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AIDS: A GLOBAL ASSESSMENT : Soviets Suggest Experiment Leaks in U.S. Created the AIDS Epidemic

August 09, 1987|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On March 30, CBS news anchorman Dan Rather reported that a Soviet "military publication" had said the worldwide AIDS epidemic began when the virus responsible for the fatal disease "leaked from a U.S. Army laboratory conducting experiments in biological warfare."

For this startling charge, Rather noted that the Soviet article "offers no hard evidence." But he said the article "claims to be reporting the conclusions of unnamed scientists in the United States, Britain and East Germany."

Whatever impression Rather's brief report may have left on his 15 million viewers, it produced unequivocal dismay in the State Department's office of active measures analysis and response, which monitors Soviet disinformation.

Kathleen Bailey, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of the 8-month-old office, said CBS inadvertently had handed the Soviet Union one more success in a complex, worldwide campaign that seeks to blame the United States for creating the virus for acquired immune deficiency syndrome in a malevolent program of biological warfare research and spreading it through servicemen abroad.

The CBS report "was not presented as disinformation, which is what it was, nor did (CBS officials) ask the State Department for comment," Bailey said. She noted that leading Western and Soviet researchers, whose views the state-run Soviet media have largely ignored, have given no credence to the allegations.

The Soviets, seeking to generate pressure for the removal of U.S. military bases overseas, have targeted a 2-year-old effort on AIDS in part on countries where U.S. bases are located. But the campaign also seems to have a broader aim of manipulating the deeply rooted fear of an incurable, contagious disease as an instrument for stimulating anti-American sentiment.

"The implications for U.S. foreign policy, if people believe this, are really profound," Bailey said. "Unfortunately, nothing we can do or say will have the impact of a Dan Rather on the evening news."

The Soviets' AIDS disinformation campaign has complicated negotiations for the renewal of leases on American military bases in the Philippines and Greece, fueled public anxieties in Japan and stirred deep currents of fear in Africa.

Moscow's new ambassador to Washington, Yuri Dubinin, denied during a meeting at The Times Washington Bureau on June 16 that the Soviets had orchestrated such a campaign and insisted that he had never seen such stories in the Soviet press.

Shown a copy of an article in Izvestia, the main Soviet government newspaper, headlined "AIDS--an American Gift," Dubinin said his government has "nothing to do with" such stories and has never taken an official position on the disease's origin. Soviet journalists, Dubinin contended, are free to report news under their own bylines, just as reporters are in other countries.

"To say that every journalist who signs his article was doing so on behalf of the government is not right," the ambassador insisted. "It's impossible. The government cannot look at every article. . . . Millions of articles are published in the Soviet newspapers."

U.S. government analysts and independent scholars, who dismissed Dubinin's response as absurd, say the campaign appears to reflect the darker side of glasnost , Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's selective use of openness in the Soviet press to gain the trust and support of the Soviet Union's professional middle class.

"The new Soviet leaders clearly have calculated that the short- and long-term benefits of the 'AIDS--Made in U.S.A.' campaign are well worth the costs," said Roy Godson, a specialist in Soviet propaganda techniques at Georgetown University in Washington.

Since the Soviet press launched its campaign in October, 1985, more than 200 newspaper stories, radio reports and forged documents have surfaced in 74 countries attributing the AIDS epidemic to American military research gone awry, according to U.S. tabulations. This year alone, more than 80 such reports have appeared, about one-third of them in the state-run Soviet media.

Although most non-Soviet stories have appeared in left-wing publications, others that have picked up the thread are the sensational London tabloid Sunday Express and even the staid and prestigious Le Monde in Paris. In addition, government analysts said, Moscow has beamed radio broadcasts to every country where the United States has military bases.

In the Soviet Union, Izvestia, Sovietskaya Rossiya and the armed forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda have joined the international news agency Tass and the Novosti Press Agency, which aims its material largely at foreign audiences, in the forefront of the campaign.

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