In the course of a 30-year career with CIA, one that began a few years after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, and ended a handful of years after it came crashing down in 1989, I was an active player in the propaganda games, the CIA Covert Actions of those Cold War years. I was also an occasional target of the KGB's propaganda games, their Active Measures. The contest between the KGB and the CIA was wild and woolly, but there were some rules. At least for our side. At least then. Now those same cutthroat tactics used in the great power standoff of the last century are being adopted and adapted as normalized strategies by the American political establishment in the election contest of a generation.
Early on in the Cold War, the US Congress mandated that CIA should not allow its Covert Action (CA) propaganda themes against the Soviet Union to be played to American audiences. In effect, we were proscribed from even inadvertently propagandizing the American public. There were a number of good reasons for this prohibition, not the least of which was that as often as not, the most successful CA attacks against the Soviets were based on partial truths, or even outright falsehoods. That was fair enough in the almost half-century face-off, where truth was never as essential as “will it play?”.
CIA did its best to operate within those constraints; but there were a few notable exceptions where a story burst into the American media and the nation’s conscience on its own. In some cases, such a story might have been picked up by the CIA and folded into its own effort abroad with unintentional spillover into the US media. in other cases, a story might have had the sheer dramatic force to make its own way int the U.S. media. In those instances, there was little CIA could do but make sure its fingerprints were not on the story, and stand by and watch as the spectacle rolled out across the world and across America.
One notable example of such a story involved accusations of the use of toy bombs by Soviet forces in Afghanistan during their decade-long military occupation of that country. In the mid-1980s, a little story, vaguely sourced to Afghan resistance fighters in Peshawar, Pakistan, popped accusing the Soviets of using toy bombs — air-dispensed munitions purposely designed to kill or injure Afghan children. The story was buried within a continuous stream of rococo, sometimes hard-to-believe yarns circulating in the Pakistani frontier city. Almost overnight, toy bombs went mainstream and the story was in full bloom internationally. It had, indeed, a life of its own.
The account sparked outrage across the world, with its most explosive reaction in the U.S. Articles condemning the brutal tactic of disguising bombs as toys for the explicit purpose of maiming or killing Afghan children appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times to the Harvard Crimson, and almost everything in between. Major U.S. networks acquired footage, often cooked or staged, showing just how the toy bombs supposedly worked. There was even a demonstration on a popular Sunday evening news magazine showing a “captured toy bomb” disguised as a Russian Matryoshka doll exploding with devastating effect. What could have a greater impact than the vision of a Russian nesting doll exploding in the hands of a little Afghan girl out tending the family’s goats! The massive media coverage even prompted an investigation by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
It was wonderful, spontaneous CA, entirely self-generated. The whole world was piling on the Evil Empire for its brutal, wanton attacks on Afghan children. It knocked the Soviets off-balance in Afghanistan and around the world.
But it was bogus.
As CIA chief in Pakistan in 1986, my mission included managing the Agency’s massive CA program in support of the Afghan Mujaheddin. In a role patterned after that of a 19th century British Political Agent in the Northwest Frontier, I was quartermaster and political adviser. I supplied thousands of tons of weapons to the Afghan Resistance, and guided their propaganda efforts, all for the single purpose of driving the invading Soviet 40th Army from Afghanistan.
As the toy bomb story grew exponentially, and since CIA had no direct involvement in its creation, I wanted to be sure Langley had the facts. I reported that the so-called toys that had, to be sure, injured and killed so many Afghan children were actually Soviet sub-munitions known as "butterfly bombs”, PFM-1 air-dispensed anti-personnel bomblets that became armed after striking the ground. These munitions, I reported, dispersed in great numbers in the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, did, indeed, attract the curiosity of Afghan children; and, upon disturbing them in even the slightest, the bomblets would explode, killing or seriously injuring the child. In effect, horrific numbers of Afghan children were being killed and maimed by Soviet butterfly mines. But also, to be sure, these were not sub-munitions intentionally disguised as toys, a distinction that might actually be a difference. (See image below)
In response, I received an off-the-record secure telephone call from Langley in which I was advised that both the CIA Director, Bill Casey, and President Reagan himself were deeply moved by the toy bomb story. It was a perfect fit with the president’s depiction of the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire” and loved by all hands at the Reagan White House. In that exchange I also pointed out that the Soviet PFM-1 butterfly mine was a shameless Soviet copy of the U.S Dragons Tooth BLU-43 submunition dispersed in great numbers during the Vietnam war, with pretty much the same, sad and continuing effect on children more than a decade after the war ended. I made it clear that I was not against promoting the toy bomb story — it was effective beyond any CA specialist’s wildest dream — I was simply ensuring that CIA had an understanding that the story was false and that the Soviets might take a deeper dive into the narrative. In that case we might be prepared for a counterattack centering on the Dragons Tooth. (See photo below)
U.S. Dragons Tooth BLU-46
In the midst of all the toy bomb fury, the KGB Rezident in Islamabad paid me a visit at my home in Islamabad one night to assure me that Russians loved children as much as anyone else and that CIA was spreading barefaced lies. In a reasonably civilized conversation, considering the subject, I pointed out to my KGB opposite number that at that point in their occupation of Afghanistan Soviet forces had managed to kill around a million Afghans, injure another million and a half, and had driven three million more into external exile. In all of those groups there were significant numbers of children. Did he really want to pursue this subject against that backdrop? It became obvious that the Rezident had been ordered it to make this representation, but he didn't really have his heart in it. The conversation ended as awkwardly for him as it had begun.
Later, in a rare frivolous moment in a dark, mirthless war I arranged to have a catalog from Toys "R" Us mailed anonymously, and without comment, to the KGB Rezident at his embassy in Islamabad. He and I never had a follow-up discussion.
If there is an end to the toy bomb story, it is this: everyone who in the 1980s, believed the Soviets were using toy bombs in Afghanistan probably still believes it today.
Propaganda gamesmanship was not all one-sided. The Soviets had their windfalls, as well, their exploitation of HIV/AIDS being one prominent case in point. After HIV/AIDS began its virulent trajectory through Africa and South Asia in the early 80s, the KGB wasted no time in putting out the broad Active Measures theme that the exotic and deadly new disease had been cooked up by the U.S Army in its bio-weapon research labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The US Centers for Disease Control was folded into the KGB account as having surreptitiously spread the virus on the hapless populations of Africa and South Asia. Though fairly short-lived as an Active Measures effort, longer-term effects lingered on in sub-Saharan Africa well into the late 1980s and beyond; and there may even be some conspiracy theorists in the United States who still doggedly believe that HIV/AIDS was created by the Pentagon to kill off America’s drug addict and homosexual populations, as well as intentionally targeting African-American communities. Of the Cold War KGB Active Measures attacks against the U.S., the HIV/AIDS theme was among the more disruptive.
On the personal side, the KGB took a bizarre shot at me while I was CIA chief in a West African country in the early 1980s. In an unsourced story in the local West African press, it was alleged that I supervised the “CIA body parts market”. That marvelously baroque story had me buying up the harvested kidneys, eyes and lungs of unwitting, perhaps even unwilling, African donors, and shipping them off to American transplant centers. It didn't get much better than that for a Soviet Active Measures specialist!