When the Post reported on Russia’s intelligence services back in 1967, the KGB’s “Department D” did not get a lot of attention. It was the height of the Cold War (the Berlin Wall had gone up only a few years earlier) and the Soviet Secret Services posed deadly threats to the West. But today “Department D” has a new relevance.
The letter “D” stood for dezinformatsiya, a word coined by Soviet premier Josef Stalin to describe a policy of generating “fake news.” The department’s mission, according to the CIA, was to “defame and discredit” the United States by planting false or misleading articles about America in the media. Each year the department turned out over 350 derogatory news items, designed to “isolate and destroy” the United States.
Dr. Jim Ludes, who recently completed a study on Russian disinformation for the Pell Center, says that back in 1967, the Russians were exploiting racial unrest in America. They planted stories in American papers claiming Martin Luther King was a collaborator and an “Uncle Tom” because they thought his push for unity would strengthen America. After he was assassinated, they used the press to stoke resentment in the black community over his death.
Fifty years later, the old KGB is gone, replaced by the FSB, which does much of the same work and answers solely to President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer. But as American intelligence organizations have reported, some form of “Department D” is still very much alive.
According to Dr. Yuval Weber of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security in Washington, D.C., Department D is run by people like Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin confidante who ran a “Department of Provocations” — essentially a troll farm used to spread divisive and inflammatory stories before the 2016 presidential election. Weber says, “They engage in those sorts of activities without being official members of government, and if they’re successful can seek quasi-legitimate advertising contracts to cover disinfo operations. If they’re unsuccessful, they move on. It’s like a start-up culture in a sense.”
Russian disinformation, according to New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar, has one fundamental goal: “undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis.”
Russia has aimed a torrent of misinformation at the U.S. that has deepened political divisions within our country—and many others — through the creation of fake accounts and the deployment of bots. Russian disinformation has also been at the center of controversy as President Trump and some of his political allies downplay the extent of Russian mischief and interference in our political life.
The openness that characterizes U.S. society has helped the Russians. David Darrow, associate professor of Russian history at the University of Dayton, says, “Our open institutions — our free press and free market … make us stronger, but they pose risks, and the Russians have been quick to exploit them.”
Featured image: Illustration from the “The Espionage Establishment” by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross from the October 21, 1967, issue of the Post.