A KGB-spawned disinformation campaign about the source of AIDS became a pandemic in its own right.
Around the world, lots of people have discerned a U.S. government conspiracy behind AIDS. Much of the blame for that belief falls on the Soviet Union, Thomas Boghardt reports in the Central Intelligence Agency’s journal Studies in Intelligence (December 2009).
In 1983, the KGB arranged for an anonymous letter to appear in The Patriot, an Indian newspaper funded by the Soviets. Purportedly from an American scientist, the letter said that AIDS “is believed to be the result of the Pentagon’s experiments to develop new and dangerous biological weapons.” (The letter referred to the “virus flu” rather than the flu virus; KGB English was often shaky.) In 1985, a Soviet newspaper published the AIDS allegation and cited the seemingly independent Patriot as its source.
The disinformation campaign next passed to the East Germans. Soviet bloc spies frequently relied on what they called “useful idiots.” Operation INFEKTION, as it was known, found one in Jakob Segal, a respected East German biophysicist. “How Segal was actually brought into the process is not known with certainty,” Boghardt writes, “but in all likelihood ‘evidence’ of the U.S. origins of AIDS would have been given to him in personal meetings.” Segal came to believe that AIDS most likely stemmed from an experiment gone awry. The American government had developed the disease as a biological weapon and infected prisoners with it, not realizing how quickly it would spread once the men were released.
Reporters took Segal seriously. By late 1987, his theory had appeared in more than 200 periodicals in 80 countries, according to Boghardt. In a meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that year, Secretary of State George Shultz complained about the AIDS disinformation as “bum dope.”
The effects of the campaign outlasted the Soviet empire. In 1990, Britain’s Channel 4 aired AIDS: The African Legend, a credulous West German documentary about Segal’s ideas. In the early 1990s, news outlets in Canada, Sweden, and elsewhere published interviews with him. A 1992 survey found that 15 percent of Americans considered it probable or certain that “the AIDS virus was created deliberately in a government laboratory.”
“Once the AIDS conspiracy theory was lodged in the global subconscious,” Boghardt writes, “it became a pandemic in its own right.”