There has been a great deal of discussion about how one or another major international figure, and other relatively minor ones, are “in the pocket” of this or that political entity.
The fact is that all major governments have at their disposal organizations and individuals who specialize in these forms of deception often referred to as “disinformation.” In brief, this activity is simply a way to disseminate propaganda and sometimes even tactically false information for operational purposes.
The entire activity has been a staple of rival governmental activity since the earliest of times. Essentially, this political weapon is based on human frailties that are then exploited by the opposing group. The alternatives are endless.
It’s both an offensive and defensive weapon. We have seen it used recently in the case of the coronavirus where many in the international community placed blame on the Chinese government – seeking to embarrass Beijing. To protect themselves, the PRC responded with as many assets as they could muster to counter the charges. Unfortunately, the issue has involved many lives on all sides and is not simply a matter of political one-upmanship.
Occasionally, efforts to counter foreign espionage confuse the objectives of an activity mistaking disinformation operations for classified information gathering. In 2011 an attractive 26-year-old Russian national, Ekaterina Zatuliveter, had gained a residency permit in the UK. Britain’s MI-5 had clear information that the young lady had had an affair with a member of parliament who sat on the House of Commons’ Defense Select Committee.
Unfortunately for MI-5, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission refused to deport her. Subsequently, according to the FT, she then had another affair with a senior NATO official working on Soviet relations. This time she was again considered innocent as she was merely “an ambitious young woman with political interests.”
This must have been very embarrassing for MI-5, but it showed the professionalism of Soviet operations in the UK. The fact is that the operation was simply an adaptation of the old German intel activity known as the “schatzi” program that could be used to either gain classified information or spread false information.
Apparently, MI-5 missed the second part and relied on proving she was trying to gather secret information. Clearly, they really didn’t have that kind of proof and the Appeals Commission came down on the defendant’s side. Score one for the Soviets’ disinformation program.
Apparently, the Russians initiated the concept of operational use of disinformation when they established the office of “dezinformatsiya” in 1923 only several years after their revolution. At least that is what their national encyclopedia says. It is generally accepted now that the difference between disinformation and misinformation is that the former is intentionally spread, and the latter is matter of accident. It may seem a fine line, but the practitioners understand it quite well.
It is generally understood that espionage in one form or another goes on as a normal part of governmental activity. Finding out the other’s secrets is a given. However, active programs to influence another nation’s foreign policy and/or operations is quite another thing.
Disinformation takes on the character of aggressively seeking to influence rather than simply learning about what an opponent is seeking to keep hidden. The Japanese used disinformation in the autumn of 1941 when it engaged Washington in talks about peaceful solutions to US/Japan differences when the Japanese military was moving forward with the intent to destroy the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The two Japanese ambassadors in Washington were deeply involved in a key disinformation campaign. The activity worked and the U.S. was caught flat-footed.
Today the Iranians seem to utilize disinformation as a basic element of their operational philosophy. In their case, however, it is sometimes utilized as a method of forcing, or attempt to force, Washington into actions it would rather avoid. It truly is a “game of chicken” in which the Persians hope they can trick the Americans into an action that proves Washington is really a danger to peace in the Middle East – effectively a reverse of roles. The international press is involved in all aspects of this maneuver, sometimes quite unconsciously.
Disinformation, propaganda, monetary and amorous rewards work, but they all can be turned back on the initiator. The key to it all is timing. Timing to affect the desired aim and timing to discredit or destroy the operation. Ultimately, it is all a game – a game of games – and sometimes the loser is badly hurt. And sometimes the “winner” is also.