WASHINGTON — In October 1985, the influential Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) published an article alleging that the U.S. government had engineered the AIDS virus during biological warfare research. The story further claimed that the virus was being spread throughout the world by U.S. servicemen who had been used as guinea pigs for the experiments.
None of that is true but it is the crux of a vicious disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union. It now has appeared in major newspapers of over 50 countries, promoting anti-Americanism. Most unfortunately, it has also distracted attention from the all-important task of educating people on the origin and prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS.
The disinformation was first planted in India because the most difficult obstacle the Soviets face in dealing with the Western press is that journalists insist on proper sources for a story. To overcome this problem, the Soviets often arrange for a Third World or communist newspaper to originate publication. Soviet media then repeat the story, using the foreign newspaper as their source. This was the procedure in the AIDS case.
The AIDS disinformation appeared where many other such anti-U.S. stories have begun--on the front page of the pro-Moscow Indian newspaper, Patriot (July 16, 1983). The source is a letter to the editor from someone described as "a well-known American scientist and anthropologist . . . who wants to remain anonymous."
The story, headlined "AIDS May Invade India," has a New York dateline. It begins:
"AIDS, the deadly mysterious disease which has caused havoc in the U.S., is believed to be the result of the Pentagon's experiments to develop new and dangerous biological weapons. Now that these menacing experiments seem to have gone out of control, plans are being hatched to hastily transfer them from the U.S. to other countries, primarily developing nations where governments are pliable to Washington's pressure and persuasion."
The obvious intent was to stir problems for the United States in South Asia. But that would depend on AIDS becoming a serious problem for the region in the near-term. It did not, so the story lay dormant.
Then, the Literary Gazette picked up the story, citing the Patriot. When then-U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur A. Hartman saw the report in the Soviet weekly, he wrote a letter of protest and asked that it be published. It was not. U.S. officials assumed that the protest, coupled with the outrageousness of the allegations, would limit the spread of the disinformation. It did not.
The story was not immediately a problem, however; few newspapers picked it up. Most major media are aware that Soviet publications are government-controlled and that much of what they publish regarding the United States may not be based on fact. Publications that did print the disinformation were primarily pro-communist or small papers in the Third World.
The Soviets apparently realized that few media were repeating the story and decided to try to enhance its credibility. In spring of 1986, Soviet media republished the AIDS allegations at least five times, repeating their sources of "proof." For example, one article quoted a 1984 book by Jacques Liebovich, which claims that the AIDS virus could have been produced by biological warfare research. Another article cited Dr. John Seale, a London-based doctor who has frequently claimed that AIDS is a biological weapon.
For the educated public, however, the story still did not ring true. Most specialists in the field of viruses openly disputed the theory that the AIDS virus could technically have been produced in a laboratory--Soviet or American. And Seale's reputation was called into question by a number of experts. For example, Finnish AIDS expert Dr. Jukka Suni was quoted in the Oct. 27, 1986, Helsinki Iltalehti:
"I know of Dr. Seale and of his reputation. He is a doctor but not a researcher. For years, I have read his writings and I think he is imbalanced or rather crazy. He is a prophet of doom who has been getting worse year after year."
This same skepticism was reflected in statements by the medical correspondent for a respected London newspaper, the Guardian, on Oct. 26, 1986:
"For almost a year, Dr. John Seale, a Harley Street consultant, has been telling anyone who cared to listen that the AIDS virus is a germ warfare agent created in an experiment that went disastrously wrong . . . . He has at various times blamed both the Americans and the Russians for engineering the virus and releasing it in Africa . . . . The senior Russian AIDS specialist, Dr. Viktor Zhadanov, has dismissed Dr. Seale's claims, as has one of Britain's leading virus experts, Dr. Richard Tedder."