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  • Operation "Denver"The East German Ministry of State Security and the KGB's AIDS Disinformation Campaign, 1985–1986 (Part 1)
  • Douglas Selvage (bio)

On 21 October 1985, Czechoslovakia's foreign intelligence stations in Washington, DC, and New York received a directive from Prague regarding active measures—that is, covert psychological warfare.1 They were to promote the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's "peace offensive" in the run-up to his first summit meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Geneva in November 1985. At the same time, they were to discredit the Reagan administration's "aggressive and militaristic" policies and in this way create a public contrast between Reagan and Gorbachev. The intelligence stations were to focus in particular on discrediting Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—that is, his planned "Star Wars" defensive shield against incoming Soviet ballistic missiles.2 The elimination of SDI was Gorbachev's top foreign policy [End Page 71] priority during his first two years in power. The Soviet leader worried that if SDI came to fruition, it would unleash another round of the U.S.-Soviet arms race—something that Moscow could ill afford.3

The instructions from Prague would not have come as a surprise to the Czechoslovak security service's great-power patron, the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB). The KGB's foreign intelligence division, the First Chief Directorate (FCD), and the latter's division for active measures, Service "A," had previously communicated these priorities to all the other Soviet-bloc intelligence services except for the Romanian.4 At the same time, the KGB had launched an initiative to augment the quality and quantity of active measures by its East European allies in early 1985.5 These efforts marked the KGB's response to several Soviet-bloc foreign and covert policy failures in 1983–1984, including the approval granted by Washington's West European allies for the stationing of U.S. long-range theater nuclear forces or "Euromissiles" on their territory and Reagan's reelection in a landslide in November 1984. This had happened despite the best diplomatic and propaganda efforts of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and the various organs of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The active measures of the KGB and its allies, especially in covert support of peace movements in the West, had also failed to have the desired effect.6 As Moscow struggled with the escalating costs of the nuclear arms race with the United States, along with the expense of its commitments overseas, the KGB threw itself and its allied services behind Gorbachev's various initiatives for arms control and redoubled its efforts to discredit and vilify the Reagan administration and its policies. To this end, the KGB and its allies should "expose" alleged U.S. efforts "to launch a nuclear war" and "to [End Page 72] conduct chemical and biological warfare"—requirements mentioned in the missive from Prague to its stations in Washington and New York.7

In the context of "discrediting" U.S. biological warfare, the missive from Prague in October 1985 contained a cryptic reference to a new disease: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).8 The KGB had recently launched an initiative that became one of its most successful propaganda efforts during the Cold War: its AIDS disinformation campaign. Evgenii Primakov, the head of the post-Soviet Russian successor agency to the KGB, confessed in 1992 that the KGB had initiated the campaign in the second half of the 1980s and then worked to spread the thesis internationally that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, had originated in U.S. government experiments to develop a new biological weapon.9 According to this thesis, the AIDS virus had been created for deployment in a future war or against various unwanted groups and minorities inside and outside the United States. This HIV-as-U.S.-bioweapon conspiracy theory stands as one of the most tenacious conspiracy theories to have arisen in the twentieth century, and it continues to spread today, especially throughout the Internet.10

In current public discussions, both the fabricated thesis and its global proliferation are often attributed solely to Moscow and the KGB.11 This suggests...


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