Soviets Sponsor Spread of AIDS Disinformation
In October 1985, the influential Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) published an article alleging that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS virus during biological warfare research. The story further claimed that the virus was being spread throughout the world by U.S. servicemen who had been used as guinea pigs for the experiments.
None of that is true but it is the crux of a vicious disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union. It now has appeared in major newspapers of over 50 countries, promoting anti-Americanism. Most unfortunately, it has also distracted attention from the all-important task of educating people on the origin and prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS.
The disinformation was first planted in India because the most difficult obstacle the Soviets face in dealing with the Western press is that journalists insist on proper sources for a story. To overcome this problem, the Soviets often arrange for a Third World or communist newspaper to originate publication. Soviet media then repeat the story, using the foreign newspaper as their source. This was the procedure in the AIDS case.
The AIDS disinformation appeared where many other such anti-U.S. stories have begun--on the front page of the pro-Moscow Indian newspaper, Patriot (July 16, 1983). The source is a letter to the editor from someone described as “a well-known American scientist and anthropologist . . . who wants to remain anonymous.”
The story, headlined “AIDS May Invade India,” has a New York dateline. It begins:
“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. Now 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 pressure and persuasion.”
The obvious intent was to stir problems for the United States in South Asia. But that would depend on AIDS becoming a serious problem for the region in the near-term. It did not, so the story lay dormant.
Then, the Literary Gazette picked up the story, citing the Patriot. When then-U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur A. Hartman saw the report in the Soviet weekly, he wrote a letter of protest and asked that it be published. It was not. U.S. officials assumed that the protest, coupled with the outrageousness of the allegations, would limit the spread of the disinformation. It did not.
The story was not immediately a problem, however; few newspapers picked it up. Most major media are aware that Soviet publications are government-controlled and that much of what they publish regarding the United States may not be based on fact. Publications that did print the disinformation were primarily pro-communist or small papers in the Third World.
The Soviets apparently realized that few media were repeating the story and decided to try to enhance its credibility. In spring of 1986, Soviet media republished the AIDS allegations at least five times, repeating their sources of “proof.” For example, one article quoted a 1984 book by Jacques Liebovich, which claims that the AIDS virus could have been produced by biological warfare research. Another article cited Dr. John Seale, a London-based doctor who has frequently claimed that AIDS is a biological weapon.
For the educated public, however, the story still did not ring true. Most specialists in the field of viruses openly disputed the theory that the AIDS virus could technically have been produced in a laboratory--Soviet or American. And Seale’s reputation was called into question by a number of experts. For example, Finnish AIDS expert Dr. Jukka Suni was quoted in the Oct. 27, 1986, Helsinki Iltalehti:
“I know of Dr. Seale and of his reputation. He is a doctor but not a researcher. For years, I have read his writings and I think he is imbalanced or rather crazy. He is a prophet of doom who has been getting worse year after year.”
This same skepticism was reflected in statements by the medical correspondent for a respected London newspaper, the Guardian, on Oct. 26, 1986:
“For almost a year, Dr. John Seale, a Harley Street consultant, has been telling anyone who cared to listen that the AIDS virus is a germ warfare agent created in an experiment that went disastrously wrong . . . . He has at various times blamed both the Americans and the Russians for engineering the virus and releasing it in Africa . . . . The senior Russian AIDS specialist, Dr. Viktor Zhadanov, has dismissed Dr. Seale’s claims, as has one of Britain’s leading virus experts, Dr. Richard Tedder.”
The Guardian quote introduces one of the ironies of the AIDS disinformation campaign. Dr. Zhadanov is an expert, the author of over 100 scientific articles, a member of the Soviet Communist Party, a 26-year member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, an authority on viruses and a consultant to the World Health Organization on AIDS. He and other Soviet specialists have openly rebutted claims that the U.S. government could have produced the virus in a laboratory. Soviet officials will acknowledge this privately as well. Yet their propaganda apparatus persists in promoting the allegations.
The propagandists next turned to the so-called “Segal Report.” This 52-page paper, apparently written in mid-1986, is titled “AIDS: Its Nature and Origin.” The authors are: Dr. Ronald Dehmlow, a chemist; Dr. Lilli Segal, a retired researcher and professor of epidemiology, who has lived in East Berlin, and Professor Jakob Segal, of Russian descent, interested in bio-engineering. Both Segals taught in Cuba in the late 1960s. All three are affiliated with Humboldt University in East Berlin.
Despite numerous scientific errors and faulty conclusions, the report is an impressive addition to the campaign. Being full of technical jargon, a layman cannot judge its veracity. To anyone inclined to believe the disinformation, it appears convincing.
Upon learning of the Segal report, U.S. embassy officers in Berlin met on Oct. 10 with Dr. Lilli Segal to point out the fallacies. She repeated her allegations, citing as a source Urania Press, a publishing house run by the government of East Germany that disseminates propaganda to the general public.
On the same day, the Soviet news agency, Tass, repeated the false allegations yet again. This report probably stimulated stories that appeared in some Third World newspapers a few days later. For example, the Kampala, Uganda, Weekly Topic carried an article headlined “USA Warmongers Manufactured AIDS.”
Following publication of the Segal Report and the Tass output in early October, the AIDS disinformation campaign went from being a minor irritant to having a major impact on the U.S. image abroad. The big break for the Soviet campaign came when the London Sunday Express, on Oct. 26, 1986, reported the story. Because Western news media are widely respected throughout the world--coupled with the fact that the Sunday Express is sometimes described as a “right-wing” tabloid--the story now had a tremendous boost in credibility.
Hours after the Express repeat of the AIDS disinformation, it was picked up by a major wire service and electronically transmitted to newsrooms all over the world. Within weeks, the accusations were published in major newspapers in over 30 countries, repeated in hundreds of media in every region of the world.
Some readers may ask what difference it makes. Does such a story really influence perceptions of the United States? Does it actually hurt U.S. foreign policy? How can it damage U.S.-Soviet relations? Does it really impede our international battle against the deadly disease? A short answer can be provided by anecdote.
Because many scientists have speculated that the AIDS virus evolved in Africa and because the disease has taken its highest toll there, peoples on that continent are highly sensitive about the issue. Unfortunately, many Africans feel that they are being blamed for the disease.
Knowing that many Africans might unconsciously welcome an alternative explanation for AIDS’ origin, the Soviets focused much of the disinformation campaign on African media. The organization responsible for disseminating the Soviet version of news worldwide, Novosti, supplied the story to newspapers throughout the continent. And it was in Africa that the Segal Report first surfaced. Because this campaign--as well as other disinformation efforts--were so active in Africa, I visited there in November, 1986.
One evening, an African government official was telling me about the severity of the AIDS epidemic in his country. He began to chastise me for the United States having created the virus. I asked him why he thought so and he responded, “Obviously the United States is technically capable of almost anything. Also, why would such a story be in so many newspapers if it were not true?”
Only after detailing for him the origin of the story and providing statements from leading scientists, including Soviets, on the impossibility of artificially creating the virus, did he change his view.
Do the perceptions of foreigners matter? Those who have traveled abroad--and perhaps experienced anti-Americanism first-hand--know they do. The effects on the conduct of our foreign policy are even more serious. Let me offer a real example.
The Soviets broadcast the AIDS disinformation story, with its claim that U.S. soldiers are spreading the disease, to the Philippines, where the United States has important military bases. It was not coincidence that a Philippine women’s group organized opposition to the bases, claiming that our soldiers’ presence threatened their nation with AIDS.
Fortunately, we have been able to reply that stringent U.S. regulations prevent recruiting soldiers who have been exposed to the virus, and disallow service overseas to those who have already enlisted and have been exposed.
Because disinformation poisons the atmosphere for U.S. foreign policy, it also casts a pall over the attitudes of U.S. officials, scientists and others who interact directly with the Soviets. A prominent U.S. expert responsible for international cooperation in combatting the disease expressed frustration when he recently told me: “My colleagues and I want to share our AIDS research findings with any nation in need. It is a bit difficult, however, to promote scientific exchanges with a government that is accusing you of having done something so vile as creating the virus.”