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Lies Of the Past Half Century

“Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed,” remarked journalist-gadfly I. F. Stone at the height of the Cold War. While some might quibble with the sweep of the statement, during the last half century national-security obsessions indeed often put the truth into cryonic suspension.

When the Reagan administration got caught scaremongering lies about Libya, secretary of State George Shultz felt obliged to quote Winston L. S. Churchill: “In time of war,” he said, “the truth is so precious it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Of course, the United States wasn’t actually at war with Libya, but it was, Shultz helpfully offered, “pretty darn close.” In fact, Shultz had his sequence of events a bit confused. It was the bodyguard of liew that actually helped get us “pretty darn close” to war in the first place – not exactly what Churchill had in mind.

It’s no secret that all governments sow scurrilous disinformation about their foes. Soviet commisssars convinced their subjects that all of America was a war zone of rampaging, psychopathic criminals. During the 1980s, Soviet propagandists latched on to the theory that AIDS was a biological weapon perfected in U.S. military labs and persuaded much of the third world that such was the case.

Soviet disinformationists also spread the rumor in Latin America that minions of the United States were abducting children in an evil scheme to steal human organs. This black pearl of calumny is still reverberating: In the past several years, several unfortunate (and innocent) American tourists visiting Guatemala have been killed or seriously injured by mobs of angry locals convinced that they were meting out justice to evil child abductors.

An oft-used CIA technique for “disinforming” Americans without breaking the letter of the law involved planting unattributed, or “black,” propaganda in the foreign press in hopes that the American media would pick up the bogus story. According to a 1977 New York Times report, former CIA officers “spoke of unmistakable attempts to propagandize the American public indirectly through ‘replay’ from the foreign press,” particularly during the Vietnam War. A 1970 CIA assessment spoke of “continued replay of Chile theme materials” in the American press, including the New York Times and Washington Post. “Propaganda activities,” the report went on, “continue to generate good coverage of Chile developments along our theme guidance.”

John Stockwell, head of the CIA’s Angola Task Force during the 1970s, has described planting a phony story in the African press about Cuban soldiers raping Angolan women. Days later, the story made headlines in the American press, as expected.

In wartime (or pretty darn close to it) that celebrated bodyguard of lies has often been mustered, usually to stir up popular support for military adventures. President Johnson used the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which American destroyers were supposedly attacked off the coast of North Vietnam but really weren’t, as a pretext to escalate the war. In the months leading up to Operation Desert Storm, the Bush administration endorsed, but didn’t concoct, the like that Iraqi soldiers ripped babies from incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital. Later, the Pentagon’s claims about the celebrated Patriot missile were exposed as being, shall we say, somewhat phantasmal. In fact, according to several independent analysts, the defense missile missed most of its targets – incoming Iraqi Scud missiles – and exacted a not inconsiderable amount of damage on the cities they were supposed to be defending.

West European intelligence officers were convinced that the Soviets were also adept at transforming the worldwide popularity of UFO speculation into their own crafty intelligence tool. The UMMO UFO cult of Spain – its adherents are convinced that they are in contact with extraterrestrial aliens from a cosmic government called UMMO – may have begun as a mischievous hoax. However, according to UFO researcher Jacques Vallee, the French government came to suspect that the Soviet Union had infiltrated the cult for obscure purposes that might have involved manipulation of religious belief systems. Vallee points out that many of the pseudoscientific “revelations” channeled to earthlings from the UMMO entities contained “very advanced” theories about cosmology. “Very advanced cosmology about twin universes,” Vallee explains, “involving some data that had to have come straight out of the unpublished notes of Andre Sakharov.” Only the KGB would have had access to those notes, French intelligence officials decided.

But why would the Soviets go to the trouble to manipulate an obscure New Age cult? Per Vallee, there are at least a couple of reasons: Cults are an ideal way to incubate ideas – and irrational belief systems – that might later prove destabilizing to enemy governments. Moreover, a cult might provide cover for foreign spies doing technical assessment; after all, the UMMO “channelings” were distributed to noted Western scientists, who were encouraged to correspond with UMMOs representatives on earth.

When it comes to the black art of espionage, we’ve come to expect the most devious means and the worst intentions. But there’s something especially rankling when the U.S. government purposely deceives the American public.

Not surprisingly, the CIA ever on the sociotechnological cutting edge, pioneered propaganda as a form of “mind control” to help mold public opinion during the heyday of the cold war. Once-secret CIA documents from the early 1950s describe “broad” mind-control operations both overseas and domestically (in violation of the Agency’s charter) and high-level meeting convened to discuss “the broader aspects of psychology as it pertains to the control of groups or masses . . . .” Drawing on the lingo of Madison Avenue, agency officials pondered “means for combating communism and ‘selling’ democracy.”

Consumers of this psychological bill of goods were often American citizens. Ironically, part of the propaganda operation was an effort to convince the public that it was the Soviets (and certainly not the CIA) who had unilaterally launched a “sinister . . . battle for men’s minds” involving “brain perversion techniques . . . so subtle and so abhorrent to our way of life that we have recoiled from facing up to them,” as agency director Allen Dulles intoned in a foreboding speech. Edward Hunter, a CIA propagandist turned “journalist,” coined the lurid term “brain-washing,” and the official government line charged the Chinese and Soviets with bleaching the patriotic brain cells of American soldiers, transforming them into robotic “Manchurian Candidates.”

In reality, though, then-secret CIA memos maintained that there was “no indication of Red use of chemicals” and that the Soviets had no interest in controlling minds via “narcotics, hypnosis, or special mechanical devices.” The CIA, on the other hand, did take great interest in brainwashing foreigners and Americans through its notorious MK-ULTRA program launched three days after Dulles’s scarifying speech. As authors Martin Lee and Norman Solomon wrote in their book Unreliable Sources, “It appears that the communist brainwashing scare was a propaganda ploy, a kind of ‘brainwashing’ or mind control in its own right designed to dupe the American people.”

But when it comes to disinformation in a wide-screen, Cinemascope format, the former thespian Ronald Reagan deserves top billing. Assisted by a gullible press corps, the Reagan administration fobbed off sundry falsehoods on an unsuspecting public.

Early in the Reagan epoch, the State Department reawakened cold-war angst when it released a white paper purporting to have exposed a global Communist conspiracy to arm El Salvador’s leftist rebels. The Commie brouhaha was later debunked as a hoax.

Soon after the El Salvador scare, Secretary of State Alexander Haig warned the world that the Soviets were spraying innocents in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan with a deadly chemical weapon. The poison, dubbed “Yellow Rain,” supposedly fell from the sky with devastating results. The hideous weapon turned out to be the natural drizzle of bee feces. State Department documents eventually emerged indicating that U.S. cold warriors pushed the false story despite warning by various government analysts that there was no evidence to back it up.

Then there was the aforementioned disinformation campaign against Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, who was fingered as the hub of an international terrorist network, the mastermind behind a plot to assassinate Reagan. The goofiest result of this campaign of canards was a New York Post headline that read: “MADMAN MOAMAR NOW A DRUGGIE DRAG QUEEN”! Alas, it was too good to be true. A memo from Iran-Contra fall-guy John Poindexter to Reagan later surfaced, describing a disinformation program to destabilize the Libyan government.

The Reagan administration took its propaganda efforts seriously enough to establish a de facto bureau of domestic disinformation, dubbed euphemistically the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD). Described by a high-ranking U.S. official as a “cast psychological warfare operation” aimed at the American public, the OPD was run by a CIA propagandist whom Director William Casey had transferred to the National Security Council in an effort to side-step the ban on CIA meddling in domestic affairs. The OPD enlisted army psywar experts in the campaign to win American hearts and minds over to Reagan’s foreign policy.

The OPD focused on Reagan’s Nicaragua obsession, especially “gluing black hats” on the leftist Sandinista government and “white hats” on the Contras, as a 1986 memo put it. In addition to producing slick flyers and lobbying Congress, the OPD slipped “scoops” to credulous reporters, including the canard that the Soviets planned to ship MIG fighter planes to Nicaragua.

In 1987 a General Accounting Office probe of the OPD concluded that the Reaganites had operated “prohibited, covert propaganda activities” at the expense of the American public. Jack Brooks, the congressman from Texas, called the OPD’s work an “illegal operation” intended “to manipulate public opinion and congressional action.” The OPD officially shut down soon after the Iran-Contra scandal began to make headlines.

And last, but hardly least, are more recent revelations that during the Reagan era the Pentagon doctored the results of “Star Wars” weapons testing. When criticized for concealing the less-than-stellar performance of the high-tech, multibillion-dollar boondoggle, military brass invoked that old Cold War rationale: We couldn’t afford to let the Russkies know we had a space-age lemon on our hands. Of course, fooling the Soviets necessarily meant pulling the wool over Congress and the American public, too. Which certainly didn’t hurt when it came time to ask for more astronomical funding.