Disinformation squared: was the HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth a Stasi success?Politics Life Sci 2013; 32(2):2-99PL
When in May 1983 the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first securely attributed to a virus, eventually called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), many controversies arose. Among these was one centering on HIV's origin. A startling hypothesis, called here the "HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth," asserted that HIV had been a product, accidental or intentional, of bioweaponry research. While its earliest identifiable contributors were in the West, this myth's most dynamic propagators were in the East. The Soviet security service, the KGB, took "active measures" to create and disseminate AIDS disinformation beginning no later than July 1983 and ending no earlier than October 1987. The East German security service, a complex bureaucracy popularly known as "the Stasi," was involved, too, but how early, how deeply, how uniformly, how ably, and how successfully has not been clear. Following German reunification, claims arose attributing to the Stasi the masterful execution of ingenious elements in a disinformation campaign they helped shape and soon came to dominate. We have tested these claims.
Was the HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth a Stasi success?
Primary sources were documents and photographs assembled by the Ministry of State Security (MfS) of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), the Ministry of Interior of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, and the United States Department of State; the estate of myth principals Jakob and Lilli Segal; the "AIDS box" in the estate of East German literary figure Stefan Heym; participant-observer recollections, interviews, and correspondence; and expert interviews. We examined secondary sources in light of primary sources.
The HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth had debuted in print in India in 1983 and had been described in publications worldwide prior to 1986, the earliest year for which we found any Stasi document mentioning the myth in any context. Many of the myth's exponents were seemingly independent conspiracy theorists. Its single most creative exponent was Jakob Segal, an idiosyncratic Soviet biologist long resident in, and long retired in, the GDR. Segal applied to the myth a thin but tenacious layer of plausibility. We could not exclude a direct KGB influence on him but found no evidence demonstrating it. The Stasi did not direct his efforts and had difficulty tracking his activities. The Stasi were prone to interpretive error and self-aggrandizement. They credited themselves with successes they did not achieve, and, in one instance, failed to appreciate that a major presumptive success had actually been a fiasco. Senior Stasi officers came to see the myth's propagation as an embarrassment threatening broader interests, especially the GDR's interest in being accepted as a scientifically sophisticated state. In 1986, 1988, and 1989, officers of HV A/X, the Stasi's disinformation and "active measures" department, discussed the myth in meetings with the Bulgarian secret service. In the last of these meetings, HV A/X officers tried to interest their Bulgarian counterparts in taking up, or taking over, the myth's propagation. Further efforts, if any, were obscured by collapse of the East German and Bulgarian governments.
No, the HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth was not a Stasi success. Impressions to the contrary can be attributed to reliance on presumptions, boasts, and inventions. Presumptions conceding to the Stasi an extraordinary operational efficiency and an irresistible competence - qualities we could not confirm in this case - made the boasts and inventions more convincing than their evidentiary basis, had it been known, would have allowed. The result was disinformation about disinformation, a product we call "disinformation squared."