overt attempts at KAL 007-related disinformation were made immediately after the downing. Geraldo Rivera of ABC’s 20/20 news program recounted on the first anniversary of the KAL downing how someone had fed his office a phony story about the airliner having been seen at Andrews AFB in Washington being outfitted with spy gear. Time magazine’s Washington bureau was also given this story, but quickly determined it was counterfeit. The claim that Richard Nixon had been scheduled for the flight but had been warned off by a call from the CIA seems to have popped up in West Germany, but probably originated somewhat to the east. A widely published account of a phony post-shootdown telephone powwow by State Department bigwigs discussing the best tricks of propaganda exploitation also appears to have been a work of fiction by experienced craftsmen of such products.
That some attempts were so patently transparent is no reason to assume that other stories of similar origin would not have been more subtle and of less obvious pedigree.
So, now, how about the Defence Attaché story itself? Who floated the “Space Shuttle connection”? The fingerprints on it are not nearly as clear-cut, in part perhaps because the magazine’s editor did heavy editing. But there are at least two smudges that are highly suspicious.
In reference to an allegedly supporting document (which, in fact, directly contradicts the main pillar of the article), P. Q. Mann cites an issue of Spaceflight magazine published by the British Interplanetary Society in London. He calls it the “issue dated July 7, 1978.”
Depending on the results of your survey (if you followed directions at the beginning of this article), you may have verified the results I got. To anyone whose native language is English, “No.” is obviously the abbreviation for “number” and goes with the volume reference; that is, it reads “volume twenty, number seven” (of course, July is the seventh month). But whoever did the article’s original research appears to have read the dateline as “7 July 1978.”
A few days after the P. Q. Mann article appeared, Izvestia published its own account of it. The Mann material was summarized, with a slight difference: Izvestia appeared to be quoting Mann as asserting (falsely, in fact) that all the STS-8 Space Shuttle’s astronauts were “senior military officers.” The Mann article as published did not contain this claim. One is tempted to ask if Izvestia possessed a prepublication draft.
Well, those “fingerprints” are badly smudged, and the author of the Mann article elsewhere shows remarkable scholarly ineptitude in discussions of basic space technology, so it is conceivable that the mistakes are innocent ones. The magazine’s subsequent unwillingness even to attempt a factual defense of the article suggests that its editors concluded that it was indefensible and that they were eager to close the matter as quickly and quietly as possible.
Mann’s own subsequent behavior has been puzzling and not a little suspicious. He refuses to “go public,” probably because anonymity fosters rumors of high-level contacts (American spyflight conspiracy nuts still insist Mann is really a top-level British military aerospace executive). He has not commented any further on the thesis, has not responded to any of the criticisms, and has not backed off an inch from the claims in the article. Pengelley relayed the word to me that “Mann’ would explain all these things to me “in confidence” — i.e., if I agreed never to discuss them in public. I refused such terms.
As for those elements of the Western news media that enthusiastically splashed the story in the public eye, they once again prove the value and true worth of such clumsy disinformation. If it’s critical of America, it will probably be widely disseminated without much attempt at verification. And when it is ultimately exposed, that fact will not be considered “newsworthy.”