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Cold War Disinformation: New Revelations about Operation NEPTUNE from Czech Archives

Calder Walton

Calder Walton unravels the details of Operation NEPTUNE, a disinformation campaign by the former Czechoslovak intelligence service intended to smear public figures in West Germany through forged Nazi documents.

Larry Bittman in scuba gear at Black Lake in May 1964, StB Archive
Larry Bittman in scuba gear at Black Lake in May 1964, StB Archive

The opening of former Soviet and Eastern Bloc archives allows fresh light to be cast on Soviet disinformation against Western countries during the Cold War. One such disinformation operation, revealed in now-opened archives of the StB, the former Czechoslovakian intelligence service, was codenamed “NEPTUNE.”

In May 1964, the StB conceived and carried out this aptly-named operation. It involved hiding forged Nazi documents at the bottom of a lake in Bohemia, which were then “accidentally” discovered, publicized, and used to discredit the West German government. The nature of operation NEPUTNE is disclosed in the StB’s archives in Prague and in an interview that this blog’s author, Calder Walton, conducted with the StB architect of the operation, Ladislav (Larry) Bittman, shortly before his passing in September 2018.

Bittman was a senior StB disinformation officer, who defected to the United States in 1968 after a crisis of faith about the brutality of the Soviet regime; that is, after witnessing Soviet tanks roll into Prague in April 1968. After his defection to the United States and extensive debriefing by the CIA, Bittman dedicated his life to studying the threats posed to democracies by disinformation, testifying in Congress about it, publishing books, and teaching courses on the subject at Boston University.[1]

In later life, Bittman became a painter in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts, where I tracked him down. Reflecting on his previous career as a “professional manipulator of public opinion,” Bittman stated that although today’s technology and media landscape had changed beyond recognition, the underlying strategy of state-sponsored disinformation had not. The tools of disinformation had altered with social media, but not its purpose. Understanding how past disinformation campaigns like NEPTUNE worked is key to appreciating their successors today.[2]

Context

The Soviet Union used the intelligence services of its satellite states, behind the Iron Curtain, as surrogates in its geopolitical Cold War struggle with Western powers. A corollary to the Soviet Union’s open foreign policy was its clandestine one, just as important as the former, but conducted by its intelligence services. A major part of Moscow’s secret foreign policy involved “active measures”: political warfare to influence world affairs to the Soviet Union’s advantage and undermine Western governments.

One such active measure among a spectrum of Soviet dirty tricks was disinformation: deliberately disseminated, unattributable, false or misleading information. Soviet disinformation was designed to subvert Western democracies by dividing their societies, exacerbating existing tensions in them, and discrediting them in the eyes of their own citizens and on the world stage. Western countries conducted equivalent active measures against the Soviet Union during the Cold War: “covert action,” in the CIA’s vernacular, or “special political action,” as Britain’s intelligence services politely called such underhand activities.

Bittman, a law graduate from Charles University in Prague, was recruited into the StB in 1954. He rose up its ranks, and, in February 1964, became deputy chief of a new Department for Active Measures within the StB, Department D.[3] Its work, like other StB activities, was overseen by Soviet KGB “advisers”: in reality, superiors, who authorized its actions. Having served in East Germany, Bittman decided that there was one subject above all ripe for disinformation against West Germany: former Nazis. Operation NEPTUNE was a test case for his new unit, Department D, designed to discredit West Germany by propagating the horrors of the Third Reich.[4]

Operation NEPTUNE had three objectives: first, to extend the statute of limitations on war crimes in West Germany, due to lapse in May 1965, with the goal of aggravating tensions in its society; second, to provoke an “anti-German political campaign” in Western countries; and third, to disrupt West German intelligence operations against Czechoslovakia.[5] The latter would be achieved, Bittman planned, by forging names of Czechs who collaborated with Nazis, and thereby create a poisoned legacy for West German intelligence seeking to recruit contemporary Czechs.

The operation was conceived as follows: the StB would forge Nazi documents, which would then be dramatically found and publicly disclosed, with the intention of achieving its three goals, and, ideally, smearing prominent West German public figures.

The opportunity for the StB struck when a Czech film crew decided to make a documentary about two lakes in the Bohemian Forest (the Devil’s and Black Lakes), straddling the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany. For its filming, the Czech documentary team needed permission and help from the Czech Ministry of the Interior. Before allowing the crew in, it cordoned off the area around the Black Lake, making up an excuse of nearby troop movements. This gave Bittman and an StB team time to plant four chests in the lake purportedly containing Nazi documents. They selected a shallower part of water, covered the chests in mud, and set the scene for them to be discovered.

Once the film crew was allowed in, Bittman, a sports diver, then posed as an official from the Ministry of the Interior who assisted them. After a week of searching the two lakes, during which they discovered genuine explosive caches left behind by Nazis in Devil’s Lake, they found the four chests sunk in the Black Lake. According to the pre-conceived plan, the Czech authorities immediately impounded the discovered chests, “in case they contained explosives,” Bittman explained to the film crew. At this point the chests only contained blank paper, as the StB was in fact scrambling to find suitable forged Nazi documents. The Ministry of the Interior issued a press release about the chests’ secret contents in July, but it was another two months – longer than Bittman and StB Department D hoped – until they obtained Nazi documents. The Nazi secrets of the Black Lake were publicly revealed at a press conference given by the Czech Minister of Interior, Lubomir Strougal, on September 15, 1964. Ironically, Bittman noted, the press conference was held in Studio D of the television station in Prague – a fitting tribute to StB Department D’s operation.

The revelations of the Black Lake chest caused a sensation, with local Czech, Soviet, and then Western, media reporting on them. The StB claimed its disinformation operation was a success, meeting its three stated goals. West Germany attracted adverse publicity; its government extended its statute of limitations for prosecutions of war crimes (due to expire the following year, twenty years after the war’s in Europe’s end) until 1969; and West German intelligence operations in Czechoslovakia were apparently adversely impacted.

Larry Bittman in scuba gear at Black Lake in May 1964, StB Archive

Larry Bittman in scuba gear at Black Lake in May 1964, StB Archive

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The Documents

Recently opened StB archives in Prague reveal the creativity and logistical planning behind Operation NEPTUNE. Approximately 37 files, containing around 160 pages of previously classified records, have been declassified on the topic. Some were declassified at this author’s request in January 2020. I consulted them and had them translated from Czech and Russian into English while conducting research for my forthcoming book Spies, which is about intelligence during the Cold War. A selection of these NEPTUNE documents is highlighted below. They reveal three components required for an effective disinformation operation: falsified information, unattributable to its creator, which is then disseminated to a target audience.

NEPTUNE’s inspiration is revealed in an StB proposal report, dated May 5, 1964.[6] Its idea arose from a similar story in Austria, where forged Nazi documents were found hidden in a lake, Toplitz. After the Second World War, rumors swirled that Nazi forces had sunk chests in lakes in that area. The allure of hidden Nazi gold in Lake Toplitz became a source of local interest and folklore. Amateur divers risked their lives, and some even died, in hope of recovering Nazi gold from the waters. There was so much local interest that the Austrian Ministry of the Interior had to intervene, stipulating that only professional divers were permitted to search the Lake. Doing so, in 1964, they discovered twelve chests containing disinformation tools: fake British pounds, plus forgery equipment, apparently belonging to Nazi intelligence. When news of the discovery broke, it attracted international publicity.

Nazi secrets at the bottom of the Austrian lake inevitably sparked interest in other lakes in East-Central Europe, potentially holding similar wartime secrets in their depths – possibly even Nazi gold. After Czech state media picked up the Austrian story, producers of a Czech TV program, Curious Camera, decided to make a documentary film to reveal the Black Lake’s secrets in April 1964. This set the stage for Operation NEPTUNE and that film crew’s unwitting use as a delivery platform for Soviet Bloc disinformation.

By definition, any disinformation, past or present, involves the production of falsified information. The process selecting wartime Nazi documents is revealed in an StB letter to the KGB, dated August 16, 1964.[7] It shows that the two services collaborated to find authentic German documents from their own archives, which they would then intersperse with forgeries. Their plan was that, after being impounded on security grounds, the chests would be purportedly opened, their contents verified by “experts,” and the forged documents revealed at Strougal’s press conference.

Producing the Nazi documents for NEPTUNE, however, proved harder than initially supposed. The StB consulted Czech archives to locate suitable records, but failed to find sufficient material. Thus, in June 1964, it sought help from Soviet intelligence, which promised to deliver relevant German documents held in its own archives. The German documents that Soviet intelligence eventually produced related to Nazi Germany’s pre-war Anschluss with Austria and German foreign intelligence operations against then-allied Italy. However, Moscow took longer than expected to produce them, with a Soviet intelligence courier only delivering sacks of documents in September 1964 on the eve of the press conference that month.

Soviet Intelligence message about the provision of operation with documents, dated August 24, 1964, addressed to the Czech Ministry of the Interior, StB Archive

Soviet Intelligence message about the provision of operation with documents, dated August 24, 1964, addressed to the Czech Ministry of the Interior, StB Archive

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Another requirement, by definition, for any disinformation operation is for its false information to be unattributable: the true hand of its creator must be hidden. This usually requires disinformation to be conducted in secret, though that is not necessarily so, as long as its authorship can be concealed. The operation to hide the chests in the Black Lake is shown in another StB document, entitled “Stage 1 Behavior Report,” dated June 22, 1964. It describes how Bittman and an StB team drove to the cordoned off Black Lake at night, and from an inflatable raft, dressed in scuba gear, and with a lamp, deposited four sealed chests in the Lake, and then withdrew. One of the StB team lost a scuba fin, but luckily then recovered it: “No traces were left at the work site.”

The final element for an effective disinformation operation is dissemination to a target audience. This is revealed in an StB document entitled “Action Plan,” dated July 29, 1964.[8] It shows the plan for how the story of the (forged) Nazi documents of the Black Lake would be communicated to the public without implicating the StB. To do so, the Czech Minister of the Interior, Strougal, was enlisted to give a public press conference in which he would emphasize testimonies from specialists in Nazi records and press reporters who had been at the scene of the Black Lake discoveries. The plan worked. After coaching the night before by Bittman, Strougal delivered a masterful press conference that provoked a significant media response. Even the famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, speculated about the Black Lake’s secret documents.

Assessment

How successful was Operation NEPTUNE? Was it as effective as the StB claimed in contemporary records?

For the StB, as with all intelligence services within the authoritarian Soviet Bloc system, there was an in-built tendency to exaggerate successes in reports to its seniors – both in Prague and Moscow.

Some exaggeration arose from inevitable careerism of officers, but the issue went far deeper: lying about successes was endemic to Soviet intelligence and its satellite services. After all, the Soviet regime was one in which admitting failure could lead to an intelligence officer’s imprisonment – or something worse. Western intelligence services also embellished successes for their political masters, but doing so for Soviet Bloc services was central to their work: unlike in democracies, they existed not for the people, but for the regime itself. This invariably meant providing leaders with sycophantic intelligence, confirming, not challenging, their world views. Exaggerating operational successes was the easiest way for Soviet Bloc services to guarantee good fortune.

Later, after defecting to America, Bittman candidly admitted in one of his books, The Deception Game, that it was hard to find specific evidence to evaluate NEPTUNE’s effectiveness. The West German government was probably going to extend the statute of limitations on Nazi crimes anyway. In many ways, Bittman noted, the StB was deceiving itself when it came to the Operation. Like Western intelligence services, the StB had a vested interest in not specifically measuring impact of its disinformation operations. It was easier, and politically safer, to focus on production of disinformation: its dissemination, measured by volume of forgeries and so on. The StB counted, and proudly reported, the number of Western press stories describing the Black Lake secrets. It did not address the truly important question: whether its operation had an impact on target audiences. That was a question to which neither the StB nor the KGB really wanted to know the answer for their own political fortunes.

Years after NEPTUNE, Bittman candidly admitted to me that its major unwritten goal was not to achieve a specific outcome, for example about West German statute of limitations, but to be a pain for Western targets, causing them nuisance, and creating chaos. Doing so was hard to quantify with measurable deliverables, which is why he chose not to frame the disinformation operation in that way in written reports. That nebulous, but pernicious, strategy has a direct parallel in hostile state disinformation campaigns today. When it comes to disinformation, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Chests of Disinformation in Today’s Digital Age

After his defection to America in 1968, Bittman lived in fear of both Soviet reprisals (active measures) to discredit him and physical retribution. He recalled that he did not initially expect to live more than a year until a Soviet assassin found him. However, rather than hiding and living secretly, Bittman decided that his best defense would be to be in the public eye in the West s. He was correct. As the years went on, Bittman came to believe that he was more of a nuisance, not an assassination target, for the Soviet regime.

A chilling incident occurred for Bittman, however, after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He obtained his StB dossier from archives in Prague, which revealed the efforts of his former employer to track him down after his defection. His file contained denunciations from former friends and family members and the StB’s intricate knowledge about his life in America.

Bittman’s StB file even contained a precise sketch map of the inside and outside of his home in Rockport Massachusetts. He believed the sketch was probably drawn by one of the many Eastern European students who took his class on disinformation at Boston University. At the end of each academic year, Bittman would invite his students for a celebration at his house – the perfect opportunity for making such a sketch. In Soviet/StB tradecraft, whoever drew the sketch would either have been a witting recruited agent, a co-optee (blackmailed), or someone unwitting, having been deceived by a professional intelligence officer about its purpose— and that person’s true identity.

For Bittman, the sketch of his home was a terrifying indication of the detailed information the StB had on file about him, which it could have used in an active measure against him, involving kidnapping or physical violence.

Larry Bittman at Home

Larry Bittman, at his home in Rockport MA, shortly before his death: first, standing under the diplomatic plate he used on his car to defect to the West in 1968, second pointing to various business cards from his different lives (spanning from his diplomatic StB undercover work to his life in the United States); and third, a fitting sign above the door to his home office.

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As Bittman and I discussed the nature of disinformation in today’s context, he concluded, bluntly, that we are now living in a “golden age” for disinformation. The contemporary social media landscape makes it quicker, easier, and cheaper to disseminate false information than it ever was during the Cold War— or in fact ever has been in history. New capabilities for disseminating disinformation are also now accompanied, Bittman somberly noted, by equally new levels of consumption: there exists, noted Bittman, a depressing tendency for people in the United States to believe objectively falsifiable information spread over social media. Bittman said that during his previous StB career, he could only have dreamt about the opportunities now available to professional disinformation intelligence officers.

The history of operation NEPTUNE thus reveals how and why a state conducts disinformation against an adversary. The case also leaves us wondering about its application to the present-day digital world, which, as Bittman noted, has changed almost beyond recognition from the analog past.

What would a contemporary chest of disinformation documents would look like today? Russian hackers are understood to be re-using the same toolkit as NEPTUNE: disseminating forgeries, interspersed with genuine documents, as part of their on-line disinformation campaigns.[9] Meanwhile, from Russia’s perspective, the Panama papers (disclosed in 2016) constitute a digital chest of disinformation designed to discredit Putin’s regime.

Social media is effectively the contemporary Black Lake where actors can deposit chests of digital disinformation. But there are not just continuities between past and present methodologies for disinformation; its underlying purpose is the same today as it was with NEPTUNE. Just as the StB used the subject of former Nazis to polarize and disrupt West German society, so do today’s Russian and Chinese intelligence services use “wedge issues” in Western societies to do the same. They use “astroturfing” techniques, in which operatives pose as citizens of Western societies on-line, ostensibly exercising their freedoms of speech, but in reality exploiting hotly-contested subjects to divide their public opinion. Wedge issues today include anti-vaccine beliefs, the efficacy of Western COVID-19 vaccinations (Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra Zeneca), Black Lives Matter, anti-abortion and pro-choice groups in the United States, and Brexit in the United Kingdom.

There are no easy solutions for democracies to counter disinformation today, but the Cold War history that Bittman revealed does offer clues. He emphasized that the best defense by Western societies to Soviet disinformation lays with civic engagement: public audiences in democratic countries learning to consume news critically and thereby identify potential disinformation designed to confuse or warp their opinion. The same applies today. In today’s context, such civic engagement means digital literacy, learning to separate fake news from genuine. Digital literacy will require a broad, and probably generational, educational effort. Despite claims that we live in a post-truth world, Western audiences need to remember – or re-learn –  that there are still objective facts, falsifiable theories, and nonsense, irrespective of one’s own “beliefs” about them.

 

This blog was written with the assistance of Andrew Sady-Kennedy, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (HKS), during a summer research position at the HKS Intelligence Project.

 


[1] US Senate “Testimony of Lawrence Britt [Bittman]” (May 5, 1971)

[2] Operation NEPTUNE has been recently examined by Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, who used some of the same archival materials here.

[3] Ladislav Bittman, The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insider’s View(Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1985), p. 7.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Ladislav Bittman, The Deception Game: Czechoslovak Intelligence in Soviet Political Warfare (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Research Corporation, 1972), p. 47.

[6] Archiv bezpečnostních složek [StB archive] MTH 21998, reg. c. 90039, arch. c. AS 11124, l. 23-31 Gouska Josef, “Navrh Na Aktivni Operateni NEPTUNE [Proposal on the Active Measures Operation NEPTUNE]” (May 5, 1964).

[7] StB Archive MTH 21998, reg. c. 90039, arch. c. AS 11, l. 141-142 Gouska Josef, “Vitame Vasi Oohotu Zucastnit Se AO NEPTUNE [We Welcome Your Interest to Participate in the Active Operation Neptune]” (August 16, 1964).

[8] StB archive MTH 21998, reg. c. 90039, arch. c. AS 11, l. 83-93 “Návrh Dalších Opatřeni k Dokončeni Aktivního Opatřeni NEPTUNE [Proposal of Additional Measures to Complete the Active Measure Operation NEPTUNE]” (July 29, 1964).

[9] Bruce Schneier ‘How Long until Hackers start faking Leaked Documents?’ The Atlantic (Sept 13 2016); Kevin Collier ‘Russia-connected group pushed fake documents at political flashpoints, researchers say’ NBC news (April 8 2020) https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/security/russia-connected-group-pushes-fake-documents-aimed-political-flashpoints-researchers-n1178996

About the Author

Calder Walton

Calder Walton

Calder Walton is Assistant Director of Harvard Kennedy School's Applied History Project and Director of Research of its Intelligence Project, where he is finishing a book, "Spies," about the long, and ensuing, intelligence struggle between East and West.


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