big three during World War II — were President Franklin Roosevelt,
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph
Stalin. In February 1945 they met in Crimea for what was arguably the
most important diplomatic event of the 20th century: the Yalta
conference. Stalin promised that free and fair elections would be held
in Eastern Europe — which was controlled by his vast Red Army. Those
elections were never held — and the countries in question — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria — were taken over by communist governments.
This reality was acknowledged a year later by Churchill — during a speech in Fulton, Missouri:
guns of the second world war had barely cooled — and now Churchill
warned of a new threat — a threat posed by the Soviet Union and its
was the unofficial beginning of a new war — the Cold War. And
disinformation — the manufacturing and spreading of knowingly and
deliberately false information — would play a huge role.
I’m Paul Brandus — and that’s the name of this series — it’s called, simply — disinformation.
topic of disinformation is huge, ever-evolving and touches upon every
nook and cranny of our society. War and peace, the economy, politics,
elections, culture, finance, religion, our belief system, everything.
And today — anyone theoretically, can do it — anyone can manipulate
audio, video, make things up — and post it online.
did we get to this point? Can we somehow control it? Who’s doing it?
How — and why? This series - a co-production of Evergreen and Emergent
Risk International - a global risk advisory firm — is devoted to
exploring these complex and intertwined issues.
our last episode, we discussed Disinformation and World War II — why
World War II? Because it laid the foundation for our world today. In
this episode, we talk about what came next. When the Iron Curtain
descended across the continent — as Churchill so eloquently put it — the
Cold War was on. And Disinformation played a huge role.
Wilson is chief executive officer of Emergent Risk International. Prior
to this she spent several years with the Defense Intelligence Agency
and in the private sector – primarily in the oil and gas industry.
So — in terms of disinformation — what was Moscow’s strategy during the Cold War?
Kolbe is the Director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard
University’s Belfer Center. He spent 25 years in the CIA’s Directorate
of Operations in a variety of positions — including operational and
leadership roles in the former Soviet Union. In terms of disinformation —
he says what the Soviets did then — during the Cold War — sounds aw fully familiar now.
the United States? Foment division? Try and divide NATO? Win hearts and
minds in Asia and Africa? As we consider current events — I’m obviously
talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine — it’s clear that when it
comes to disinformation — the Russians have just dusted off their old
there’s more to it than this. Calder Walton — also with Harvard’s
Belfer Center — is Assistant Director of its Applied History Project and
Intelligence Project. He’s written widely and deeply on intelligence
history — and its lessons for today.
point is a good one. It’s important to remember that a dictatorship, a
police state — like the Soviet Union was — and arguably Russia is today
under Vladimir Putin — uses disinformation not only against others —
like us — but also against their own people. It’s why most Russians
today, for example, appear to buy what the Kremlin and its state-run
media tells them about the war in Ukraine. We’ll explore this in a
future episode. But now — back to the Cold War.
sound from August 29, 1949 — of the first Soviet atomic test. The
United States no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. But unlike
the U-S, the Soviets had no way of delivering such a weapon. They had no
long-range missiles, no long-range bombers.
But by 1955 — the Soviets had found a way.
this Moscow air show — the Soviets unveiled a long-range bomber called
that WE called the “Bison.” — they called it the “Molot” - or “Hammer.”
And they flew 18 of them before an audience of western diplomats and
flew the planes in front of everyone — they’d disappear beyond the
horizon — loop back and fly over again — and again. It was a clever ruse
— clever disinformation — conveying the exaggerated impression that the
Soviets had lots of nuclear bombers — more than we did. Here again:
the first episode of this series, I explained how WE used
disinformation to fool the Nazis about our capabilities and intentions.
Now the Soviets — were doing the same thing — to us.
underscores one of the fundamental challenges of dealing WITH
disinformation — then and now — and it is this: How do you separate fact
from fiction? In the case of the bomber gap, Walton says it led to
mistakes — on our part.
of faulty assumptions — the so-called “bomber gap” led to the so-called
“missile gap” — which became a major issue in the 1960 presidential
election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It came up in one of
retrospect we know that this wasn’t true either — and as a sidebar —
there’s some evidence that Kennedy knew it wasn’t true — but charging
that the Republicans were soft on defense made for a good campaign
long Cold War — which ran from 1945 until 1991, when the Soviet Union
collapsed — has numerous other examples of disinformation. Arguably the
most famous — or infamous — concerns a hoax that the Soviets perpetrated
in the 1980s. That story in just a moment.
the most notorious example of Cold War disinformation began in July
1983 — when a newspaper in New Delhi, India — it was called the
“Patriot” — ran a story. Here’s the FIRST paragraph of that story:
“AIDS the deadly, mysterious disease which has caused havoc in the
U.S., is believed to be the result of the Pentagon’s experiments to
develop new and dangerous biological weapons.”
that these menacing experiments seem to have gone out of control, plans
are being hatched to hastily transfer them from the U-S to other
countries - primarily developing nations where governments are pliable
to Washington’s pressures and persuasion.”
— that was July 1983. One tiny third-world newspaper. But then — the
story began to spread. Other newspapers picked it up. Asia, Africa,
Europe. And then:
winds up on the CBS Evening News. That’s Dan Rather — on March 30th,
1987. A story about a virus — spreading LIKE a virus — all around the
How on earth does this happen? Here again — veteran intelligence officer Paul Kolbe:
Publications like a tiny newspaper — in India. It’s really quite masterful.
Calder Walton adds that there’s a crucial element as to why cons like
this spread so easily — it’s a human dynamic that’s obviously with us
today — and probably always will be.
isn’t rocket science. The story was planted, dressed up, the Soviets
got a scientist from allied East Germany to back it up. Walton says it’s
the perfect combination of the right story at the right time — and
taking advantage of those who were probably inclined to believe it.
course, not every disinformation campaign is successful — but when they
are, the falsehoods can plant deep roots. Even today — decades later —
there are those who still believe that the United States government
developed the AIDS virus.
take a step back and explain something. Americans often think that all
the KGB did during the Cold War — and all its successor — the FSB — does
now is collect intelligence through technical or human means. As the
Russians might say — (in Russian) — this is not true. Its principal
activity is disinformation — or ideological subversion.
Bezmenov spent years working for the KGB in India — posing as a
journalist. He defected in 1970 — and after being debriefed by the CIA,
he settled in Canada. He gave this interview in 1984:
brainwashing takes a long time, Bezmemov says. And with the United
States in mind, the first objective is to demoralize us — to make us
lose confidence in our system, distrust our institutions, and divide us
things might sound familiar in America today — of course who gets the
credit or the blame for that — is another question. Same thing about the
next step, which Bezmenov says is the destabilization of our system. He
says it only takes a few years to have people question whether our
government, our system, is stable or not.
third stage sounds familiar too. Given our recent history — the
aftermath of our last election and the storming of the Capitol —
Bezmenov’s words — again, spoken four decades ago — sound eerie:
— a long-term disinformation campaign — this former KGB operative
claims — plants the seeds for eventual destabilization — followed by a
possible overthrow of the government.
It sounds like some very recent American history — but you decide for yourself.
— Paul Kolbe — the longtime CIA veteran — agrees that Soviet
intelligence officers then, and Russians now — spend a huge amount of
time on disinformation and active measures.
Andropov that Kolbe is referring to was Yuri Andropov, who ran the KGB
for 15 years before becoming Soviet leader himself in 1982.
course the great irony here is that while the Soviets were working so
hard to undermine the West from within — to weaken it, to make Americans
disillusioned and cynical — to foment destabilization — their OWN
system, built on lies — and its own disillusionment and cynicism — was
leader Mikhail Gorbachev — in August 1991 — the interpreter telling the
world he was cut off — as a coup toppled the Soviet government. The
coup failed after a few days — but by year’s end — the Soviet Union was
And that was it — the Cold War was over.
The Soviet Union — the Soviet empire — spanning eleven time zones —splintered into 15 countries. But while the Soviet Union was no more — its intelligence agencies — and practices — remained.
years later, on New Year’s Eve 1999 — the final day of the 20th century
— a longtime KGB man — took over. His name: Vladimir Putin.
powers of the state have been turned over to me — he said. That was
nearly a quarter-century ago. Putin would later call the collapse of the
Soviet Union — the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th
The greatest catastrophe of the 20th century? Not World War II — when some 25 million Soviet citizens were killed? Not the Holocaust? No. It was — HE thought — the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire. That, Vladimir Putin would say, that was the worst of all.
as the world now well knows — the once-and-forever KGB man would like
to glue that empire back together. Here he’s announcing the beginning of
the war in Ukraine — of course — he’s using disinformation on his own
people, calling it quote — a special military operation. It seems that
while the Soviet Union is history — the traditional reliance on
disinformation remains very much alive and very much a key pillar of
Russian efforts to advance its agenda.
In our NEXT episode:
The weaponizing of free speech — and with social media as an accelerant.
Thanks to Meredith Wilson, Paul Kolbe, and Calder Walton. Also to the National Archives, CBS and Stanford University.
Our Sound designer, editor and engineer Noah Foutz.
Executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
I’m Paul Brandus — thanks so much for listening.