On March 30, CBS news anchorman Dan Rather reported that a Soviet "military publication" had said the worldwide AIDS epidemic began when the virus responsible for the fatal disease "leaked from a U.S. Army laboratory conducting experiments in biological warfare."
For this startling charge, Rather noted that the Soviet article "offers no hard evidence." But he said the article "claims to be reporting the conclusions of unnamed scientists in the United States, Britain and East Germany."
Whatever impression Rather's brief report may have left on his 15 million viewers, it produced unequivocal dismay in the State Department's office of active measures analysis and response, which monitors Soviet disinformation.
Kathleen Bailey, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of the 8-month-old office, said CBS inadvertently had handed the Soviet Union one more success in a complex, worldwide campaign that seeks to blame the United States for creating the virus for acquired immune deficiency syndrome in a malevolent program of biological warfare research and spreading it through servicemen abroad.
The CBS report "was not presented as disinformation, which is what it was, nor did (CBS officials) ask the State Department for comment," Bailey said. She noted that leading Western and Soviet researchers, whose views the state-run Soviet media have largely ignored, have given no credence to the allegations.
The Soviets, seeking to generate pressure for the removal of U.S. military bases overseas, have targeted a 2-year-old effort on AIDS in part on countries where U.S. bases are located. But the campaign also seems to have a broader aim of manipulating the deeply rooted fear of an incurable, contagious disease as an instrument for stimulating anti-American sentiment.
"The implications for U.S. foreign policy, if people believe this, are really profound," Bailey said. "Unfortunately, nothing we can do or say will have the impact of a Dan Rather on the evening news."
The Soviets' AIDS disinformation campaign has complicated negotiations for the renewal of leases on American military bases in the Philippines and Greece, fueled public anxieties in Japan and stirred deep currents of fear in Africa.
Moscow's new ambassador to Washington, Yuri Dubinin, denied during a meeting at The Times Washington Bureau on June 16 that the Soviets had orchestrated such a campaign and insisted that he had never seen such stories in the Soviet press.
Shown a copy of an article in Izvestia, the main Soviet government newspaper, headlined "AIDS--an American Gift," Dubinin said his government has "nothing to do with" such stories and has never taken an official position on the disease's origin. Soviet journalists, Dubinin contended, are free to report news under their own bylines, just as reporters are in other countries.
"To say that every journalist who signs his article was doing so on behalf of the government is not right," the ambassador insisted. "It's impossible. The government cannot look at every article. . . . Millions of articles are published in the Soviet newspapers."
U.S. government analysts and independent scholars, who dismissed Dubinin's response as absurd, say the campaign appears to reflect the darker side of glasnost , Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's selective use of openness in the Soviet press to gain the trust and support of the Soviet Union's professional middle class.
"The new Soviet leaders clearly have calculated that the short- and long-term benefits of the 'AIDS--Made in U.S.A.' campaign are well worth the costs," said Roy Godson, a specialist in Soviet propaganda techniques at Georgetown University in Washington.
Since the Soviet press launched its campaign in October, 1985, more than 200 newspaper stories, radio reports and forged documents have surfaced in 74 countries attributing the AIDS epidemic to American military research gone awry, according to U.S. tabulations. This year alone, more than 80 such reports have appeared, about one-third of them in the state-run Soviet media.
Although most non-Soviet stories have appeared in left-wing publications, others that have picked up the thread are the sensational London tabloid Sunday Express and even the staid and prestigious Le Monde in Paris. In addition, government analysts said, Moscow has beamed radio broadcasts to every country where the United States has military bases.
In the Soviet Union, Izvestia, Sovietskaya Rossiya and the armed forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda have joined the international news agency Tass and the Novosti Press Agency, which aims its material largely at foreign audiences, in the forefront of the campaign.
In letters last year to two Soviet newspapers, which refused to publish them, former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur A. Hartman called such stories "nothing more than a blatant and repugnant attempt to sow hatred and fear of Americans . . . and to abuse a medical tragedy affecting people all over the world, including in the Soviet Union, for base propaganda purposes."
The State Department formally protested late last year, and, in April, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop told a visiting Soviet delegation that cooperative research on AIDS would be "impossible as long as the disinformation campaign continues."
The protests have had no perceptible impact, and Georgetown University's Godson expects no change.
"Given Soviet objectives, the growing worldwide fear of AIDS and the early success of their disinformation campaign," he said, "Moscow is unlikely to cease and desist on this one any time soon."
For students of disinformation, the unfolding Soviet campaign has been a textbook example of Soviet technique in its global scope and its growing sophistication. By planting stories in obscure Third World newspapers and then recycling them through their own worldwide news services, the Soviets manage to give global currency to the "Made in America" label while disclaiming any responsibility for creating it.
The origin was a letter in the July 16, 1983, issue of the Indian newspaper Patriot attributed to an anonymous American anthropologist. The letter said the AIDS virus had escaped in the late 1970s from an Army biowarfare laboratory at Ft. Detrick, which it said was in New York. According to U.S. officials, the only AIDS research ever done at Ft. Detrick, the Maryland installation that was the Army's chief biological warfare research center in 1969, is a current study of the effectiveness of the drug ribavirin.
The Patriot, now supported partly by paid Soviet advertisements, was established by Soviet funds in 1962, according to Ilya Dzhirkvelov, a former KGB officer who defected in 1980.
Testifying last April as an expert witness in a London civil suit, he said the purpose was "so that we should have a publication which could publish our ideas and fulfill our purpose in trying to compromise American policy and in order to publish disinformation."
The AIDS story lay dormant for more than two years after the Patriot article. Then the widely read Soviet weekly, Lituraturnaya Gazeta, accused the United States in October, 1985, of engineering the AIDS virus and then letting U.S. servicemen used as guinea pigs spread it around the world. The source it cited was the letter in the Patriot.
Western news bureaus in Moscow picked up the story, echoing it within 48 hours from Stockholm to Managua to Calcutta. In the following months, whenever foreign interest seemed to flag, new stories with fresh twists on American complicity--increasingly tailored to play on local or regional concerns--have appeared in African or Latin American newspapers, to be faithfully recycled by Soviet newspapers and the worldwide Tass and Novosti news services.
The Izvestia article, headlined "AIDS--an American Gift," for example, repeated a story in the Ghanaian Times in January that said the United States had conducted "secret, well-disguised experiments with a vaccine in a number of African countries, as witnessed by the sharp growth in the number of AIDS cases in central and eastern Africa."
In India, the latest twist is a spate of stories alleging that Union Carbide had a hand in engineering the AIDS virus. That variant neatly ties fear of the disease to memories of the disaster at an American-owned chemical plant in Bhopal that killed 2,000 people in 1984.
The Soviets' "Made in the U.S.A." message has been facilitated by a sense of obligation among Western news agencies in Moscow, including the dominant American agencies, to report any seemingly serious accusation in the state-run Soviet press--and to do so with little or no additional comment that might seem to compromise the news agencies' objectivity.
The CBS story on March 30 appears to have been rewritten from an Associated Press story from Moscow that day. The AP summarized without comment an eight-paragraph story from Tass, whose source was not a military publication but a six-paragraph Novosti editorial.
Novosti, an arm of the propaganda department of the party's Central Committee, cited no specific sources and offered no facts to support its charges that the United States was violating the 1972 prohibition on biological weapons.
A spokesman for Rather said CBS aired the Soviet charge because "it was so extraordinary that we felt it was certainly worth reporting." The spokesman said that Rather felt that it was phrased with appropriate caution and that in any case no one was likely to take it seriously.
To support their charge that AIDS is the product of U.S. military research, the Soviet stories and their worldwide progeny consistently cite four "authorities": Robert Strecker, invariably described only as an "American scientist;" John Seale, "a prominent specialist working in London," and the East German husband-wife team of Jacob and Lilli Segal, whom the Soviet press often identifies as French.
Neither the American nor the Briton is a scientist. Both are practicing physicians who have circulated papers accusing the Soviet Union--not the United States--of spreading AIDS.
Seale, who operates a venereal disease clinic in London, wrote President Reagan last Sept. 21 to advise him of "strong circumstantial evidence" that Americans may have been infected with the AIDS virus "by government agents of the Soviet Union."
Strecker is a Los Angeles physician who, with his brother Theodore, has circulated a manifesto that accuses the "army of the Soviet Union" of launching a "bio-attack" on the United States through agents in the World Health Organization and the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health. It urges Americans to "retake the virology labs using force as necessary."
The two East Germans, Jacob and Lilli Segal, contend that the AIDS virus was manufactured at Ft. Detrick in 1977 by combining a virus that infects the nervous systems of sheep with a cousin of the AIDS virus that causes a rare form of cancer in humans. Western scientists point out, however, that the genetic material in the AIDS virus is almost entirely unique and that science has yet to create any living organism with unique genetic material.
"No reputable Russian virologist would back up this propaganda," said Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, a senior virologist at the National Cancer Institute.
And in fact, none has. Dr. Valentin Pokrovsky, president of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences, is one of several Russians who have curtly dismissed the idea of a man-made AIDS virus as improbable.
Interviewed in the May 2 issue of Kepes, a Hungarian weekly, Pokrovsky said: "I don't think it came from military experiments. I think it was naturally caused."