Valid over three years within the past, on a bitingly cold spring day, I drove out to Rockport, Massachusetts, a puny town on the tip of Cape Ann, to meet with a defector from the oldschool Soviet bloc. I had been on my ability to Washington, DC, to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference within the 2016 presidential election, but this detour gave the impact too correct to hotfoot up: The defector, Ladislav Bittman, knew more referring to the dark arts of Frosty Battle disinformation than anyone alive. The truth is, a aged head of the KGB’s mighty disinformation unit had as soon as praised Bittman’s memoir as belief to be one of the 2 ultimate books on the topic. Bittman greeted me at his front door, a bald man with a wizened face and youthful eyes, and ushered me accurate into a restful wood-paneled room. It adjoined his studio, where he made modernist work.
Prior to his defection in 1968, Bittman was a necessary within the StB, Czechoslovakia’s famously aggressive express security company. He served at a time when the Soviet Union and its satellite tv for pc republics had been getting into what he called “a brand unique generation of secret games and intrigues in opposition to the non-Communist world.” Jap intelligence companies, love their Western counterparts, had long believed that their necessary feature was to procure recordsdata; now, within the never-ending ideological tug-of-war with liberal democracy, they began to stare accurate price in spreading disinformation, in undermining Western societies with what they called “energetic measures.” Bittman was the deputy chief of Department 8, which no doubt professional in these “soiled strategies,” as he as soon as described them to a congressional committee.
It took a distinct roughly particular person to work in disinformation, on either aspect of the Iron Curtain. Recognizing weak point in adversarial societies, seeing cracks and fissures and political tensions, recognizing exploitable historical traumas, after which writing a solid pamphlet or letter or book—all of this required officers with unprecedented minds. Bittman was belief to be one of them; he was engrossing, methodical, and had a solid appetite for threat. The trick, he said, was to combine factual particulars with solid ones, because for disinformation to be triumphant in success it must “as a minimal partly correspond to actuality, or on the total popular views.”
Sitting with him in Rockport, I may possibly presumably presumably expose he’d been compatible to the work: He listened fastidiously, paused generally to deem, and spoke with deliberation. His reminiscence and a focus to explain had been fabulous—namely as eager belief to be one of his proudest accomplishments, an energetic measure called Operation NEPTUN.
For years after the close of the 2nd World Battle, the public was entranced by rumors that the Nazis had concealed some of their stolen treasures, alongside side gold bullion, at the underside of Lake Toplitz within the Austrian Alps. A six-week authorities-funded expedition in 1963 uncovered no gold, but a distinct develop of love did emerge—12 chests of Nazi-counterfeited British forex, two chests of pretend printing plates, and diverse misleading stamps. The delusion was correct correct adequate to preserve folks wondering: The place aside else may possibly presumably presumably Hitler own hidden his loot?
In April 1964, a complete lot of months after Austria called off its search, the producers of Czechoslovak TV’s Spellbinding Digital camera determined to mount a identical expedition in their very occupy country. They dispatched a team of divers and a documentary movie crew deep into the Bohemian Wooded space—midway between Munich and Prague and nearly accurate now on the border between East and West—to a pair of adjoining lakes, Devil’s Lake and Shaded Lake. All the very top way during the war, Wehrmacht and SS units had occupied a now burned-out cottage overlooking Shaded Lake, and native lore had it that the bodies of water had been hiding a dark secret.
The TV producers required authorities approval to search the lakes, which intended that Czechoslovakia’s Ministry of the Interior was in on the hump from the beginning—and so, by extension, was Department 8. Bittman, who took net site to be a certified sports activities diver, joined the TV crew, posing as a pleasant ministry official. He took fragment within the preliminary stare of the thick, loose layer of mud on the ground of Shaded Lake. Three days later, he sent a memo to his superiors spelling out what would was Operation NEPTUN.
Within the memo, Bittman defined that the preliminary dive had grew to was up an “necessary finding”—a soldered metal field stuck within the mud nearly 40 feet down. Department 8, he immediate, may possibly presumably presumably exploit the coming publicity by planting more packing containers on the lake floor. They may possibly presumably presumably be stuffed with legitimate Nazi paperwork, alongside side lists of wartime informants, which can presumably presumably be supplemented with a pair of appealing forgeries later on. Given “the romanticism associated with the Shaded Lake and Devil’s Lake, and the ability these materials will most doubtless be stumbled on,” he wrote in the main proposal for NEPTUN, the fable “will most doubtless be aesthetic to an even replacement of readers, namely within the West.”
As Bittman imagined it, the operation would close a complete lot of political targets. The 20th anniversary of the Third Reich’s resign was a One year away, and in line with the West German prison code, obligation for abolish dedicated for the length of the war would expire on that day. Some increasing outdated aged Nazis restful held positions of affect, and Department 8 was eager that accusations in opposition to them of wartime misdeeds—both precise and misleading—would soon lose their edge. (Blackmail, in any case, is a critical instrument for recruiting spies.) NEPTUN would preserve those accusations within the public watch, Bittman wrote, embarrassing top West German officers and encouraging “anti-German traits within the West.” The operation may possibly presumably presumably additionally wreak havoc accurate during the BND, West Germany’s spy company. If, as the StB assumed, many informants who had worked with the Nazis had been restful informing for the BND, the leak would incapacitate the company’s sources.
Czechoslovakia’s inner minister popular Bittman’s proposal, and Department 8 began its occupy diving stare of Shaded Lake—this one geared no longer to finding a love but to hiding one. Within six weeks, the StB had fastidiously planned out most aspects of the operation. It had taken water samples; bought unique diving equipment, alongside side depth meters and decompression tables; outlined safety procedures; marked the fitting space on the lake mattress; and laid out a timeline for your complete scheme. Yet one aspect of Bittman’s thought had hit a snag: The Nazi paperwork had been surprisingly onerous to assemble.
Any oldschool recordsdata wouldn’t close. They desired to be precious to the press—sensational, ideally—and their contents needed to be unknown to historians and the broader public. A bunch of Department 8 officers had frantically searched the Czechoslovak archives, taking care no longer to tip off the true archivists, but to small avail. At closing, Bittman requested his KGB advisers for wait on. Moscow came abet with an provide to ship a shipment of precise Nazi paperwork to Prague. The provision, nonetheless, would clutch a whereas.
Department 8 determined to forge forward for the time being. The Czech officers stuffed four wood packing containers with easy sheets of paper, done the packing containers’ grey-inexperienced floor to originate them watch twenty years oldschool, sealed them, coated them with asphalt, linked 160 kilos of weights, and loaded them accurate into a Soviet GAZ truck. Insensible on the evening of June 19, 1964, the GAZ living off off from Prague, trailed by a civilian car with four passengers: Josef Houska, the manager of Czechoslovak International Intelligence; Jiří Stejskal, the head of Department 8; Bittman, Stejskal’s deputy; and a KGB adviser. One day for the length of the long evening force, Bittman recalled, he glanced over to his boss’s boss, Houska, who regarded disquieted; Bittman knew that if the operation failed, Houska’s profession would close.
The group arrived at Shaded Lake at two within the morning. They laid a rubber raft on the water’s floor and loaded it with the four packing containers. Bittman and one other diver checked their equipment; positioned on their wet fits, masks, fins, and Aqua-Lungs; and tugged the raft out to the fall point. Visibility was about 65 feet. On his ability down, Bittman’s partner lost belief to be one of his impress-unique Bonito Neat Fins. Nervous referring to the floating forensic evidence left at the abet of, they carried on, pointing a lamp toward the lake bottom and rapid figuring out the preselected space, where the mud was shallow. Bittman positioned the packing containers there and lined them frivolously with mud. On the ability up, he seen the lost fin and grabbed it. By 5 o’clock, the team had packed up and left.
Next came the mock discovery of the paperwork. The Spellbinding Digital camera crew started its search at Devil’s Lake, correct over a mile to the south. To the StB’s surprise, the team in point of fact stumbled on sunken explosives there, which had been later detonated in a inner reach meadow, establishing a plume of unlit smoke and a 3-man-deep crater. Department 8 was gay: The surprising drama would, it assumed, add credibility to the Shaded Lake ruse.
Nearly a week later, the TV crew by some means stumbled on the sunken packing containers. Shaded Lake was closed off to the public. Photographers took photography of the recovered objects, which had been soon transported by motorcade to Prague. A team of authorities engineers, who weren’t in on the deception, dutifully X-rayed the packing containers and positioned them in a trench, designed to provide safety from a blast may possibly presumably presumably restful the packing containers own explosives. Then, the spend of a pulley system, the engineers gingerly opened the packing containers, leaving the innermost envelopes intact.
In a detailed memo, the engineers concluded that the ability the paperwork had been stored pointed to “snappily, improvised work” done by somebody with out necessary technical ability—precisely as may possibly presumably presumably be expected of “a withdrawing navy in disarray.” In accordance with a authorities press commence dated July 16, they forwarded the packing containers to “a gaggle of experts” for further diagnosis. The following day, the Associated Press and a complete lot of alternative mountainous European newspapers reported the fable, and the delusion of Shaded Lake was born.
Courtesy of Archiv bezpečnostních složek (Czech Security Services and products Archive)
Department 8’s misleading Nazi packing containers, stuffed with easy recordsdata, on the ground of Shaded Lake.
Nearly two months passed, and Moscow restful hadn’t mailed the promised recordsdata to Prague. The Interior Ministry needed to act. In unhurried August, it announced that an eagerly anticipated global press conference may possibly presumably presumably be held on September 15. Bittman and his colleagues grew to was an increasing number of nervous. At closing, 5 days before the press conference, a Russian envoy arrived at StB headquarters with a complete lot of sacks beefy of Nazi paperwork—nearly 30,000 pages in complete. (I received these data from the Czech Security Services and products Archive for the length of the research for my drawing shut book, Active Measures, and am disclosing them on the Web Archive.)
Reasonably selected intelligence analysts pored over the paperwork, trying to assemble fabric they may possibly presumably presumably spend. The Soviets claimed they had been all precise, but Department 8 suspected that some may possibly presumably presumably be solid. A replacement of the paperwork had handwritten Cyrillic annotations within the margins, which made them not in all probability to make spend of within the operation; but that did wait on persuade the Czech analysts that the recordsdata had been legitimate, because no KGB forger would add accurate Cyrillic notes to a misleading SS memo.
Bittman’s team selected about 160 pages. Essentially the most sensational of the paperwork printed particulars on assorted Nazi misdeeds. There was unique fabric a pair of failed putsch in Austria in 1934, and about SS brokers spying on their Italian Fascist allies. One secret file, called the “S-Understanding,” spelled out “the arena’s finest act of sabotage”: A Nazi geologist proposed to bore a extremely deep gap reach Calais, fall an explosive designate into it, and thereby living off a necessary earthquake within the English Channel. The aspiration was to fall London beneath the sea, at the side of facets of southern England, where Allied forces had been massed for assault—after which no longer expose anyone about it. (The “S” in “S-Understanding” stood for “sinking.”) The Czechs contributed a pair of Nazi paperwork of their very occupy, most notably on the forced expulsion and killing of big numbers of Jews from German-occupied Bohemia and Moravia. Department 8’s preliminary thought was for NEPTUN to disgorge ultimate legitimate paperwork, to permit credible apply-on forgeries in later operations focused in opposition to top West German officers.
On September 15, the Interior Ministry held its long-awaited press conference in Prague. The minister spoke for an hour in numbing explain. Czechoslovak diplomats and intelligence officers, searching for to malign West Germany, confidentially shared paperwork with the US, British, French, and Dutch embassies, at the side of Simon Wiesenthal’s Jewish Documentation Heart in Vienna, helping generate global publicity.
The StB soon concluded that the misleading within the lake had been a spectacular success. By March 1965, Houska reported in a self-congratulatory memo to the inner minister, there had been 25 reports printed within the Italian press, 18 in West Germany, and seven in Austria; the protection additionally prolonged to Britain, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Latin The US, Africa, and the US. The West German Parliament, Houska boasted, was buckling “below the regular public force that we led to,” and would soon extend the statute of barriers on war crimes. What’s more, he wrote, “we succeeded in horrifying and supporting traits and moods in opposition to the Federal Republic of Germany.” And by some means, he added, “it is also assumed” that the StB “pretty disrupted” West German intelligence. The KGB regarded as if it would agree. About a months later, the head of the First Chief Directorate himself wrote a letter to Houska announcing NEPTUN had had “a big political enact.”
Yet there was small real evidence for these breathtaking claims. Parliament did indeed extend the statute of barriers for war crimes, but NEPTUN likely performed a minor feature, if any: Germany’s coming to terms with its dark past was a substantial, decades-long, identity-defining route of that was then correctly below ability. Likewise, proving any causal enact on Germany’s image within the West stays advanced.
It is far more uncomplicated, in hindsight, to stare NEPTUN’s shortcomings. Only a pair of within the Interior Ministry had been responsive to the deception. Worthy of the authorities, the official press company, and the public, apart from the broader Soviet bloc, was more thoroughly disinformed than was the adversary. Worse, the StB may possibly presumably presumably no longer even exclude the belief that it had been performed by the KGB.
Once I visited Bittman in Rockport, I requested him how one went about measuring the ripple outcomes of a disinformation operation. “I don’t deem it’s that you just may possibly presumably presumably agree with to measure precisely, realistically, the affect,” he told me. Within the case of NEPTUN, he admitted, “the theoretical chance exists that one of the most material had been falsified by Soviet experts.” He recalled sitting in Department 8’s offices overlooking the majestic Vltava River sometime after the Shaded Lake dive concluded. Ivan Agayants, a colonel within the KGB, was there, leafing through a mountainous pile of newspaper clippings. “Most regularly I’m amazed how easy it is to play these games,” Bittman recalled Agayants announcing. “If they did no longer own press freedom, we would must affect it for them.”
Excerpted from Active Measures: The Secret Ancient past of Disinformation and Political Battle, by Thomas Rid. Printed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 21, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Rid. All rights reserved.
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